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The Trident Conference

Gen. George C. Marshall's victories during and after

With North Africa liberated and plans for Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, on track, the question confronting the United States and Great Britain was: What’s next? That was the subject of the Trident Conference, the third Anglo-American strategic conference, held in Washington, D.C., from May 12 to May 25, 1943.

Despite public pronouncements of common strategic purpose between America and Great Britain and within each nation’s military, the truth was different. In George C. Marshall: Organizer of Victory 1943-1945, the third book of his four-volume biography of Marshall, Forrest C. Pogue wrote that regarding the conferences, “In actuality one finds the Americans against the British, the Army and Air Forces against the Navy, and the Navy against MacArthur, with Marshall attempting to find a solution somewhere between.”

Though Trident meetings of the Combined Chiefs became tense at times, they did not achieve the acrimonious levels of later gatherings. After a certain amount of horse-trading, consensus was reached on all the issues. Most importantly Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall got what he wanted – British agreement to a target date of May 1, 1944, for Overlord – and the British got what they wanted – American agreement for post-Sicily operations against Italy.

Trident Conference

President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill in the presidential limousine following Churchill’s arrival in Washington, D.C. for the Trident Conference, May 1943. Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library photo

On May 21, the Combined Chiefs presented their results to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In his diary, Gen. Sir Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff, wrote, “We spent about 1½ hours listening to PM [prime minister – Churchill] and President [Roosevelt] holding forth on strategy and shivering lest either of them should suddenly put their fat foot right into it and reopen some of the differences which we had reconciled with such difficulty! … Thank heaven we got through it safely!” Brooke spoke too soon. Three days later, he wrote in despair that Churchill “wished to repudiate half” of the agreement “which would have crashed the whole” agreement. Fortunately, Roosevelt’s adviser, Harry Hopkins, was able to get the prime minister to withdraw his revisions and only do minor rewording of some text.

But Churchill wasn’t finished. Concerned over the vaguely worded section about invading Italy, on May 25 he announced that he planned to visit Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower at his Allied Force Headquarters in Algiers to discuss the subject. To allay well-founded American suspicions of browbeating, the prime minister suggested Roosevelt let Marshall accompany him, in effect, making him Eisenhower’s guardian angel. Roosevelt readily agreed.

“Your message has my approval as well as Churchill’s.”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt to Gen. George C. Marshall, May 31, 1943

The decision threw Marshall’s plans of a short vacation and an overdue inspection trip of the Pacific theaters out the window. Secretary of War Henry Stimson saw Churchill’s suggestion for what it was. Writing in his diary, he accused Churchill of taking “Marshall along with him in order to work on him to yield on some of the points that Marshall has held out on in regard to the Prime Minister’s desired excursions in the eastern Mediterranean. …” Churchill wanted to invade the Dodecanese Islands off Turkey’s coast; Marshall said no. The battle lines were drawn – a fight Marshall was determined to avoid.

Trident Conference

President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill at Shangri-La, the presidential retreat in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains, during an interlude in the Trident Conference, mid-May 1943. Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library photo

As Churchill, Marshall, and their entourage boarded the flying boat Bristol on May 26 for their two-day, 17-hour, transatlantic flight, only one item remained outstanding: sending a communiqué summarizing Trident to Soviet premier Josef Stalin. In an unusual case of writer’s block, neither Roosevelt nor Churchill was able to compose a document that satisfied them. Marshall saw an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: running down the clock while performing a useful service. Two hours into the first leg flight to Nova Scotia, he handed Churchill the results. Churchill was impressed.

In Hinge of Fate, part four of his six-volume account of World War II, Churchill wrote, “Hitherto I had thought of Marshall as a rugged soldier and a magnificent organizer and builder of armies – the American Carnot. But now I saw that he was a statesman with a penetrating and commanding view of the whole scene.” He endorsed it unchanged and forwarded the draft to Roosevelt. Roosevelt made a few minor changes and sent the communiqué to Stalin.

The following day, on the second leg flight from Nova Scotia to Gibraltar, after Churchill had finished his paperwork, the moment Marshall dreaded had come. Churchill wanted to talk strategy. Instead, Marshall sidetracked him by getting the prime minister to talk about historical events, starting with the trial of Warren Hastings, a governor-general of India. Pogue wrote, “Always a historian and lecturer at heart, Churchill rose to the bait.” Once that topic had been exhausted, Marshall asked him about Nazi leader Rudolf Hess’s flight to Scotland in May 1941. And, when that subject was exhausted, he queried Churchill about his role in King Edward VIII’s abdication.

Marshall had won yet again; Churchill never did get around to badgering the general about strategy.

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