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Churchill's Iron Curtain

Winston Churchill's seminal 1946 speech in Westminster College gave not only a name to growing Soviet influence in Central and Eastern Europe, it also foresaw the future of the Iron Curtain.

By
Giles Milton
6-minute read
Episode #98

In the first week of March 1946, a gruff, heavy-jowled British gentleman could be seen boarding a train at Silver Spring Station, in Maryland. The gentleman in question was Winston Churchill, leader of His Majesty’s opposition, and he was embarking on a twenty-four-hour overnight journey to Missouri in the Ferdinand Magellan, President Truman’s armored railcar.

Churchill had been invited to make a keynote speech in Truman’s home state and he intended it to be his most important address since losing the 1945 election. He was accompanied on his journey by the American president himself, along with Truman’s twenty-two-year-old daughter, Margaret, and the usual entourage of aides and Secret Servicemen. Also in the party was the president’s close advisor Gen. Harry Vaughan.

Churchill was in ebullient form during the voyage, drinking five large Scotches before the onboard dinner and reciting anecdotes about his youthful skirmishes against the Boers in the parched backlands of Natal.

The two protagonists got along famously and agreed to call each other “Winston” and “Harry.” They played poker into the late hours and watched the darkening plains unfurl into the endless horizons of Indiana and Illinois. At one point, Churchill put down his cards and gushingly expressed his desire to live in the United States, although he swiftly added that he deplored some of its more recent customs. When Truman inquired as to which customs he had in mind, Churchill said, “You stopped drinking with your meals.”

On the following morning, as the train chased the sluggish flow of the Missouri River, Churchill handed his speech to Truman and asked for his opinion. “He told me he thought it was admirable,” wrote Churchill, “and would do nothing but good, though it would make a stir.”

The first stir of that historic day was caused by Churchill himself, and it happened within minutes of his arrival in Fulton. “[His] desire for liquid refreshment became something of a problem, [for] Fulton was a dry town.” So wrote the young Margaret Truman, who was astonished by Churchill’s capacity for alcohol. After a frantic search, General Vaughan managed to find both liquor and ice for the insatiable Winston. “Well, General,” joshed Churchill as he poured himself a generous sharpener, “I am glad to see you. I didn’t know whether I was in Fulton Missouri or Fulton Sahara.”

The speech was due to take place just a few hours after his arrival, in the gymnasium of Westminster College. Although Fulton was an unremarkable midwestern town, Churchill was performing on a world stage, and he dressed to impress his audience, donning the scarlet robes and plush black cap of Oxford University. Thirty thousand locals had flocked to the streets in the hope of glimpsing this near-mythical beast, while the makeshift auditorium was packed to capacity with an expectant crowd. Truman performed the introductory warm-up.

“I understand that Mr. Churchill is going to talk about the sinews of peace,” he said. “I know he will have something constructive to say to the world.” Once the president had finished his introduction, Churchill asked for the lights to be dimmed, plunging the auditorium into a gloomy twilight of giant shadows and snapping flashbulbs. This caused dismay among the assembled press, who could pick out little more than Churchill’s balding scalp. The British Movietone commentator went so far as to apologize to viewers for the curtain of darkness that had fallen over the great auditorium. Yet the dark backdrop served its purpose, for the looming shadows only heightened the drama.

The “World Citizen,” as Truman had called Churchill, made his way to the lectern. He had the air of an aging warship going doggedly into battle, his stooping shoulders like great oak beams, his bones creaking as they sought to support the giant head. Yet the cannon were primed for action, and the old galleon was more than capable of delivering a formidable broadside. As Churchill approached the podium, the three-thousand-strong crowd rose to their feet, clapping, cheering, and shouting their praise.

Churchill flung his foppish cap onto a nearby chair, nudged his tiny spectacles onto the bridge of his nose, and slowly started to speak. “I am glad to come to Westminster College this afternoon,” he began. “The name ‘Westminster’ is somehow familiar to me.”

Gone was the rambling Churchill of the Yalta and Potsdam conferences; gone were the digressions and interminable anecdotes. “It is my duty . . . to state facts as I see them to you, to place before you certain facts about the present position in Europe.”

He then launched into the portentous heart of what would soon become the most famous speech of the postwar period. “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.”

He was unsparing in both words and actions, slicing the air with a theatrical chop as he growled the words “iron curtain.” “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.”

Churchill next addressed the situation in the German capital, issuing a stern wake-up call to his audience. “An attempt is being made by the Russians in Berlin to build up a quasi-Communist Party in their zone of Occupied Germany by showing special favors to groups of left-wing German leaders.”

Then, in words that could have come straight from the playbook of Frank Howley, he issued a stern injunction on how best to deal with the Soviets. “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.” He called upon the Western democracies to stand together in unity, for it was the only way of keeping the Soviet monster at bay. “If[,] however[,] they become divided or falter in their destiny, and if these all-important years are allowed to slip away, then catastrophe may overwhelm us all.”

Truman had said that Churchill’s speech would cause a stir, and it did rather more than that. The influential political commentator Walter Lippmann spoke for many when he called it an “almost catastrophic blunder.”

Ten editorials across the country agreed with Lippmann’s assessment: Churchill was accused of causing untold damage in relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. Eleanor Roosevelt, the late president’s widow, declared herself outraged, while The Wall Street Journal issued a fuming riposte to Churchill’s suggestion of a Western alliance against the Soviet threat. “The United States wants no alliance, or anything that resembles an alliance, with any other nation.”

This, indeed, had been a cornerstone of American foreign policy ever since George Washington’s Farewell Address in 1796. Many viewed the speech as a deliberate repudiation of the White House’s policy of working alongside the Soviets as allies.

Stalin added to the chorus of outrage, describing the speech as “calculated to sow the seeds of discord between the Allied Governments and make collaboration difficult.” Indeed, he went so far as to label it “a call to war.” In Britain, too, there was widespread fury, with ninety-three Labour MPs introducing a motion of censure against Churchill. His speech, they said, was “inimical to the cause of world peace.”

Churchill himself took such criticisms on the chin, confident that he was correct in his analysis. Among the few who did not join the chorus of criticism was the British foreign secretary Ernest Bevin, who was in complete agreement with Churchill’s views on Soviet duplicity.

Another who quietly agreed with what Churchill said was George Kennan, chargé d’affaires at the American embassy in Moscow. He was preparing his own analysis of Soviet intentions, one that would soon become famous as the Long Telegram. A carefully argued critique of Stalin’s malign intentions, it would dramatically turn American foreign policy on its head, bringing it into line with the thinking of Frank Howley.

In common with Howley, Kennan’s said that the Soviets were no longer wartime allies. In their words, and in their actions, they had demonstrated that they’d become the enemy.

Photo use under Creative Common License.

About the Author

Giles Milton

Giles Milton is a writer and historian who graduated from the University of Bristol. He is an internationally bestselling author of nine works of narrative non-fiction and three novels. His books have been translated into more than 20 languages and serialized by the BBC.