4-190 Memorandum for the President, December 29, 1943

Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Date: December 29, 1943

Subject: World War II

Memorandum for the President

December 29, 1943 [Washington, D.C.]


Subject: German reprisals against American airmen.

Before the Russian Kharkov “trials”1 it was predicted that, as the effects of the bombing of Germany grew more serious, desperate measures would probably be employed to discourage further attacks. The recently announced intent of the Germans to try captive American and British airmen is concrete evidence of such intention.2 Just what action this Government and the Government of Great Britain should take remains to be determined, but I am of the opinion that such action should be prompt, whatever it may be. Also, it appears advisable in promulgating this action to address it to both German military and civil leaders and to the entire enemy population.

From the military point of view consideration naturally has been given to what line of action should be taken and the character of the statement to be made. It is believed unwise to specify any particular form of retribution.

Any mention of chemical attack, for instance, or other specific measures might well play directly into German hands.

An important consideration in this matter is the fact that the German propaganda specifically excludes Russian airmen from the list mentioned.

The probability is that the Germans recognize the fact that the Russians would retaliate immediately and in a manner that would be fatal to German interests. On the contrary the Germans have reason to assume that the pressures on the home front will tend to make the British and American reaction much softer. Whether or not the American public would at this time fully back reprisal in kind is a question, but it would appear that if we take a strong position in the matter the public will shortly be led to accept the necessity of such decision, particularly if documented cases of mistreatment and torture were published. It is considered advisable that we should go this far at the present time.

There is another very important point to be considered in this matter and that is the reaction of the Japanese. They are in great fear of the bombing of Japan. They hold large numbers of Allied prisoners, while we hold few of theirs and those few the Japanese would ignore in their considerations. I anticipate that the moment the bombing of Japan is started the Japanese will resort to every conceivable measure to deter us from the continuation of that operation, to the extent of placing all of our people in their hands at the hazard. This will present a most serious situation and it should be considered at the present time in connection with the preliminary moves of the German Government to deter our bombing of their cities.

It is recommended that the Governments of the United States and Great Britain issue a statement to the effect that notice of the recent threats has been taken at the highest level and that immediate retaliatory action will be taken if such threats are carried out. A draft of such a preliminary statement is herewith submitted:

“The Governments of Great Britain and the United States have taken notice of the threats recently made by the German Government against British and American airmen captured by the German forces. Notice is hereby served on the German political and military leaders, and the civil population generally, that if these threats are carried out the Governments of the United States and Great Britain will adopt the most drastic measures to bring home to the German people a realization that any treatment of American or British prisoners not in strict accord with the recognized laws of warfare will be fatal to the future of the German people.”3

Document Copy Text Source: George C. Marshall Papers, Pentagon Office Collection, Selected Materials, George C. Marshall Research Library, Lexington, Virginia.

Document Format: Typed memorandum.

1. In mid-December a Soviet military tribunal at Kharkov in central Ukraine had indicted and begun the trials of three German soldiers on charges of atrocities against Russian civilians. The Soviet government gave the trial considerable publicity, particularly regarding the complicity of high-level officials of the German government. It seemed likely that this trial would be followed by others. (New York Times, December 18, 1943, p. 1, and December 19, 1943, sec. 4, p. 3.)

2. On December 22 the German Foreign Office released an official statement hinting at reprisals against British and American prisoners of war. The German news agency stated that the Kharkov trial “was being carried out in accordance with principles laid down in the Teheran conference. . . . German military courts, therefore, will soon have to deal with British and American prisoners who are guilty of a serious breach of international law although they have not yet been brought to trial.” (New York Times, December 23, 1943, p. 3.)

3. The president replied: “I agree with you absolutely that we should have a definite action in mind. It seems to me that such action need not be announced beforehand but that it should be put into effect the minute the Germans start anything. I think the American public would back this up. . . . In regard to Japan we have a difficult problem but though it is horrible to contemplate, I fear that we must be definite and firm. Will you be good enough to take up this question with the General Staff and also talk with the Secretary of State about it. I like your proposed statement.” (Roosevelt Memorandum for General Marshall, January 10, 1944, GCMRL/G. C. Marshall Papers [Pentagon Office, Selected].)

Recommended Citation: ThePapers of George Catlett Marshall, ed.Larry I. Bland and Sharon Ritenour Stevens(Lexington, Va.: The George C. Marshall Foundation, 1981- ). Electronic version based on The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, vol. 4, “Aggressive and Determined Leadership,” June 1, 1943-December 31, 1944 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), pp. 218-220.

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