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  • Writer's pictureParley Policy Initiative

How wars end

All wars end. Some end quickly, some take decades, but the fundamental truth is that eventually the fighting will stop. It simply comes down to a matter of how.

Ultimately, there are only five basic ways that wars end, as demonstrated over and over again since time immemorial. For practitioners to succeed in warfighting, peacemaking, and postwar policy, it is essential to understand those ways.



Wars may end when one or more parties to conflict simply ceases their military operations. An invader might withdraw its forces. Two sides may fight to a stalemate and simply opt not to continue an otherwise futile war effort. In the case of disengagement, there is no negotiated agreement that brings about the end of the war–it is simply a unilateral decision or tacit understanding from both sides that the fighting will cease.

Example: Sino-Indian Border War, 1962

The Chinese and Indians fought a short-lived war over contested territory in 1962. Hostilities lasted for a little more than a month with thousands dead and wounded until both sides grew weary of the fighting. Eventually, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai delivered notification of a unilateral ceasefire to the Indian side on 19 November 1962.

Indian soldiers on patrol during the Sino-Indian border war, 1962 (photo via Wikimedia)



Wars might end with a military force completely taking control of another’s territory and subjugating the residents of that land. In this case, there is no formal instrument or agreement that defines this subjugation–it is simply a fait accompli.

Example: North Vietnam absorbs South Vietnam, 1975

Following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, North and South Vietnam were supposed to negotiate a separate peace treaty. However, in March 1975, North Vietnam renewed hostilities and defeated South Vietnamese forces. By July that year, Saigon had fallen and South Vietnam, which was recognized by 88 other countries as an independent and sovereign state, was no more.

An “Air America” crew works to evacuate personnel during the fall of Saigon, 30 April 1975 (photo via Wikimedia)


De facto surrender

This is a form of negotiated surrender, in which a defeated party is able to codify some of the terms associated with its capitulation. Those terms may relate to territorial borders, provisions on governance, or other interests. The type of agreements used in de facto surrenders are never characterized as "surrender instruments"; rather, they are usually codified via another form of agreement. Hence, this is why they are characterized as “de facto” surrenders.

Example: Vichy France, 1940

When Germany broke through the Maginot Line and overwhelmed French forces, Marshal Philippe Pétain signed an Armistice Agreement with German forces that was a de facto surrender agreement. The provisions of the agreement established a German-occupied zone and a "free zone," setting the conditions for a puppet government in Vichy.

German soldiers set up Ferdinand Foch's railway car in the Compiegne Forest to prepare for the signing of France's de facto surrender, 22 June 1940 (photo via Wikimedia)


Formal surrender

A formal surrender is where a defeated party submits itself to the terms of the victors via surrender instrument. This may mean that the victors are able to occupy the territory of the surrendered party, change its government, and conduct military tribunals, among other things. Formal surrenders are rare in the annals of history.

Example: Germany and Japan in World War II, 1945

After more than half a decade of fighting, both Germany and Japan signed instruments of surrender with the Allied powers, accepting the terms of unconditional surrender. This led to the Allied occupation of both countries, including the partition of occupation sectors in Germany that eventually contributed to the creation of two separate German states. Japan remained occupied until 1952.

(Left) Colonel General Alfred Jodl signs the document of unconditional surrender, 7 May 1945; (right) Mamoru Shigemitsu signs the instrument of surrender, 2 September 1945 (photos via NARA)


Negotiated peace agreement

There are several types of peace agreements that can end wartime hostilities. There is a bounded agreement, which addresses a specific issue area at the center of the fighting. There is an interim agreement, which is meant to end hostilities until a more formal peace treaty may be negotiated. This may be described as an Armistice, ceasefire, or truce agreement. A Peace Treaty is a formal, diplomatic instrument of peace between states. It solves both the military and the political level issues of the conflict. Peace treaties themselves are becoming increasingly rare, and the use of a political level peace treaty without an instrument of surrender or armistice preceding it is even rarer. Under the UN system, it is unlikely that warring parties will directly pursue a full-fledged peace treaty without disengaging from conflict or concluding a surrender or armistice agreement first.

Example: Korean War Armistice, 1953

In July 1951, the parties to the Korean War initiated Armistice negotiations. After two years of negotiating–including thousands of meetings at the delegate, subdelegate, staff officer, and liaison officer levels–the military commanders of the Korean People's Army, Chinese People's Volunteers, and United Nations Command (on behalf of all multinational forces fighting under the UN flag), signed the Armistice Agreement that remains in effect today.

The lead negotiators for United Nations Command and the Korean People’s Army sign the Korean Armistice Agreement, 27 July 1953 (photo via the UNC Military Armistice Commission)

* * * * * *

Examining and understanding the ways in which wars end yield important insights to practitioners, whether military or civilian. Among those insights the following are key takeaways for any who might be involved in war or the peacemaking process:

  • You should not expect war to end with a formal surrender--such is the anomaly, not the standard. Because of that, parties to war should always be prepared to end the war at the negotiating table.

  • If fighting a war, you must weigh interests and objectives against all the options for ending a war. You may be able to achieve your necessary ends via negotiated peace rather than suffering the casualties and costs needed to attain the other side's capitulation.

  • An adversary's desired way for ending a war may change based on its relative gains or losses in the fighting. What it would be willing to accept on day one of a war will be different than day 45 and day 145. You must constantly reevaluate the other side to determine which means of ending the war will be the most actionable.

  • There is a clear distinction between the practical and legal definitions of "war" versus "peace" and "ceasefire" versus "surrender." While legal nuances are important, the practical issues are what will matter most immediately for those affected by the war.

Cable No 16_How wars end
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