Tehran, Iran November 28, 1943

On November 27, 1943, U.S. President Frank­lin D. Roose­velt left Cairo for Tehran, Iran’s capi­tal. The Egyp­tian capi­tal had hosted two Western leaders, Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Win­ston Chur­chill, and Chi­nese Nationalist leader Gener­al­is­simo Chiang Kai-shek. The Cairo Con­fer­ence, code­named Sex­tant, was a feeder con­fer­ence to a weightier one with Soviet Pre­mier Joseph Stalin in Tehran. Apart from agreeing to con­struct long-dis­tance, heavy bomber bases in the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater (even­tually four were built in India and four in China) to support the war against Japan, the Cairo meeting foundered partly on Roose­velt’s opposi­tion to Chur­chill’s post­war aims for restoring British hegemony in her former Southeast Asian colonies.

Arriving separately in Tehran after a 1,300-mile flight, the two Western leaders met their Soviet counter­part on this date, Novem­ber 28, 1943. The Tehran Con­fer­ence, code­named Eureka, turned out to be the most signi­fi­cant and far-reaching top-level Allied talks on the Euro­pean war so far. For one thing it was first time the Big Three, accom­panied by their mili­tary chiefs of staff and polit­i­cal advi­sors, met together in the same loca­tion. Over the next three-and-a-half days each side presented its per­spec­tive on the pro­gress of the war against the Axis powers (prin­ci­pally Germany, Italy, and Japan), how to pro­se­cute the war to victory, what a post­war world might look like, and how to pro­tect the peace using an international organization as a postwar watchdog.

The following day, Novem­ber 29, Stalin was all ears when the two Western leaders and their mili­tary ad­visors dis­cussed Oper­a­tion Over­lord, the up­coming Anglo-Cana­dian-Amer­i­can air and sea inva­sion of North­west Europe. Still very much in the plan­ning stage, the inva­sion had no kick­off date. For months Stalin had nagged Roose­velt and Chur­chill to set a date. In theory a second front in Western Europe would relieve the im­mense pres­sure Axis forces were exerting on a thou­sand-mile front that stretched from the Soviet Union’s second largest city, Lenin­grad on the Baltic Sea, south to the Soviet Crimea on the Black Sea. Stalin was relieved the next day to learn that British and American staffs had settled on May 1944 as Overlord’s launch date.

On December 1, 1944, the last day of talks, the Big Three had to confront the ele­phant in the room: the fates of post­war Germany and Poland. The leaders shared a consen­sus that Germany must be divided among the victors to neu­tra­lize that nation’s abil­ity to wage war a third time. Over time the agreed-on divi­sions coalesced around a West Germany, consisting of former British, Amer­i­can, and French zones, and an East Germany con­sisting of the former Soviet zone. In October 1990 the two Germanys became one. With Roose­velt self-imposed on the side­lines, Chur­chill and Stalin addressed the question of Poland, with Chur­chill seeking a fron­tier for­mula he could present to the London-based Polish govern­ment-in-exile. Poland, Chur­chill sug­gested, would have the Curzon Line in the east (the 1919 Curzon Line was a proposed border between Poland and the Soviet Union) and the Oder/­Neisse rivers in the west as fron­tiers, together with part of East Prussia. Stalin agreed when Chur­chill awarded the northern half of East Prussia to the Soviet Union. As a coda to the talks Stalin reas­sured Roose­velt and Chur­chill that the Red Army would enter the war against Japan after the con­clu­sion of the war in Europe. Thus, in just four days the Tehran Con­fer­ence for­ever shaped the future of Europe and the Asia Pacific.

“Big Three” Tehran Conference Shapes Europe’s Future

Big Three at Tehran Conference, November 28 to December 1, 1943

Above: The “Big Three” (left to right): Soviet Premier Marshal Joseph Stalin, Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt, and British Prime Mini­ster Winston Chur­chill on the por­tico of the Soviet embassy during the Tehran Con­fer­ence (Novem­ber 28 to Decem­ber 1, 1943) to dis­cuss the Euro­pean Thea­ter of war in 1943. Chur­chill is shown in the uni­form of a Royal Air Force air commo­dore. Mili­tary issues domi­nated the talks. The Tehran Con­fer­ence was the most impor­tant of the Allies’ top-level war­time meetings, including Yalta (Janu­ary 30 to Febru­ary 3, 1945) and Pots­dam (July 17 to August 2, 1945), the latter meeting taking place after Victory in Europe Day (VE-Day, May 8, 1945) but before Victory over Japan Day (VJ-Day, August 15, 1945). The Allied leaders and their mili­tary and polit­ical staffs dis­cussed the course of the war and its polit­ical conse­quences, which assumed increasing impor­tance as the pros­pect of victory over Germany and its allies began to seem more likely. Stalin at last got a commit­ment from his Anglo-Amer­i­can allies to mount a major inva­sion of German-occupied France in mid-May 1944. When it actu­ally hap­pened in June 1944, the cross-channel assault relieved con­sid­er­able pres­sure on the Red Army at a time when the Wehr­macht (German armed forces) was being hammered by Soviet mili­tary and parti­san assets prac­tically every­where on the Eastern Front (Operation Bagration).

Tehran Conference: Sword of Stalingrad presentationEisenhower and Roosevelt, Tunis, December 7, 1943

Left: At the Soviet embassy in Tehran on Novem­ber 29, 1943, Chur­chill’s dele­ga­tion watched the prime minis­ter, in the name of King George VI, present the Sword of Stalin­grad to the city’s name­sake. Chur­chill is visi­ble to the left of the raised sword. The ornate silver, gold, and crystal cere­monial sword repre­sented a tribute to “the steel-hearted people of Stalin­grad” and the cli­matic victory there over the Axis armies, one of war’s turning points in 1943. Chur­chill enjoyed a little word play with the phrase “steel-hearted peo­ple of Stalin­grad,” for “Stalin,” the name adopted by the Soviet leader and the name he gave to the resil­ient city on the Volga River, means “man of steel” in English.

Right: After the successful conclu­sion of the Tehran Con­fer­ence, Roose­velt, Chur­chill, and their staffs stra­te­gized a second time in the Egyp­tian capi­tal (Decem­ber 2–7, 1943). On an excur­sion to the Sphinx, Roose­velt asked Chur­chill if Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower, who had com­manded the Allied forces that had expelled the Axis armies from North Africa (Oper­a­tion Torch) and Sicily (Oper­a­tion Husky), would be accept­able to him as Supreme Com­man­der of the Allied Expe­di­tionary Force in Europe. Chur­chill said it was Roose­velt’s deci­sion but that the British would gladly sup­port Eisen­hower. Saying goodbye to the prime minis­ter, Roose­velt flew to Tunis, North Africa. There he met Eisen­hower. After the two men had climbed into a staff car, Roose­velt turned to the general and said, “Well, Ike, you are going to command Overlord.”

Contemporary British Newsreel Reporting on the Tehran Conference