Winston Churchill Delivers Iron Curtain Speech | 5 March 1946
Considered by some prophetically prescient, and by others scandalously self-serving, Churchill’s speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri on March 5, 1946 came to define an era. While popularly remembered as the “Iron Curtain” speech, Churchill actually titled it “Sinews of Peace.” This title underscores what he saw as the primary aim of his speech: the cementing of a “special relationship” between the United Kingdom and the United States. Churchill believed that together the US and the UK had the military, cultural and political power to direct and govern the postwar world at the expense of Stalin’s Russia. Few phrases in history have had the enduring cultural resonance of “Iron Curtain.” While inextricably linked to Churchill in the public mind, he did not coin the phrase. It was actually Hitler’s chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels who first referred to the Eastern European Soviet sphere of influence as an “Iron Curtain.” Both Goebbels and Churchill used the phrase with the same intent: to conceptualize anti-communist alliances while simultaneously isolating Soviet Russia.
By early 1946, Europe was still reeling from the aftermath of World War II. The devastation wrought by the war led to the starvation of millions, and the threatened starvation of millions more. Economies lay in tatters, millions of displaced persons or refugees sought desperately to locate friends and families and deal with the destruction all around. In this context of extreme suffering and uncertainty, the political alliance that had defeated Hitler’s Germany was beginning to unravel. Franklin Roosevelt had died in April 1945, Winston Churchill was voted out as Prime Minister in July 1945. Of the Big Three who guided the allies during WW II, only Joseph Stalin remained in power in the Soviet Union. While conflict between US, UK and Soviet interests became more and more prevalent, many people still hoped that the wartime alliance would last into the postwar period. Fearing a break with America over Britain’s attempts to hang onto its Empire, Churchill saw the invitation to speak at Westminster College, with a promised introduction from President Harry Truman, as the perfect venue for laying out his postwar vision.
Going into his address, Churchill was in a good mood. He had struggled since losing his Prime Ministership the previous June and felt this address, with Truman and other dignitaries present, the perfect opportunity for his political comeback. He was in such good spirits that he jokingly complemented Westminster’s cooking staff by insisting that “the pig has reached its highest point of evolution” in the ham served for lunch. Striding confidently to the podium, Churchill delivered a forceful address highlighted by dramatic hand gestures and punctuated phrases.
When Churchill uttered the phrase “Iron Curtain,” it was hardly a fitting description of the Soviet occupied Eastern Europe. Relatively free elections in Hungary and Czechoslovakia had or would take place; not even in Poland was Soviet rule unquestioned or uncontested. More importantly, Stalin had no stomach for confrontation with the West. His focus was on rebuilding Russia and ensuring a buffer of friendly states to ensure national security in the future. Churchill’s speech swept aside the ambiguity and complexity of the postwar political situation in Europe, drawing clear lines around friends (the US) and enemies (Soviet Russia and Communism). In effect, Churchill rhetorically took the middle ground away in Europe. He argued that the US had no choice but to side with Imperial England against an expansionist Communist Russia. Using terms of surety and power, Churchill seized the rhetorical moment and offered a vision of certainty in a time of extreme anxiety. His path forward was concrete and seemed to promise the peace he put in the title.
As was his penchant, Churchill’s timing was impeccable. By the next day his speech was international news. While a few, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, found it propagandistic and self-serving, most Western commentators praised it and its message. His speech was so timely that it has literally come to define the Cold War period. While Churchill did not achieve his immediate aim of trying to stave off the dismemberment of the British Empire, his speech did bring about a closer anti-communist relationship between the US and the UK. Pushing anti-communism, instead of the wartime anti-fascism, as the defining link between the Anglo nations accelerated tensions with the Soviet Bloc. In this way Churchill sought to help secure the UK’s postwar future by forcing Soviet Russia to throw up a wall, or impenetrable curtain, to Western influence. Casting the Soviet Union as the aggressor allowed him to whitewash any UK, or US, complicity in the formation of the Cold War. By eloquently framing the debate about the postwar world as he did, Churchill decisively influenced the context or environment in which policy makers throughout the world, but particularly in the US, made their decisions. Churchill’s rhetorical bomb did as much or more to shape the contours of the postwar world, and draw lines in the Cold War, than any action taken by the Soviet Union. While militarily and economically nowhere near the more heavy weight Russians and Americans, the British Bulldog of Winston Churchill played a decisive role framing the postwar world and what became the Cold War.
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Larres, Klaus. Churchill’s Cold War: The Politics of Personal Diplomacy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.