Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

Since World War I, powerful nations victorious on the field of battle struggled to achieve political objectives because their post war settlements set conditions that facilitated future conflicts instead of ensuring lasting peace.  Beginning at Versailles in 1919, victorious emissaries planted the seeds of World War II by creating a punitive treaty so harsh on Germany that Adolf Hitler channeled German discontent into a fierce nationalism that led to World War II.  Likewise, at the conclusion of World War II, Allied emissaries embraced a short sighted and haphazard post war settlement approach by largely ignoring percolating tensions in Korea and Indochina that eventually led to new wars for France and the United States. Military strategist B. H. Liddell Hart emphasized the point of shaping a lasting peace after war when he said, “The object in war is a better state of peace—even if only from your own point of view. Hence, it is essential to conduct war with constant regard to the peace you desire.”[1] Consequently, the victorious strategist must not only ensure their pre-war political objectives are codified in the post war settlement, but the emissaries must also take great care and vigilance to end the war with strategic foresight that translates the military victory into lasting peace.  

Germany at the Close of World War I

Strategic foresight was not in the minds of American, British and French emissaries in the outskirts of Paris, France when the Allies in 1919 crafted a vengeful post war settlement with Germans who interestingly, were not even allowed to attend the deliberations to negotiate.[2] Determined to punish Germany for its role in World War I, the Allied nations dictated harsh terms to Germany that included war reparations so contentious that the Americans, French, and British could not decide the final amount at Versailles, but agreed to postpone the decision until 1921 leaving Germany in the lurch.[3] Instead of concluding the post-war agreement at the end of the war, the argumentative reparation topic created an enduring political battleground between the former belligerents several years later. Once the reparation amount was settled, France and Belgium exacerbated the problem by occupying the industrial German Ruhr Valley in 1923 to enforce German compliance with paying reparations.  The occupation was counterproductive. The Germans reacted negatively to the occupation through passive resistance which had the effect of stagnating economic production.[4]  

A view of the interior of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, with the heads of state sitting and standing before a long table. (Imperial War Museum London/Wikimedia)

The harsh reparation payments imposed on Germany also significantly devalued German currency on the international market. Runaway hyperinflation in the post war German economy was 700% during 1921-1922. To handle Germany’s need for large sums of cash in 1923, 2,000 presses at 300 paper mills and 150 printing companies printed currency around the clock to keep up with demand for cash.[5] In response, the Allied powers created the 1924 Dawes Plan and 1929 Young Plan to restructure and reduce war reparations to stabilize the untenable German economy.[6] These plans suggest the victorious Allies realized the effects of their demand for excessive reparations at Versailles and their obligation to make amends. More concerning, Germany was weak and vulnerable.     

Although the Allies satisfied their shortsighted vengeance at Versailles, they failed to anticipate these impacts of the treaty on German economic, political, and social policy and ideology. English Economist John Maynard Keynes, who attended the post-war dialog at Versailles, predicted in 1919 the peace treaty imposed on Germany would lead to catastrophic consequences because it “includes no provisions of the economic rehabilitation of Europe, nothing to make the defeated nations into good neighbors, and nothing to stabilize the new States of Europe.”[7] Those consequences would fuel the rise of Adolf Hitler who instilled a doctrine in which Germany would neither honor the Treaty of Versailles nor remain at the mercy of its former wartime opponents and thereby set conditions that would escalate to World War II.

Korea and the Close of World War II

Twenty-six years after Keynes’ prediction, in the waning months of World War II, Allied leaders met at Yalta in February 1945 where President Roosevelt convinced Premier Stalin to enter the war in the Pacific against the Japanese. To entice the Soviets, Roosevelt agreed to support the return of southern Sakhalin, seized rather embarrassingly during the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05, to Russia in a post-war settlement with Japan. Stalin did not need much convincing, but the new deal also called for Soviet interests in China’s Port Arthur and the Manchurian Railway that Russia controlled before 1905 to be respected as well.[8] Russia now had the opportunity to regain critical territory lost in 1905, when then-President Theodore Roosevelt facilitated a post-war settlement that proved costly for Russia.    

Treaty of Portsmouth delegations, with the Russians on the far side of table and the Japanese the near side. (Russo-Japanese War: A Photographic and Descriptive Review of the Great Conflict in the Far East/P. F. Collier & Son/Wikimedia)

In a classic David vs. Goliath conflict, the small island nation of Japan waged a limited war with almost total means against a much more powerful Russia. The brokered peace was the worst Russia could expect. The European Russian Empire suffered an embarrassing military defeat at the hands of a small Asian nation, but for Tsar Nicholas II discontent among his citizens was a larger issue than extending a sphere of influence in the Far East. Now, in 1945, Stalin had a chance to legitimately win back Russian territory lost forty years earlier, and America would soon regret asking for Soviet intervention against Japan in Asia.

A few days after the Soviets entered the war against Japan, America developed a post-World War II settlement plan, with the concurrence of the Soviets, to free Korea from its Japanese occupation and divide the country along the 38th parallel. Japanese forces to the north of this parallel were ordered to surrender to the Soviets, and those to the south were directed to surrender to the United States. The 38th parallel was recommended by Colonel Charles Bonesteel and Colonel Dean Rusk, two Americans who were given only thirty minutes to devise a plan for dividing the Korean peninsula between the United States and the Soviets. Moreover, the only map available to the Colonels was a 1942 National Geographic map of Asia that did not illustrate provinces, only latitude and longitude. Although the men had seriously considered drawing the line at the operationally significant narrowest waist of Korea, their map’s limitations precluded doing so with accuracy. Rusk would later say “the choice of the thirty-eighth parallel, recommended by two tired colonels working late at night, proved fateful.”[9]

This precarious division of the Korean peninsula begged for future conflict that materialized in 1950. William Stueck, a leading Korean War historian, is quick to point out that “over Korea, Soviet and American aims were bound to clash, as Moscow sought traditional goals of defense in-depth of its Northeast Asian frontier, while Washington feared uncontested Soviet expansion in the vacuum created by Japan’s defeat.”[10] Once again, a post-war peace settlement directly contributed to an ensuing war. This time it was the end of World War II that would reignite conflict on the Korean peninsula.

Indochina at the Close of World War II    

Like Korea, Indochina was in disarray after World War II thanks in no small part to the Potsdam Conference where, in 1945, America and her Allies decided to temporarily split the small Asian nation, technically under French colonial control but occupied by Japan during the war, into a northern and southern region. However, the division of the nation was an afterthought at the Potsdam Conference which focused almost exclusively on settling the case of Germany after World War II.[11] Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh, at the close of World War II, organized a large-scale uprising in Indochina and sought American support for his fledgling nation. In a 1945 speech, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, modeled nearly verbatim after the American Declaration of Independence. Instead of accepting Ho Chi Minh’s olive branch, however, the United States supported France in its quest to maintain its Asian colony in exchange for French cooperation rebuilding Europe.[12]

The United States’ post-war allegiance to France at Potsdam set in motion a series of events in Indochina that America would have to address in the Vietnam War two decades later. In 1945, France was ill prepared to reassert its colonial influence in Indochina because the war-torn nation was faced with the monumental task of rebuilding at home. During the war, 2,000,000 buildings in France were damaged or destroyed; nearly 2,000 square miles of France required de-mining; food was so scarce that rationing would continue until 1949; and nearly 70% of children suffered from rickets.[13] It was only a minority of French imperialists who pushed re-colonization efforts on the fractured Fourth Republic , a government whose citizens had little interest in the undertaking.[14]

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, President Harry S. Truman, and Soviet leader Josef Stalin in the garden of Cecilienhof Palace before meeting for the Potsdam Conference in Potsdam, Germany. (Harry S. Truman Library/Wikimedia)

The seeds of the First Indochina War sown at Potsdam in 1945 by the Americans and French grew profusely across Vietnam until the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. At the Geneva Conference in 1954, the United States would have a second diplomatic opportunity to build a lasting peace in Vietnam through a new post-war agreement that called for France to withdraw its troops and for Vietnam to conduct a presidential election by 1956. The puppet government set up by the French in South Vietnam refused to sign the Geneva Accords over concerns that the national election would not be free or fair.  However, undermining the Geneva Accords two years later, America supported South Vietnam’s refusal to hold nationwide elections with North Vietnam in 1956 out of fear from communist expansion. On the other hand, Ho Chi Minh agreed to the terms even though  he thought the French should concede more in the face of his  hard-fought victory. Ho’s reluctance to sign at Geneva is important to note. In 1965, when America changed its role in South Vietnam from advisory to direct action, leaders in North Vietnam’s government were quick to point out they were sold out in 1954 at Geneva and advocated invading South Vietnam to force unification.[15] The United States and France established conditions in 1945 at Potsdam for Indochina to revolt against the French from 1945-54 and set conditions again in 1954 at Geneva for the United States to create its own war with North Vietnam in 1965. The United States failed at two post-war efforts to build a lasting peace in Southeast Asia.  


The cases presented above were not the first instances of a post-war settlement by the United States that did little to secure a lasting peace, and the settlement of the First Gulf War in 1991 and resumption of hostilities against Iraq in 2003 and 2014 give proof that they are unlikely to be the last. Prussian war theorist Carl von Clausewitz recognized that states break peace treaties, noting that "even the ultimate outcome of a war is not always to be regarded as final. The defeated state often considers the outcome merely as a transitory evil, for which a remedy may still be found in political conditions at some later date."[16] Fred Charles Iklé points to a way out of this precarious situation by underscoring the need for victorious emissaries to reform the enemy’s government so as to transition the former foe into a new friend.[17 The historical example of the United States creating stable economies and democracies in Germany and Japan after World War II proves insightful. The Marshall Plan in Europe and MacArthur’s Supreme Command of Allied Powers provided the resources and guidance to remake the former belligerents into new allies. The United States rebuilt these defeated nations not out of generosity but as a matter of strategy, with Secretary of State George C. Marshall proclaiming in 1947 “it is logical that the United States assist in the return of normal economic health to the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace.”[18]

Investing in a former foe though economic stimulus has proven a successful strategy, but arguably so is hammering out a negotiated settlement that vests the defeated belligerent in the post-war solution. This approach makes the post war peace more palatable for a defeated belligerent while motivating them comply and disincentivizing the defeated populace from rallying to a future conflict. For example, when Japan surrendered in 1945, the Allies allowed the Japanese Emperor to remain as the spiritual head of the Japanese government to increase the likelihood of the Japanese military accepting the settlement.[19]

Dictating terms to a defeated foe in Versailles; haphazardly drawing borders on a map in Korea; or snubbing a national leader like Ho Chi Minh will only serve to inspire discontent and increase potential for future conflict. From 1914-2001, nearly one third of all ceasefires in interstate wars eventually broke down into renewed war.[20] The fleeting opportunity at the peace table must not be squandered. This precious moment is what the war was originally about and underscored in Clausewitz’s dictum: “War is merely the continuation of policy by other means.”[21] At the end of conflict, as Clausewitz predicts, “The political object now comes to the fore again.”[22]

The strategist must reduce friction to mitigate future conflict. In the words of American Political Scientist Dan Reiter, “There is no world government to enforce the war-ending contract.”[23] Consequently, strategists can and must increase their likelihood of success by focusing the same level of effort on how to win the lasting peace at the end of a conflict as they do in developing a strategy to defeat a belligerent at the eve of war. Again, Clausewitz eloquently reminds belligerents at the outset of hostilities to know their last step before taking their first.[24]

Cody Zilhaver is a U.S. Army officer attending the Air War College.  He holds a B.S. from Edinboro University, a M.A. from Webster University, and a M.A. from the Naval War College.  The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S Government.

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Header Image: "The Signing of the Treaty of Peace at Versailles, 28 June 1919" by Joseph Finnemore (Australian War Museum/Public Domain)


[1] B.H. Liddel Hart, “The Objective in War: National Objective and Military Aim,” Naval War College Review 5, no. 4 (December 1952), 1.

[2] Eyewitness to History, “Signing of the Treaty of Versailles, 1919,” (accessed October 17, 2016).

[3] Zara Steiner, “The Peace Settlement” in Hew Strachan, ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War (Oxford: Oxford U. Press, 2014), 297-298.

[4] The History Learning Site, “The Dawes Plan of 1924,” (accessed October 17, 2016).

[5] USA Gold, “The Nightmare German Inflation: A family's life savings could not purchase a cup of coffee,” (accessed October 17, 2016).

[6] The History Learning Site, “The Dawes Plan of 1924,” (accessed October 17, 2016).

[7] John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Howe, 1920), 226.

[8] The National Interest, “Revealed: Why the Soviet Union’s Entry into the Pacific War Matters,” (accessed October 18, 2016).

[9] Mark Berry, “The U.S. and the 1945 Division of Korea,” ache:HArT1tvMnOUJ: (accessed October 18, 2016).

[10] William Stueck, “The Korean War,” in Melvyn P. Leffler and Odd Arne Westad, The Cambridge History of the Cold War: Volume I, Origins (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 268.

[11] United States Department of State, “Milestones: 1337-1945 The Potsdam Conference, 1945” (accessed 27 October 2016).

[12] United States History, “America’s Vietnam War,” (accessed October 19, 2016).

[13] Euronews, “A Country Restarting from Scratch,” (accessed 11 September 2016).

[14] Douglas Porch, “French Imperial Warfare, 1945-1962,” in Daniel Marston and Carter Malkansian, eds., Counterinsurgency in Modern Warfare (New York: Osprey, 2008), 92.

[15] Robert Bringham, “Vietnam Strategy Exercise,” (lecture, U.S. Air Force War College, Maxwell AFB, AL, October 12, 2016).

[16] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976) 80.

[17] Fred Charles Iklé, Every War Must End, rev. ed. (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1991), xi (forward).

[18] George Marshall Society, “The Marshall Plan and its Consequences,” (accessed October 20, 2016).

[19] Dan Reiter, How Wars End (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 29.

[20] Dan Reiter, How Wars End (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 24.

[21] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976) 87.

[22] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976) 80.

[23] Dan Reiter, How Wars End (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 23.

[24] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976) 584.