“I can’t help but like Stalin,” I said to myself as I finished the first draft of my book The Eleventh Hour. I pushed my chair back and ran my fingers through my hair. The evidence was overwhelming but it contradicted decades of scholarly study – Stalin was evil and murderous. Could he also have been a mediator, a conciliator, a peacemaker?
“I think the Boss liked him on sight,” observed one diarist of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first meeting with him. “He was agreeable,” said General George Marshall, Chief of Staff of the United States Army. Indeed, said Roosevelt himself of his time with Stalin in Tehran: “He had an elegance of manner none of the rest of us had.”
So how should I present the backroom drama of the Tehran Conference if the hero is a mass murdering, Bolshevik hated by a generation of Americans and Russians alike, so much so that a future President, Senator Harry Truman, once said of Stalin’s Russia: “If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible.”
The Bulgarian proverb seemed to be my way out. To write this book I had to accept the truth of those who were there and take those facts across the bridge exposing myself to the anger of critics and historians alike. And yet, there it was in the diaries from the participants of the 1943 Tehran Conference: praise for Stalin from virtually every member of the team.
As it happens, the Tehran Conference was perhaps the most unusual story in the annals of presidential diplomacy. Three great men gathered in Iran after travelling thousands of miles through deadly-risky war zones and two of those men – Roosevelt and Winston Churchill – were so at odds that they were willing to let Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin make a critical decision: D-Day in France, or combat in Greece/Yugoslavia?
It is a story of a risky Atlantic crossing on a battleship that exposed for 10 days the President and the entire Joint Chiefs to German U-Boats and bombers, a story of an assassination plot in Iran, a story of secret bugs and long toasts and anger and table poundings and dancing, too.
In the end, the diaries, and my book, paint a portrait not seen before in world histories, a portrait of a petulant Churchill, a passive Roosevelt, and an extraordinarily persuasive Stalin.
In the end, for the landings on the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944, we have none other than Joseph Stalin to thank, for it was he who cast the vote that decided D-Day.
And to tell that story, I had to grab on to the hand of the Devil himself and not look down because, the Devil’s in the details and in those details was a Stalin I had to like, if not respect.
[Photo cutline: Joseph Stalin walks between US Army General Henry A "Hap" Arnold and Prime Minister Winston Churchiill. Seen in Tehran, November 1943 (Photo: The Eleventh Hour/The National Archives.)]