Churchill's 'Iron Curtain' speech shaped history

By Mike Genet

Without a postscript, there might never have been the “Iron Curtain.”

In late 1945, months after being voted out of office as Britain’s prime minister, Winston Churchill agreed to give a speech at tiny Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. 

Churchill had planned a vacation in Florida with his family, and Franc McCluer, the president of Westminster, wanted to invite Churchill to mid-Missouri as the speaker for a lecture series. McCluer's Westminster classmate Harry Vaughn was a military aide to Missouri’s native son, President Harry Truman. The president heartily endorsed McCluer's idea and wrote his own addition to the bottom of the typed invitation. 

Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, on March 5, 1946, the day former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave the 'Iron Curtain' speech. From left, Churchill, Admiral William Leahy (behind Churchill), Clark Clifford, Harry Vaughn, and President Truman.

Churchill accepted, knowing that with Truman as host what he said would carry more heft. The prime minister entitled the speech the “The Sinews of Peace,” in that Britain and the United States had to be in alliance to curb the Soviet Union’s expanding communist push.

The speech, delivered 75 years ago Friday, became best known for the phrase “Iron Curtain” that Churchill used to describe the figurative wall that divided the Soviets’ area of influence with the rest of Europe, and is considered perhaps to be the biggest eye-opener to the Cold War.

It quite likely is the only speech that led to a church being reconstructed across the sea from its original home, and it led to Missouri’s unique distinction as a state with museums for both an American president and British prime minister.

The invitation

The wife of late prominent Westminster alum and St. Louis attorney John Findley Green had left an endowment for a lecture series – which continues to this day – on problems of international concern and with speakers of “international reputation.” 

On the surface, McCluer's invitation to have perhaps the world’s most famous orator deliver an address at a tiny college in the middle of the United States would seem far-fetched. But McCluer figured he could leverage his friend Vaughn when he visited Washington, D.C., and Truman himself had spoken there in 1938, when he was a senator, mentioning then that among the school’s alumni was the publisher of Truman’s hometown newspaper, The Independence Examiner, William Southern. 

“This is a wonderful school in my home state,” Truman wrote at the bottom of the invitation. “Hope you can do it. I’ll introduce you. Best regards.”   

To Sam Rushay, chief archivist of the Truman Library & Museum in Independence, Churchill wouldn’t have come to Fulton without that postscript.

“It was a very ambitious thought, but he knew the connection his friend had with the president,” Rushay said.

Churchill accepted, traveled to Florida in February for his vacation, and then made a round trip to Washington and returned to the capital March 3, two days before the occasion, to go over the speech with Truman. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Fleet Admiral William Leahy, gave his approval.

‘Iron Curtain’

The train trip from Washington ended in Jefferson City the morning of March 5, and the party traveled by car north to Fulton, where the town had been decorated and thousands gathered to greet the prominent guests. 

To the crowd in Westminster’s historic gymnasium, Churchill said it was a great honor for a private citizen to address an academic audience with the president’s introduction. His most famous words came about halfway through the speech, after he stressed the importance of a continued American and British alliance to maintain peace and make the United Nations effective. 

“A shadow has fallen upon the scenes so lately lighted by the Allied victory,” Churchill said, and while he admired the Russian people it was his duty to present “certain facts” about the status of Europe.

President Harry Truman and Prime Minister Winston Churchill ride in a parade in Jefferson City, March 5, 1946, before heading to Westminster College in Fulton, where Churchill gave his famous ‘Iron Curtain’ speech. Secret Service agents are on the running boards of the car.

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent,” the prime minister said. “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, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow.”

Churchill went on to say that war was not inevitable, and he did not believe the Soviet Union sought war, but rather, “What they desire is the fruits of war and the indefinite expansion of their power and doctrines.” 

Russia admired nothing more than strength, he said, and Europe was not the liberated continent for which the Allies had fought.

Call to war?

The speech was interrupted with applause several times, but the American reaction after hearing the speech on radio and reading wasn’t overwhelming approval, as many pundits wondered if Churchill had flamed already straining relations with the Soviet Union. Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin thought it a call to war.

Truman knew the Soviets would be difficult to deal with, as his Moscow-based diplomats had detailed the Russians’ long-held insecurity. Stalin himself had declared earlier in the year that communism and capitalism were incompatible and war was inevitable, and in addition to pushing puppet governments in Western Europe the Soviets refused to withdraw troops from Iran

The president tried to back off from criticism by claiming that Churchill caught him off guard and had the right to speak as he pleased. While in practice he didn’t disapprove of the speech, he publicly didn’t endorse it afterwards. 

“Harry Truman, even at this stage, was still a little ambivalent on relations with the Soviet Union,” Rushay said. “I think he was a little taken aback by the reaction. But the evidence was he reviewed it a couple times, and he was clearly on board with what Churchill says.”

Truman even invited Stalin to the United States to give a speech (the Soviet dictator not surprisingly declined), which Rushay said was essentially an afterthought to try to save face.

If Churchill’s words seemed incendiary to some, given the Russians had been allies just a year earlier, they couldn’t have caught everyone off guard, Rushay says, and context with the speech is important.

“Polls are starting to shift, maybe a little behind what Truman and his advisors knew, and anyone who’s reading the paper or listening to the radio would hear stories of what was happening in Europe,” he said. “Coming from such an important and recognizable figure as Churchill, that really had an effect on public opinion. Americans read this or hear about it.”

“Churchill was out of office at this time, so what he’s saying is not necessarily reflective of the British government.”

National Churchill Museum

In time, Churchill’s assessment generally proved prophetic with the Cold War, even if Great Britain didn’t have as much role as the United States in helping to restore Europe after World War II. The Truman Doctrine – a broad policy to contain the spread of communism – mirrored part of Churchill’s view of what he hoped to see.

As the 20th anniversary of Churchill’s speech approached, Westminster leaders and alumni wanted to commemorate the prime minister and his speech. They decided to raise money to have the Church of St. Mary Aldermanbury in London, destroyed by fire in 1666 and again by German bombs during the war, shipped to mid-Missouri and restored on campus. The pieces were painstakingly catalogued, and the cornerstone laid in 1966. The dedication ceremony was in 1969, with the museum underneath the church proper.

In 1990, Churchill’s granddaughter Edwina Sandys introduced her sculpture “Breakthrough,” which included sections of the Berlin Wall, outside the museum. The sculpture memorialized both the fall of the Berlin Wall and her grandfather’s speech. 

To note the 75th anniversary, the National Churchill Museum hosted virtual celebrations Friday with numerous guests. Rushay says all the past and current efforts to commemorate a speech show how much it has resonated for decades.

“I think it’s a credit to Churchill’s command of the English language,” he said, “the fact he was able to use a phrase that really captured the people’s imagination – the Iron Curtain.”

“Certain phrases go into posterity.”