Monday, December 16, 2019
Books: "Three Days At The Brink" On FDR's Leadership At The Height Of World War II
Three Days At The Brink: FDR's Daring Gamble to Win World War II
By Bret Baier, with Catherine Whitney
William Morrow; hardcover, $28.99
Bret Baier is the chief political anchor for Fox News Channel and the anchor and executive editor of Special Report with Bret Baier. He also has become quite prolific with his "Three Days" series of books on American history, which were New York Times bestsellers: Three Days in Moscow: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of the Soviet Empire and Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower's Final Mission.
In November 1943, with the fate of World War II in doubt and Nazi assassins rumored to be on his trail, President Roosevelt traveled in secret to Tehran for a clandestine meeting that plotted the war's victorious endgame. This meeting between the Allies not only set the course for the final victory against Hitler but also shaped the map of Europe and geopolitics for the Cold War and beyond.
Though now overshadowed by Yalta and later summits, those critical three days at the edge of the desert forever altered the path of history. This is the subject of an extraordinary new reappraisal of the Tehran Conference, and of FDR's leadership.
It was the first time Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin met together, and it was fraught with behind the scenes drama even before it took place. The choice of venue itself was hotly contested, with Roosevelt hesitant to travel so far from Washington, but Stalin digging in his heels. FDR gave in, aware of how important it was that he and Churchill be in the same room with Stalin.
The American and British leaders entered the meeting wary of Stalin's long-term agenda, and recognized the necessity of appeasing their slippery ally. Stalin, who felt his country and military took the greatest beating at the Nazis' hands, demanded that the Allies open up a second front in the West, and the preliminary plans for the invasion of Normandy the following year were hammered out over those climactic three days in Tehran.
"In the heavily armed and gated Soviet Embassy compound in Tehran, Iran, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was hosting a steak-and-baked-potato dinner for his indispensable wartime counterparts, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Marshal Joseph Stalin," Baier writes. "The meal was being prepared by Roosevelt's cherished Filipino mess crew, who knew exactly how he liked his steaks grilled. The cooks had arrived that afternoon to find that, inexplicably, someone had removed the stove, and they'd scrambled to create a makeshift kitchen from scratch, installing a range and kitchen equipment in an empty room at the embassy.
"The circumstances that placed the president of the United States in Tehran for a meeting with Churchill and Stalin was a crisis point in the Second World War. After more than four years of fighting, the free world was at the brink. Adolf Hitler's armies had surged across western Europe and into the Soviet Union and the Mediterranean. The Allies had fought hard, and in the last year they had scored important victories at the edges of Axis-controlled territory: a successful campaign in North Africa; inroads into southern Italy, where Benito Mussolini's government had collapsed; and a brutal victory in Stalingrad. In the Pacific theater, Allied victories at Midway and Guadalcanal had created positive momentum. But the successes felt piecemeal in the larger scheme of things. It might have seemed as though the Germans and Japanese were finally on the defensive, but overconfidence would have been a mistake. The Axis Powers still dominated Europe and Asis. Nazi Germany's systematic extermination of Jews, forever after known as the Holocaust, proceeded unchecked throughout its territory. Moreover, the price of the Allies' precious few victories had been astonishingly high - the Soviets had lost a million men at Stalingrad - underscoring the grave challenge that lay ahead. The Allies could not afford to miscalculate against an enemy so undaunted by defeat, so relentless in the face of overwhelming offs. They needed the kind of decisive win that would put the Nazis on their heels."
This historic clash of these three titans embraced more far-reaching matters as well, especially questions of which victor would control which spoils at war's end. Churchill and Roosevelt both balked at Stalin's not-so-hidden agenda to lay claim to Poland, but Roosevelt remained cagier in his diplomatic gamesmanship, seemingly more trusting of Stalin's motives.
The trio argued over how a defeated Germany would be punished and divided and they laid rudimentary plans for a post-war organization that would become the United Nations. These very different leaders signed the Declaration of the Three Powers, declaring themselves, and their nations, "friends in fact, in spirit and in purpose."
Baier uncovered new details in rarely seen transcripts, oral histories, and declassified State Department and presidential documents from the FDR library. He paints vivid and empathetic portraits of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin that explore the strengths, weaknesses, and nuances of each leader, including the goals they share as well as how they differed in temperaments, ideologies, and their approaches to leadership.
Roosevelt, a collaborative leader who, as the sole leader of a democracy, and without the baggage of empire or totalitarian principles to preserve, would become the lead strategist of the world's future.