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How One Word Changed The Course Of World War II

One of the most tightly-written communications in military history came more than 60 years before Twitter. On Dec. 22, 1944, Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe had to be awoken from a nap during the Battle of the Bulge when a German delegation arrived at the U.S. encampment in Bastogne, a Belgian town. English and German letters that the group carried addressed to the commander of the “encircled” town noted changing war momentum. The 101st Airborne Division had two hours to surrender or it would be annihilated, they stated.

Perhaps half asleep, McAuliffe first believed the Germans were surrendering. When he learned they were seeking the opposite, he muttered, “Nuts!” Later, when McAuliffe mulled over the formal reply, Lt. Col. Harry Kinnard recommended he go with his first instinct. And so the official reply was, “To the German Commander, NUTS! The American Commander.” The message was clear to the U.S. soldiers, but the German delegation needed an explanation to decipher it.

“‘Nuts!’ really epitomized the American spirit. These airborne were not going to surrender,” says Kenneth Rendell, founder and director of the extensive International Museum of World War II in Natick, Mass. The museum’s collection contains more than 7,000 artifacts and more than 500,000 documents and photographs.

Nuts: General McAuliffe’s eloquent response. Image by International Museum of World War II

Rendell recently bought one of the English versions of the German letter, which the museum displays alongside a letter McAuliffe penned after the war explaining why he responded, “Nuts!” He also owns two of the 22 copies of the Japanese surrender, including a copy that Gen. Douglas MacArthur presented to his chief of staff, and another he gave to the head of the Filipino military.

The minimalist response “Nuts!” stands in stark contrast to the almost poetic conclusion of the German letter, which noted, “All the serious civilian losses caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with the well-known American humanity.” To Rendell, the line suggests an author who knew the language. “The person who translated this into English could have been American-educated,” he says. “I mean, it’s so well-written. It sounds like an American wrote it.”

The second artifact that Rendell purchased earlier this year — both from a Sacramento auction house — also failed in its aim, as the German letter did. The Potsdam Proclamation called for the Japanese surrender, and a week after the Japanese refused to accept the proclamation’s unconditional terms of surrender, America dropped the atom bomb. Elmer Hipsley, then a secret service agent who died in 1968, saved an original mimeographed copy of the proclamation, which was lost for a period and recently discovered in a box with a map of Berlin.

Hipsley’s descendents recently sold the letter, which President Harry Truman signed on July 26, 1945. Truman added the names of Winston Churchill and Chiang Kai-Shek, then the Chinese leader. “Chiang Kai-Shek was in China, so he couldn’t have signed it,” Rendell says. “There’s just a brief moment here when Churchill isn’t there, so clearly Truman is giving his ‘OK,’ and he adds Churchill and Chiang Kai-Shek under his name.”

A little over a week later, the U.S. bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Truman’s orders to drop the bomb are displayed at the museum alongside the declaration, McArthur’s draft of the Japanese surrender terms, and Rendell’s two copies of the actual surrender document.

“The Allies give the terms of surrender, which is unconditional, and they promise nothing, except that they’re not going to enslave the Japanese people,” Rendell says of the proclamation.

The document was largely significant for its veiled, but not explicit, warning to the Japanese that failure to surrender would lead to the bombing of the Japanese islands, says Noel Cary, a history professor at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., who is on the advisory board of the college’s program in Jewish-Christian understanding.

“The Americans had already procured, at the Yalta Conference in February, Russian agreement to enter the Pacific War. But now, with the successful testing of the A-bomb, on the eve of the Potsdam Conference in July, the Americans were no longer so sure they needed or wanted Russian involvement,” he says. Stalin pretended he didn’t know from spies about the successful bomb test in New Mexico at the conference when Truman told him about it, and within two weeks, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities.

“The Russians declared war on Japan the same day as the second bomb,” Cary says. “The Japanese promptly — within one week — surrendered.”

Reflecting upon the documents he’d recently acquired, Rendell noted the enormity of the what-if questions. What if McAuliffe had surrendered rather than coining the iconic response? Maybe Germany could have leveraged the victory to force the Allies to make a deal, Rendell says. “Germany could’ve focused on Russia.”

Another what-if imagines a world where a friend didn’t see that the auction house was selling these two documents and didn’t alert Rendell, who often learns about important artifacts from friends and colleagues who keep their eyes and ears open.

“I didn’t know these two documents existed,” he says. “So I couldn’t look for them.”

Menachem Wecker writes about art for the Forward.


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