Here, for the first time, the leaders of the Grand Alliance met face-to-face to shape the future of the postwar world.
For years, Franklin D. Roosevelt had pressed Joseph Stalin for a meeting. The Soviet leader had been invited to join the president and Winston Churchill at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943 but, still upset that the Western Allies had not launched a second front in Europe, Stalin refused. He also turned down an offer to join the others at the Cairo Conference in November, saying he could not travel far from home while his country faced the might of the German army. Roosevelt was eventually forced to concede to the Soviet leader’s demand that the three men meet in Teheran, where Stalin felt safe within the Soviet embassy’s compound. On November 28, Roosevelt and Stalin met for the first time.
Stalin had an advantage in the Teheran negotiations. Because the Americans had accepted his invitation to stay in the Soviet compound, NKVD agents could bug their rooms. Throughout the conference, Stalin’s agents listened to every word the Americans said and gave him daily updates, though it is almost certain the Americans knew they were being recorded.
In the first meeting of the Big Three, Stalin surprised his allies by pledging that the Soviet Union would join the war against Japan–after Germany had been defeated. Later that night, Churchill and British foreign secretary Anthony Eden talked to Stalin about one of the most controversial issues between them: the future shape of Poland. The Soviets had seized nearly half of Poland as part of a deal with the Nazis in 1939, and now, as they fought their way west, they wanted it back. Churchill agreed to let them have it, but wanted to compensate the Poles by giving them part of Germany, shifting Poland more than a hundred miles west. To illustrate the idea for Stalin, Churchill placed matchsticks on a map of Europe to designate the proposed Polish border. The British hoped that by giving Stalin the territory he coveted in eastern Poland, he might be more willing to allow an independent Polish government. By the end of the war, Churchill’s matchstick line would indeed roughly become the new border between Germany and Poland.
“That’s what we won’t forget ever. How was it possible that even before the war ended somebody else was already deciding about the Polish borders?”– Wieslaw Wolwowicz, Polish 2nd Corps
At the Teheran conference , the Soviets again tried to persuade the Western Allies, in vain, to launch an immediate invasion of France to take the pressure off the Soviet Union. Throughout the USSR, civilians and soldiers alike were suffering and developing an immense desire for revenge. Behind the closed doors of the Soviet compound, Stalin demonstrated to the western leaders his own desire for revenge by suggesting over dinner one night that at least fifty thousand and perhaps one hundred thousand of the German Commanding Staff should be shot after the war. Churchill objected, saying the British parliament and public would never tolerate mass executions, while Roosevelt tried to diffuse the atmosphere by joking that only forty-nine thousand Germans should be executed, no more.