Tehran, Iran

November 28, 1943

The President is hiding.

The street is lined with soldiers. There are thousands of them, stretching for blocks on both sides. Most wear Soviet uniforms, some are British or American.

They brandish automatic rifles. In the hot, dry air they’re using their weapons and bodies to block the noisy crowds who're trying to push through to get a look at what’s happening—or rather, who's coming.

It's a broad avenue, a central thoroughfare through the bustling city of Tehran, the capital of Iran.

Here in late November 1943, the city is in a heightened state of commotion. Starting today, it'll be the site of one of the most important events over the course of the global war currently sweeping the world. The event was previously kept secret but has now been revealed to the public. Although Iran is not engaged in the war militarily, it is under Allied control, thus the prevalence of Soviet security forces on hand for the event.

A surge of noise rises from the crowd. Soldiers and onlookers alike turn toward the procession of cars approaching, a mix of military and civilian vehicles. At the center of the motorcade is a long, dark sedan glistening in the bright sun. This is the vehicle the soldiers have been ordered to protect.

Those who can catch a glimpse see a driver in the car’s front seat. In the back is a single passenger, a tall, white-haired man in late middle age. The crowds on either side of the avenue crane their necks to get a better look. Intermittently, a hand pops out of the car window as the man waves.

The crowd leans forward, everyone trying to get look at the President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Or at least, that's who they think is inside.

As the Presidential entourage makes its way through the city, it passes crowded marketplaces and residential buildings. Some residents watch the spectacle through windows or from roofs. The dark sedan's destination today isn't a secret: The President is traveling to the Soviet embassy, a walled and heavily guarded complex of buildings north of the city center. There, FDR will meet with two fellow world leaders who are his allies in the war: Joseph Stalin, Premier of the Soviet Union; and Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

It will be a summit of world-historical importance: the first time the "Big Three" leaders of the Allied forces in the ongoing war will come together in person. This conference took nearly a year of planning, involving immense geopolitical coordination and complicated security considerations.

Yet amid the grand spectacle, all is not as it seems. Unbeknownst to onlookers and soldiers—and even to many within the procession—the tall gray-haired man in the back seat of this sedan is not, in fact, the President of the United States. Instead, he’s a member of the U.S. Secret Service, wearing a bulletproof vest and pretending to be the President.

The  real  President isn't even in this motorcade. At this moment, the real FDR is ducked down in the back of a very different vehicle, a small, dirty sedan racing through the backstreets of the city. While the sleek black Presidential limousine is surrounded by armed vehicles and military personnel, the nondescript car transporting the actual President is escorted only by a single fast-moving jeep as it tears through the winding streets.

Why this elaborate deception?

Late the previous night, top Soviet intelligence officials notified U.S. security of an alarming discovery: In this city under Allied control, disguised Nazi agents are on the move. Their mission, according to the Soviets, is to kill Roosevelt. And Churchill. And Stalin. It's an almost unbelievable plot, breathtaking in its audacity. Right here in Tehran, during this momentous conference, Nazi agents will attempt to assassinate the Big Three.

If successful, this plot will have consequences almost impossible to fathom.

For nearly four years now, the Second World War has enveloped the planet. Entire regions of Europe, Asia, and North Africa have been utterly devastated. The suffering and loss of life is nearly incalculable and continues daily. Mass atrocities on civilian populations are almost too numerous to count. Right now, there is no immediate end in sight.

The driving force of the war is a terrifying and appalling ideology that has taken root in several nations but has reached its most extreme and powerful form in Germany under the Nazi Party. Built on a twisted form of extreme patriotism, it's fueled by racial hatred, mass propaganda, conspiracy theories, the demonizing of minority groups, and the cult of personality around a narcissistic leader. Under the influence of this ideology—plus the ruthless political party that promotes it— a country that formerly embraced democratic values has turned toward authoritarianism, hatred, and violence. It is Germany and its principal allies, Italy and Japan, who have unleashed this calamitous war.

The clash of world military powers, as vast as it is, is not all that's at stake. As the Nazi regime expands, it's committing mass atrocities that go far beyond the scope of ordinary warfare, targeting peoples it considers "undesirables": the Roma, the mentally ill, Poles, and other Slavic people. Civilian populations, including women and children, are routinely imprisoned, tortured, worked to death, or simply massacred.

Above all, the regime has directed its brutality toward one group that, from the very beginning, it has vilified and blamed: the Jewish people. To solve what they call "the Jewish problem" in Europe, Nazi leaders have, in the course of the war, created an apparatus of mass slaughter so horrific it will take years for the world to fully comprehend.

To fight back, the Allies have planned this long-anticipated meeting of the Big Three—the leaders of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union— knowing that this meeting in Tehran represents the best and perhaps only chance for Allied powers to implement a military strategy to finally cripple Nazi Germany and put an end to the war that has caused such suffering around the world. Planning and executing this strategy will be a mammoth undertaking that will require global military coordination at an unprecedented scale.

Millions of lives depend on the success of this conference. Probably tens of millions.

If the Nazis have their way, these three world leaders won't leave the city alive — and the Allied hopes for victory will die with them.

It's not an exaggeration: The survival of nations is at stake.

And right now, FDR is ducked down, hiding in the back of a speeding car.

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