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Eureka Conference: The “Big Three” Butt Heads For the First Time in Tehran

Shortly after the Quadrant Conference in August 1943, with the war now turning in favor of the Allies, President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill felt it urgent that they have a face-to-face “Big Three” summit with Soviet Premier Josef Stalin. Such a meeting had been suggested before, but Stalin kept postponing it, citing the dire military situation on the Eastern Front. Finally, in the fall of 1943, after much diplomatic to-ing and fro-ing, Stalin said that the only acceptable site for him outside the Soviet Union was Tehran. Roosevelt initially balked, worried that the distance and dearth of communications facilities would make it impossible to act upon legislation passed by Congress within the ten-day limit established by Congress. But Stalin held firm, and Roosevelt acquiesced. On Nov. 28, 1943, Eureka, the Tehran Conference and historic first meeting of the Big Three, began in the Soviet Embassy. Of all the topics discussed at Tehran the one that most loomed over it was Overlord: Deciding when it would take place and who would command.

“We knew at once that we were dealing with a highly intelligent man who spoke well and was determined to get what he wanted for Russia.”

For Roosevelt, and most members of the American and British delegations, this was their first encounter with Stalin. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. William Leahy, also chief of staff to the commander in chief, was the president’s top military adviser. In his autobiography, I Was There, Leahy wrote that during their first meeting with Stalin, “We knew at once that we were dealing with a highly intelligent man who spoke well and was determined to get what he wanted for Russia.”

Tehran Conference

Soviet Premier Josef Stalin, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the Tehran Conference. The meeting was held in Tehran because it was the only acceptable meeting site for Stalin outside of the Soviet Union. George C. Marshall Foundation photo

The subject of Overlord came up front and center at 4 p.m. on the second day of the conference. Stalin demanded the date be fixed, stating, “I don’t care if it is the 1st, 15th, or 20th, but a definite date is important.” Churchill, prevaricated, wanting a delay, offering as a reason his Mediterranean strategy. Stalin looked at him and bluntly asked, “Do you really believe in Overlord, or are you stalling on it to make us feel better?” Churchill, glowering at the challenge, assured Stalin that he was for the Normandy crossing and that “it would be the duty of the British government to hurl every scrap of strength across the Channel.” Discussions briefly turned to strategic plans in the Mediterranean, with Stalin calling operations in the eastern Mediterranean a waste of resources and dismissing any notion of Turkey entering the war on the side of the Allies.

Roosevelt leaned over to Leahy who was sitting beside him and whispered, “That old Bolshevik is trying to force me to give him the name of our Supreme Commander. I just can’t tell him because I have not yet made up my mind.”

Stalin then cornered Roosevelt, asking, “Who will command Overlord?” Though Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall, also at Tehran, was considered the front-runner for the command, Roosevelt replied, “It has not been decided.” Stalin dismissively stated, “Then nothing will come out of these operations.”

Roosevelt leaned over to Leahy who was sitting beside him and whispered, “That old Bolshevik is trying to force me to give him the name of our Supreme Commander. I just can’t tell him because I have not yet made up my mind.”

Tehran Conference

While at the Teheran Conference, President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited U.S. Army installations that were part of the Persian Gulf Service Command. He is seen here, seated in a jeep, speaking to Army troops at a camp near Teheran. Some of Roosevelt’s advisers believed that he was too trusting of Stalin. George C. Marshall Foundation photo

But Roosevelt knew the clock was now ticking. Though the date for Overlord of May 1, 1944, was confirmed at Tehran, in order to maintain credibility with Stalin, Roosevelt knew he had to name a commander soon.

“Roosevelt never made any great pretence at being a strategist. . . Winston, on the other hand, was far more erratic, brilliant at times but far too impulsive and inclined to favour quite unsuitable plans without giving them the preliminary deep thought they required.”

Gen. Sir Alan Brooke wrote his impressions of the Big Three in his Nov. 28, 1943 diary entry: “I rapidly grew to appreciate the fact that [Stalin] had a military brain of the very highest caliber. Never once in any of his statements did he make any strategic error, nor did he ever fail to appreciate all the implications of a situation with a quick and unerring eye. In this respect he stood out when compared with his two colleagues. Roosevelt never made any great pretence at being a strategist. . . Winston, on the other hand, was far more erratic, brilliant at times but far too impulsive and inclined to favour quite unsuitable plans without giving them the preliminary deep thought they required.”

Tehran Conference

Prime Minister Winston Churchill presents The Sword of Stalingrad to Soviet Premier Josef Stalin on behalf of King George VI during the Tehran Conference, Nov. 29, 1943. National Archives photo

Charles “Chip” Bohlen, a Soviet expert in the State Department, served as Roosevelt’s interpreter at Tehran and later at Yalta. In his autobiography, Witness to History, he wrote that though he felt that Eureka was the most successful of the Big Three conferences, there was much in it that troubled him. He believed that Roosevelt was being unrealistic in putting stock in the idea that American Lend-Lease largess and, especially his personal relationship, could woo Stalin. In a post-conference assessment memorandum to Averell Harriman, the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, Bohlen dolefully listed what he believed were Stalin’s postwar goals: the Soviet Union as “the only important military and political force on the continent” and the rest of Europe “reduced to military and political impotence.”

Less than a week after Eureka ended, Stalin had his answer: Gen. Dwight Eisenhower would command Overlord.

Less than a week after Eureka ended, Stalin had his answer: Gen. Dwight Eisenhower would command Overlord.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...