On October 30, 1918, General John J. Pershing, the commander in chief of the American Expeditionary Forces, presented a letter to the Allied Supreme War Council, which was meeting to discuss the terms of armistice with Germany.
Pershing’s letter argued that the Allies should refuse to grant Germany any terms and that they should instead press their attack against the kaiser without quarter. Pershing’s assertion is, at first blush, rather bizarre, as it appears to contradict views he expressed just a short time earlier.
Five days back, on October 25, Pershing had attended a conference of Allied commanders to discuss a truce. He then gave no indication that he opposed an armistice, though he did have very particular views as to what should happen after the fighting stopped. He insisted that “if Germany was really sincere in its desire to end the war, then neither the German government nor the German people should object to strict conditions.”
The terms Pershing suggested underlined his belief that “there should be no tendency toward leniency with Germany.” For instance, he demanded that Germany withdraw from all Allied territory as well as the Alsace-Lorraine, an area the German Empire annexed in 1871 following its victory in the Franco-Prussian War. The evacuation would be ordered to happen in a timeframe so compressed that it could only be done in chaos. This was by design. Pershing wanted Germany in a full retreat in order to eliminate any possibility of an ordered repositioning. The Allies would then occupy the departed territory, as well as the Rhineland and the bridgeheads across the Rhine. Pershing further demanded the freedom to continue transporting American troops overseas, the return of French and Belgian railroad equipment—to further hamstring Germany’s ability to reposition men and equipment—and the surrender of all U-boats and U-boat bases to a neutral power until such time as the treaty could determine their fate.
All of this points to Pershing’s insistence that “the armistice should provide a guarantee against resumption of hostilities,” and if Germany did become aggressive again, then the terms would give the Allies an absolute advantage over a resurgent Germany.[i]
Pershing felt at liberty to propose such terms because he genuinely believed the Allies’ position to be very strong—therefore, the conditions they imposed would not need to be light. This carries a presumed corollary: he took the German position to be very weak—therefore, it should not hesitate to accept even harsh conditions.
So, all of this was a kind of test. Should Germany refuse to accept harsh—though just—conditions, it could only mean that Germany did not, herself, believe its position to be weak and the Allied position strong.
Not everyone shared Pershing’s reasoning. US President Woodrow Wilson worried that the general’s terms were unnecessarily draconian. The president accepted only the suggestion regarding the German evacuation of Allied lands—though without the speed requirement—and a qualified version of the U-boat ultimatum. Wilson agreed Germany should intern its U-boats in neutral waters, but he didn’t require Germany surrender them, and he didn’t threaten their future status.
Only after Wilson’s broad dismissal of Pershing’s suggestions did the general send his missive of October 30 that argued no armistice whatsoever should be given. While historians still squabble over precisely what Pershing was up to, I will hazard the claim that at least one thing is perfectly clear about Pershing’s intentions. After laying out that intention, I want to evaluate it through the just war tradition’s moral framework.
We must begin with a basic assumption: both Wilson and Pershing wanted an armistice, and both agreed that this must involve a German surrender. However, for Pershing this meant an utter surrender. He intended his terms to confirm and safeguard an Allied victory. Wilson’s proposal would not destroy Germany’s military potential. For instance, the kaiser’s forces could still back and secure a defensive perimeter. That’s to say, they could preserve the ability to fight again. Wilson appeared content to accept a Germany strong enough to negotiate terms. Pershing, it seems clear, wanted to impose peace terms on a Germany that knew—knew—that it had been beaten, and that it therefore could not refuse terms.
Pershing, of course, lost the argument. At 11:00 a.m. on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the Great War—after some four years, three months, seven days, and 16 million lives—was over.
While Pershing was glad the shooting had stopped, he continued to insist the armistice was a mistake. “We shouldn’t have done it,” he said. “If they had given us another ten days we would have rounded up the entire German army, captured it, humiliated it.” Why did Pershing believe this important? A clue is found in something else he said:
The German troops today are marching back into Germany announcing that they have never been defeated… What I dread is that Germany doesn’t know that she was licked… Had they given us another week, we’d have taught them.[ii]
Pershing worried that a premature “cessation of hostilities short of capitulation” would postpone, if it did not render impossible, “the imposition of satisfactory peace terms.”[iii] Pershing was looking for a decisive victory that, alone, could lead to a durable peace.
How does the just war tradition evaluate such an ambition?
On the surface, there seem to be at least two immediate conflicts between the just war tradition and Pershing’s demands. Recall that according to the just war framework, there are two sets of related guidelines. The first tells us about when to fight, and the second about how to fight.
The jus ad bellum, answering the question about when going to war is justified, gives us three conditions that need to be met: proper authority, just cause, and—most importantly here—right intention. This last condition aims at being sure motives point toward the proper end of war. Proper intent can be conveyed in both negative and positive terms. Negatively, this condition reminds us of what we ought never to intend: we should not desire to see the enemy suffer per se, become cruel, lust for power over others, and the like.[iv] Positively, right intention reminds us that the desired end of war ought always to be peace.
If this is the case, then isn’t it clear that if peace is being offered, under whatever terms, then peace should be accepted? Oughtn’t Pershing to have seen his job as done? The peace for which he ought to have been aiming had been achieved; he no longer had a just cause for fighting.
Pershing’s second potential conflict is with the jus in bello guidelines, which instruct us in how to prosecute a just war. There are two primary requirements. The first, discrimination, mandates separating combatants and non-combatants. The second, proportionality, argues that the amount of force and means of expenditure employed should be appropriate to the intended end. So, regarding the armistice, if peace is offered, doesn’t it become disproportionate to continue fighting? If the objective has been gained, further force is simply gratuitous.
Let’s take these in turn.
Regarding the question of peace, was it really nearly at hand? In light of the fact that Germany was willing to sign an armistice, this question might seem absurd. But what if peace is more than the cessation of violence?
The peace at which the just warrior aims is, in the first place, for the innocent victims under unjust assault. In the second place, this desire for peace extends to the enemy as well—toward their reconciliation into the fellowship of concord. But you cannot reconcile with someone who has not seen the error of his ways, repented, and given you solid reasons to trust that he will not seek to harm you again. The point can be summarized this way: right intention understands that warmaking is sometimes peacemaking. Sometimes, in the last resort, fighting your enemy is the first step toward forgiving them.
As is often the case, it pays to revisit St. Augustine on this. For Augustine, war is a sometimes morally appropriate—if always tragic—necessity for the maintenance of a peace defined by the presence of justice and order. Ultimately, this is the only kind of peace durable enough to hold firm against the conditions of the world. For Augustine to say this is really saying something. Remember, he wasn’t talking about the eschatological peace of shalom—that blessed state of comprehensive welfare in which everything is as it really ought to be. He was talking about the peace of the Pax Romana—compelled peace.
Nevertheless, however tawdry an imitation of the goodness of shalom, however much lacking in appropriate degrees of justice,the Roman peace was significant. More than any genuinely available alternative, it appeared best capable of keeping neighbor from eating neighbor and of preserving the interconnected web of culture, civilization, art, and tradition that by Augustine’s time was well in jeopardy. The approximate good of compelled peace is more often than not a far-sight better than anarchy.
Much better still, of course, is Augustine’s notion of the tranquilitas ordinis, the tranquility—the peace—of order. Such peace, rooted in justice, is not externally compelled but rather internally coaxed by love of God and neighbor. This peace, Augustine tells us, is born of a commitment that “one be at peace, as far as lies in him, with all men.” The basis of this commitment is the “observation of two rules: first, do no harm to anyone, and, secondly, to help everyone whenever possible.”[v]
Pershing did not, of course, believe that marching on Berlin would cause love to suddenly spread across the battlefield, or that an inner tranquility of uncompelled order would suddenly overawe German truculence. But neither, more basically, was Pershing confident that Wilson’s terms, without the imposition of order, would sufficiently deter Germany from attempting to eat her neighbors again.
In pressing for conditions in which the German people would know they had been licked, Pershing recognized that a beaten enemy is more easily compelled toward a durable peace. More than a weak armistice, a decisive victory, having taken the fight out of the enemy, allows for a realistic hope that the matter has truly been settled and that the contest will not have to be contested again.[vi] The simple fact that someone is not shooting at you does not mean they don’t want to, or that they won’t if given half a chance. Peace is more than the absence of open conflict.
As it turns out, history sides with Pershing. Despite its surrender, Germany did not appear exactly convinced that it had really lost the war. On Armistice Day, to cite one example, General Karl von Einem, commander of the German Third Army, said to his troops, “Firing has ceased… Undefeated! You are terminating a war in enemy country.” He wasn’t being entirely revisionist. When Germany surrendered, its armies were indeed on French and Belgian land—they still held enemy ground. On the Eastern Front, Germany had already won the war against Russia and concluded the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In the west, she had come within close reach of winning the war entirely with the Spring Offensive of 1918. Importantly, German propaganda led—or rather, misled—the German people back home into believing they were winning the contest abroad. Pershing’s fear that Germany’s martial spirit had not been broken seems legitimate.
The Treaty of Versailles would do little to change this. It left Germany neither pacified nor conciliated nor weakened beyond recovery. Such a context is hardly fertile grounds for the tender roots of self-reflection to take hold, never mind the blossoming of a sense of national repentance. Instead, this inability to reconcile the apparent facts on the ground with the fact that they had surrendered left Germans grasping for an explanation. Alas, to terrible consequence, they would find one.
In the autumn of 1919, Sir Neill Malcolm, head of the British Military Mission in Germany, was dining with German Chief of Staff General Erich Ludendorff. Malcolm asked Ludendorff why he thought Germany had lost the war. Ludendorff gave a laundry list of excuses but stressed that the home front had failed the army. For clarification Malcolm asked, “Do you mean, General, that you were stabbed in the back?” We are told that Ludendorff’s eyes lit up and that he leaped on the idea like a dog on a bone. “Yes! That’s it exactly. We were stabbed in the back!”
Just how pernicious this stab-in-the-back myth would prove—morally and practically—became clear a scant decade later. Adolph Hitler found the cultural and political conditions ripe for his vindication of the German people through his toxic cocktail of blood-and-soil nationalism, scapegoating, and insatiable expansionism. In its wake conditions were set for a new and terrible conflagration. The lamps would soon go out all over Europe again. But everything else would be burning.
The Treaty of Versailles did not yield a durable peace. It did not prove the Allied victory decisive. Therefore, Pershing was correct to reject it and he could do so without violating the principle of right intention.
To the second point, I suggest that Pershing’s push to defeat Germany in the field even after they sued for peace is not a violation of proportionality. The right intention principle is not seeking simply any peace, but only one that sufficiently approximates a rightly ordered political community—both within and among nations.
It is a mistake to conceive of proportionality as having economy of effort or restraint as its basic imperative. True, combatants are required to employ only as much force as is necessary to achieve legitimate military objectives and as is proportionate to the importance of those objectives. The just warrior must be neither gratuitous nor excessive. So, if the basic imperative of proportionality is not restraint, what is it? I propose it is the deployment of that amount of force sufficient for a decisive victory aimed at a durable peace. In light of the fact that a decisive victory had not been confirmed, Pershing was right to continue to push for one.
In this rather exploratory essay, I present a description of the just war tradition that has as its chief aim the acquisition of an enduring, enforceable peace characterized by the presence of justice and order. In looking at the example of General John Pershing, I suggest that one implication of the just war tradition is the necessity of decisiveness in war. If it is just to fight a war, it is just to fight to win it. Indeed, in light of right intention and neighborly love, this is something more than a mere allowance—it is a mandate.
In this centennial year of the Great War, it is a tragedy that we can look two years ahead to the seventy-fifth anniversary of the next world war. We had the Second World War because the first one did not settle things. Toward the end of his life, Pershing must have been unimaginably grieved that all the battlefields his army had occupied in 1917–18 were again in possession of the enemy whom he and his men had fought and driven out at such staggering costs.
The just war proposal I make here does not create a contradiction in aiming at peace but engaging in war, nor in loving your enemy and fighting to win. Decisive victory is, of course, sometimes a bridge too far, and therefore it can only be a strong presumption based on prudent reasoning, rather than a categorical imperative. But for both strategic as well as moral reasons, we should lean toward clean margins and err in the direction of thoroughness, just as we would in surgery for cancer.
It is because we desire the good of concord that we fight for a decisive end to conflict, one that secures and allows the enforcement of a durable peace.
[i] See John J. Pershing, HS Secret File: Fldr. H-1: Cablegram, “Pershing’s Proposals for Armistice,” October 25, 1918, in United States Army in the World War, 1917-1919, The Armistice Agreement and Related Documents, vol. 10, part 1 (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 1991), 23.
[ii] Donald Smythe, Pershing: General of the Armies, paperback ed. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007), 232.
[iii] John J. Pershing, HS Secret File: Fldr. H-1: Cablegram, in United States Army in the World War, 1917-1919, The Armistice Agreement and Related Documents.
[iv] Augustine, “Contra Faustum,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Richard Stothert, vol. 4 (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co, 1887), 22.74.
[v] Augustine, The City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson (London; New York: Penguin Books, 2003), IXX.14.
[vi] For a very good book-length discussion of the importance of bringing wars to decisive conclusion, see Geoffrey Blainey, The Causes of War, third edition (New York: Free Press, 1988).