Did We Celebrate A Day Late? - The Problem Of VE Day, Dwight Eisenhower & Charles De Gaulle
Tomorrow, Friday 8th May 2020, marks a full seventy-five years since Victory in Europe was declared, thus giving us the name VE Day. As an occasion, it's always been associated with this day, the mass crowds in Piccadilly and bunting everywhere, with a good-old knees up in the pubs. However, digitised meeting minutes from the National Archives suggests we might’ve started celebrating a day late.
General Dwight Eisenhower as the Supreme Allied Commander in North-West Europe had found out about the German surrender in Reims, France, on 7th May 1945 at 2:41am which threw everything into the air with regards to announcing a victory in Europe. Should the Allied forces announce victory when they received news of the surrender, or wait until they could agree a time? Minutes from a Downing Street meeting at 6:30pm that day available here proposed the idea that the announcement should take place the following day on the 8th, at 9am in Washington, 3pm in London and 4pm in Moscow, after a lengthy discussion.
However, the minutes from the meeting reveal Eisenhower's intervention in the matter, stated that he "had expressed the view that it would be impossible to keep the news secret until the 8th May as orders to German troops would be broadcast en clair during the 7th May." Eisenhower maintained the view that it would be incredibly difficult to keep the news from everyone as ciphers wouldn't be used for domestic German messages following their surrender, causing the news of victory in Europe to be leaked from Germany, as opposed to being announced via a grand and synchronised occasion.
As a response, Churchill proposed the idea to the other members of the Big Three that the announcement should be made at 6pm UK time, which was 12 noon in Washington and 7pm in Moscow. Interestingly enough, Truman wouldn't agree with the change unless Stalin did, and Truman stuck to his guns even when news of the German surrender had been broadcast worldwide on the Columbia Broadcasting Service. A few minutes before 6pm however, Downing Street received a message from the White House - the 7th May announcement wasn't to go ahead due to Stalin's disagreement over the time and date and as a result, Truman didn't agree either. As the minutes state, "President Truman would not make any announcement in Washington-until 3 P.M. on the 8th May, even though the Prime Minister should decide to make his announcement in London at 6 P.M. on the 7th May." As much as news had got out a day early, the Big Three decided to go ahead with the official announcement and therefore make the 8th May VE Day and a national holiday, well, in the UK at least. The conclusions from that part of the meeting declared that the 8th would be given the status of a national holiday, as well as the 9th too. The minutes also decided that
"His Majesty The King will broadcast to the peoples of the British Empire and Commonwealth to-morrow".
There was one small problem however - Charles De Gaulle. De Gaulle would be going ahead with the announcement on the 7th, a couple of hours following Truman's message to Churchill. The words of the meeting minutes portray the idea that if De Gaulle wanted to go ahead with his announcement then there was nothing the other Allies could do to stop him - "If, however, he was unwilling to accept this advice no further pressure could be brought to bear on him.". If anything, their words echo a quote from Nikola Tesla relating to his infamous dispute with Guglielmo Marconi - "Marconi is a good fellow. Let him continue. He is using seventeen of my patents."- there's a certain air of powerlessness and almost defeat in those words, but deep-down, it's almost as if the Allies knew he'd come round. De Gaulle cancelled his announcement at the last moment and made it at the same time of Churchill, with the Prime Minister's infamous words remembered fondly - "We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing, but let us not forget for a moment the toils and efforts that lie ahead."
After all this time, maybe we have been celebrating a day late for the last three quarters of a century, but we can learn a lesson from Eisenhower's actions and the initial reaction from the Big Three. We're always learning lessons from history, and this is an important one. Don't go into something without the full co-operation of everyone involved because chances are it won't work. Sure, you'll always have opposition, but it's integral to club together in times of great significance to work out the best course of action. We need more bipartisanship in both our own country and the whole world, and let the Second World War be a lesson to us all.