Preview to Yalta: analysis of 1943 Tehran talks

Summit at Teheran, by Keith Eubank. New York: Morrow. 528 pp. Illustrated. $21.95. While the Big Three Summit Conference held at Yalta in 1945 is all too notorious, the one that took place at Teheran (also spelled Tehran) in late November 1943 has received relatively little attention. It is just this neglect that has prompted Keith Eubank, chairman of the history department at Queens College of the City University of New York, to write this exhaustive account and analysis of the Tehran conference.

This was the first time that a president of the United States had held a summit conference with a ruler of the Soviet Union. It was also, Professor Eubank points out, unlike any such subsequent meetings, because this time the American President went unencumbered by State Department experts and briefing books. Ten years to the month after he had established diplomatic relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, Franklin D. Roosevelt undertook the arduous -- at times even dangerous -- journey by sea and air, traveling the many thousands of miles between Washington and Tehran in his determination to strengthen the wartime alliance by establishing a personal relationship with Joseph Stalin.

To some extent he succeeded, although the benefits were far greater for Stalin and his nation than for Roosevelt and his. Professor Eubank shows in considerable detail the lengths to which Roosevelt was prepared to go to win the trust of the man whom he liked to call, not altogether unseriously alas, Uncle Joe. Indeed, this book shows that many of the concessions commonly thought to have been offered up at Yalta, such as the acceptance of a communist-dominated Poland with its vastly altered postwar boundaries, had in fact already been yielded at Tehran.

Professor Eubank provides an excellent exposition of FDR's character, clear-eyed in its rendering of Roosevelt's curious blend of naivet'e and deviousness and the attendant consequences, yet full of admiration for his panache and courage and all they achieved. This account makes one cringe at the cold-bloodedness with which FDR abandoned the Poles to their fate, but it also gives Roosevelt full credit for thereby preventing the possibility of the Soviets making a separate peace with Nazi Germany -- a fear which had been plaguing Britain and the US, and which would have made their victory in Europe elusive if not impossible.

Like so many who have studied this period, Professor Eubank is finally unable to provide an unequivocal answer to the question that continues to baffle historians: Did FDR concede more than was necessary, or did he act in the best interests of the US by accepting the reality dictated by the political-military situation?

Curiously, both the strengths and weaknesses of this book lie in its length. It is precisely its exhaustiveness which the general reader might find a trifle overwhelming. Flawless as the scholarship is, and impeccable though the historical methods and judgment are, Professor Eubank has perhaps been too leisurely in his exposition. But this is, if anything, the fault of too much rather than too little thought and hard work. On the whole, Professor Eubank is to be congratulated for shedding new light on a neglected corner of the history of World War II.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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