FIFTY YEARS ago yesterday the Tehran Conference ended, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Marshal Joseph Stalin agreed that the following spring the Allies would invade Europe.
In addition to this fateful military decision, it was also decided who would command that operation ("Overlord," it was called): Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall. At least that's what Stalin was told by several FDR aides at Tehran, according to the best researched contemporary account of the matter ("Roosevelt and Hopkins" by Robert Sherwood).
FDR and Churchill had long since agreed that the commander would be an American. FDR believed Marshall deserved the post. As he told the only other real possibility for Overlord commander, Dwight Eisenhower, it would assure Marshall his rightful place in history. Nobody remembers Lincoln's chief of staff, FDR said to Ike, but everybody remembers General U.S. Grant.
FDR promised Stalin to make it official within a few days. Though he apparently really wanted to give Marshall what historian Stephen Ambrose later called "the most coveted command in the history of warfare," FDR also felt he needed Marshall in Washington. Other FDR advisers agreed. But how to get out of doing the obvious?
It appears that the decision not to appoint Marshall was assured at Tehran when British-American agreements about the Allied command structure would have made it necessary -- and awkward -- for Marshall to "step down" to the post.
So in Cairo a few days after he left Tehran, FDR bit the bullet that was cast at Tehran. He called General Marshall to his hotel suite and dictated a message, which Marshall took down in pencil:
"From the President to Marshal Stalin. The appointment of General Eisenhower to command of Overlord Operation has been decided upon. Roosevelt." Marshall handed the paper to FDR, who inserted in his own handwriting "immediate" between "The" and "appointment."
Then Marshall took the message to a signalman to send. He kept the handwritten note and mailed it to Ike the next day "as a memento." Ike was thrilled. Had Marshall gotten the job, Ike would have replaced him as Army chief of staff. He didn't want to go back to Washington. Mamie was there. No! NO! NO! Just kidding! Just a joke!
He didn't want to go back because he knew FDR was right about how history treated chiefs of staff and victorious field commanders. And also because he didn't like Washington politics and didn't think he was any good at it. Some of his peers also thought that, and used it in suggesting to FDR that he keep Marshall as chief of staff.
The irony is obvious. Because of the fame he won as Overlord commander, then supreme Allied commander in Europe, Ike subsequently won the highest political prize of them all, the presidency of the United States. Just like Grant.