On March 5, 1946, Winston Churchill gave his famous "Iron Curtain" speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. With this speech, Churchill intended to offer a guide for maintaining world peace, though he also warned the West of the danger of Soviet expansionism.
Shortly after Germany's surrender in May 1945, Churchill's conservative government had called for a general election. The wartime prime minister, who had seen Britain through its contest with Germany since May 1940, was voted out of office.
Dr. Franc L. McCluer, the president of Westminster College, decided to invite Churchill to receive an honorary degree and give a speech, and through a former college student and friend of Harry Truman, McCleur approached the president of the United States. Truman thought that McCluer's idea had merit and enthusiastically endorsed it. In McCluer's letter to the former prime minister Truman added the lines, "This is a wonderful school in my home state. Hope you can do it. I'll introduce you. Best regards."
Churchill gratefully accepted and after visiting Cuba and Miami he made his way to Washington, D.C. In his book "Truman," biographer David McCullough wrote:
"(On) Monday, March 4, riding in Roosevelt's armored railroad car, the Ferdinand Magellan, Truman and Churchill left by special train for Missouri. Truman's obvious high spirits impressed everyone. He was delighted to be traveling in such good company and bringing Churchill, the most famous speaker in the world, to a college in his home state that no one ever heard of."
The next day, following Truman's introduction, Churchill gave his famous speech, which was broadcast throughout the country. He began the speech by thanking the school for his degree, then noted mirthfully that he was very well acquainted with the name "Westminster."
He then went on to praise his host nation, "The United States stands at this time at the pinnacle of world power. It is a solemn moment for the American Democracy. For with primacy in power is also joined an awe inspiring accountability to the future. If you look around you, you must feel not only the sense of duty done but also you must feel anxiety lest you fall below the level of achievement."
He went on to call for the new United Nations to wield more military power, suggesting that each member nation contribute air squadrons that would be put at the disposal of that body. He did, however, state that the secret of the atomic bomb should continue to rest only with the United States, Great Britain and Canada. Churchill discussed British constitutional history and the importance of general elections, civil liberties and the rule of law. Churchill also stated that the cornerstone for a lasting peace would be the "special relationship" between Britain and the U.S. The phrase "special relationship" soon entered the diplomatic lexicon when describing British-American relations.
Churchill then spoke of Soviet aggression, the theme that the speech would forever be associated with. In perhaps the speech's most recognizable passage, Churchill stated: "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. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow. The Communist parties, which were very small in all these Eastern States of Europe, have been raised to pre-eminence and power far beyond their numbers and are seeking everywhere to obtain totalitarian control. Police governments are prevailing in nearly every case .”
Churchill did not coin the phrase "Iron Curtain" to describe Soviet domination, however. The term originally referred to a device that would drop in front of the stage during theatrical productions, ensuring that if a fire started on stage it would not spread to the audience. Following the First World War and the Russian Revolution, which brought the communists to power in Russia, the term had been used in this anti-Bolshevik context by many. During World War II, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels had referred to the limit of the Soviet Union's control as an "Iron Curtain."
Churchill stated that Western unity was paramount in order to ensure a lasting peace. Regarding the possibility of a new war, Churchill stated: "On the other hand, I repulse the idea that a new war is inevitable; still more that it is imminent. It is because I am sure that our fortunes are still in our own hands and that we hold the power to save the future, that I feel the duty to speak out now that I have the occasion and the opportunity to do so. I do not believe that Soviet Russia desires war. What they desire is the fruits of war and the indefinite expansion of their power and doctrines."
He also said, “From what I have seen of our Russian friends and Allies during the war, I am convinced that there is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness, especially military weakness.” For that reason, Churchill called upon the West to remain militarily strong in the face of the Soviet threat. Churchill ended the speech with a final call for unity of purpose and action between Great Britain and America, the only sure means of restraining Soviet expansionism.
Churchill had intended his remarks to be a blueprint for the maintenance of peace, even titling the speech, "The Sinews of Peace," perhaps a play on Cicero's phrase about "the sinews of war." The message that most took away from the speech, however, was that an aggressive Soviet Union had to be stopped — diplomatically if possible, militarily if necessary. Indeed, many saw Churchill's speech as a new call to arms in an era when most people looked forward to a new era of peace following the cataclysm of the 1939-1945 war.
Historian John Lewis Gaddis noted in his biography of the American cold warrior, "George F. Kennan: An American Life," that, "No speech of that era more clearly proclaimed the demise of the wartime grand alliance."
In his book, "Churchill: A Life," biographer Martin Gilbert wrote: "It was a noble vision, but the speech was again dismissed as alarmist, as his speeches from 1932 to 1938 had been. In London, 'The Times' described as 'less than happy' his contrast between Western democracy and Communism, stating that the two creeds had 'much to learn from each other. ' Far from becoming known as 'The Sinews of Peace,' Churchill's speech quickly became known as the 'Iron Curtain' speech, as if it had actually created the Iron Curtain and sought to hold it in place."
It seemed as though history was repeating itself. Just like his attacks on the growing Nazi threat in the 1930s, however, Churchill proved correct in his characterization of the Soviets' desire to expand and conquer. The Soviet Union did indeed project its power over Eastern Europe in as brutal a fashion as Churchill feared. Soviet forces violently put down challenges to their power in East Germany in 1953, in Hungary in 1956 and in Prague in 1968.
Local Communist parties, beholden to their masters in Moscow, introduced police states in every one of the Soviet satellite nations. East Germany's secret police force, the Stasi, dwarfed its fascist predecessor the Gestapo. Additionally, communist agents attempted to foment revolution and destabilize governments around the world.
Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech highlighted once again the statesman's skills of oratory combined with a prophetic ability to correctly read events upon the world stage. A clip of several passages of the speech can be seen on YouTube.com.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. He has also appeared on many local stages including Hale Centre Theatre and Off Broadway Theatre. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org