The Iron Curtain Speech

Reference & Education

  • Author Randy Daniel
  • Published March 27, 2020
  • Word count 1,265

The Iron Curtain Speech

By Randy Daniel

74 years ago on March 5, 1946, a former British Prime Minister delivered a speech at a small liberal arts college in Fulton, Missouri. This speech, titled "Sinews of Peace," was responsible for fanning the flames of discontent in Eastern Europe, thus helping to initiate the Cold War.

Winston Churchill, the former Prime Minister of Great Britain, had been recently defeated as his Conservative Party lost its majority in Parliament and he subsequently lost his ministerial position. However, actors on the world stage, such as "Winnie" often find it hard to give up the limelight. Churchill was no exception. So the defeated Prime Minister thought of another way to remain in his cherished role, that of a world statesman. In so doing, he altered history.

World War II ended nine months earlier and the world was in recovery mode. However, Churchill was increasingly "worried" about Joseph Stalin. He wrote a letter to our "somewhat hot-headed" president to express his concerns about Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.

Harry Truman, our 33rd president, basking in his own limelight as the "Leader of the Free World," invited him to speak at "a wonderful college" in his home state of Missouri. Truman and Churchill both had the same opinion of Stalin and the Soviet Union in general; they both hated the Russian dictator and communism with a passion. Churchill wholeheartedly accepted Truman’s invitation.

Churchill was an avid student of history and a master politician, having served in Parliament since 1900. He was also politically motivated; he longed to regain his leadership role in the British Parliament.

He also knew how to get what he wanted, which was to persuade Harry Truman and the United States to provide a buffer zone between Stalin and Soviet style communism in Eastern Europe, and our allies and their forms of democracy in Western Europe.

Churchill also feared another "Munich Pact" and the dangers of appeasement when dealing with the latest European dictator. Truman played into the former Prime Minister's hands, but at a terrible cost ... the price he paid was receiving most of the blame for what would later become known as the Cold War.

Churchill’s Speech: "Sinews of Peace"

Churchill was invited to Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri as a guest lecturer as part of the Green Foundation Lecture Series established in 1936 as a memorial to John Findley Green. He was a noted St. Louis attorney who graduated from Westminster College in 1884. The lecture series provided a platform of persons "of international reputation to promote understanding of economic and social problems of international concern."1 Winston Churchill was the seventh guest lecturer invited to speak at the college for the lecture series, so he certainly "fit the bill."

Churchill was an avid writer and wrote his own speech, which he titled "Sinews of Peace." His lecture later became known by another title, The Iron Curtain Speech," because of one memorable sentence, "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent." This one metaphorical sentence forever defined Churchill’s speech as describing Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.

Churchill’s speech was extremely controversial. The former British Prime Minister succeeded in dividing Europe into two separate areas of political influence and ideology. He described the major capital cities of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe such as Warsaw, Berlin, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest, and Sofia, as behind an "iron curtain," (a descriptive metaphor that he borrowed from history) or the Soviet sphere. He went on to say that these cities, and the surrounding areas and the respective populations of these countries, were under continuous Soviet domination.

His speech was well received by the American people, including the President of the United States; but was hugely condemned in Russia. Stalin actually wrote a condemnatory response in rebuttal. He viewed Churchill’s speech as warmongering and referred to the former Prime Minister’s remarks as "imperialist racism."

Churchill knew his speech would be controversial, but he had a two-fold purpose in writing it. He wanted to call the world’s attention to Soviet European domination, and he wanted Truman’s assurance that America would not revert to its pre-World War II isolationism. Roosevelt had announced at the Yalta Conference in February of 1945 that the United States would leave Europe two years after the war ended. This worried Churchill, as he was well aware that Britain would be unable to control Stalin; he would need America's help.

Churchill went on to praise American democracy and its new status as the leader of the free world and described America as, "standing on the pinnacle of world power." He saw the United States as the only barrier to Soviet domination in Eastern Europe. He wanted the United States to take decisive action against the Soviet Union, because he believed the Soviets would respect a strong nation more than a weak one. Churchill actually sent Truman a memo before he delivered his famous speech suggesting the United States use nuclear weapons against Stalin before he developed his "bomb." Thankfully, Truman did not take his advice.

The Aftermath of Churchill’s Iron Curtain Speech

Churchill’s speech of March 5, 1946 brought on a stalemate between the United States and the Soviet Union that was later referred to as the "Cold War." It was defined as a period of geopolitical tension between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies in Eastern and Western Europe that began shortly after World War II.

As mentioned earlier, Churchill was afraid the United States would revert to its pre-isolationistic policy, as it should have done. America had always been wary of European problems; Europe had a long history of wars and rumors of wars.

Our first president warned a young nation against entangling European alliances in his farewell address in September of 1796. Because Harry Truman did not listen to a few learned advisors, or heed the words of George Washington, the United States has had a post-war presence in Europe since 1945.

Truman created NATO in 1949, and Stalin followed by creating the Warsaw Pact in 1955 in direct response. The first major crisis of the Cold War was the Berlin Blockade of 1948-49, followed by the Korean war from 1950-53, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the Suez Crisis of 1956, the Berlin Crisis of 1961, and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1961. The "Cold War" came precariously close to "heating up" with this latter crisis. The two world nuclear powers were on the "brink of nuclear war."

All that averted total war in October of 1961 was the fact that the Soviet Union knew they could not win such a war; so Khrushchev backed down. Kennedy had called his bluff in this dangerous "poker game." Two years later, Kennedy was assassinated, and the general conspiracy theory at the time was the Kremlin ordered his assassination. Lee Harvey Oswald, his accused assassin, had ties to the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1961, Winston Churchill, the now retired British Prime Minister, who borrowed a metaphorical descriptive phrase that led to another, and Harry Truman, who enjoyed the praise that the British wartime leader heaped on him and his country a year after he assumed the presidency due to the death of his predecessor, were still around, but fifteen years later, during this latest Cold War crisis, no one cared.

That is usually the way with catastrophic events.

No one remembers the causes or who was responsible ... only the results of such catastrophic events are remembered.

Ref. 1

National Churchill Museum, Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri.

I enjoy writing, it's a great stress buster. My favorite subjects to write about are American History, classic cars, and the occasional op-ed political commentary.

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