Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’ Speech More Relevant Than Ever
Seventy-two years ago, Winston Churchill delivered a speech that established the global tone for nearly five decades.
Speaking in the immediate aftermath of World War II at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, Churchill provided an oratorical masterpiece that reset the stage for the next world conflict: the Cold War.
Churchill’s speech, aptly titled “Sinews of Peace,” focused on two themes. First, it described the new threat to world security posed by the Soviet Union. In doing so, Churchill introduced the phrase “iron curtain” into the lexicon, an expression that symbolized communist tyranny.
Secondly, it advanced Churchill’s ardent belief of the “special relationship” that existed between the United Kingdom and United States. By highlighting this Anglo-American bond, Churchill sought to create an alliance devoted to maintaining freedom and a long-lasting bulwark against communist despotism.
In Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’ speech as prophetic — and chilling — today as it was 72 years ago, Senior Fellow in Western European Affairs at the London Center for Policy Research Lee Cohen explores the past and current context of this remarkable speech by one of the twentieth century’s greatest statesman.
Known colloquially as “the Iron Curtain Speech,” this event had an important impact on framing the primordial threat to world peace in the post-World War II period – the Cold War – and to focusing attention on the leading global alliance motivated to protect world peace, the Anglo-American Special Relationship.
After the devastation wrought during the Second World War, Churchill pressed world leaders to remain heedful regarding future threats to world stability and freedom.
Unlike most politicians (then and now), Churchill didn’t mince words. The plain-spoken Churchill candidly labeled things as he saw them.
When it came to the atrocities committed by Josef Stalin, Churchill did not hold back.
In the speech, Churchill sounds a chilling warning to the West to be vigilant against the gathering clouds in Europe: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent…seeking everywhere to obtain totalitarian control.” Worse still, he cautions as to the acquisition of nuclear weapons in the hands of our enemies.
Unlike his predecessor, Churchill adamantly opposed appeasement. He refused to surrender in the face of Nazi oppression.
He reminds us with an authority no one else could have that, “Last time [World War II] I saw it all coming and cried aloud to my fellow countrymen and the world, but no one paid attention…It could have been prevented, in my belief, without the firing of a single shot… but no one would listen, and one by one we were all sucked into the awful whirlpool.”
The great war leader went on to outline his hope for the outcomes of the Marshall Plan and the formation of global organizations committed to peace-keeping. The subsequent history of these, one fears, would have left Churchill sadly disappointed. Of particular note, the United Nations and the European Union, with their sovereignty-leeching tendencies to stifle nation states and great bi-lateral friendships such as that of the U.S. and United Kingdom, would have confounded as well as disappointed Churchill.
But Churchill had a greater purpose beyond pointing fingers and casting blame. He also sought to cement the critical bond between Great Britain and the United States. Churchill proposed the prospect that a “special relationship” ought to be established and cultivated.
What were the grounds of this “special relationship?” Simple, the two nations shared a unique history based upon Western values.
Even more importantly, the United States and United Kingdom held a common vision of the future of the world. This future vision was predicated on freedom, the total antitheses of the repression epitomized by the Soviet Union’s iron curtain.
Notably, he coined a phrase in this speech, “THE Special Relationship”—referring to the Anglo-American alliance— which suggests the importance it deserves. At Fulton, Churchill highlighted the need, for the whole world, of our great alliance—a relationship based upon a compassionate world view underpinned by “the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world,” undergirded by the resources of our combined military might.
While he would have been let down by the trajectory of many global organizations, Churchill would have been reassured by the achievements of the Special Relationship, which endures to help stabilize the world, notwithstanding new global threats and all manner of heads of government in both countries.
Indeed, thank heaven for a bi-lateral alliance that has not only the strength, but the resolve to take on the world’s great menaces, undeterred by the voices of protest.
If not for leadership like that of Churchill, and Reagan and Thatcher after him, freedom would surely not prevail today.
What if, for instance, Churchill had bent to public opinion favoring appeasement in Britain before she entered the war? The period of darkness and inhumanity unleashed by the Nazis likely would have penetrated the whole world, including our own shores.
Seventy-two years after Churchill’s speech, the state of the “special relationship” remains strong. The United States and United Kingdom persist as staunch allies in the fight against terrorism. Economic ties still bind the Anglo-American alliance, as does a commitment to individual freedom within each nation.
Even with his legacy of having saved the free world, and his great oration, Churchill’s speech earned scorn from many sides, unsurprisingly fueled by the media, both American and British. The New York Times said Churchill had painted “a dark picture of post-war Europe.” He was accused after the speech for positing “poisonous doctrines” that were tagged as alarmist, racist, and imperialist. Even Truman initially backed away, but once again, under Stalin’s leadership, events proved Churchill prophetic.
Winston Churchill, the straight-talking, conservative politician, was lambasted by some in the media due to his style and substance. The legacy media, even in those days, vehemently disagreed with his views and his language.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because a very similar scenario exists in America circa 2018.
Contemporary detractors wail against the American Exceptionalism embodied by President Trump’s approach and protest on the streets of San Francisco and elsewhere. In the UK socialist-embracing Corbynistas and American Sandersites wail against capitalism and free markets and wring their hands over holding our enemies in the Middle East and North Korea to account.
Happily good sense still prevails in some quarters. The stirring new film “Darkest Hour” is an example. It portrays for a new generation Churchill’s stand against the whirlwind of adversity and reminds us just how close we came to losing everything we fight for. And for its part, Fulton, Missouri, has a museum dedicated to the inspiring statesman.
In the end, Churchill’s instincts were right—about nearly everything that counts. Thank you, Winston for Fulton and for your courage and resolve.