Churchill's Realism: Reflections on the Fulton Speech

Churchill's Realism: Reflections on the Fulton Speech

Mini Teaser: The speech is remembered today as a seminal pronouncement on behalf of the Atlantic solidarity and clearheaded realism. What is less remembered is that at the time the address brought down on Churchill a torrent of controversy.

by Author(s): Spencer Warren

Slightly more than halfway through his speech, Churchill suddenly
turned from metaphors of hope to specters of darkness. If an
Anglo-American "special relationship" did not come about, then the
temple [of peace] may not be built, or, being built, it may collapse,
and we shall all be proved again unteachable and have to go and try
to learn again for a third time in a school of war, incomparably more
rigorous than that from which we have just been released. The dark
ages may return, the Stone Age may return on the gleaming wings of
science, and what might now shower immeasurable material blessings
upon mankind, may even bring about its total destruction.

Clothing himself in the prophetic mantle he had worn in the 1930s,
Churchill then reached the second message of his address: to sound an
urgent alarm--"Beware, I say; time may be short"--at the threat posed
by the two countries' wartime ally, Russia:

"A shadow has fallen upon the scenes so lately lighted by the Allied
victory. Nobody knows what Soviet Russia and its Communist
international organisation intends to do in the immediate future, or
what are the limits, if any, to their expansive and proselytising

Churchill then paused to express his "strong admiration and regard
for the valiant Russian people" and his "wartime comrade, Marshal
Stalin." He accepted the "Russian need to be secure on her western
frontiers" against Germany and welcomed "her rightful place among the
leading nations of the world."

Having made the requisite bow, Churchill cast aside all indirection
to set forth certain "facts" about the present situation in Europe:
"From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron
curtain has descended across the Continent." The Russians had imposed
police states in every East European country except Czechoslovakia,
and their communist parties were "seeking everywhere to obtain
totalitarian control." He then noted Moscow's pressure against both
Turkey and Persia [Iran]. Churchill also charged the Russians with
building a pro-communist regime in their German occupation zone, when
what was really needed was a "new unity in Europe"--including
prostrate Germany--within, he was again careful to add, "the
structure of the United Nations." (A reconciliation between France
and Germany within the framework of a united Europe was to be a major
Churchillian theme in the next few years.) He then listed other
threats: communist strength in Italy and France; communist fifth
columns in many countries far from Russia taking direction from
Moscow; and the continuing Red Army occupation of Manchuria.

But war was not inevitable, or even imminent. "I do not believe that
Soviet Russia desires war", said Churchill, "What they desire is the
fruits of war and the indefinite expansion of their power and
doctrines." A "settlement" was needed, Churchill asserted, as he
turned to his third message, his philosophy of power. Of the
Russians, he maintained, "There is nothing they admire so much as
strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than
for weakness, especially military weakness. For that reason the old
doctrine of a balance of power is unsound."

In thus dismissing the key concept of traditional diplomacy, was
Churchill agreeing with the Wilsonian rejection of Old World power
politics? Hardly. He had in mind a concept of power neither fully
traditional nor Wilsonian:

"We cannot afford. . . to work on narrow margins, offering
temptations to a trial of strength. If the Western Democracies stand
together in strict adherence to the principles of the United Nations
Charter, their influence for furthering those principles will be
immense and no one is likely to molest them."

Churchill was adamant that an understanding with Russia could only be
achieved through Anglo-American partnership:

"If the population of the English-speaking Commonwealths be added to
that of the United States with all that such co-operation implies in
the air, on the sea, all over the globe and in science and industry,
and in moral force, there will be no quivering, precarious balance of
power to offer its temptation to ambition or adventure. On the
contrary, there will be an overwhelming assurance of security."

In short, Churchill's idea of power--"an overwhelming assurance of
security"--meant an Anglo-American superiority over Soviet Russia,
legitimated through the UN. This idea rested on a simple observation:
the balance of power had twice broken down in Europe within a quarter
of a century; superiority, then, was the best safeguard against a
third breakdown, which would end in atomic catastrophe.

Churchill found it impolitic to invoke "superiority" in his wind-up,
but he did employ it earlier in the speech with reference to atomic
weapons. And in May 1944 he had said the new world body should be
armed to ensure that "within the limits assigned to it, it has
overwhelming power." He concluded thus:

"If we adhere faithfully to the Charter of the United Nations and
walk forward in sedate and sober strength seeking no man's land or
treasure, seeking to lay no arbitrary control upon the thoughts of
men; if all British moral and material forces and convictions are
joined with your own in fraternal association, the high-roads of the
future will be clear, not only for us but for all, not only for our
time, but for a century to come."

The combined strength of the English-speaking peoples constituted
"The Sinews of Peace", Churchill's title for his address.

The Reaction

Churchill spoke in a climate of increasingly anxious U.S.-Soviet
relations and changing American policy. On February 9, 1946, Stalin
had made a speech that was seen as hostile in Washington and London,
and on February 15, news of a Russian atomic spy ring in Canada
became public with the detention of twenty-two persons. George
Kennan's subsequently famous Long Telegram had been sent to the State
Department from Moscow on February 22 and was receiving wide
circulation in the government. President Truman himself was among its

These and other events were having a sharp impact on government and
public opinion. The first meeting of the UN General Assembly had
recently ended in London. Secretary of State James Byrnes, who headed
the U.S. delegation, had been under pressure for being too soft on
the Russians. He signaled a more robust U.S. attitude in a February
28 speech, criticizing the continuing Russian occupation of northern
Iran and the confiscation of industrial equipment in Eastern Europe
and Manchuria. But Byrnes avoided criticizing the Soviet Union by
name and continued to stress the importance of maintaining the "unity
of all great powers" and of preventing "exclusive blocs or spheres of
influence." "We must live by the Charter", he insisted, "That is the
only road to peace." The day before, Senator Arthur Vandenberg, a
critic of Byrnes, had made a Senate speech urging a stronger U.S.
stand against the Soviet Union. The Sunday New York Times' "Week in
Review" section of March 3, 1946 headlined its analysis, "Is Our
Policy Changing?" and James Reston's article was titled, "Have We a
New Foreign Policy? Capitol Asks."

In retrospect, it appears that Truman was using Churchill--with the
latter's understanding--to crystallize opinion on behalf of a new
American policy already taking effect. Churchill had discussed his
speech with Truman at the White House on February 10, and also with
Byrnes and Bernard Baruch in Florida on February 17. Truman saw the
text on the train journey to Missouri, and Byrnes had read it in full
before their departure.

But Churchill's harsh and somber tone, and the breadth and detail
with which he made his case--the first strong criticisms of Russia by
a Western leader since the Nazi invasion of Russia in June
1941--brought down on him a torrent of criticism, thus restoring him
temporarily to the position in which he had spent most of his career.
Senators Pepper (D-Fl.), Kilgore (D-WV), and Taylor (D-Id.), issued a
joint statement claiming, "Mr. Churchill's proposal would cut the
throat of the United Nations Organization." Representative Patterson
(D-Ca.) railed against the speech, claiming that Churchill was asking
"that we should revert to the reactionary and self-destructive...
old idea of balancing of one power or one group of powers against
another group. . . .Blocs of powers against powers in this atomic age
can only bring world war and total destruction to the human race."

Nobel laureate Pearl Buck called Churchill's visit a "catastrophe."
George Bernard Shaw believed that Churchill's speech was "nothing
short of a declaration of war on Russia", and that Churchill was
proposing a "recrudescence of the old balance of power policy. .
.with a view to a future war." Marquis Childs wrote in the Washington
Post that the speech "overlooks a vital truth, [t]hat. . .you cannot
fight the 'Communist menace' by armed alliances." Rather, Childs
maintained, the world needed to address the root economic and social
causes of popular discontent (as if security and socio-economic
measures were mutually exclusive). In the House of Commons, one
hundred and five Labour mp's introduced a motion condemning the
speech and affirming the view "that world peace and security can be
maintained, not by sectional alliances, but by progressively
strengthening the power and authority of U.N.O. to the point where
it becomes capable of exercising. . .the functions of a world

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