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  • James Houser

November 28, 1943 - The Tehran Conference

Updated: Jun 17, 2021

November 28, 1943. The last guests have arrived in Tehran, the capital of Iran, and the great conference is about to begin. For the first of only two times in history, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin are about to meet face-to-face to coordinate Allied strategy in World War II. These three men who hold the world in their hands are trying to defeat the Axis, so they agree on everything, right? Of course not.

While the Allies certainly had a lot of things on their side – industry, naval supremacy, manpower, resources, not being racist and murderous nightmare-states (well, most of them) – it certainly didn’t hurt that the Allied leaders were able to sit down and talk to each other like adults. It also didn’t hurt that they could at least pretend to be equals. It’s hard to imagine Hitler treating any other world leader as an equal, or even an “ally”: in the Nazi leader’s hierarchical mind, you were either on the top or on the bottom. Most of Germany’s Axis allies in Europe were treated as little better than vassals, with even Italy (ostensibly an equal partner in the Axis) taking a backseat to German priorities by 1941. Japan, of course, had few friends and never really bothered to coordinate World War II strategy with its Axis partners. To put it bluntly: the Allies had the ability to function as team players. The Axis did not.

When it comes to coordinating strategy, though, even team players can disagree. This is especially the case when everyone wants to beat the bad guy but they also want things out of the loot chest, if you get my meaning. And they don’t even agree on HOW to defeat the bad guy. Should we use a spell, or all huddle around and stab him? Should we launch a sneak attack, or go on a full frontal attack? And WHY does that one guy keep saying we should throw poison potions at him?

Yes, this is a dumb video game analogy. But it gets at the heart of the thing: not only did the Allies disagree on HOW to beat Germany and Japan, but on what would happen AFTER the war was over. Let’s look at our major actors, shall we?

The United Kingdom of Great Britain, led throughout (most of) World War II by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, is a small island state with an enormous Empire and numerous Dominions all over the world. To Britain, maintaining dominance over the sea lanes was a priority, and this especially meant control in the Mediterranean. Churchill’s pet project throughout World War II was to try and focus Allied attention on the Mediterranean, and he kept proposing projects for invasions in Italy, the Balkans, and the Middle East – to the constant frustration of the Americans. Churchill was also a strong opponent of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe; he had been a stalwart anti-Communist crusader for his whole career, and deeply distrusted Stalin. This was his other reason for proposing Mediterranean operations: to shore up anti-Communist control in the event of victory. In short, Churchill wanted a safe Europe and prioritized the RIGHT end to the war.

The United States of America, led by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, didn’t give a fig for Britain’s Empire. The United States was far more concerned with the shape of postwar Asia, particularly China, and at least under Roosevelt was strongly opposed to the imperial projects of the European powers. Roosevelt did not share Churchill’s cynical suspicions of Stalin and the Soviets, but still insisted on democratic rights for the peoples of Europe. The American President was a global idealist, with a vision of a United Nations that could bring together the peoples of the world and realize liberal democracy for the globe. If anything, Roosevelt had a “Star Trek” vision of the future, which was entirely at odds with Stalin’s and Churchill’s cynical realpolitik. Roosevelt’s military advisors were dead set against Mediterranean adventures, and believed that only an overwhelming blow against Germany on mainland Europe – an invasion of France – could achieve decisive results against the Wehrmacht. In short, Roosevelt wanted a democratic Europe and prioritized a quick end to the war.

The Soviet Union, led by Premier Joseph Stalin, was the most cynical of the three players. Stalin was extremely good at playing the simple peasant, the humble populist leader of backwards Russia to people who expected to see that. Beneath this visage he was calculating, shrewd, and utterly ruthless. Stalin was well aware that the Red Army had already turned the tide against Germany on the Eastern Front, and was ready to exploit the fact that Russia was carrying the burden of the war. Stalin’s long-term goal for the war was to build a series of buffer states along his western border and to push that buffer as far as it could go. These buffer states, unlike the current nations, had to be controlled by the Soviet Union to prevent capitalist interference. Stalin knew of Churchill’s suspicion and believed – rightly – that Churchill would be his mortal enemy if Hitler hadn’t intervened.

More than anything, though, the Soviet Union wanted full-scale Western Allied intervention on the European continent. The vast majority of the German Wehrmacht was engaged with the Red Army, and an Allied invasion would remove a significant portion of this pressure. The Allied air campaign was causing significant damage to the German economy, and had more or less neutered the Luftwaffe in the process, but this was not enough. Only the “second front” of a full-scale Allied invasion could place the full weight of American industry against the Germans, squeezing them from the west as the Soviets did from the east. American diplomats joked that the Soviets only knew how to say three things in English: “yes,” “no,” and “Second Front.” In short, Stalin wanted a Europe where the Soviet Union was as powerful as he could make it. If that meant enlisting the Western Allies to share some of the bloody toll, awesome. If that meant that Europe was crushed under the Communist heel, that was damn near the optimal outcome.

As Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt gathered at Tehran in November 1943, this was what each brought to the table. World War II had come to the point where the Allies were reasonably confident of victory, but it was far from accomplished. The Western Allies had flushed the Axis out of North Africa and had a small army fighting in Italy. The Soviets were still struggling to push the Nazis out of their territory in Ukraine and Belorussia; the Siege of Leningrad was still not broken. In the Pacific, the Americans had just landed on Tarawa but were thousands of miles from being able to attack Japan directly. The tide had turned, but victory was still a long way away. How to gain victory – and get what each wanted in the process?

Churchill and Roosevelt had been close Allies for a long time, especially during those dark days of 1940 when Britain stood alone against the Nazis. Roosevelt, unable to persuade an isolationist nation to join the war against Hitler, had stretched his executive orders to the limit to get Churchill resources to continue the war. Ever since America had entered the war, though, their relationship had grown a bit frostier. It was increasingly clear to Churchill that America’s plans for the postwar world had no real place for the British Empire, and as time went on America began more and more to put Britain in its shadow. The British were becoming dependent on American resources, men, and money, and this put Churchill in a sour mood. Between the United States and the Soviet Union, Great Britain might end up being edged out of the global power struggle altogether.

Back at Casablanca, in January 1943, Churchill and Roosevelt had agreed that the invasion of Sicily – and possibly Italy – would follow victory in the ongoing North African Campaign. Roosevelt’s military advisors, especially General George C. Marshall, were furious; they had pinned their hopes on launching the invasion of France in 1943. We now know that any such invasion would probably have been too early and could have been an outright disaster; Churchill, who always favored a Mediterranean strategy, viewed this as a significant victory. It would be the last time that Britain exercised such a dominant role in strategic calculus within the Alliance. The growing numbers of American resources would give them an increasingly more powerful hand in the direction of the war, and Tehran was where this supremacy became fully apparent.

Tehran, the capital of Iran, was ideally placed for the first meeting of the Big Three. It was on the way from Cairo – where Churchill, Roosevelt and China’s Chiang Kai-shek had met earlier from November 22 to 26 – and a (very) long train ride down from Moscow. It was also chosen because Stalin hated air travel, and Roosevelt’s disabled condition made too much travel difficult. Shortly after Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Iran had been peacefully, jointly, but not consensually occupied by Britain and the Soviets, and its ruling Shah forced to abdicate. This was due to Iran’s importance as a supply line from British-occupied Iraq and India into the southern reaches of Soviet territory. As the new Shah squirmed under the Allied occupation, they made him comfortable but didn’t go out of their way to reassure him.

The Tehran Conference was set to begin on November 28, 1943, but even before it started maneuvering had begun. Both the British and Soviet embassies in Tehran were extensive complexes due to Russia’s close proximity and Britain’s worldwide influence, but the United States – just on the cusp of becoming a global force – had only a small legation in Tehran. Both the British and the Soviets offered to let the ailing Roosevelt stay at their embassies, but Roosevelt declined, since staying with either one would give the impression that he favored them. Roosevelt settled into the less comfortable lodgings at the American legation when he arrived on November 27, and the Allies initially agreed that the Conference would be held there in order to save Roosevelt the strain of constant travel. But no one had reckoned on the Soviets.

Several days prior to Tehran, the Soviets had warned Roosevelt’s security chief that there was a possible German plot to assassinate the Big Three during the Conference. This threat was initially discounted, but at midnight on November 27 Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov informed the other Allies that the plot seemed credible and urged that Roosevelt be moved to safer quarters in either the British or Soviet embassy. The result was that Roosevelt was moved to the Soviet embassy. The President agreed to this move because he wanted to gain direct access to Stalin and build a working relationship, but there is plenty of evidence that the German plot was exaggerated by Stalin in order to get Roosevelt within the Soviet embassy where it would be easier to bug his rooms and spy on his private conversations. The German commando leader Otto Skorzeny later confirmed that the idea had been discussed but Hitler had decided that it was impractical. But it certainly worked to Stalin’s advantage.

The Tehran Conference convened at 16:00 hours on November 28, 1943. Three sessions took place on the 28th, 29th, and 30th before the conclusions were announced on December 1. Roosevelt and Churchill had met many times, and Churchill and Stalin had met once in 1942, but this would be Roosevelt and Stalin’s first meeting. Stalin, who had not left the USSR since 1918, had all eyes on his behavior, and quickly impressed the Allied generals with his strategic mind.

Once Churchill arrived, the real conversations began. The first and most major negotiation, of course, was what the Allied strategy would be to bring the war to a conclusion. Stalin wanted his Second Front, and said that Overlord should be the main effort in 1944. He went on to call Italy a silly diversion and any Mediterranean operations that weren’t directed at France a boondoggle. Stalin declared that they should “Hit her where the distance to Berlin is the shortest. Don’t waste time, men or equipment on secondary fronts.” This was exactly what the Americans had been arguing for all along, especially U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall, whose strategic principles went along those lines. Marshall had ruffled Churchill badly at Cairo with his implacable insistence on Overlord, and Churchill’s mood darkened when he heard Stalin basically echoing every American argument for the invasion of France.

Stalin and Roosevelt, as it turned out, would use each other against Churchill in the course of this argument. Roosevelt turned up his spotlight of charm on Stalin, confident that it would work as it had on so many people; Stalin flattered Roosevelt and subtly denigrated the British. Stalin, at 5 feet 4 inches and wearing the uniform of a Red Army marshal, struck a humble, jokey tune – but his jokes carried hidden barbs.

As Roosevelt sought to placate Stalin, he irritated Churchill. On the 29th, he joked to Stalin that “Winston is cranky this morning, he got up on the wrong side of the bed.” When Stalin’s mouth quirked, Roosevelt thought he was on the right track and continued to tease Churchill about his Britishness and his cigar habits until Stalin actually broke out in a hearty laugh. Roosevelt believed that this meant he was making headway.

Roosevelt explained his behavior by saying that he was trying to melt the ice with Stalin by making common cause, saying to his Cabinet that “I had come to accommodate Stalin. I couldn’t stay in Tehran forever…I had to cut through this icy surface so that later…I could talk in a personal way.” He worried that by conferring with Churchill in English he would irritate Stalin by speaking in a language that they understood and he didn’t.

In all likelihood, though, Stalin was laughing for a different reason. He had expected the English-speakers to come to Tehran as a united front, and instead saw light between them. Any divisions between the British and Americans could be used to his advantage. Stalin’s rare smile was not because Roosevelt had made good jokes and helped him feel included, but because Roosevelt clearly wanted his aid against Churchill for some reason, and this was the lever the Soviets could use to pry the Allies apart.

Churchill was hard to shift and even harder to offend, but even he had limits. At a dinner conference on November 29, Stalin talked in a casual way about executing as many as 50,000 German officers so Germany could never plan another war. Roosevelt, still in a joking mood and assuming Stalin was joking, said mildly that “49,000 would be enough.” Churchill, however, was enraged, suspecting – rightly – that Stalin was only half-joking. He briefly stormed out of the room before Stalin retrieved him, chuckling and reassuring the Prime Minister that “was joke, yes?” (Not a direct quote.) Churchill pretended to be mollified, but deep down knew that Stalin had been feeling them out. As it turned out, many more than 50,000 Germans would die as prisoners of war in Stalin’s gulags.

Stalin dominated the three days of the Conference, openly playing up the Soviet victory at Stalingrad as proof that the USSR was winning the war against Hitler and continuing to badger the Allies for a second front. Before the same dinner mentioned above on November 29, Churchill made a ceremonial presentation to Stalin. The “Sword of Stalingrad,” a gift from King George VI, had been displayed around Britain before its presentation to the Soviet leader as a token of their appreciation for the Soviet sacrifice. Stalin took the sword and kissed the scabbard reverently, thanking the British for their splendid gift – then handed it to his military advisor, Klement Voroshilov, who promptly dropped it.

Speaking of Voroshilov…

During military conferences between the top Allied generals the next day, things had gotten heated. British Chief of Staff Sir Alan Brooke continued, at Churchill’s behest, to adamantly insist on continued operations in Italy, even at the expense of Overlord. When Brooke floated the idea of attacking the Greek island of Rhodes, American General Marshall groaned audibly. When Churchill had pitched this idea at Cairo, the result was one of the few times Marshall had ever lost his temper, insisting to a stricken Prime Minister that “Not one American soldier is going to die on that goddamned island!” Marshall was incredibly tired of British boondoggles in the Mediterranean.

But even Marshall had to come to Brooke’s defense when Voroshilov started to harangue the British Chief on the necessity of Overlord. One of the main points of debate was the need for scarce landing craft, which Brooke wanted to use in Italy and Marshall wanted to keep for Overlord. Voroshilov shrugged off the difficulties of an amphibious operation, stating that “We manage to find local resources to make rafts. Red Army men can use their initiative.” This is where Marshall had to step in and inform the Soviets that crossing the English Channel was a world apart from crossing the Don.

But the Americans, both civilian and military, successfully wielded the Soviets as a counterbalance to the British. By seeking to placate and include the Soviets in the conference, both President Roosevelt and General Marshall managed to twist the arm of their British counterparts and – finally – get a firm commitment to invade Europe sometime in May or June 1944. Operation Overlord would finally be a go, and already George Marshall was being talked about as its commander. Marshall, though, would turn it down despite his earnest desire to take the job; he knew that he was desperately needed at the Pentagon managing the war effort. So it was that the Supreme Commander of Overlord became the compromise candidate, General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

All this, and more, came across the desks of the political leaders and the generals. One big sticking point, of course, was the shape of postwar Europe. The future shape of Poland was a major point of discussion. The Western Allies and Stalin danced around the fact that Stalin had made a pact with Hitler before World War II, and in this pact he gained eastern Poland and the Baltic States. It became evident to Churchill and Roosevelt that Stalin had no intention of giving these territories back when the war was over. Churchill got Stalin to agree that they should compensate Poland for the loss of her eastern provinces by giving them chunks of Germany, including Pomerania and Silesia; Stalin agreed easily. No skin off his back; he intended to put a friendly Communist government in Warsaw, so it wasn’t like he was losing anything. On that note…

Roosevelt tried and failed to cope with Stalin’s onslaught of cheerful, quiet, but very serious demands. In the end, he only ended up wringing a promise from Stalin that “free and fair elections” would be held in the Baltic States and eastern Poland before they were joined to the Soviet Union. He must have felt sick. Everyone knew that Stalin had no intention of allowing these to happen. But Roosevelt needed the Polish-American vote in the cities for his reelection in 1944, and had to be seen to be doing SOMETHING – even when there was nothing he could really do.

On December 1, 1943, the Big Three sat together for news cameras. In a more private setting, though, they announced the Conference’s conclusions. Iran, the host of the Conference, had agreed to declare war on Germany in return for significant amounts of aid and a guarantee of sovereignty after the war. (Which was nice of the Allies, since they’d invaded and occupied Iran less than two years ago, which shows how good a guarantee of sovereignty is.)

On the military side, though, the Big Three formally agreed on minor Balkan and Near Eastern questions, in addition to an agreement to coordinate their plans. They settled on the lines of future Poland; Roosevelt, with his eye on reelection, notably signed nothing in relation to Poland. Finally and most critically, the cross-channel invasion of France would take place in May or June 1944, in conjunction with a great Soviet offensive (Operation Bagration) at or around the same time to place maximum pressure on the Germans. This was easily the most important decision to come out of the Tehran Conference.

But in the first great collision of the world’s three great Allied powers, it was Britain that lost the most and the Soviet Union that gained the most. Churchill’s effective sidelining, and their lack of resources compared to their two larger compatriots, meant that Britain’s claim to world power was very obviously on the decline. The two giants of the US and the USSR would become the new masters of the world, and the sun was finally beginning to set on the British Empire. The Soviet Union had seen possible fractures within the Western coalition, had gained their “Second Front,” and had successfully diverted any Allied interference in Eastern Europe for the time being. Stalin was quite pleased with the Tehran Conference, especially with the belief that he had played Churchill.

But the Americans had played Stalin just as well. By pretending to be sympathetic to the Soviets, they had presented the British with a choice of either diplomatic isolation or concurrence with the Overlord scheme. The British couldn’t go it alone anymore without American resources, and Tehran made them hyper-aware of this. One of the most important strategic decisions of World War II, the decision to undertake the invasion of France, the road to D-Day of all things, was made at Tehran with tactics more reminiscent of a high school lunchroom.

In a way, you never leave high school, after all.

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