4-165 Editorial Note on Conferences in Cairo and Teheran, 1943

Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Subject: World War II

Editorial Note on Conferences in Cairo and Teheran

November 22-December 4, 1943

British and American military leaders arrived in Cairo bearing rather different strategic emphases. The British desired an agreement regarding plans for OVERLORD and the Mediterranean prior to the meetings with Stalin and presumed that Far Eastern issues would be discussed subsequently. Churchill had been reluctant to have Chiang Kai-shek and Chinese issues interfere with the British-American meetings. Furthermore, the British believed that the Americans greatly overestimated China’s previous and potential contribution to the overall war effort. American leaders approached the November Cairo meetings with a different order of priorities: decisions on Southeast Asian problems prior to meeting the Soviets (who were not at war with Japan), leaving the crucial discussion of European operations for the Teheran meetings. The president, moreover, was determined to enhance China’s and Chiang Kai-shek’s ability to play a future role as a world power.

Between November 22 and 26, the two groups of military leaders met separately in the morning and then held Combined Chiefs of Staff meetings in the afternoon. There were numerous points of contention, and on at least two occasions—November 23 and 26—participants recorded that the normally vigorous debates became extremely heated. On the twenty-third and twenty-fourth, the C.C.S. met with Roosevelt and Churchill. Marshall had a private dinner with Churchill on the twenty-third and a luncheon with Generalissimo and Madame Chiang on the twenty-fourth.

As Marshall had suspected for some weeks, the British were determined that the Mediterranean theater not be subordinate to the Supreme Allied Commander, whose primary responsibility was the cross-Channel invasion, and that it be under British command. By November 26, the J.C.S. had accepted this, pending the outcome of discussions with the Soviets in Teheran. (Foreign Relations, Conferences at Cairo and Tehran, 1943, pp. 150-51, 365.)

The key issue, however, was the relative importance of the several operations that could be undertaken during the winter and spring of 1944 and their likely impact on the overall war effort—but most immediately on the cross-Channel invasion. As it had been so often before, a shortage of shipping—this time in landing craft—was a key factor influencing British-American strategy. The chief spokesmen for the British and American points of view were Churchill and Marshall.

Churchill believed that recent German defeats had created opportunities in Italy, the Balkans, and the Aegean for further Allied blows that would serve to weaken potential German responses to OVERLORD. While reiterating British commitment to OVERLORD, Churchill insisted that the target date of May 1, 1944, established at August’s Quebec Conference, be moved back to mid-June to accommodate the Mediterranean thrusts. The British were well aware of Marshall’s fear of becoming bogged down in peripheral fights in the Mediterranean, thereby delaying and potentially weakening the decisive Allied thrust against the Germans on the plains of western Europe. Sir Alan Brooke, who acted as chairman of the Cairo C.C.S. meetings, viewed this attitude as demonstrating Americans’ lack of strategic vision. When Churchill continued to press Marshall to support an assault on Rhodes, the chief of staff angrily told the prime minister that no U.S. forces would participate. (Arthur Bryant, Triumph in the West: A History of the War Years Based on the Diaries of Field-Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff [Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Company, 1959], pp. 44, 49; Marshall Interviews, p. 622.)

British leaders were surprised and displeased by the American determination to launch a major operation in Burma in early 1944 using mainly British, Indian, and Chinese troops. Marshall believed that Chiang Kai-shek’s apparent agreement (he did not formally commit himself until November 30) to participate in Operation TARZAN—the seizure of north Burma aimed at protecting the “Hump” air supply lines and opening the Burma Road—”constituted a milestone in the prosecution of the war in the East.” (Minutes of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Meeting, November 23, 1943, NA/RG 165 [OPD, CCS 334, JCS Minutes].) But Chiang was determined to have an Allied amphibious landing in the Andaman Islands (Operation BUCCANEER) as a support operation, and President Roosevelt and the J.C.S. supported him in this. One of the major altercations in the C.C.S. meetings occurred on November 23 when Brooke suggested diverting the landing craft essential for BUCCANEER to Aegean operations. (Stilwell Papers, p. 245.)

By November 26, the J.C.S. had “accepted . . . as a basis for discussion with the Soviets,” and with modifications, the British proposals for Mediterranean operations, but they refused to abandon or postpone BUCCANEER without orders from President Roosevelt, who favored the Andaman landings. (Foreign Relations, Conferences at Cairo and Tehran, 1943, p. 365.) The following morning the president, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a few assistants took off in four planes for Teheran.

While Soviet demands for a second front in the west had often been expressed, it still appeared to some American observers that Stalin was not committed to landings in France. Marshall feared that Stalin might support British thrusts in the Aegean at the expense of the six-months-distant OVERLORD. In addition, the French Committee of National Liberation was pressing Eisenhower’s headquarters to launch an invasion of southern France, and that also would absorb scarce landing craft. (Foreign Relations, Conferences at Cairo and Tehran, 1943, pp. 328, 477, 480.)

The first plenary session of the Teheran Conference was hurriedly convened on the afternoon of November 28 when, through an error in scheduling, Marshall and Arnold were on an automobile tour of the mountains north of Teheran. Stalin began the meeting by saying that the U.S.S.R. would join the war against Japan after Germany capitulated. He then surprised the British and American conferees by stating that OVERLORD should be the key operation in the West in 1944 and that all other undertakings were mere diversions. He was not impressed with the value of operations thus far in Italy, and he did not believe that Turkey could be induced to enter the war—an essential prerequisite to British Aegean plans. Moreover, using successful Soviet military tactics as his justification, he strongly supported an invasion of southern France prior to OVERLORD as a way of preventing the Germans from moving reserves to parry the northern France blow. (Foreign Relations, Conferences at Cairo and Tehran, 1943, pp. 499-501, 505-7.)

The next morning (November 29) Marshal Kliment E. Voroshilov, Stalin’s military adviser, questioned Marshall and Brooke—particularly the latter—regarding OVERLORD and their commitment to it, shipping and landing craft shortages, and air cover for the landings. When Brooke praised the Red Army’s accomplishments in crossing great rivers, Voroshilov suggested that the Anglo-American forces might use similar tactics. “The difference between a river crossing, however wide, and a landing from the ocean,” the minutes show Marshall asserting, “is that the failure of a river crossing is a reverse while the failure of a landing operation from the sea is a catastrophe.” His own military education in World War I, Marshall continued, “had been based on roads, rivers, and railroads,” but during the previous two years, “he had been acquiring an education based on oceans and he had had to learn all over again. . . . [P]rior to the present war he had never heard of any landing craft except a rubber boat. Now he thinks about little else.” Voroshilov, in obvious professional admiration, replied: “If you think about it, you will do it.” (Ibid., pp. 515-28; quotes on pp. 527-28.)

At the second plenary session that afternoon, Stalin insisted that the British and American leaders should quickly decide: (1) who would command OVERLORD; (2) the date for that operation—he preferred May; (3) plans for a southern France support operation for the cross-Channel thrust. Churchill explained the British conception at length, but Stalin was apparently unimpressed. Charles Bohlen, a U.S. foreign service officer who took minutes at the plenary sessions, observed that the most notable feature of the “Big Three” dinner that evening was Stalin’s obvious efforts to show his displeasure at the British attitude toward OVERLORD. (Ibid., pp. 541-51, 553.)

The Combined Chiefs of Staff held their only formal session at Teheran on November 30. For the first time they seriously discussed a landing in southern France (ANVIL). There was considerable discussion of landing craft availability, with the British again raising the possibility of moving to the Mediterranean landing craft scheduled for BUCCANEER. The related topic of the timing of OVERLORD was likewise vigorously debated, and the C.C.S. ultimately agreed to launch the attack “during May”—that is, by June 1. At the plenary session that afternoon, Stalin promised that the Red Army would launch an offensive at the time of OVERLORD to prevent the Germans from transferring troops from the eastern to the western front. (Ibid., pp. 555-64, 579. Concerning the initial planning for the southern France operation, see Matloff, Strategic Planning for Coalition Warfare, 1943-1944, pp. 365-66.)

The heads of government continued their talks concerning such political subjects as the occupation of Germany and the future of Poland, and politically the conference appeared to represent “the high-water mark in international collaboration.” (Ibid., p. 367.) Meanwhile, with the military aspects of the meetings concluded, Marshall and the rest of the British-American military delegation left Teheran on December 1 for Jerusalem. There they stayed at the King David Hotel and visited various historical and religious sites around town, departing for Cairo the following morning. (Ernest J. King and Walter Muir Whitehill, Fleet Admiral King: A Naval Record [New York: W. W Norton and Company, 1952], pp. 522-23.)

Two key questions remained to be settled at the second set of meetings in Cairo, December 2-7: (1) who would command OVERLORD; (2) the relation of OVERLORD/ANVIL to Aegean/BUCCANEER operations in terms of assault shipping. As late as December 2, Marshall believed that he would be designated Supreme Allied Commander. (Copy of radio received from General Marshall, December 2, 1943, NA/RG 165 [OPD, Exec. 10, Item 63c pt. 2].) But Roosevelt was beginning to have second thoughts, perhaps in part because of opposition to his appointment from Arnold and King, who believed that Marshall was too valuable in Washington to be given a theater command, and perhaps in part because the British had declined the proposal for an overall command for Europe and the Mediterranean. (Ehrman, Grand Strategy, 5: 200.)

A little more than three years after the event, Marshall told Robert E. Sherwood, who was working on a biography of Harry Hopkins:

At Cairo, Harry Hopkins came to see me one night [probably December 4] before dinner and told me the President was in some concern of mind over my appointment as Supreme Commander. I could not tell from the Hopkins’ statement just what the President’s point of view was and in my reply I merely endeavored to make it clear that I would go along wholeheartedly with whatever decision the President made. He need have no fears regarding my personal reactions. I declined to state any opinion.

The next day the President had me call at his villa . . . where in response to his question, I made virtually the same reply I made to Hopkins. I recall saying that I would not attempt to estimate my capabilities; the President would have to do that; I merely wished to make it clear that whatever the decision, I would go along with it wholeheartedly; that the issue was too great for any personal feelings to be considered. I did not discuss the pros and cons of the matter. As I recall, the President stated in completing our conversation “I feel I could not sleep at night with you out of the country.” (Marshall to Sherwood, February 25, 1947, GCMRL/G. C. Marshall Papers [Secretary of State, Categorical, Requests].)

Churchill, Stalin, and Eisenhower were informed of Roosevelt’s decision on December 6 that Eisenhower was to command the cross-Channel invasion.

The agreement at Teheran to launch an amphibious assault on southern France further highlighted the landing craft shortage. The meetings of December 3, 4, and 5, were dominated by the debate over whether to carry out the Andaman Islands assault or to shift that assault lift to the Mediterranean. Marshall believed that the cancellation of BUCCANEER would end Chinese participation in major north Burma operations. The Japanese, who had increased their forces in Burma in anticipation of an Allied thrust there, would then be free to threaten the air routes to China and to shift forces to the Pacific. (Minutes of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Meeting, December 5, 1943, NA/RG 165 [OPD, CCS 334, JCS Minutes].) Finally, on the evening of December 5, Roosevelt gave in to British arguments, overruled the J.C.S., and agreed to abandon BUCCANEER. This was, two official U.S. Army histories agree, a turning point in Chinese-American relations. China’s role in future Allied war plans began to decline, and the Soviet Union’s role in the Far East began to assume greater significance. (Matloff, Strategic Planning for Coalition Warfare, 1943-1944, p. 373; Charles F. Romanus and Riley Sunderland, Stilwell’s Command Problems, a volume in the United States Army in World War II [Washington: GPO, 1956], pp. 67-72.)

Recommended Citation: ThePapers of George Catlett Marshall, ed.Larry I. Bland and Sharon Ritenour Stevens(Lexington, Va.: The George C. Marshall Foundation, 1981- ). Electronic version based on The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, vol. 4, “Aggressive and Determined Leadership,” June 1, 1943-December 31, 1944 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), pp. 191-196.

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