On This Day

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New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection/LOC
Winston Churchill and President Truman arrive at Westminster College for the “Iron Curtain” speech, March 5, 1946.

On This Day: Churchill Delivers “Iron Curtain” Speech

March 05, 2011 05:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On March 5, 1946, Winston Churchill coined the phrase the “Iron Curtain” at a speech in Missouri. The term came to define the divisions of the Cold War.

Churchill Warns of Soviet “Iron Curtain”

Winston Churchill had been invited to speak at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., by President Harry Truman. Although Churchill was no longer the British prime minister—he was defeated in the election of 1945 and moved on to head the parliamentary opposition—his words carried tremendous weight.

Churchill used the speech, titled “The Sinews of Peace,” to warn America and the Western world of the looming threat posed by Josef Stalin and the Soviet Union. “A shadow has fallen upon the scenes so lately lighted by the Allied victory. ... From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.”
Churchill told the U.S. that, because it stood “at the pinnacle of world power,” it held an “awe-inspiring accountability to the future.” He urged America against isolationism and called for the West to be united against communism. Reminding the audience of his warnings about the Nazi threat prior to World War II, he spoke of the consequences of inaction.

“Our difficulties and dangers will not be removed by closing our eyes to them,” he declared. “They will not be removed by mere waiting to see what happens; nor will they be removed by a policy of appeasement. What is needed is a settlement, and the longer this is delayed, the more difficult it will be and the greater our dangers will become.”

Stressing their shared language, Churchill called for a close relationship between the U.S. and British Commonwealth as part of the wider alliance of the newly formed United Nations.

He concluded: “If we adhere faithfully to the Charter of the United Nations and walk forward in sedate and sober strength seeking no one’s land or treasure, seeking to lay no arbitrary control upon the thoughts of men; if all British moral and material forces and convictions are joined with your own in fraternal association, the high-roads of the future will be clear, not only for us but for all, not only for our time, but for a century to come.”

Reactions to the Speech

Churchill’s words stunned and angered many people, especially in America. After World War II, few wanted to hear that there was a new threat, particularly that it was a former ally. A New York paper described the speech as an “ideological declaration of war against Russia,” while many in Congress called it “shocking.”

This negative reaction at the time reflected the fact that many Americans still believed that it would be possible to work with their wartime Russian allies in securing the peace,” explains the BBC, noting that the Truman administration’s distrust of the Soviets had not be made public. “So the out-of-power British leader’s candid appraisal of the deteriorating relationship between the west and the Soviet Union, expressed a reality that no American or British government official was yet prepared to acknowledge in public.”

A British Foreign Office report on the speech found that Churchill’s conclusions were supported by U.S. conservatives in military departments, but condemned by Congress, the media and the public. Nevertheless, it stated, the speech gave “the sharpest jolt to American thinking of any utterance since the end of the war” and would “set the pattern of discussion on world affairs for some time to come.”

The Soviet press did not print the speech, and it was not published in Russia until 1998. When Joseph Stalin learned of it, he called Churchill “a warmonger,” and associated him with Hitler. Russian author Vladislov Zubok argues that Stalin simply used the speech as a “pretext for mobilizing the Soviet people against their former allies.”

Historical Context: World War II and the Cold War

Churchill’s words proved to be prescient. As the Soviet Union continued to consolidate its hegemony east of the Iron Curtain, the U.S. made a commitment to help foreign countries resist communism. In March 1947,  President Truman issued the Truman Doctrine, asserting that the U.S. would “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”

“Truman argued that the United States could no longer stand by and allow the forcible expansion of Soviet totalitarianism into free, independent nations, because American national security now depended upon more than just the physical security of American territory,” explains the State Department’s Office of the Historian..

For more than 40 years, the U.S. and its Western allies squared off against the Soviet Union and the communist world in the Cold War.

Former President Ronald Reagan, speaking at Westminster near the end of the Cold War in 1990, praised Churchill’s foresight. “His Fulton speech was a firebell in the night,” he pronounced, “a Paul Revere warning that tyranny was once more on the march.”

Background: Churchill’s Warning of the Nazi Threat

In the 1930s, Churchill was one of the most outspoken British politicians on the threat posed by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. He made frequent calls for increased military spending and tougher action against Germany.

“Throughout his career, Churchill was a supporter of the Roman saying: ‘If you wish peace, then prepare for war,’” writes Williamson Murray in MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History. “The 1930s certainly lived up to his fears of the consequences of not following such a path.”

Churchill’s calls for action went unheeded. “Churchill’s passion was generally mocked as hysteria,” writes Edward Rothstein in Smithsonian magazine “He seemed to have been cursed like Cassandra: to speak the truth but not to be believed.”

University of East Anglia professor John Charmley argues that this version of events is a myth propagated by Churchill himself after the war. In reality, Charmley says, Churchill’s foreign policy suggestions were unrealistic and “badly flawed.”

“The sheer unlikeliness that everyone was out of step but our Winston is obscured by his iconic status as the man who won the war and as ‘the prophet of truth’ before it,” he writes.

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