Remembering Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech
March 5th, 2012
01:00 PM ET

Remembering Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech

Editor's Note: Dr. James M. Lindsay is a Senior Vice President at the Council on Foreign Relations and co-author of America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy. Visit his blog here and follow him on Twitter.

By James M.

Politicians give speeches all the time. Most of what they say is quickly forgotten, or perhaps better never said in the first place. But occasionally a politician gives a speech that defines an age. That is precisely what happened on March 5, 1946 whenWinston Churchill spoke at tiny Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. He gave the world what became the central metaphor of the cold war: the iron curtain.

Churchill was in Missouri at the encouragement of President Harry Truman, who had grown up down the road in Independence and who introduced him when he spoke at Westminster College. “Winnie” was no longer prime minister by the time he came to campus. In July 1945, just two months after he led Britain to victory over Germany, British voters tossed him and his Conservative Party out of power. But his electoral defeat had hardly dimmed his star power in the United States.Churchill enjoyed the attention that the Americans gave him. He toyed with the press in the run-up to the speech. “I think ‘No Comment’ is a splendid expression,” he told reporters who asked what he would say in Fulton. “I am using it again and again.”When the day came, Churchill delivered remarks that would give the press something to write about. The title of his speech was “The Sinews of Peace,” but its primary message was that the United States and Great Britain needed to confront an increasingly aggressive Soviet Union. One sentence in particular stood out:

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe.

Churchill rejected “the idea that a new war is inevitable; still more that it is imminent.” But he did believe that the Soviets sought “the fruits of war and the indefinite expansion of their power and doctrines.” The only proper response was to hold fast. “I am convinced that there is nothing they admire so much as strength.”

Churchill knew that his stern anti-Soviet remarks would make a splash. As he left the auditorium he told the president of Westminster College that he hoped the speech had “started some thinking that will make history.”

That it did, though at first not in the direction that Churchill hoped. Newspapers across the country criticized him for needlessly antagonizing Moscow; the Chicago Sun called his remarks “poisonous.” And while most Americans today intuitively understand that a “special relationship” exists between Washington and London, when Churchill introduced the term in Fulton many Americans saw it as a threat to the newly created United Nations Organization. When Churchill stopped in New York on his way back to Britain, protesters outside his hotel chanted “Winnie, Winnie, go away, UNO is here to stay.”

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin also panned Churchill’s speech. He told Pravda in an interview that the New York Times reprinted that Churchill’s talk of a “fraternal association of English-speaking peoples” amounted to a “call to war with the Soviet Union” and reflected a racial theory of English supremacy no different than Nazi notions of German supremacy. In Stalin’s words, Europeans were not interested in “exchanging the lordship of Hitler for the lordship of Churchill.”

Stalin’s complaints carried no weight with President Truman. But the American public’s unhappiness with what Churchill had said did. To defuse his domestic political problem,Truman insisted that he had not known what Churchill was going to say (though he did). And to balance things out, he invited Stalin to visit the United States (calculating, correctly as it turned out, that “Uncle Joe” would say no.)

Despite the public disavowals, Churchill’s speech influenced the Truman administration’s emerging thinking on how to deal with Moscow. Just eleven days earlier George Kennan had sent his famous “Long Telegram,” arguing that the Soviets could not be won over with promises and concessions. And Truman’s own dealings with Stalin at Potsdam had convinced him that the Soviet leader had more respect for the closed fist than the open hand. So Churchill accomplished what he had set out to do at Westminster College. His “Iron Curtain” speech started people thinking and made history.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of James M. Lindsay.

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Topics: History

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soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. William Wilberforce

    There is a purpose being worked out down here below. Winston Churchill

    March 5, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Reply
  2. George Patton

    Yes, we all remember all that right-wing bla-bla-bla spewed out by Winston Churcill back in 1946 in Fulton, MO at Westminster College. The only thing is the fact that it was 90% fearmongering! The Russians never posed a threat to world peace as the right-wing propagandists would have us believe! The Russians, on the other hand, had but one word for the Cold War and that word is "biezumnost'"!!!

    March 5, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Reply
  3. j. von hettlingen

    Winston Churchill had a vivid imagination and a brilliant language, which brought him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953. He popularised the term 'Iron Curtain', a term back in 1946 was unheard of. He made a similar speech at the University of Zürich in 1946 and urged for a creation of a "United States of Europe" UNDER THE LEADERSHIP OF FRANCE AND GERMANY. He voiced apprehensions about the Cold War and encouraged an European and trans-Atlantic unit, which led to the foundation of the NATO in 1949. In 1951 he became prime minister again. He resigned in 1955 and died in 1965 at the age of 90. Known for explosive rows and his cigars and remembered for changing his country's military approach from defensiveness to aggressive attack, and so altering the course of history, he was given a state funeral.

    March 6, 2012 at 3:39 am | Reply
    • George Patton

      Do you honestly believe what Churchill said back in 1946? I don't! And don't forget that Churchill was a right-wing fanatic like both Hitler and Mussolini albeit that he was highly regarded by the Western world.

      March 6, 2012 at 10:23 am | Reply
      • j. von hettlingen

        What do you think? Check it out yourself, if you don't believe me!

        March 7, 2012 at 11:44 am |
      • j. von hettlingen

        Of course I do, what do you think? Check it out yourself, if you don't believe me!

        March 7, 2012 at 11:45 am |
  4. Glad I'm alive today

    It's the right wingers and the decisions they have made as part of our history that have allowed the left wingers to even exist today. That's why since society is changing (Obama returned Churchill's bust to Britain which is outrageous and treasonous to me) and there are more brainwashed lefties than those of us with common sense and actual moral values the end of the US as we have known it is fast approaching. May God help our children.

    March 6, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Reply
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    April 23, 2012 at 1:57 am | Reply
  6. Tillie Rettke

    I’ve been visiting your blog for a while now and I always find a gem in your new posts. Thanks for sharing.

    July 30, 2019 at 7:35 am | Reply

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