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How Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech has been misunderstood

In his address at Fulton, Missouri, 75 years ago, Churchill played up the Soviet threat to bolster the case for Anglo-American cooperation, not the Cold War.

 

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Friday 5 March marks the 75th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s one and only visit to Fulton, Missouri. On the campus of Westminster College, the former prime minister delivered what became known as his “Iron Curtain” speech. With the US President Harry S Truman sitting beside him and the Soviet leader Josef Stalin firing back a blistering diatribe from Moscow, Churchill’s address at Fulton is now seen as a landmark moment in the ideological polarisation of the early Cold War. It is also one of his most celebrated speeches, on a par with those he made in the summer of 1940.

For both these reasons, the anniversary should not pass without comment. Yet there is a larger issue at stake. Churchill’s reputation has eventually been caught in the inevitable whirligig of time, as politicians lauded in their own generation later become targets of criticism and even abuse. This has been particularly apparent in the past year, as the Black Lives Matter movement shifted the spotlight from the champion of freedom against Nazism to the ardent defender of Britain’s empire. Views of Churchill have become increasingly polarised – the Hero of the Right and the Villain of the Left – with each side often displaying a cardboard cut-out figure.

What we need is a more rounded, three-dimensional picture of one of the most significant leaders of the 20th century – an understanding of Churchill as a complex human being, rather than either icon or demon. His Fulton speech of March 1946 is a good place to start, because it involved far more than the famous tagline about an iron curtain coming down across postwar Europe. In fact, “Iron Curtain” was never Churchill’s own title. He called his speech “The Sinews of Peace”.

Like so much of Churchill’s life, his trip to Fulton was a story of principled self-promotion – a considered response to the breakdown of the wartime alliance delivered as part of his fightback from electoral defeat in the July 1945 election. That Labour landslide marked the worst Tory performance since 1906, which had brought Churchill – a Tory turned Liberal before re-ratting again in the 1920s – his first taste of governmental office. In 1945 the Conservative Party made Churchill the centrepiece of its election campaign – “HELP HIM finish the Job” – and so the humiliation felt very personal. Clementine Churchill was conscious that her husband was exhausted after five gruelling years as war leader. “It may well be a blessing in disguise,” she remarked consolingly. “At the moment,” he grunted, “it seems quite effectively disguised.”

Fortunately for Churchill, Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander, the British commander in Italy, made available his official villa on Lake Como. There Winston threw himself into painting, a pastime he had put aside during the war. On 8 September he told his doctor, Lord Moran: “With my painting I have recovered my balance.” He wrote home to Clemmie, “I feel a great sense of relief, which grows steadily, others having to face the hideous problems of the aftermath.” And, he admitted: “It may well indeed be ‘a blessing in disguise’.” 

But Como could only be a temporary respite. Moran likened the loss of political power to the shock of major surgery. Other ex-leaders used the same metaphor: when Konrad Adenauer, the veteran West German Chancellor, was finally evicted from office in 1963 by his colleagues, at the age of 87, he said it felt like having his arms and legs cut off. Although Churchill was only 70 in the autumn of 1945, the vultures seemed to be gathering. Tories talked of the need for a fresh face and there was a whispering campaign in the press that Winston would soon hand over to his heir-apparent, Anthony Eden.

There were times in late 1945 when Churchill did indeed come close to bowing out of politics. He had no energy for routine party affairs, and left much of Commons business to Eden. On 15 December he told the Duke of Windsor, whose cause he had quixotically championed during the abdication crisis of 1936, “The difficulties of leading the opposition are very great and I increasingly wonder whether the game is worth the candle.” Yet what else was there to do? He had no appetite for a big book project. His A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, put aside in 1940, languished in the files, and he lacked the mental or physical energy to embark on his memoirs of the recent war. He still craved power, and the sense of meaning that came with it – the ability to shape great events which had galvanised him all his life. During a low in the election campaign, he told his doctor sadly, “I have no message for them now.” The man who had given the lion’s roar in 1940 felt he had nothing to say to his country, or the world.

His postbag, of course, bulged with requests to give speeches all over the world. But most of them elicited a polite “no” from his secretaries. An invitation to deliver the annual John Findlay Green Foundation Lectures at an obscure college in America’s rural hinterland (worse still, a dry campus) would have received similar treatment, but for a PS scrawled at the bottom: “This is a wonderful school in my home state. Hope you can do it. I’ll introduce you. Best regards – Harry S Truman.” Churchill told the president that he was planning a winter of “rest and recuperation” in Florida and could not contemplate delivering four lectures. Nevertheless, responding to the postscript, he told Truman: “I should feel it my duty – and it would also be a great pleasure – to deliver an Address to the Westminster University [sic] on the world situation, under your aegis.”

As Churchill made clear, the attraction of Fulton lay not in the tiny college town itself (population 8,000, average annual student class 350) but in the prospect of the US president being on the podium beside him. This would guarantee him a worldwide audience. In true Churchillian style he devoted an immense amount of time to the content and phrasing of his text, revising it with his secretary on the train until the last minute. And, like many of his speeches, the argument was more complex than the stereotypical view of Churchill the flamboyant orator suggests.

***

The speech had four themes. First, and most familiar, was his statement that “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent”. East of that line, in “the Soviet sphere”, said Churchill, people were subject to “a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of Soviet control”. The phrase “iron curtain” – as Churchill himself recalled – dated back to fire-safety devices in the Victorian theatres of his youth. It had been transposed to Russia and the West after the Bolshevik Revolution and then applied to the Red Army’s advance across Europe by Josef Goebbels, from whom Churchill probably picked it up in May 1945. Like a wine taster, however, he had been swilling similar words around in his mouth for months – with “veil” or “screen” as alternative nouns – before using “iron curtain” publicly in the Commons on 16 August 1945. But it was Churchill’s commanding performance for the president that gave the phrase global currency, conveying a stark, if simplified, image of postwar Europe.

Adding historical depth, as was his wont, Churchill pointed back to the 1930s, still fresh in his listeners’ minds. He warned that problems with the Soviets would not be removed “by a policy of appeasement”. Here was his second soundbite at Fulton. In time, the “lessons of appeasement” became a cliché of post-1945 diplomacy, from Korea to Vietnam, from Suez to the Iraq wars. But Fulton was probably the first time any British notable used the term “appeasement” so deliberately in public about the USSR. And when doing so, Churchill made clear that he commanded the moral high ground. “Last time I saw it all coming and cried aloud to my own fellow-countrymen and to the world, but no one paid any attention.” And so “one by one we were all sucked into the awful whirlpool. We surely must not let that happen again.” Here were the lessons of history proclaimed by a prophet who “last time” had been consigned to the wilderness. Fulton was also about sweet self-vindication.

Churchill offered not only a warning but also a solution, summed in his other two soundbites. Instead of appeasement, he called for “fraternal association” among the “English-speaking peoples”, based on “a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States”. Insisting that this relationship depended not only on special affinities, such as language, he talked of military cooperation, interchangeable weaponry, the sharing of bases, and eventually even common citizenship. It was Lord Halifax, his reluctant rival for the role of war leader, who had first predicted a “special association” with the US in a memo written after the fall of France. But it was Churchill who deployed the term “special relationship” publicly during the war and in a speech to the Commons in November 1945. As with “iron curtain”, however, it took the unique circumstances of Fulton to bring it to the notice of the US and the world.

Yet neither term was employed by Churchill as the title of his speech. Instead, he called it “The Sinews of Peace”, tweaking the old adage about money as the sinews of war. Essentially, he was saying that Anglo-American unity constituted the supple power needed to keep the peace. He dismissed talk that war was inevitable, asserting of the Russians that “there is nothing they admire more than strength, and nothing for which they have less respect than weakness, especially military weakness”. Churchill regarded negotiation with the Soviets, from a position of strength provided by the special relationship, as the only way to prevent a third world war. His aim was therefore “a good understanding on all points with Russia under the general authority of the United Nations Organization” backed by “the whole strength of the English-speaking world”. This, declared Churchill in a sentence added on the train, “is the solution which I respectfully offer to you in this Address to which I have given the title ‘The Sinews of Peace’’’.

Of the four soundbites, the most important for Churchill was the special relationship. That, he told his audience, was “the crux” of his message. He was speaking at a time when the wartime alliance was fraying amid arguments about whether the US would provide a postwar loan to Britain and maintain the atomic bomb as a joint project. The structure of the speech also made clear Churchill’s prime emphasis. He spoke first of “the two great dangers” of the era, “war and tyranny”, arguing that the UN could not work effectively without the special relationship. Only then did he introduce the “iron curtain” theme, to justify his contention that the “fraternal association” must be forged soon. The alternative was to learn these lessons yet again “for a third time in a school of war”. Rather than proposing an Anglo-American axis to wage the Cold War, Churchill was invoking the threat of a world war three to justify a special relationship.

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Why, then, has the Fulton speech been understood as the clarion call to Cold War? Churchill himself was partly to blame. For a man so attuned to words, he was surprisingly indecisive about titles. The speech was originally billed as simply about “World Affairs”. Only on the day before did he sharpen the title to “The Sinews of Peace”. Many advance texts for the press did not use this phrase and that affected the balance of some of the reporting.

Yet context mattered more than content in explaining reaction to the Fulton speech. By the time Churchill spoke, the Soviets and Americans were facing off at the UN about the Red Army’s failure to withdraw, as agreed, from northern Iran. It was his comments on Russia that were therefore most likely to hit the headlines, particularly when packaged in such a striking phrase. What’s more, Moscow unleashed a massive counter-attack on Churchill in the press. Most remarkable, on 13 March, Pravda printed a Q&A session with Stalin himself about Fulton. The drama of the moment is vividly conveyed by the New York Times banner headlines on Thursday 14 March:

STALIN SAYS CHURCHILL STIRS WAR AND FLOUTS ANGLO-RUSSIAN PACT; SOVIET TANKS APPROACH TEHERAN

RUSSIAN LEADER LIKENS CHURCHILL TO HITLER FOR PLEA TO US

SAYS SOVIETS CAN WIN WAR

Stalin denounced the Fulton speech as nothing less than “a call to war with the Soviet Union”. Churchill, he said, was arguing that the English-speaking peoples, “being the only valuable nations, should rule over the remaining nations of the world”. He described it as a “racial theory” based on language: “One is reminded remarkably of Hitler and his friends.”

This was an astonishing outburst, but Churchill had been in Stalin’s sights for a while. A few months before, Pravda had published excerpts from a Churchill speech on 7 November praising Stalin (“this truly great man”) and the “noble Russian people” for their contribution to Allied victory. Stalin, brooding on the Black Sea coast, sent his Politburo colleagues a stinging rebuke: Churchill “needs these eulogies” in order to “camouflage his hostile attitude towards the USSR”. Stalin warned against “servility and fawning” whenever Russia was praised by foreigners. Here, perhaps, was a foretaste of his subsequent campaign to eliminate “cosmopolitan” tendencies that had taken root in the USSR during the war, in order to regain his grip on the country by othering its allies. Stalin’s vituperative response as much as Churchill’s own words ensured that Fulton went down as one of the opening salvoes of the Cold War.

The Iran crisis and Stalin’s outburst prompted the British and US governments to disassociate themselves from Fulton. In London, more than 100 Labour MPs signed a Commons motion asking Prime Minister Clement Attlee to repudiate Churchill’s tone and content. Attlee declined to comment, stating that the former prime minister had spoken in “an individual capacity”. Yet the Fulton speech was broadly in line with official British policy and Attlee, given the gist of Churchill’s argument in advance, had told him: “I am sure your Fulton speech will do good.”

The Truman administration had been much more closely consulted. Indeed, the president read a copy during their train journey from Washington to Fulton and, according to Churchill, said he “thought it was admirable and would do nothing but good, though it would make a stir. He seemed equally pleased during and after.” Given all this consultation, it seems likely that the Truman administration welcomed Fulton as a trial balloon for its own emerging campaign to shift public opinion towards confronting the USSR. But liberals and the left, including Eleanor Roosevelt, angrily claimed that Churchill was trying to build a transatlantic “military alliance” that would undermine the UN. Given the outcry in both the US and the USSR, Truman, like Attlee, found it prudent to distance himself from Churchill.

Yet, as the Cold War deepened in 1947-48 – with the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan and the Berlin airlift – verdicts on Fulton shifted. It was soon applauded in the West as a visionary warning rather than damned as a reckless polemic. And so Churchill garnered sole credit for a speech that the British and American governments had been happy to facilitate.

Even at the time, Stalin’s vituperation didn’t upset Churchill: on the contrary. Words deleted at the last minute from a speech in New York on 15 March betray his glee at the furore. He considered it “extraordinary” that “the head of a mighty, victorious government” should engage in “personal controversy” with someone who had “no official position of any kind”. But Churchill did not intend to let this “implied compliment” go to his head. Nor was he “dismayed by harsh words, even from the most powerful of dictators. Indeed, I had years of it from Hitler and managed to get along all right”.

Fulton had served its purpose. The president of the United States had sat alongside Churchill as he spoke; the leader of the Soviet Union had blasted his words; the speech echoed around the world. Having found his voice again, Churchill gave a second internationally resonant address at Zurich in September, calling for France and Germany to lead a movement for European unity. Buoyed up at being the centre of attention once more, he swatted away press gossip about his imminent retirement as Tory party leader. In October 1946 his crony Brendan Bracken summed up the new mood. Winston, he said, was “determined to continue to lead the Tory party ’til he becomes Prime Minister on Earth or Minister of Defence in Heaven”.

What Churchill said at Fulton also gave him a reason for staying on in politics. Speaking in Edinburgh in February 1950, he reprised his theme about negotiation from strength, proposing “another talk with the Soviet Union at the highest level” because it was “not easy to see how matters could be worsened by a parley at the summit”. That usage of the word had appeared in some Thirties novels by HG Wells, of whom Churchill was a great fan, and “summit” was in the media more literally by the 1950s because of new attempts on Mount Everest. Calls for another “supreme effort to bridge the gap” between East and West at a “summit of the nations” became a feature of Churchill’s second premiership in 1951-55. Of course, his ulterior motive was to “stay in the pub until closing time”, as he charmingly admitted in private – even though he was no longer up to the rigours of shuttle diplomacy and had no clear idea what “negotiation from strength” actually meant in the nuclear age. But, as at Fulton, ego and values were intertwined.

***

In the context of our contemporary debate about Churchill, Fulton serves as a useful reminder of his remarkable complexity. First, as a man of words. Consider that verbal triptych: Iron Curtain, Special Relationship and Summit. No modern statesman can boast of three such consequential additions to the lexicon of international politics. Churchill did not coin these terms, but he found the time and the place to launch them to the world. They remain staples of diplomatic discourse to this day. Yet Churchill was no “mere” wordsmith. The tendency to harp on his 1940 rhetoric – on phrases like “finest hour” and “fight on the beaches” – has obscured the intellectual care with which his major speeches were crafted. The soundbites simply drove home the message. In today’s world, Churchill – always fascinated by gadgets – would have doubtless enjoyed Twitter. And as a regular columnist, he knew how to work the press. But he would never have considered a tweet in capital letters or a snide one-liner in a hasty op-ed piece as appropriate ways to develop and explain policy.

Unlike recent British premiers, Churchill brought to No 10 a lifetime’s apprenticeship in government. David Cameron became PM after only nine years as an MP and without ever holding ministerial office. Theresa May never escaped her Home Office bunker; Boris Johnson managed two gaffe-strewn years as foreign secretary. Churchill, by contrast, had served as home secretary and chancellor of the Exchequer; in his time, he also ran the Admiralty, the War Office and the Air Ministry, the Board of Trade, the Ministry of Munitions and the Colonial Office. All this gave him wide experience of the Whitehall bureaucracy and clear ideas about how to outwit it. He managed to do just that in No 10, where he had his own Svengali in the form of Brendan Bracken, but without anything to match the Cummings and Goings of our own day.

The only high office of state that Churchill never held was the foreign secretaryship – which may help explain his obsession with personal diplomacy. That also reminds us that his fame as war leader can also impede a rounded view. Yes, he was a daredevil warrior in his twenties, courting danger in India, the Sudan and South Africa in order to make his name. Yes, he loved playing the grand strategist in 1940-45, sacking cautious generals and enraging his chiefs of staff. But, having seen war up close, Churchill was viscerally aware of its costs. And after 1945 he had no doubt that nuclear war would be appalling. That did not mean peace at any price. But it did require a “supreme effort” at the “summit of the nations”. And, of course, there was only one man who could do it.

David Reynolds's books include In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War” (Penguin)

David Reynolds’s books include In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War (Penguin)

This article appears in the 10 March 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Grief nation