The Rise and Fall of the Big Three: Paul Dukes Assesses the Roles of the Major Statesmen from Britain, the USA and the USSR during the Second World War and the Onset of the Cold War

By Dukes, Paul | History Review, September 2005 | Go to article overview

The Rise and Fall of the Big Three: Paul Dukes Assesses the Roles of the Major Statesmen from Britain, the USA and the USSR during the Second World War and the Onset of the Cold War


Dukes, Paul, History Review


At the beginning of the Second World War, there was no Allied 'Big Three', nor even a dual relationship. Great Britain was at first alone. Then, after the German invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, the prognosis was not good. Senator Truman spoke for many of his fellow Americans: 'If we see that Germany is winning we should help Russia and if Russia is winning then we ought to help Germany and that way let them kill as many as possible, although I don't want to see Hitler victorious under any circumstances.' Meanwhile, Churchill was attempting to come to terms with his deep-set antipathy towards the communist regime, while already aware of the UK's dependence on the USA. He was particularly worried that some American aid might be diverted to the Soviet Union in what was already becoming a triangular relationship if not yet the Big Three.

The most public pointer to later discussions was the joint declaration made by Roosevelt and Churchill on 12 August 1941. The 'Atlantic Charter', as it became known, set out eight broad principles for the establishment of human rights and a lasting peace after the destruction of Nazi tyranny. Yet whatever formulations were agreed, the unequal nature of the 'special relationship' could not be easily disguised. 'Lend-Lease' and 'destroyers for bases' agreements contained elements not only of American generosity to a beleaguered ally but also of hard-nosed promotion of American self-interest. A further pointer towards later Big Three meetings was a joint message to Stalin, suggesting a high-level meeting in Moscow to discuss how support could most expeditiously be continued for the Soviet Union's 'brave and steadfast resistance' to Hitlerism. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 brought the USA into the war and the consolidation of the Big Three ever nearer.

War-time Conferences

In the build-up to the first meeting of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at Tehran in late 1943, two had been company, especially Churchill and Roosevelt, but even Churchill and Stalin after a shaky start. Roosevelt and Stalin also got on well when they talked together after their arrival in the Iranian capital. Already, however, there was talking behind the third man's back, the President warning the Marshal not to mention India to the Prime Minister, and suggesting that something like the Soviet approach might be adopted after the war in this sub-continent not yet ready for democracy. When Churchill spoke with Stalin in the absence of Roosevelt, he began by pointing out that his mother was American and that nothing he said should be construed as indicating a wish to do the USA down. But he went on to stress the greater importance for the UK of the Mediterranean in joint preparations for Operation Overlord. Thus, already at Tehran, there were signs that three could be something of a crowd.

Of course, the major disagreements were on Poland and Germany. Although accepting the Curzon Line first drawn up after the Russian Revolution as the eastern boundary of Poland, the Western Allies were less than content about the Oder-Neisse line as the western boundary, pointing out that this would mean millions of Germans being displaced. They also complained continually that their efforts to determine exactly what was going on in Eastern and Central Europe were faced with difficulties and obstructions. On Germany, they found Soviet demands for reparations excessive. They were not happy about the Red Army's behaviour everywhere, although showing at least some awareness of what it must have been like to have been on the receiving end of the Master Race's policy of Living Space and Race Extermination. They were less than welcoming when the Soviet side, possibly as a debating point, showed an interest in developments in France and Italy, and in the Mediterranean region.

There were occasions, however, on which the Big Three appeared to be at one. At the second and most famous or notorious of the conferences, Yalta, in February 1945, Stalin provoked the laughter of the other two when he asked them and himself in turn about which of the powers sought world domination. …

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