The Big Three in Teheran.



It was probably the Allies' most important conference of the Second World War. Although the leaders of the anti-fascist coalition later met twice, in Yalta and Potsdam, decisions made there were logically drawn from the agreements reached in Teheran.

The Teheran Conference was held from 28 November till 1 December 1943. Joseph Stalin and Sir Winston Spencer Churchill stayed respectively in the Soviet and British embassies, which are located next to each other in the centre of the Iranian capital. The embassy of the United States of America was located farther, so for the security reasons president Franklin Delano Roosevelt accepted Stalin's invitation to live in the Soviet embassy during the whole conference. The talks were also held in both legations.

The focus of the conference was on the plans and decisions regarding organization of the common effort of the war with fascism. Before it came true, it became necessary to overcome substantial difficulties, and even some clear contradictions. Roosevelt had no doubts that operation Overlord was of paramount importance; Churchill strove to attach priority to the operations in Italy, Adriatic Sea, Aegean Sea and Turkey. Stalin was not in position to tell his allies what to do, but once confronted with a choice, favoured those operations, which would divert the biggest chunk of the German forces from the Eastern front. Therefore he too favoured the Overlord. According to him, operations in the Mediterranean Sea, Italy and southern France were of secondary importance, and should have been conducted to a limited scale.

Churchill was not happy with such a turn. He once used a lot of energy to convince his partners about the necessity to land Allied forces in Italy, and did not want to see operations there stalled. He maintained that the goals, put forward to those operations, namely achieving the line Pisa - Rimini (north of Rome), needed to be achieved. And that required further engagement in Italy of the troops and landing crafts foreseen for the Overlord. Such a situation, naturally, could put the deadline of the landing in northern France in jeopardy, even by several weeks. So, without a major break-through in Italy, Churchill did not want to commit himself to any final date of the Overlord:

What I particularly dreaded, I said, was an interval of six months' inactivity between the capture of Rome and "Overlord". We ought to be fighting the enemy all the time, and the operations which I had suggested, although admittedly of a secondary character, should be the subject of careful consideration. (...)

At the same time, I wished it to be placed on record that I could not in any circumstances agree to sacrifice the activities of the armies in the Mediterranean, (...) merely in order to keep the exact date of May 1 for "Overlord". [Churchill W. S. L. (1986e).]

Roosevelt, after he examined Stalin's position and needs, eventually had sided with him. Therefore, the main discussion was unfolding between Stalin and Churchill, while Roosevelt mitigated them, together with the Chief of Staff of the US Army, General George Marshall.

The first day of talks did not bring any sign of agreement. Also the conference of the representatives of the three general staffs on 29 November went without results. The talks were resumed on the second day in the evening, and again went without results. Then came the third, and decisive, day of the conference. The American and British chiefs of staffs held a meeting in the morning. The discussion was extraordinarily stormy. The British used a whole arsenal of arguments to shift the D-day of the Overlord to June. The Americans categorically stood by May, as the term agreed upon during the conferences in Quebec City and Washington. The most they were willing to accept was the last day of May, because they maintained that only that month provided the best conditions for a cross-Channel amphibious operation. That was also the last line of the British defence.

Eventually, during their 132th conference, the Combined Chiefs of Staffs reached the agreement, which contained only three points:
  1. The offensive on the Italian front to be continued until the line Pisa-Rimini is reached. It meant that 68 landing crafts had to be left in the Mediterranean until 15 January 1944.
  2. Simultaneously with the Overlord, the Allies would conduct amphibious operations in southern France to the extent allowed by the number of possessed landing crafts. Due to acceptance of the highest priority of the Overlord, it meant abandoning any other landings.
  3. Combined Chiefs of Staffs authorized the prime-minister and the president to inform Stalin that the Overlord would begin within May and be combined with an auxiliary landing in southern France to the extent allowed by the number of possessed landing crafts.
As soon as the Combined Chiefs of Staffs closed their meeting, Roosevelt invited Churchill and Stalin for a luncheon. In fact the reason for the meeting was to convey the date of the Overlord to Stalin. Stalin's interpreter, Valentin Berezhkov, as the only person, who recorded the talks between the two statesmen, noted that Roosevelt's elated mood was immediately visible. A smile twinkle in his eyes and he looked very cheerful. At once he told Stalin that he had brought him "pleasant news", and read the decision of the British and American chiefs of staffs. Churchill noted that Stalin had received Roosevelt's declaration with relief; Berezhkov's relation is more detailed:

I was seized by a feeling of elation, a lump rose in my throat and I was barely able to keep myself from applauding . Stalin's excitement manifested itself only in unusual paleness and in his voice, which became even lower when, inclining his head a little, he uttered:
"I am satisfied with this decision."
Everyone was silent for a few moments. Then Churchill said that the precise date of the launching of the operation would, obviously, depend on the phase of the moon. Stalin remarked that, of course, he did not demand to be told a precise date and that, naturally, one or two weeks in May would be needed for this manoeuvre. [Бережков В. М. (1987).]

And this is how the months-long discussion on the second front - the discussion that was initiated yet in 1941, and in the years to follow became the central problem of the relations between the USSR and Western Allies; the argument that could have a negative impact on co-operation within the framework of the Great Coalition.

On 1 December 1943 the Great Three signed the final agreement of the conference, which summarized common decisions in political and military matters. At that time this agreement was secret, but two other minor documents were made public after the conclusion of the conference. Those were the Declaration of the Three Powers and the Declaration of the Three Powers Regarding Iran. In the Military Conclusions of the Teheran Conference the great powers had agreed that
  • the partisans in Yugoslavia should be supported,
  • it was most desirable that Turkey should come into the war,
  • if Bulgaria declared war on Turkey, the Soviet would immediately be at war with Bulgaria,
  • operation Overlord would be launched during May 1944, in conjunction with an operation against southern France,
  • military staffs of the Three Powers should keep in close touch with each other.
Also in Teheran were discussed strategic questions, which were not solved until later. Relating to the American proposals, General John Deane made during the Moscow Conference, Roosevelt presented Stalin with memoranda concerning the following issues:
  • opening Soviet air bases to the US Air Force for shuttle flights of the American squadrons on missions from Great Britain and Italy,
  • opening of a permanent air connection Moscow - Teheran - Washington,
  • exchange of intelligence data on Japan and meteorological data from the Far East,
  • opening air bases in the Far East to accommodate 1000 American bombers for missions over Japan.
The official part of the conference was over; the great powers' leaders were finally able to relax, especially so, that there was an excellent opportunity - Churchill's birthday. It certainly was a happy birthday for me, wrote Churchill years later. The gathering at the British legacy in that evening was splendid indeed, even when compared to earlier meetings in Moscow or famous meetings later in Yalta and Potsdam. First of all, it was the most significant demonstration of the will to co-operate, full of optimism and relaxation, which followed intense talks of the participants of that first of the inter-Allied conferences.

Churchill testifies that the celebrations went on in utmost order and quite nice atmosphere. Marshal Stalin seemed to be in the best of tempers, and Roosevelt smiled at everybody from his wheel-chair in pleasure and goodwill. Roosevelt's son, Elliot, was also present:

We wished our "happy birthdays" to the P.M.; he was absolutely in his element, jovial, beaming with good cheer, wreathed in smiles and cigar smoke. Father presented his bowl, together with the thought: "May we be together for many years." Cocktail glasses clinked and the air buzzed with friendly talk. Presently Stalin entered, together with Molotov and Voroshilov, and followed by his interpreter, Berezhkov; he was in time to sip two cocktails before we all moved in to dinner - thirty marshals, generals, admirals, ambassadors, ministers, diplomats, and lesser officials following the Prime Minister, the President, and the Marshal - and the one lady of the party, Sarah Oliver. [Roosevelt E. (1946).]

Soon everybody was at a large table: Churchill in the middle, Stalin on his left side, and Roosevelt on the right, and a huge birthday cake with 69 candles in front of them.

Pronouncing the first toast, Stalin said:
"My fighting friend Churchill!"

Stalin went over to him, clinked glasses, hugged him by the shoulder and shook his hand. When everyone had drained his glass, he addressed the President of the United States in the same words:
"My fighting friend Roosevelt!"

The same procedure of clinking glasses and hand-shaking was repeated. (...)

Churchill liked the Russian custom of proposing toasts and so did the Americans. In the end, the guests spent much time on their feet, because the toasts followed one after another, and after each speech everyone rose from his seat. Moreover, Churchill adopted Stalin's manner of going up to each person to whom a toast had been said to clink glasses with him. So, there were the two of them, wandering slowly around the room with glasses in their hands. Everyone was in high spirits and it became hot and noisy in the hall. [Бережков В. М. (1987).]

Churchill responded to the birthday wishes in well-weighted words, appropriate for the atmosphere of the moment. He spoke a lot about Roosevelt's noble character. He praised the American president as a man, who had devoted his life to great ideas, defence of the weak and poor, and service of the principles of the civilized world. As to Stalin, Churchill expressed certainty, that the Soviet leader had become a great figure in the history of Russia, and had already deserved the title "Stalin the Great". Stalin thanked warmly for those words, and emphasized that it was not too difficult to become a great leader to someone, who stood in van of such a great and talented nation like the Russians.

Also Roosevelt's adviser, Harry Hopkins, came out with a splendid toast. He spoke about a "very long and thorough long and thorough study of the British constitution, which is unwritten, and of the War Cabinet, whose authority and composition were not specifically defined". As a result of this study he had learnt that "the provisions of of the British constitution and and the powers of the War Cabinet were just whatever Winston Churchill wanted them to be at any given moment".

Roosevelt retired to his quarters around 23:00, but Stalin did not show intention to follow his example. To him the real fun would begin after the midnight. Churchill seconded him courageously. England is becoming a shade pinker, observed the prime-minister. That is a sign of good health, replied Stalin. Then after this remark had been translated, he added: I want to call Mr. Churchill my friend.
Call me Winston, said the prime-minister. I call you Joe behind your back.
No, said Stalin. I want to call you my friend. I’d like to be allowed to call you my good friend.
The two clinked glasses for the umpteenth time: I drink to the proletarian masses, Churchill proposed. I drink to the Conservative Party, replied Stalin.

Americans were watching that mutual adoration with understandable astonishment; they did not fail to note certain shades of the situation. As soon as the conference was over, American diplomat Charles Bohlen wrote a memorandum, which summarized most characteristic moments of the meeting in Teheran. It did not escape his attention that during the party at the British embassy Stalin addressed Churchill and Roosevelt as "fighting friends" or "comrades in arms"; yet, when he was alone with Churchill, he added "I want to call you my friend; I'd like to be allowed to call you my good friend". Before he left the British legation around 0:30, he had "his good friend" indulged cordially in heavy drinking. Churchill's personal physician Charles Wilson, Lord Moran has noted that when Sir Winston retired to his bedroom, he was "plainly weary".

According to the original agenda the day 1 December 1943 was the last but one day of the conference, and political issues had to be discussed then. Yet, when the talks commenced, they had to be wrapped up, since meteorological forecast predicted worsened weather, and Roosevelt was inclined to cut his stay in Teheran by one day. Stalin too, could go back home, satisfied with the outcome of the conference, as he had achieved his strategic goals. Only Churchill felt dissatisfied, and wanted to talk about politics, establish common points and probe the depth of contradictions.

Meanwhile there was no time, and some problems were merely marked. However, even if not all the problems were discussed, it was worth meeting and talking, because it allowed the individual parties for exchange of opinions, and more co-ordinated planning of their moves in the future. It is enough to mention that political problems had been repeatedly discussed during the whole conference, as well as during tri- and bi-lateral meetings. They concerned post-war security, territorial changes, German constitution, fates of the French colonial empire, and relations between the government of the USSR and Polish government in exile.

The Teheran Conference was Stalin's particular diplomatic success. Among various reasons, two were of special importance. First of all, while coming to Teheran, Stalin might nurse justified worries that the Anglo-Saxons would form  a united front to defend their interests. Yet the reality made him a pleasant surprise - he found there heads of two rivalling systems, seeking arguments against each other. Suddenly he was in a position of a valuable allay, whose favours were eagerly solicited.

Roosevelt had demonstrated an extraordinary skill and maturity. Having great global plans, he knew very well, who was his allay, and who was an opponent. With Churchill he was generally concordant in the matters of the French colonial empire. He invited Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek to participate in the talks concerning curbing British and French influence in the Far East, and simultaneously looked at Stalin as a factor stalling China's political growth. Three times he met Stalin behind Churchill's back, saying that British participation in the talks at that phase would be "premature". Needless to say, Churchill had applied the same tactics; although he declared sympathy for the Americans, he still identified certain problems that he would better discuss with Stalin face to face.

Political problems were organically interleaved with the issues of grand strategy. This was true, for example, in case of Turkey. Churchill nursed hopes that Turkey's declaration of war on Germany, and entry of the Turkish forces to the Balkans, would substantially alter strategic situation, and particularly favourably for the British imperial interests. Stalin and Roosevelt were skeptical about it. Nevertheless, Churchill did not spare efforts to pursue his objectives, and soon after the conference in Teheran he met Turkish politicians, who came for informal talks to Cairo. There Sir Winston, bringing up thereto support, demanded that Turkey entered war no later than on 15 February 1944. The Turks argued that the support was inadequate, falling short behind what was promised, and as the condition of entry to the war they put forward a general plan of rearmament of the entire Turkish army. All those demands just had floored the problem, since assessment of the needs of the Turkish army, means of transportation and the state of communications in Turkey led to the conclusion that such an operation would be stretched in time and would engage huge resources, badly needed in Italy and France. So, it was an impossible condition. Churchill tried to argue and threat, but to no avail, and so, it was not until 23 February 1945 that Turkey formally declared war on Germany.

Another important question, discussed in Teheran, was the future of Germany. That question was put forward during bi- and tri-lateral official meetings and informal parties. Roosevelt had spoken in that matter a lot; Churchill did not lag behind, but it was Stalin, whose word weighted most. If appropriate measures are not applied - he warned his Western partners - Germany will rise within 15 years and menace world peace again.

Churchill and Roosevelt did not question that estimation. They argued that the Allies' basic goal was to weaken Germany so much that it would not be able to unleash another war ever. Yet, while there was no discord in that basic matter, there were differences in the way the Big Three saw its practical implementation.

According to Stalin, it could be achieved by depriving Germany of the territories east to the River Oder. Roosevelt proposed his own theory; in essence, it foresaw Germany's disintegration and bringing it back to the pre-1871 arrangement. According to him, there had to be created five German states, self-governing and independent one from another: Prussia (territorially reduced), Hannover (with north-western territories), Saxony (with Leipzig), Hesse (including Darmstadt, Kassel and Westphalia), and Bavaria (including Baden-Wurttemberg). Moreover, Roosevelt planned to exclude three territories completely from the Reich: Kiel with the Kiel Canal, Hamburg, as well as the basins of the Ruhr and the Saar. They had to be administrated either by the Three Powers, or the United Nations, or an authority representing united Europe.

Yet, the Teheran Conference did not bring any decision concerning partition of Germany. Stalin opposed such plans on the grounds that there were no clear criteria nor methods of such partition, as well as no guarantees of it lasting in the post-war world. Eventually, it was decided that the issue would be passed to the European Advisory Commission in London for further studies and recommendations.

The third important political talk, after Turkey and Germany, was the question of Poland. After the failure of the efforts for reconciliation between the Polish government in exile in London and the government of the Soviet Union, Churchill came to Teheran with a defined plan of action: he wanted to work out a common, for all three powers, position regarding the Polish question, and then, having support of the decision of such a weight, convince prime-minister Stanisław Mikołajczyk to accept it, as a preliminary condition for normalization of Polish-Soviet relations. So, in Teheran he acted accordingly. On 28 November he presented to Stalin proposals to shift Polish western border to the River Oder, and establish the eastern border along so-called Curzon Line, leaving Lvov east of that line. Stalin received those proposals without expressing any opinion.

Roosevelt originally did not show interest in the Polish matter; it was not until the last day of the conference that he spoke about it in a private conversation with Stalin, without Churchill. He put the matter openly and bluntly: the next presidential election in the USA was only a year away, and he could not make any public declarations on these issues; there were six or seven million Poles living in America and as a practical man he did not want to lose their votes. However, he expressed clearly that he had been in agreement with Stalin in the question of Poland, and accepted its borders along the Oder in the west and the Curzon Line in the east, although under the political circumstances he had not been at liberty to take an active part in discussions over the Polish question. Consequently, he was not able to become a part to any agreement or declaration dealing with the practical aspects of the Polish question.

As he made that statement, Roosevelt mentioned some unspecified modifications to the Curzon Line, but later he did not come back to the problem of the borders. Instead, he put forward the problem of restoring diplomatic relations between the USSR and Mikołajczyk's government. Churchill supported him in that matter. Stalin reacted with an outburst of criticism against the stance of the Polish government in exile, but did not downright dismiss the possibility of negotiations if the Polish government changed its policy towards the USSR.

After that came the turn to discuss the details of the issue of the borders. Churchill was elated. He said that the Poles would swap Pripet Marshes for fertile land, and acquire a broad access to the sea - over 300 miles of coast. Should they reject that project, they would prove they were crazy. He had announced that upon his return to London he would explain to Mikołajczyk that if it had not been for the Red Army, Poland would be completely annihilated. Later he also wrote to Roosevelt and his foreign minister, Sir Anthony Robert Eden, about the Poles' particular duty before the European nations - to guard the Oder line from renewed German expansion towards Russia. They had to brace for that duty in name of European powers, which had saved Poland twice.

The conference was slowly coming to its end. There were more discussions over the future of Germany, and shortly before the end Churchill announced his formula in the Polish question. It was the programme of rebuilding the Polish statehood, within the borders defined by the Curzon Line in the east and the River Oder in the west, and multi-directional shifts of population in order to furnish post-war Poland's uniform ethnic composition.

Roosevelt had made no comments about that proposal. Stalin was ready to accept it if the USSR would be given a "piece of Germany", namely the northern piece of East Prussia with Konigsberg. The Russians have no ice-free ports on the Baltic Sea. Therefore the Russians need the ports of Konigsberg and Memel, said Stalin. If the English agree to transfer to us this territory we will agree to the formula proposed by Churchill. He also put forward arguments of moral nature. Then he took a red pencil and sketched proposed borders on the map. Roosevelt did not comment on that, while Churchill said he would study the proposal. He hinted that he would consider it as the basis for further discussion with the Poles. After all, few months later he indeed relieved his partners from Teheran as he came up with a comprehensive argumentation in favour of the Soviet position regarding Konigsberg and East Prussia.

Closing the Polish question elated Churchill. There was achieved the preliminary agreement in the question of the borders. Stalin did not refuse to resume relations with Mikołajczyk's government. To Churchill that was a step forward in the Polish question; a step that would open the way to restoring diplomatic relations between the Soviet government and the Polish government in exile.

So ended the first, great in its significance, conference of the Big Three of the Second World War. Teheran past to the history; it opened a new chapter of the Second World War. There were made first decisions, which shaped political and strategic realities of the next months and years. There were made first decisions, which still shape, despite of repetitive attempts of some inconsiderate politicians to revise them, political realities of our days.

On 7 December 1943 were published documents of the Teheran conference, including the Declaration of the Three Powers. According to Roosevelt's biographer Robert E. Sherwood, that declaration was the most refreshing one in the whole war. The declaration addressed the world with words bringing relief to the conquered and occupied nations, words spelling the verdict of History, and breaking the enemy's will to fight:

No power on earth can prevent our destroying the German armies by land, their U Boats by sea, and their war plants from the air.

Our attack will be relentless and increasing.

And its final words resounded like a solemn magic spell:

We came here with hope and determination. We leave here, friends in fact, in spirit and in purpose.