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Western Front28th November 1943

Tehran Conference begins

The first meeting of the 'Big Three' - Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill
The first meeting of the 'Big Three' - Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill

In the popular consciousness, the most famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) conference of the Second World War was the ‘Big Three’ meeting held at Yalta in the Crimea in February 1945. But, at the time, it seemed obvious that it was the first encounter of Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill in Tehran in November 1943 that was far more important. Indeed, one reading of Yalta is that it is simply a footnote to Tehran. It was at Tehran that most of the fundamental decisions about the future of the post-war world were made.

In order to understand the events of Tehran, it’s vital to appreciate the importance of the timing of the conference – at a moment when it was obvious to the Western leaders that the Soviets had held the Germans and were winning the war in the East. As Andrew Roberts says, by the time of Tehran it’s ‘clear that Stalin is not somebody who’s about to be pushed off, but instead is going to be commander of the army that finally takes Berlin. And so as a result you can plot the increased respect and time that Roosevelt and Churchill have for Stalin on the map of the eastern front.’

And this ‘increased respect and time’ that the Western Allies had for Stalin would bear very tangible results for the Soviet leader at Tehran. Not least because some fundamental aspects of British and American policy had now changed in the face of the Soviet success on the battlefield. In January 1942, for example, Churchill had written that Stalin’s demand that the Soviet Union be allowed to keep the territory of eastern Poland which the Red Army had occupied at the time of the Nazi-Soviet pact was completely unacceptable. These lands, said Churchill, ‘were acquired by acts of aggression in shameful collusion with Hitler.’i Moreover, Churchill declaimed in a rousing conclusion to his note to Anthony Eden, the British Foreign Secretary, ‘…there must be no mistake about the opinion [of] any British Government of which I am the head; namely, that it adheres to those principles of freedom and democracy set forth in the Atlantic Charter and these principles must become especially active whenever any question of transferring territory is raised.’

But now, at Tehran, Churchill was to reverse his policy completely and suggest to Stalin that the Soviets should indeed keep the very territory which they had ‘acquired by acts of aggression in shameful collusion with Hitler’. The deal Churchill proposed was that Stalin should absorb eastern Poland into the Soviet Union whilst the Poles were to be compensated with lands on their western border taken from Germany. Poland, Churchill told Stalin, would thus ‘move westwards, like soldiers taking two steps close.’ii

Churchill knew that the future of post-war Poland was of vital political importance to the Soviets. As the Russian historian, Dr Kirill Anderson puts it: ‘Poland was a very sensitive question for Stalin. His perception of Poland and the Polish nation was influenced by his experience from Czarist Russia, when Poland was – from the Russian point of view – a catalyst of conflicts in Europe. The relationship between Poland and Russia was quite complicated. And for Stalin his position towards Poland was influenced by the 1920 war when Soviet Russia was defeated by Poland. This was even more complicated by the fact that from the civil war till the 1930s Poland was a base for many anti-Soviet armed activities. Stalin couldn’t get the same division of Poland as it was during the time of Catherine II but at least he could limit Poland’s power. Stalin didn’t trust Poland. And the Poles weren’t particularly fond of Russia. All this has long and complicated roots in the history of the relationship between these two countries.’

So, essentially, by the time of Tehran, Churchill and Roosevelt had to choose which of their allies – Poland or the Soviet Union – they would support. Stalin, in particular, had made it clear that this was a question on which he would not compromise. But, as Churchill had written himself back in January 1942, to agree with Stalin on the transfer of Polish territory was most certainly to breach the conditions of the Atlantic Charter – a document that both he and President Roosevelt had signed.

But, ultimately, the Poles were to be sacrificed. And whilst the fundamental reason for Churchill’s action may well have been, as Professor Anita Prażmowska, says, ‘British dependence on the Soviet Union’, there were also other considerations in the mind of the British Prime Minister. Churchill ‘always feels that if he could get round the table with Stalin things could be sorted out,’ says Professor David Reynolds. ‘Not necessarily easily, but they could be sorted out. And he develops, and most of the British and Americans have it, this sort of dichotomous view of what’s going on in Moscow. They have no idea how Kremlin politics work, but they gradually come to the view that Stalin is a kind of moderate, somebody willing to reach out to the West, and around him there are these shadowy figures, they don’t quite know who they are, but they’re the hard-liners, they’re the Mr Nasties. Molotov’s probably one of them and they have this amazing belief that Molotov is an independent figure, whereas in fact we now know that he’s basically under Stalin’s thumb all the time… It’s very hard for 21st Century people to imagine how little we knew about Russia in the Second World War, but it’s against that background of ignorance that we have to understand the way Churchill and Roosevelt both reach out to Stalin as... something human in an insane, dark and inhuman country…They’re completely wrong. But that’s what they are putting their money on.’

Of course, it was also extremely ‘convenient’ for the British and Americans to now believe that somehow Stalin was a ‘moderate’ holding back more sinister forces at the Kremlin. And equally, in the same vein, the British and Americans snatched at any sign they could that, somehow, the Soviet regime was ‘changing’ for the better. ‘Many people in the centre and left,’ says Professor Reynolds, ‘and this would certainly include Roosevelt, feel that what you’re seeing developing in the Soviet Union is gradually the movement towards something that will eventually become more like a socialist or social democratic state - maybe in another few decades. So Roosevelt’s view is let’s assist the process. The real problem is not Soviet revolutionary zeal it’s Soviet insecurity and paranoia, the old sort of Russian thing: are we part of Europe or not? So bring them in from the cold, satisfy their insecurities, talk to Stalin, show that we’re treating them as partners, don’t give the impression that the British and the Americans are ganging up, that’s Roosevelt’s inclination.’

It’s certainly the case that Roosevelt went to Tehran determined to form a personal relationship with Stalin at this, their first face to face meeting. As Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s close adviser, said to Lord Moran just before the conference began: ‘Harry tells me,’ wrote Lord Moran in his diary, ‘the President is convinced that even if he cannot convert Stalin into a good democrat he will be able to come to a working agreement with him. After all, he had spent his life managing men. And Stalin at the bottom could not be so very different from other people.’iii

And in pursuit of this desire to ‘handle’ Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt took great pains that when he met the Soviet leader for the first time it was without Churchill. Then later at the conference the American President deliberately belittled the British Prime Minister in front of Stalin. It was thus obvious to everyone at the conference just how much Roosevelt wanted to get on with Stalin.

Roosevelt was also prepared to accept that Stalin could take eastern Poland at the end of the war, though, significantly, he only told the Soviet leader this news privately, since there was a Presidential election coming up the following year and Roosevelt clearly did not want to alienate the Polish-American vote.

The brutal reality was that far from being overly concerned about the exact boundaries of Eastern Europe at the end of the war, the American President had other priorities on his mind at Tehran. And one of the most important was persuading Stalin that the Soviet Union – currently neutral in the war against the Japanese – should change policy and come into the fight once the war against the Germans was won.

‘At Tehran and at Yalta’ says Professor Robert Dallek, ‘Roosevelt wants a commitment from Stalin to bring Soviet forces into the war against Japan. Because the assumption is that there is a million man Japanese army in Manchuria and that if the United States has to invade the Japanese home islands, which was the expectation, the fear was the Japanese could transfer most of that million man army from Manchuria to Japan and then, of course, cause terrible casualties for the American invaders. So if the Russians come into the war and tie down the Japanese forces in Manchuria it could make a huge difference to the United States military.’

But Roosevelt wasn’t just seeking practical assistance from Stalin in the form of military assistance in the war against Japan. The American President also wanted Stalin to commit to his idea of a post-war United Nations. And in pursuit of these two aims – one practical in the form of help against Japan, and one visionary in the shape of the formation of the UN – the American President was prepared to concede a great deal. Not least, the future boundaries of the territory of another, much less powerful, ally – Poland.

‘It’s certainly true that Churchill and Roosevelt turned their backs on Polish national interests,’ says Professor Robert Service, ‘and they did so because they needed the Soviet Union involved in the war effort, and they quietly and confidentially decided that leaving Stalin with the lands that he’d taken from the pre-war Polish state was the price that had to be paid. And one can see why Poles today continue to look on this as a betrayal, when you consider the number of Polish airmen who fought in the Battle of Britain, crucial elements in Britain’s self defence.’

Thus what the Tehran Conference demonstrated, more than anything else, was the expedient nature of British and American politics. Yes, the noble principles of the Atlantic Charter were all very well, but in a fight against political necessity they stood little chance of survival.


i Message from Churchill to Eden dated 8th January 1942, PREM 3/399/7, National Archives, Kew
ii Record of Conversation between the Prime Minister and Marshal Stalin at Tehran on 28th November 1943, PREM 3/136/8, p. 9, National Archives, Kew
iii Entry for 28 November 1943 in Lord Moran, Winston Churchill: The Struggle for Survival, 1940-1965, Heron Books, 1966