ANNIVERSARY journalism is a staple, and I expected to see...

November 29, 1993|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

ANNIVERSARY journalism is a staple, and I expected to see a lot of 50th anniversary of this and 50th anniversary of that this year, as the Allied war effort in World War II began to pile up victories in 1943.

But there hasn't been much of it. Let me contribute a little. Fifty years ago today a war-related meeting began that a later historian described as "a concentration of physical power and political authority unique in the whole history of mankind."

That was the Tehran Conference. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin -- the Big Three -- met together for the first time. The principal item on the agenda was when and how the Allied assault on Hitler's Europe would begin and proceed. Stalin had been pressuring FDR and Churchill for an invasion from the West -- a "second front" -- to relieve the pressure on his Soviet armies.

The result was an agreement for U.S.-British forces to cross the English Channel and invade German-occupied France the following May. (Operation Overlord. D-Day slipped a little -- to June 6, 1944.)

FDR also wanted to establish a good personal relationship with Stalin, in hopes of working with him after the war. He wanted the Soviets to be allies in peace -- in an international organization -- as they were in war.

To this end, FDR, always the clever, devious politician, sided with Stalin against Churchill in several conversations, needling Churchill about everything from his disposition to his cigars. He thought he and Stalin became simpatico and was confident he could work with him after the war.

FDR had great faith in his charm and sense of humor. At a Stalin-hosted dinner in Tehran, Stalin and Churchill got in a heated debate over what to do with the German General Staff after the war. Stalin insisted that 50,000 top German soldiers be shot. Churchill said the British would not accept such "infamy." FDR offered a "compromise": execute only 49,000 German officers. This didn't cool things off. Churchill left the room in anger. Stalin followed him, grasped his shoulders and said of his proposal, "Just kidding."

Whether these three leaders could have worked out a tranquil, cooperative post-war world is a question lost in history. FDR died lTC and Churchill was voted out of office before the war was over. The Big Three became the Big One, and Stalin and his new "allies" were soon engaged in a bitter Cold War.

A number of fateful decisions were made at Tehran. One was the designation of a supreme commander to lead the Allied invasion and subsequent campaign in Europe. Stalin didn't really trust FDR and Churchill to proceed as they promised. He said he couldn't take them seriously until FDR settled on someone for that command.

The decision proved fateful, not only for the conduct of the war but for American politics.

A5 Thursday: FDR picks a commander -- and successor.

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