October 30, 1918: Pershing Opposes an Armistice

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General John J. Pershing was not pleased at the idea of giving an Armistice and expressed his views strongly in a letter on October 30, 1918:


Paris, October 30, 1918.

To the Allied Supreme War Council, Paris.

Gentlemen: In considering the question of whether or not Germany’s request for an armistice should be granted, the following expresses my opinion from the military point of view:

Judging from their excellent conduct during the three months, the British, French, Belgian and American armies appear capable of continuing the offensive indefinitely. Their morale is high and the prospects of certain victory should keep it so.
The American army is constantly increasing in strength and experience, and should be able to take an increasingly important part in the Allied offensive. Its growth, both in personnel and material, with such reserves as the Allies may furnish, not counting the Italian army, should be more than equal to the combined losses of the Allied armies.
German man power is constantly diminishing and her armies have lost over 300,000 prisoners and over 1,000 piece[s] of artillery during the last three months in their efforts to extricate themselves from a difficult situation and avoid disaster.
The estimated strength of the Allies on the western front, not counting Italy, and of Germany, in rifles is: Allies, 1,564,000; Germany, 1,134,000; an advantage in favor of the Allies of 37 percent. In guns: Allies, 22,413; Germany, 16,495; advantage of 35 percent in favor of the Allies. If Italy’s forces should be added to the western front we should have a still greater advantage.
Germany’s morale is undoubtedly low, her allies have deserted her one by one and she can no longer hope to win. Therefore we should take full advantage of the situation and continue the offensive until we compel her unconditional surrender.
An armistice would revivify the low spirits of the German army and enable it to organize and resist later on and would deprive the Allies of the full measure of victory by failing to press their present advantage to its complete military end.
As the apparent humility of German leaders in talking of peace may be feigned, the Allies should distrust their sincerity and their motives. The appeal for an armistice is undoubtedly to enable the withdrawal from a critical situation to one more advantageous.
On the other hand the internal political conditions of Germany, if correctly reported, are such that she is practically forced to ask for an armistice to save the overthrow of her present Government, a consummation which should be sought by the Allies as precedent to permanent peace.
A cessation of hostilities short of capitulation postpones, if it does not render impossible, the imposition of satisfactory peace terms, because it would allow Germany to withdraw her army with its present strength, ready to resume hostilities if terms were not satisfactory to her.
An armistice would lead the Allied armies to believe this the end of fighting and it would be difficult if not impossible to resume [Page 171]hostilities with our present advantage in morale in the event of failure to secure at a peace conference what we have fought for.
By agreeing to an armistice under the present favorable military situation of the Allies and accepting the principle of a negotiated peace rather than a dictated peace, the Allies would jeopardize the moral position they now hold and possibly lose the chance actually to secure world peace on terms that would insure its permanence.
It is the experience of history that victorious armies are prone to overestimate the enemy’s strength and too eagerly seek an opportunity for peace. This mistake is likely to be made now on account of the reputation Germany has gained through her victories of the last four years.
Finally, I believe that complete victory can only be obtained by continuing the war until we force unconditional surrender from Germany; but if the Allied Governments decide to grant an armistice the terms should be so rigid that under no circumstances could Germany again take up arms.

Respectfully submitted. John J. Pershing, Commander in Chief American Expeditionary Forces.”


The “stab in the back” myth that the German Army had not really been beaten, and that Germany had been defeated by internal subversion, the single most important element in Hitler’s rise to power, makes Pershing’s arguments in favor of unconditional surrender appear prophetic.

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  1. Germany should have been crushed and occupied until the Prussian aristocracy and its allies in the military industries were disempowered, their estates confiscated and their factories leveled. They started the war and they should have paid the penalty, not the ordinary German. No German arms production for 20 years and any future army limited in size and trained under Allied supervision, and the entire state educational system decentralized and returned to local control. With luck, we would have had a peaceful and prosperous (and humble) Germany, facing Stalin behind a reinvigorated Poland, all part of a Western alliance: no WWII or Cold War.
    But would we have had the belly for it, or the patience?

  2. I recall reading Pershing was adamant that the Allies had to march into Germany guns blazing. He said that the Allies could have driven to Berlin by late 1919, and that it would be worth the cost to drive home the point that the Germans had been well and truly beaten.

    He proved to be prophetic, indeed. But would the Allies have stomached the loss of another 250,000-500,000 men each? It might not have been that high–the Germans were exhausted and the home front just this side of starvation. I have to think, though, that the Germans would have fought harder on their own soil before collapsing. But suing for peace after the Allies had reached the Rhine would have made the “dolchstoss” argument a lot harder to make.

  3. The “stab in the back” myth that the German Army had not really been beaten, and that Germany had been defeated by internal subversion, the single most important element in Hitler’s rise to power, makes Pershing’s arguments in favor of unconditional surrender appear prophetic.

    The Nazi Party was inconsequential until 1930. You can argue that the armistice was kindling for revanchist sentiment, but the sentiment itself was politically inert until the country suffered not only the loss of the war, the privations and disorders of the period just before and after the armistice, 18 months of stupefying hyper inflation, and then the banking crises of 1929-32. The presence of Paul von Hindenburg made it a perfect storm. Look at how Germany’s trajectory differed from Austria’s, Finland’s, and Bulgaria’s after 1932.

  4. “But would the Allies have stomached the loss of another 250,000-500,000 men each?”

    I think they would have, but I agree with you it probably would not have been necessary. Revolts and mutinies were breaking out throughout Germany. The German landsers were still a tough bunch, but fewer and fewer could think of a good reason to die in a war that was manifestly lost. A proclamation like the Potsdam Declaration to Japan might have caused a civilian government to immediately toss in the towel. I think Wilson’s Fourteen Points nonsense set up false hope in Germany, at least among the German public, that there could be a peace with no victors and no vanquished, and that got the whole process of the Versailles Treaty off on the wrong foot.

    Theodore Roosevelt could see the mess that was about to occur:


  5. I am not certain that such guessing is permitted by the Postmaster-General and the Attorney-General under the new theory of making democracy safe for all kinds of peoples abroad who have never heard of it by interpreting democracy at home as meaning that it is unlawful for the people to express any except favorable opinions of the way in which the public servants of the people transact the public business.

    Clever of Mr. Roosevelt, but nearly every country in Europe had at least some experience with electoral institutions. The exception was Albania, whose existence was notional.

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