Tehran Conference
First meeting of The Big Three
28 November - 1 December 1943
author Paul Boșcu, August 2019
The Tehran conference was organized to resolve problems concerning the progress of the Second World War and the organization of the post-war world, following the Allied victory.
The Tehran conference was the first meeting of what became known as the Big Three: US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The conference, held inside the Soviet embassy in Tehran, addressed the all-important issue of opening up a second front in Europe in order to relieve pressure on the Eastern Front.

Roosevelt was under the mistaken but surprisingly widespread impression that personal intercourse could mollify Stalin, and he deliberately set out to try to charm the Russian dictator, if necessary by making Churchill the butt of his teasing. For his part, Stalin insisted on the invalid Roosevelt flying halfway around the world to meet in the Iranian capital, and placing him in the Russian Legation as his guest, thus separating him from Churchill.

With so much time spent on military strategy, there was not much left for political issues. Roosevelt spoke up for Finland (with which the United States was not at war), and Stalin explained that the Soviet Union did not wish to annex it, would insist on the 1941 border but might trade Hangö for Petsamo, and would expect the Finns to drive out the Germans during the war and pay reparations in kind afterwards.

As for the Soviet interest in acquiring the northern portion of East Prussia with the port city of Königsberg (with the southern part going to Poland), this was agreeable to the British and Americans, who had been convinced by the incessant German propaganda of the inter-war years that Germans could not live on both sides of Poles, and who were therefore certain that East Prussia should never be returned to Germany.

At Tehran it was agreed that Poland should be shifted to the west, losing roughly the same territories given to the USSR in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and being compensated in the west from German industry-rich territory; in time, five million Poles would be deported from east to west. The extension of Soviet influence to other lands became ever more likely, with Churchill’s connivance.

Less happy was the reception given to Churchill’s strategy of using Italy as a springboard from which to attack the Germans in south-eastern France, Austria and Hungary via Yugoslavia. Not wishing to see a powerful Allied force in his south-eastern European backyard, Stalin opposed the scheme, and was supported by Roosevelt, so it fell through, much to Churchill’s chagrin. Although Stalin would have preferred to see an earlier date for the cross-Channel invasion, he accepted that it would take place on 1 May 1944. It later had to be put back five weeks for lack of landing craft, after fighting in Italy went on for longer than planned.

The insistence of Churchill on repeatedly returning to the charge on extended operations in the Mediterranean and delays in Overlord meant that most of three of the four days at the Tehran Conference were taken up with arguments over strategy in the European war, although Stalin made his own preference absolutely clear at the very first meeting. Whatever may have caused him to consider further Mediterranean operations earlier, he now insisted that all be subordinated to Overlord in May 1944, with that operation to be accompanied and preferably preceded by a landing on the southern coast of France. A Soviet offensive would be coordinated with the invasion.

The British feared that an invasion attempt might fail, and for them, that would be the end of the road. They had been driven off the continent by the Germans three times in the war; the fourth time would be fatal. The Americans, on the other hand, certainly hoped and expected that the invasion would succeed; but if it did fail, they could and they would try again. The Russians undoubtedly felt that, success or failure, it was about time the Western Powers did their share of the fighting in Europe.

At Stalin's insistence that the operation would never be launched unless a Commander-in-Chief were appointed for it, the President promised that this would be done within a few days. Since the British had blocked an overall European command, he decided right after the Tehran Conference to keep General George Marshall in Washington and appoint Dwight Eisenhower.

For the future generally, Roosevelt urged an international organization in which the four great powers would have a major role, sketching out what came to be the organization of the United Nations and getting Stalin's agreement. If the great powers could cooperate, it would work; but if they did not, there was trouble ahead.

Discussions on the eastern border of Poland, which was to be compensated with German territory for the loss of land to the USSR to its east, ran directly contrary to the promise made in the Atlantic Charter for ‘no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned’, but at least Stalin agreed to the outlines of a United Nations Organization with vetoes for Britain, Russia, the United States and China.

There was also agreement on Yugoslavia, where Marshal Tito’s Communist partisans would be given support rather than the pro-monarchist Chetniks, because it was clear from Ultra decrypts that the Chetniks were in league with the Italians, and the Germans feared the partisans much more than the Chetniks.

The communizing of eastern Europe was already implicit. It was happening not just through the Red Army but also through the resistance movements, which in most countries — though not Poland — were heavily influenced by Communists. Resistance in any advanced, urban country — France and the Czech lands the obvious cases — was best carried on, where at all, through sabotage, because random killing of this or that German invited gruesome reprisals. The Communists encouraged these, as it made the locals hate the Germans even more, and so swelled Communist ranks, but that was only really possible in countries such as Greece or Yugoslavia, where the partisans, supplied by air, could hold out in barren mountains.

The British really wanted Greece for their key position in the eastern Mediterranean, with the Suez Canal and Middle Eastern oil in the offing. Stalin agreed to rein in the Greek Communists, who were slaughtered when they tried to take power at the end of the war. Stalin did nothing to help them. The counterpart was that Churchill wrote off the rest of the region, except for Yugoslavia, where he agreed on a half-and half split of influence.

Tito’s Communist Yugoslav partisans were then given prodigious help by the British, whose Special Operations Executive (SOE) officers had the adventures of a lifetime in the Dalmatian karst. The novelist Evelyn Waugh was there for military intelligence, and was repelled by the duplicity and cruelty he encountered, as shown in Sword of Honour, his great trilogy on the period. He had no illusions as to the collaboration of a part of the British establishment and the Yugoslav Communists, and it gave its fruits when Stalin broke with Tito in 1948.

On Stalin’s insistence, Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek was also excluded from the conference altogether, so as not to ruffle the sensibilities of the Japanese, with whom the USSR had a non-aggression pact. In the first session of the Tehran Conference, however, Stalin announced his willingness to declare war against Japan after Germany had surrendered, which was greeted with undisguised pleasure by the Western Allies.

Stalin now formally promised Roosevelt and Churchill to join in after the defeat of Germany. China would get back the lands Japan had taken from her, Korea would regain its independence, and the Soviet Union would regain southern Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands. Roosevelt explained that he had raised with a most unenthusiastic Chiang the possibility of the Soviets using the warm-water port of Dairen; Stalin insisted that the Chinese like others had to do their share of the fighting to earn their rewards.

Tehran saw the high-water mark of Allied cooperation in the war, and was hard fought though generally good natured. Roosevelt’s overt keenness to charm Stalin, however, allowed the Marshal to spot a gap between the two democracies that he was to seek to exploit over the coming months. Nothing got past him. Each of the Big Three left Tehran with something he wanted, but each had to give up something too, although it is hard to escape the conclusion that Churchill was forced to give up the most.

At Tehran, Russian domination of eastern Europe was implicitly recognized, and this was done as a bargain over Churchill’s head. At one point, he even stormed out of a dinner, in protest at a remark of Stalin’s about the murderous things he meant to do in Germany. It had been, Stalin explained, a joke. The link between Churchill and Roosevelt was growing weaker. The two needed, for the sake of war-time popular opinion, to make a show of getting on well; both men were actors, and there was of course some mutual understanding between two aristocrats of the Atlantic world.

There was one further British concession at this time, one that gave almost no cause for reflection. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet and Yugoslav citizens had volunteered for German service, in some cases to escape starvation. At the end of the war, the British handed them back to Stalin and Tito, to years of captivity or execution. Thirty years later, Alexander Solzhenitsyn told the world what had happened. In this matter, the Americans behaved humanely — agreeing to hand back the prisoners, but in practice letting them escape.