By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Winston Churchill (1874-1965) was UK Prime Minister twice, between 1940 and 1945 and then again between 1951 and 1955. During his first term as Prime Minister, in the Second World War, he wrote and delivered some of the most rousing and powerful speeches ever given by a national leader, with ‘we shall fight them on the beaches’ being perhaps the finest of them all.
But in between his two spells as Prime Minister, after the British people voted him and the Conservative Party out of power in 1945, Churchill visited the United States, where he was welcomed by many. And it was at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri that what is perhaps Churchill’s most famous speech of all – the well-known ‘iron curtain’ speech – was delivered on 5 March 1946.
In this speech, Churchill talks about the Cold War that was developing between the West and the Soviet-controlled East, in the wake of the end of the Second World War. His metaphor of an ‘iron curtain’, although not originally his, became forever associated with him after this speech.
‘Iron curtain’ speech: summary
Churchill begins his speech by paying tribute to the Russian people, led by Joseph Stalin: the Soviet Union, of course, had been Britain and America’s ally in the recent war against the Axis powers. Churchill also acknowledges that Russia has sound reasons for wishing to protect itself against possible German invasion. But he also wants to outline to his audience the present situation in Europe.
This is when he introduces the metaphor of an ‘iron curtain’, which he describes as stretching through Europe from north to south, going from Stettin in the Baltic in the north to Trieste in the Adriatic in the south. This iron curtain has ‘descended’ across the continent of Europe.
The capital cities of the ‘ancient states’ of Central and Eastern Europe – Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest, and Sofia – now reside in the ‘Soviet sphere’ and are under the control of Russia to a greater or lesser degree. Only Athens in Greece is free from Soviet control. In the other countries of eastern Europe, police states are being formed under Communist rule, thanks to Russian intervention.
Churchill points out that Europe, recently liberated from the threat of Nazism in the war that ended just one year ago, is in danger of falling short of what Britain and America had planned for it. Because of increased Russian influence in Germany, where the Soviet Union is attempting to infiltrate Communism into German government, pressure will be placed upon the Germans to choose, effectively, between supporting Britain and America and siding with the Soviets.
With this fear in mind, Churchill concludes that what Europe needs, to guarantee safety and stability in the post-war world, is unity. He points out that in both world wars, America has come to the aid of Europe in its hour of need, in order to ensure a victory ‘of the good cause’. He also points out that war has changed in recent years, and with the advent of nuclear power (something implied but not openly stated by Churchill in the speech), ‘war can find any nation, wherever it may dwell between dusk and dawn.’
‘Iron curtain’ speech: analysis
Churchill’s speech has entered the canon of great speeches for one reason above all others: his use of the phrase ‘iron curtain’ to describe the divide between the capitalist West (dominated by Britain and America) and the Communist East (controlled and influenced by the Soviet Union).
This curtain is a barrier separating two very different and opposed ideologies, with ‘iron’ suggesting the military force and power of both sides, as well as the implacable and sturdy nature of the partition. But ‘iron’ here also suggests the oppressive nature of Communist control in eastern Europe, as Russia seeks to set up a divide between itself and the western world. It implies a lack of flexibility and compromise.
In actual fact, Winston Churchill didn’t coin the phrase ‘iron curtain’; the Russian philosopher Vasily Rozanov used it in 1918 in The Apocalypse of Our Times, and the socialist writer Ethel Snowden then used it in a 1920 book about Bolshevik Russia. But it was Churchill who saw the utility of the phrase, and metaphor, for describing the situation that was developing in Europe between East and West, Communism and capitalism, and the dangers that Communism posed to continued peace in Europe.
But although Churchill’s speech begins by drawing attention to this partition, he ends by proposing the solution: unity in Europe. And one way to ensure this is to make sure that Britain and America remain strong allies in order to prevent the spread of Communism. This way, peace in Europe – which had only been secured a year ago, thanks in no small part to American involvement in the war – could be maintained.
It is worth remembering that in 1945, the United Nations had been established in order to try to ensure that peace would continue to reign after the bloodshed of the Second World War. Both Britain and the United States were key members of the United Nations, and the purpose of Churchill’s speech was to remind his American audience of the strong bond between the two nations, as well as America’s role in securing peace in the recent conflict.
When Churchill delivered his ‘iron curtain’ speech at Westminster College, the US President Harry Truman was in attendance, Missouri being his home state; indeed, Churchill and Truman had travelled to the college in the President’s special train. Indeed, it was Truman who had invited Churchill to deliver his speech at the college.
His speech, then, was intended to encourage the continuation of strong British-American relations, with the recent wartime leader of Britain advising the new leader of post-war America that the two nations, the economic and military powerhouses of the West, needed to work together to resist and contain the Communist expansionist programme in Europe.