On the 24th January 1943 Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt held a secret Press conference at the conclusion of their meeting in Casablanca. The notion of such an arrangement is unthinkable today but the Press agreed not to release their material until both Churchill and Roosevelt were both safely away from Casablanca.
Some of the key decisions for the future conduct of the war had been thrashed out between the Allies. One matter was the demand for ‘unconditional surrender’ – a proposition which some have later argued made any possible early negotiated end to the war out of the question.
There was some surprise that President Roosevelt announced that the Allies would be seeking unconditional surrender from the Axis forces. There was subsequently some suggestion that he made the proposal ‘off the top of his head’ during the Press conference but this is clearly not the case.
Winston Churchill had already been in communication with the War Cabinet in London about the issue:
We propose to draw up a statement of the work of the conference for communication to the Press at the proper time. I should be glad to know what the War Cabinet would think of our including in this statement a declaration of the firm intention of the United States and the British Empire to continue the war relentlessly until we have brought about the “unconditional surrender” of Germany and Japan. The omission of Italy would be to encourage a break-up there. The President liked this idea, and it would stimulate our friends in every country.
The War Cabinet had responded to him on the 20th January, stating that they did not think Italy should not be excluded. Churchill seems to have believed that the matter would be further discussed but both he and Roosevelt were became very occupied whilst dealing with General de Gaulle.
It seems probable that as I did not like applying unconditional surrender to Italy I did not raise the point again with the President, and we had certainly both agreed to the communiqué we had settled with our advisers. There is no mention in it of “unconditional surrender”.
So the matter had been under discussion but it had not been part of the joint communique that Britain and America had agreed in advance.
It was with some feeling of surprise that I heard the President say at the Press Conference on January 24 that we would enforce “unconditional surrender” upon all our enemies. It was natural to suppose that the agreed communiqué had superseded anything said in conversation. General Ismay, who knew exactly how my mind was working from day to day, and was also present at all the discussions of the Chiefs of Staff when the Communiqué was prepared, was also surprised.
In my speech which followed the President’s I of course supported him and concurred in what he had said. Any divergence between us, even by omission, would on such an occasion and at such a time have been damaging or even dangerous to our war effort. I certainly take my share of the responsibility, together with the British War Cabinet.
The President’s account to Hopkins seems however conclusive.
“We had so much trouble getting those two French generals together that I thought to myself that this was as difficult as arranging the meeting of Grant and Lee – and then suddenly the Press Conference was on, and Winston and I had had no time to prepare for it, and the thought popped into my mind that they had called Grant “Old Unconditional Surrender”, and the next thing I knew I had said it.”
I do not feel that this frank statement is in any way weakened by the fact that the phrase occurs in the notes from which he spoke.