Planning World War II – Part 2

The Allied war conferences

Churchill, President Truman and Joseph Stalin in a photo made early during the Potsdam Conference. Roosevelt died recently; Churchill would not be in the photo taken at the conference’s end. (Photo: NARA)

Churchill, President Truman and Joseph Stalin in a photo made early during the Potsdam Conference. Roosevelt died recently; Churchill would not be in the photo taken at the conference’s end. (Photo: NARA)

Our latest newsletter (Read our earlier article – Planning World War II – Part 1) walked through the history of the numerous Allied war conferences from before America’s entry into the war to the spring of 1943, the turning of the tide. This article will pick up from where we left off last time, and describe the high-level diplomatic planning that went into the second half of the war and the establishment of a new world order.
 
The war was starting to take one advantageous turn after the other for the Allies, but that did little good to the masses of fleeing or suffering civilians living in Axis-occupied lands. The Bermuda Conference between American and British delegations in April 1943 was hosted to aspect one specific part of that problem: the large number of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe. The conference was a total failure: U.S. immigration quotes remained the same, and the British prohibition on Jews emigrating to Mandatory Palestine stayed in place.
 
The Third Washington Conference (May 12-25, 1943) was held to capitalize on the defeat of Axis forces in North Africa. With Africa available as a jump-off point, Churchill convinced Roosevelt to endorse the invasion of Sicily, though the follow-up attack on Italy still remained in the air. The Normandy landings, originally planned for 1943, were postponed to May 1944 to gain time to build up supplies. Aid to the Republic of China against Japan was discussed, but the Allies could offer little other than air support.

Churchill and Roosevelt fishing between two sessions of the conference (Photo: FDR Presidential Library & Museum)
Churchill and Roosevelt fishing between two sessions of the conference (Photo: FDR Presidential Library & Museum)

The division of military supplies agreed on at the conference showed a clear shift in political and diplomatic dominance. Churchill usually had his way at previous meetings, but the Third Washington Conference proved that America was taking the lead role, forcing Britain to compromise on various issues. It could be argued that this conference was the first glimpse of the American dominance that would characterize the second half of the 20th century and the present day.

Roosevelt and Churchill met again in Canada at the First Quebec Conference in August 1943. The date for Operation Overlord, the long-awaited liberation of Normandy, was set for May 1, 1944, though an alternative plan, an invasion of Norway and Finland, was still in play in case German defenses in France proved too strong. Another matter of grave importance was also discussed in secret: the project to build an atomic bomb. By signing the Quebec Agreement, the U.S. and the U.K. agreed to pool their resources for the project, and also to not use nuclear weapons against each other or against a third country without the other’s consent. 

Roosevelt and Churchill with Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King (standing, left) and the Earl of Ahtlone, Governor-General of Canada (sitting, right) (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
Roosevelt and Churchill with Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King (standing, left) and the Earl of Ahtlone, Governor-General of Canada (sitting, right) (Photo: Imperial War Museums) 

The Third Moscow Conference (October – November 1943) was dominated by the British, American and Soviet Foreign Ministers, since Stalin was the only national leader present. A series of meetings hammered out the Moscow Declaration, which in fact comprised of four individual declarations. The Declaration of the Four Nations, which Nationalist China was also invited to sign, laid down the framework of an international organization for peaceful collaboration after the war ¬– essentially the United Nations. Additional declarations established the European Advisory Commission to regulate the occupation and regulation of post-war Europe, and also addressed the destruction of Fascism in Italy (which had already surrendered by this time), and the nullification of Germany’s annexation of Austria. The Statement on Atrocities declared that Germans suspected of wartime atrocities would be tried and punished in the country where the atrocity occurred.

Meeting at the Third Moscow Conference (Photo: Mikhail Mikhaylovich Kalashnikov)
Meeting at the Third Moscow Conference (Photo: Mikhail Mikhaylovich Kalashnikov)

The First Cairo Conference began on November 23, 1943, two days after the Third Moscow Conference ended, and was attended by Roosevelt, Churchill and Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek. The subject was Japan and the situation in Asia in general. One central problem was Japan’s occupation of Burma: as long as Burma was held by the enemy, the Allies could only provide China with limited help in the form of supplies flown in over the “Hump,” the dangerous air route over the Himalayas. Numerous plans were discussed for the liberation of Burma, but no specific resolution was reached on the matter. The situation was made more complicated due to diplomatic tensions: China wanted an end to Western imperialism in Asia – but, of course, the British Empire had important imperial holdings on the continent. Nevertheless, the Cairo Declaration stated that territories taken from China by Japan will be returned to China, while also mentioning the eventual independence of Korea.

Chiang Kai-Shek, Roosevelt and Churchill in Cairo (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)
Chiang Kai-Shek, Roosevelt and Churchill in Cairo (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

Roosevelt and Churchill did not spend much time away from each other after the Cairo Conference, as the Tehran Conference commenced on November 28, 1943, two days after the Cairo one ended. It was the first of the Big Three conferences, where the American, British and Soviet national leaders met in person, and it was held in the capital of Iran, which had been occupied by a joint Anglo-Soviet invasion in 1941. Operation Overlord was once more declared to occur in May 1944, with a subsequent landing in Southern France (Read our earlier article – Operation Dragoon) to follow up, while the Soviets launched Operation Bagration to press the Nazis on all sides. It was also decided that Yugoslav Partisans would be supported by supplies and commando operations.

The best-known photo taken at the Tehran Conference (Photo: U.S. Army)
The best-known photo taken at the Tehran Conference (Photo: U.S. Army)

Churchill and Stalin also discussed Poland’s situation. They’ve floated the idea of “pushing” Poland westward after the war by allowing the Soviet Union to keep the Polish lands it conquered in 1939, but compensating the country with a chunk of German territory. Ratifying the decision was postponed for a later conference as a consideration toward Roosevelt, who was afraid that making the decision public would cost him Polish-American votes in the upcoming 1944 elections. The leaders also discussed the post-war division of Germany, Soviet help against Japan, and filled Stalin in about their idea of a future United Nations.

Roosevelt with the young Shah of Iran, whose father was forced to abdicate during the Anglo-Soviet invasion of the country (Photo: Library of Congress)
Roosevelt with the young Shah of Iran, whose father was forced to abdicate during the Anglo-Soviet invasion of the country (Photo: Library of Congress)

The meeting was troubled by rumors of a possible German plot to assassinate the three national leaders. The news was broken by Soviet intelligence, and it resulted in Roosevelt staying at the Soviet embassy rather than his originally planned residence for security. It’s been suggested that it was all a Russian ploy to allow a paranoid Stalin to talk to Roosevelt without having to leave the embassy. For what it’s worth, German commando Otto Skorzeny later stated that while an assassination plot was briefly considered, it was rejected by Hitler before anything could be done.

Tehran ended on December 1, but Roosevelt and Churchill met once more three days later, at the Second Cairo Conference. The first Cairo Conference with Chiang Kai-Shek ended less than two weeks before, and now the American and British leaders were back in town, this time meeting Turkish President İnönü. Churchill was still hoping to convince Turkey to join the Allies, but Roosevelt shared Turkish concerns that a declaration of alliance would prompt to Germans to easily overrun a militarily weak Turkey, making things worse than before. In the end, İnönü agreed to build some airbases for Allied use, though work on those deliberately proceeded as slowly as possible. The independence of Japanese-occupied Indochina, formerly a part of the French Colonial Empire, was also discussed, foreshadowing the conflict that would eventually become the Vietnam War.

Combined Staffs meeting during the Second Cairo Conference (Photo: history.army.mil)
Combined Staffs meeting during the Second Cairo Conference (Photo: history.army.mil)

The wheels had already been set in motion for the Normandy landings, and the three national leaders did not meet again for nine months, until September 1944. There were, however, several lower-level meetings over the year. The British Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference in London in May got the Commonwealth Nations to support the Moscow Declaration. The Bretton Woods Conference in New Hampshire in July was attended by delegates from 44 nations. Its goal was to lay down the groundwork for post-war economic regulations, and it resulted in the formation of the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Churchill with Commonwealth Prime Ministers at the conference (Photo: Library and Archives Canada)
Churchill with Commonwealth Prime Ministers at the conference (Photo: Library and Archives Canada)

The Dunbarton Oaks Conference in Washington, D.C. in August formulated specific proposals for the establishment of the United Nations. American businessman and politician Nelson Rockefeller had no official role at the conference, but still managed to insert himself into the decision-making process. This was probably for the better: he successfully lobbied for the inclusion of some words in the U.N. Charter about individual and collective self-defense. Later, these insertions provided the legal foundation for forming NATO.

Nelson Rockefeller as Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs in 1940 (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)
Nelson Rockefeller as Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs in 1940 (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

Churchill and Roosevelt met again in September at the Second Quebec Conference. The talks concerned the future Allied occupation zones in defeated Germany, a plan to demilitarize Germany after the war, further Lend-Lease to Britain and the British role in the war in the Pacific. Just as importantly, the leaders agreed to use nuclear weapons against Japan.
 
Churchill and Stalin met again at the Fourth Moscow Conference in October to divide up Eastern Europe and the Balkans to Soviet and Western spheres of influence. This was, of course, a gross violation of the principle of self-determination Churchill and Roosevelt so readily agreed on at the Atlantic Conference three years ago. During the meeting, Churchill slipped Stalin a piece of scrap paper with some percentages jotted down, such as: “Romania = 90% Russian and 10% The Others […] Hungary = 50-50% [etc.]” Stalin though about it for a moment, put a large check mark on it and handed it back, deciding the fate of tens of millions of people. Stalin, of course, had no intention of living up to this agreement; it soon became obvious that he intended to keep the whole of Eastern Europe to himself, and there was little the Western Allies could do about it.

Churchill’s note with Stalin’s check  (Photo: Public domain)

Roosevelt and Churchill met again at the Malta Conference in the Mediterranean on January 30 – February 2, 1945, to prepare for their next upcoming meeting with Stalin. The two leaders agreed to present a unified front against Stalin’s power-grab in Eastern Europe, while military leaders discussed the details of the upcoming final campaign against Germany.
 
The Yalta Conference, the second of the Big Three, began on February 4, two days after the end of Malta, and was held on the Crimean Peninsula in the Soviet Union. With the Western Allies fighting on the western borders of Germany and the Soviets a mere 40 miles (65 km) from Berlin, the defeat of the Nazi regime was only a matter of time; the conference focused more on what post-war Europe would look like.

Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin in Yalta (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)
Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin in Yalta (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

The Western Allies had to face the fact that Eastern Europe was in Stalin’s hands, and he could do whatever he wanted there. Churchill tried to extract a promise of free democratic elections; Stalin granted it, but the eventual document was so vaguely worded that it was no real barrier to the Soviet intention of subjugating the “liberated” territories. Meanwhile, Roosevelt’s goal was to get Stalin to join the planned invasion of Japan. Stalin promised to do it shortly after the war in Europe was over. His cooperation, however, had to be bought by promising territories to the Soviet Union, including the part of Poland taken by Russia in 1939. The Soviet Union also agreed to join the United Nations in exchange for a seat on the Security Council, which gave them veto power. All in all, Stalin was the clear winner at Yalta, with Roosevelt and Churchill having to make concessions and getting little in exchange. The conference also agreed to give the French an occupation zone in Germany, but de Gaulle was not actually invited to the conference. This decision clearly showed that liberated France was not considered an equal partner.

Stalin (left), Roosevelt (right) and Churchill (foreground) at the negotiating table in Yalta (Photo: Russian Ministry of Defense)
Stalin (left), Roosevelt (right) and Churchill (foreground) at the negotiating table in Yalta (Photo: Russian Ministry of Defense)

The representatives of 50 nations met in San Francisco for two months (late April to late June 1945) to finally create the organization that would hopefully be the international safeguard for future peace. After numerous earlier conferences on the subject, the United Nations Conference on International Organization has finally created the Charter of the United Nations, shaping international diplomacy for the post-war era and the present day.
 
Finally, the three main Allied nations met in Potsdam in Germany on July 17, 1945. The Potsdam Conference was the last top-level Allied meeting of the war, and was a symbolic closure in several ways
(Read our earlier article - The Potsdam Conference & Declaration). Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had led America through the war, had died in April, and the country was represented by President Harry Truman. Winston Churchill, who did the same for the United Kingdom, had lost the elections back home and was recalled from the conference to be replaced by the new Prime Minister, Clement Attlee. Stalin was the only Big Three Allied leader to politically survive the war, and was ready to capitalize on that. Soviet tyranny in Easter Europe, which Churchill had always been wary of and which Roosevelt had brushed aside in the interest of political unity, became manifest reality. Roosevelt’s successor, Truman, had been much more suspicious of Soviet intentions, but it was too late by this point.

The ”new” Big Three: Attlee, Truman and Stalin at Potsdam (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)
The ”new” Big Three: Attlee, Truman and Stalin at Potsdam (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

The conference came to numerous specific agreements about the dismantling of the Nazi regime. Poland belonging to the Soviet block was something the Western Allies had no choice but to acknowledge. The Potsdam Declaration by Truman, Churchill and Chiang Kai-shek demanded Japan’s surrender (the Soviet Union was still not at war with the island nation), but the war in the Pacific was soon settled by a tool far more powerful than words of threat: the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In some ways, the Potsdam Conference helped close down World War II. In others, it ushered in the new world order, the Iron Curtain and the Cold War.

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Soldiers of the 463rd Combat Engineers near the German border observe Christmas in 1944; note K-ration cans as ornaments (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

Surprise your loved ones with an unforgettable trip to historic places where American soldiers fought for our freedom. Get a 15% discount on our select tours by paying only the registration fee by December 26, 2022 and transferring the rest of the list price until January 31, 2023. Note that this offer applies only in case of new bookings, and it cannot be combined with other special promotions. The offer excludes those three tours in 2024 which include the 80th anniversary D-Day commemorations in Normandy.
 

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