Franklin Roosevelt had never wanted to travel to Tehran. Throughout the fall of 1943, the president used his vaunted charm and charisma to push for the three Allied leaders -- himself, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin -- to meet almost anywhere else. The conference, their first ever, had been a year in the making, and now, before it even commenced, it seemed on the brink of failure over the thorny question of where it would take place.
Dispatched on a visit to Moscow, Secretary of State Cordell Hull had proposed the Iraqi port city of Basra, to which Roosevelt could easily travel by ship. Roosevelt himself suggested Cairo, Baghdad, or Asmara, Italy's former Eritrean capital on Africa's east coast; all these were locations, the president pointed out, where he could easily remain in constant contact with Washington, D.C. as was necessary for his wartime stewardship. But the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, was unmoved. He countered that as commander of the Soviet armed forces he could not be out of contact with his deputies in Moscow. He maintained that Tehran, at the foot of the Elburz Mountains, had telegraph and telephone links with Moscow. "My colleagues insist on Teheran," he bluntly cabled to Roosevelt in reply, adding that he would however accept a late-November date for the meeting and that he also agreed with the American and British decision to exclude all members of the press.
Roosevelt, still hoping to sway the man he referred to as "Uncle Joe," cabled again about Basra, saying, "I am begging you to remember that I also have a great obligation to the American government and to maintain the full American war effort." The answer from Moscow was brief and direct: no. Stalin was adamant, and he now hinted that he might back out of the entire arrangement for a tripartite conference. Not until Roosevelt was preparing to set sail across the Atlantic en route to the Mediterranean did Stalin, having gotten his way on Tehran, finally acquiesce. Roosevelt promptly cabled to Winston Churchill, "I have just heard that Uncle J will come to Teheran. . . . I was in some doubt as to whether he would go through with his former offer . . . but I think that now there is no question that you and I can meet him."
So it was that at the Cairo West Airport a little past 6:30 a.m. on Saturday, November 27, Roosevelt boarded the Sacred Cow, a gleaming silver Douglas C54 Skymaster that could carry forty-nine passengers and a three-man crew, for the final leg of his momentous journey; in total, he would travel 17,442 miles, crossing and recrossing nearly eight time zones. For his part, Joseph Stalin simply had to travel due south from Moscow; his round-trip would be only 3,000 miles. But all this seemed forgotten as, for the first time in over four years of war, the leaders of the three great powers were at last to meet, face-to-face, to establish policies designed to bring the carnage to a close. This would be the most important conference of the conflict. As Churchill later wrote, "The difficulties of the American Constitution, Roosevelt's health, and Stalin's obduracy . . . were all swept away by the inexorable need of a triple meeting and the failure of every other alternative but a flight to Tehran. So we sailed off into the air from Cairo at the crack of dawn."
It is difficult, in retrospect, to appreciate the magnitude of this trip, or even how bold it was. The wheelchair-bound president of the United States was flying across the Middle East in wartime, unaccompanied by military aircraft and not even in his own plane. The first official presidential airplane, nicknamed Guess Where II, was nothing more than a reconfigured B24 bomber, designated a C87A Liberator; and in any case Roosevelt never used it. After another C87A crashed and the design was found to have an alarming risk of fire -- which Roosevelt dreaded -- Guess Where II was quietly pulled from the presidential service. Eleanor Roosevelt took the plane on a goodwill tour of Latin America, and the senior White House staff flew on it, but not the president.
Furthermore, Franklin Roosevelt hated to fly. The paraplegic president preferred almost any mode of travel on solid ground, but even here, he had qualms: for one thing, he could not bear to ride in a train that traveled faster than thirty miles an hour. His presidential train made him feel especially secure: it had a special suspension to support his lower body, its walls were armored, and the glass was bulletproof. An accomplished sailor, he also felt comfortable on the water, where he could master the pitch and swell of the waves. But flying was an entirely different matter, and one not without considerable personal risk.
Excerpted from "1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History," by Jay Winik. Copyright © 2015 by Jay Winik. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York.