When the Iron Curtain came down

Seventy years after his speech on the Cold War, Churchill’s words still linger writes Geoffrey Roberts.

When the Iron Curtain came down

Winston Churchill was justly famed for his wartime oratory.

But it is his peacetime warning in March 1946 that Europe had been divided by an “iron curtain” that continues to reverberate to this day: “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.”

Behind that line to the east was the Soviet Union and its communist allies.

Isolated from western influences, countries within the Soviet sphere were slipping into totalitarian control, becoming ‘iron curtain countries’, as the repressive states of the communist bloc came to be known.

Today there is talk of a new iron curtain in Europe — behind which lies Putin’s Russia.

While the original Iron Curtain could be attributed to Soviet expansion westwards after the Second World War, the modern divisions in Europe are the result of NATO and the EU expanding eastwards to the borders of Russia.

In the 1940s the Soviet Union sealed itself off from the outside world. In the current decade it is the west that has quarantined and isolated contemporary Russia because of conflict over Ukraine.

When Churchill delivered his Iron Curtain speech in Fulton, Missouri on March 5, 1946 he was no longer British Prime Minister, having been defeated by Labour in the 1945 General Election — a result that surprised Stalin who did not believe that Britain’s great war leader could lose.

When he met Churchill at the Potsdam conference in July 1945 he had confidently predicted an 80-seat majority for the Tory leader.

Churchill did not enjoy being out of power, forced to sit on the opposition benches in the House of Commons.

He missed the limelight and craved publicity.

His opportunity came when Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri invited him to receive an honorary degree.

President Harry S Truman returned to his home state to be with Churchill at the ceremony.

His presence on the platform added political weight and ensured the event received mass coverage by newspapers and on newsreel film.

A year later — in March 1947 — Truman delivered a famous speech of his own, more radical than Churchill’s, in which he called on the US Congress to deploy American power directly to defend the free world from totalitarian threats.

The so-called Iron Curtain speech, typically Churchillian in its scope, was rather pompously titled “The Sinews of Peace” — a reference to the perceived need for a robust postwar peace settlement.

Churchill’s message was that the west needed to get tough with Russia before the Iron Curtain effectively excluded all western influence from Central and Eastern Europe.

Churchill identified the speech as the most important of his political career but that had nothing to do with his iron curtain reference. It was instead because of the section in which he introduced the world to an idea that has been as enduring as that of an Iron Curtain — the Anglo-American “special relationship”.

Churchill’s fundamental position was that a strong British-American alliance was essential to create a stable postwar order.

This stance originated with his realisation during the Second World War that only the Americans could save Britain from Hitler and only the United States could preserve the power and values of the English-speaking world.

Yet while the anti-Soviet theme of Churchill’s speech was generally welcomed in the United States, his call for an Anglo-American alliance was criticised as a species of dangerous power politics that potentially marginalised the newly-created United Nations, a body that many hoped would ensure peace and security for all states.

Although Churchill did not use the term “Cold War”, his speech is often identified as the harbinger of the conflict that erupted between the Soviet Union and the West in 1947-48.

That was certainly Stalin’s view.

A few days after Fulton he publicly denounced Churchill as a warmonger and harked back to Churchill’s role as a leading foreign interventionist in the Russian civil war.

Churchill’s reference to an “Iron Curtain” also annoyed Stalin and the Soviets because it was the term Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, had used to describe countries liberated by the Red Army from Nazi occupation.

In the 1945 General Election campaign Churchill had shocked the electorate by accusing the Labour Party of putting forward a socialist programme for social change that would be implemented by a de facto Gestapo. At Fulton he accused the communists of creating police states in the countries they controlled.

Stalin, however, defended the communist presence in Eastern Europe as being based on anti- fascism and on popular support for communism.

But, more importantly, he viewed the existence of a Soviet bloc as the USSR’s just reward for its crucial role in defeating Hitler in a war that had cost the lives of 25 million Soviet citizens.

Stalin interpreted Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech as a sign the west intended to deny the Soviet Union the fruits of its victory — a conviction further reinforced by Truman’s containment speech delivered a year later.

Despite this ill-tempered public exchange, Churchill and Stalin had not fallen out personally.

During the war they had developed a friendship based on mutual respect for each other as successful warlords and, a few months after Fulton, Stalin messaged Churchill to say he had “the greatest respect and admiration” for what he had achieved during the war years.

Churchill responded that Stalin’s “life is not only precious to your country, but to the friendship between Soviet Russia and the English-speaking world.”

The initial furore about the Iron Curtain speech did not last long but its rhetoric was regularly regurgitated when the cold war did heat up.

Meanwhile, the irony was that when Churchill returned to power as British Prime Minister in 1951 he shed the Cold War mantle bestowed on him by the Fulton speech and reinvented himself as a peacemaker.

It was Churchill who popularised the concept of “summit meetings” between top leaders.

Better jaw-jaw than war-war, he said, not least because the invention and deployment of thermonuclear weapons now meant the whole world could be destroyed by a superpower conflagration.

There is no doubt the 70th anniversary of the Fulton speech will be used by western cold warriors to revivify the idea that a new Iron Curtain has descended across Europe and that Russian expansionism is again rampant.

For their part, Russian cold warriors will argue that the speech shows how deep-seated is western antagonism to their county.

But a better analogy for the contemporary world would draw on the Churchill of the 1950s — the conciliator who called for negotiation and compromise to resolve Soviet-western differences.

As the truces in both Ukraine and Syria now show, the west needs Russia as an ally not as an adversary. Churchill understood this.

When he denounced the Iron Curtain it was more in sorrow than in anger.

He did not demand a cold war against the Soviet Union.

He called for a continuing partnership with Russia based on frank negotiations about the future.

At Fulton Churchill spoke the kind of blunt words that President Vladimir Putin would today understand and appreciate.

Geoffrey Roberts is Professor of History at UCC

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