Winston Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech, delivered in the gymnasium
of Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, on March 5, 1946, is one
of the two or three most significant speeches of the twentieth
century. It was made at a pregnant moment in history, as America's
wartime alliance with Soviet Russia was giving way to Cold War.
Churchill's carefully wrought words bespoke a half century of study
and observation of international politics, and an underlying
philosophy whose roots can be traced to major political thinkers of
the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The speech is remembered today as a seminal pronouncement on behalf
of the Atlantic solidarity and clearheaded realism that ultimately
carried the West to victory in the Cold War. What is less remembered
is that at the time the address brought down on Churchill a torrent
of controversy. Much of the criticism directed toward him had its
roots in philosophic assumptions at odds with Churchill's, ones that
took it as self-evident that a thorough-going transformation of the
state system was both possible and desirable. Churchill thought
Interest in this controversy from the chair of hindsight fifty years
later is not merely academic, for the main issues discussed by
Churchill--the role of the United Nations in what many hoped would be
a new world order, control of new weapons of mass destruction, the
efficacy of military power and alliances in ensuring peace--animate
debate in our post-Cold War world no less than they did at the dawn
of that age.
The "Iron Curtain" Speech
Following his unexpected and personally devastating defeat in the
British general election in July 1945, Churchill received hundreds of
invitations to lecture. One came to him in October 1945 from
President Truman, who forwarded a letter from Franc L. McCluer,
president of Westminster College in Truman's home state of Missouri.
Truman wrote on McCluer's letter, "Hope you can do it. I'll introduce
you." When the Attlee government gave its approval, Churchill sent
Truman his tentative acceptance in November. He arrived in New York
with his wife, Clementine, on January 14, 1946.
After a seven-week holiday in Florida, Churchill joined Truman in
Washington for the rail trip to Missouri. Disembarking at Jefferson
City, the state capital, following a journey that took a day and a
night, they drove the twenty-four miles to Fulton. On reaching the
town, whose population of 6,500 had swelled to 30,000 for the
occasion, they proceeded through crowded streets in an open
limousine. Following a luncheon, both donned academic gowns and
followed a procession into the college gymnasium, where two thousand
dignitaries, faculty, students, and other guests were seated, joined
by a national radio audience.
Churchill first set the scene, observing that "The United States
stands at this time at the pinnacle of world power", and that "It is
a solemn moment for the American Democracy. For with primacy in power
is also joined an awe-inspiring accountability to the future." He
spoke of the paramount goal of protecting the people in their "myriad
cottage or apartment homes" from the "two giant marauders, war and
tyranny." He then turned to the need to prevent, first, war--by means
of the new "temple of peace", the United Nations:
"We must make sure that its work is fruitful, that it is a reality
and not a sham, that it is a force for action, and not merely a
frothing of words, that it is a true temple of peace in which the
shields of many nations can some day be hung up, and not merely a
cockpit in a Tower of Babel."
"Before we cast away the solid assurances of national armaments for
self-preservation we must be certain that our temple is built, not
upon shifting sands or quagmires, but upon the rock."
Churchill's rock was, above all, organized armed force. Just as
courts cannot function without sheriffs, the UN "must immediately
begin to be equipped with an international armed force." As a first
step, he suggested that each state delegate a certain number of air
squadrons to the UN; they would remain national forces but be
directed by the world body.
But when he then turned to another major issue of the day, Churchill
unhesitatingly endorsed the Western monopoly of the atomic bomb,
emphasizing his opposition to entrusting U.S. and British knowledge
of its secrets to the UN. "It would be criminal madness to cast it
adrift in this still agitated and UN-united world", he warned. No
country had slept less well because the secrets of the bomb were held
in American hands, but this would not have been the case had "some
Communist or neo-Fascist State monopolised for the time being these
dread agencies." Churchill went on:
"God has willed that this shall not be and we have at least a
breathing space to set our house in order before this peril has to be
encountered: and even then, if no effort is spared, we should still
possess so formidable a superiority as to impose effective deterrents
upon its employment, or threat of employment, by others."
The atomic secret could be confided to the UN, said Churchill, "when
the essential brotherhood of man is truly embodied" in that
institution, "with all the necessary practical safeguards to make it
effective." President Truman was among those applauding at this point.
Prevention of tyranny, the second of the two marauders, was
Churchill's next subject. He alluded to Russian-sponsored repression
in Eastern Europe, where "the power of the State is exercised without
restraint, either by dictators or by compact oligarchies operating
through a privileged party and a political police." Churchill
acknowledged that the United States and Great Britain could not
interfere forcibly, but insisted that "we must never cease to
proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the
rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking
world." He noted that the Magna Carta and the other great symbols of
English liberty "find their most famous expression in the American
Declaration of Independence." These "title deeds of freedom", he
proclaimed, should be "the message of the British and American
peoples to mankind."
Political liberty also rests on economic well-being. Churchill
observed that poverty and privation were to many the "prevailing
anxiety" in that bleak first postwar year. He foresaw that "science
and co-operation" would bring in the next few decades "an expansion
of material well-being beyond anything that has yet occurred in human
experience." The "hunger and distress which are the aftermath of our
stupendous struggle" will pass, he averred, "and there is no reason
except human folly or sub-human crime which should deny to all the
nations the inauguration and enjoyment of an age of plenty."
Now Churchill reached the first crucial message of his address:
"Neither the sure prevention of war, nor the continuous rise of world
organisation will be gained without what I have called the fraternal
association of the English-speaking peoples. This means a special
relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the
He then outlined his concept of this relationship in terms of
continued wartime military cooperation and joint use of military
bases. The principle of the Permanent Defense Agreement between the
United States and Canada should be extended to all in the
Commonwealth, leading eventually, he hoped, to common citizenship.
Until that happened, Churchill was concerned to build a special
Anglo-American relationship both to ensure continued worldwide U.S.
involvement and to maintain the position of a depleted and exhausted
A good argument can be made that in looking across the sea to
maintain Britain as a great power, as he had done with such success
in the war, Churchill overlooked a more realistic role for postwar
Britain as the leader of a revived Europe, when such a role was there
for the asking. Britain finally joined Europe a quarter century later
under much reduced circumstances, having missed the opportunity to
shape the new community at its birth. Churchill's romantic vision
(which the Attlee government essentially shared) came to grief in the
Suez debacle of 1956.
Churchill pursued his theme at Fulton with delicacy. He knew his
American history, and the country's idealistic, decidedly UN-British
tradition in foreign affairs. He had been a senior member of the
British government twenty-seven years before, when America and the
world stood at another "solemn moment" in history. He had recounted
in The World Crisis, his history of the First World War, how
President Wilson's dream of a new world order, in which alliances and
power politics would be abolished in favor of a world organization,
had ended in bitter failure. He knew the United States had never
joined a peacetime alliance, and had little appetite for entanglement
outside the Western Hemisphere. He also knew well the immense
difficulty with which President Roosevelt had endeavored to break
down his people's isolationist impulse, on which effort Britain's
very life had depended in 1940-1.
Thus mindful of the sensibilities of his audience, Churchill never
used the word alliance. Instead, he subtly joined the concept of the
"special relationship" with the budding American romance with the UN.
Rejecting the view that such a relationship between the two countries
would contradict the principle of world unity through the UN, he
insisted that, "on the contrary, it is probably the only means by
which that organisation will achieve its full stature and strength."
He then listed at length U.S. ties to the South American republics
and Britain's twenty-year treaty with Russia to emphasize that
special, non-aggressive associations are both unthreatening and