For four days in November-December 1943, as the Second World War raged, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin met in secret in the Iranian capital of Tehran. Called Eureka, the Tehran Conference was the first time that the three Allied leaders were face to face. Churchill may have exaggerated only slightly by saying that he “probably represented the greatest concentration of worldly power ever seen in the history of humanity”.
Expectations for the conference were high on all sides. His goal was not only to agree on a strategy to crush the Axis powers of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, but to decide what the post-war world should look like – assuming, of course, that the Allies really won. It was a lot to accomplish during their brief period together, especially since none of the three men fully trusted the other two. But they knew all the stakes. Not to go beyond their differences could easily prolong the war or, even worse, put Adolf Hitler and Emperor Hirohito on the road to victory.
READ MORE: FDR, Churchill and Stalin: in their uneasy alliance of World War II
A high-stakes meeting that almost never happened
Even organizing the conference was a testament. Roosevelt had tried in vain to meet Stalin for several years, but Stalin, who was worried about the murders and was afraid of stealing, had always refused. When Stalin finally agreed, he insisted that the meeting be held in Tehran, then under joint Russian and British control. This remote and relatively remote location made it difficult for Roosevelt who, as president, could not normally be absent for more than 10 days when Congress was in session; otherwise, bills passed in his absence would become law without his signature, which would not give him the opportunity to exercise his right of veto. Despite all this, the meeting met.
Dual diaries – and only four days to resolve them
Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin arrived in Tehran with their own programs. While they were united in their desire to defeat Germany and put the world on a new path, they strongly disagreed on how to go about it. Ironically, Roosevelt and Churchill – often presented as the best friends – were the most distant from each other.
LISTEN: A report from November 28, 1943, covering the results of the “Capital War Council” of the Tehran Conference.
What Roosevelt wanted
At the top of President Roosevelt’s agenda were plans for Operation Overlord, a cross-Channel invasion from England to the north of France, better known today as D-Day. At a May 1943 conference in Washington, D.C., the United States and Great Britain agreed on a tentative May 1, 1944 date for the invasion. But at the time of the Tehran Conference, there were signs that Churchill thought it should be postponed, perhaps in 1945.
Roosevelt’s best military advisers had long lobbied for Overlord and knew that Stalin, who had been assured for several years that an invasion was imminent, was losing patience. More worrying, says biographer Nigel Hamilton in War and Peace: The FDR’s Final Odyssey (2019), “There had already been rumors of serious feelings of peace between Nazi Germany and Russia in August and September – leaving open the possibility that Stalin could simply abandon the Allies and conclude a separate agreement.
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Roosevelt not only wanted Stalin to stay the course against Hitler, but to expand Russian operations in the Pacific and join the fight against Japan. The Soviet Union had suspended the declaration of war in Japan, but it would be suspended in 1945.
Roosevelt also thought after the defeat of Germany and Japan. He wanted Churchill and Stalin to adhere to his vision of a very different post-war world, the Big Three plus China serving as “four policemen” empowered to keep the peace. He brought with him plans for the United Nations, an organization he had named and which, according to a journalist who interviewed him shortly before his death, “would consider the culmination of his career”.
READ MORE: 9 Things You Might Not Know About Franklin D. Roosevelt
What Churchill wanted
Churchill was considerably less enthusiastic about Operation Overlord, at least with the timing chosen by Roosevelt (and which the British agreed to last May). He also argued that it would be premature to divert resources from the Mediterranean theater; while Italy had officially surrendered, Rome remained within the reach of the Germans. But the reasons for his apparent change of heart have been the subject of historical debate since.
In Close the ring, the fifth volume of his war memoirs, published in 1951, Churchill attempted to defend himself against the accusation of having attempted to kill Operation Overlord, which he said had “become a legend in America”. He called the accusation “nonsense” and dismissed those who disagreed with his Mediterranean strategy as “simpletons”.
While some historians have accepted Churchill’s version of events, many subsequent events, based on more recently published documents, have challenged it. Cambridge historian David Reynolds, for example, wrote in his 2005 book, At the helm of history, that, “Churchill is removing or evidence key medical evidence” regarding his opposition to Operation Overlord in his memorials. Hamilton maintains that Churchill did “everything possible to overthrow, sabotage and postpone D-Day”.
You never know exactly why Churchill would have opposed D-Day at that time, but there are a number of theories. Is it concerned about the excessive number of British victims? Did he think the invasion would fail and give Hitler a strategic advantage? Was he trying to guarantee that the entire British Empire survived the war intact? The Mediterranean region is strategically vital to this end, while northern France doesn’t make much difference.
READ MORE: 10 Things You May Not Know About Winston Churchill
What Stalin wanted
The ruthless Russian dictator could have done everything to get what he wanted at the Tehran conference. But he didn’t have to do it, since his agenda and that of Roosevelt were largely aligned. That didn’t stop him from putting Roosevelt’s rooms at the Russian embassy, where the Americans resided. The Americans, however, thought the plays were tapped and insisted on playing with the hidden microphones.
What Stalin wanted most was a firm commitment that his allies would open the Western Front in France, long promised, forcing Hitler to divide his troops and fight on two fronts. He also wanted a firm date and agreed to May 1. He sided with Roosevelt against Churchill by devoting more resources to the Mediterranean, which he considered to be an unnecessary distraction. And, as part of the deal, he agreed to launch an offensive on the Eastern Front to coincide with D-Day, so that Hitler could not easily divert troops to repel the invasion.
Churchill made several attempts to win Stalin by his side, but the Russian dictator did not budge. By the end of the conference, it was clear that the United States and the Soviets, both with far more troops than the British, would now carry more weight during the war.
READ MORE: D-Day: Facts about the 1944 epic that changed the course of the Second World War
Who ultimately won?
While some of Roosevelt’s critics have claimed that the wily Stalin played the president like a balalaika (a criticism also launched after the Yalta conference in 1945), Roosevelt came back with almost everything he wanted, even if he wouldn’t live to see it all come through. Stalin also did well, including an agreement to extend the Russian border into the former Polish territory, which he saw as a means of creating a buffer between his country and Germany – and which foreshadowed his subsequent aggression in Eastern Europe.
Churchill failed in his main mission to postpone D-Day, but he seems to have made the most of it. Especially for the good of Allied unity, he did not withdraw British troops from the planned invasion or carry out his threat to resign from the post of Prime Minister if he did not succeed. And when the time-delayed invasion finally began, on June 6, 1944, he supported it with his usual eloquence.
A few days after the conference ended, the three leaders released a statement that said there was no dissension. “We came here with hope and determination,” concluded the statement, “We are leaving here, friends in fact, in spirit and purpose.”