From World War to Cold War: Churchill, Roosevelt, and the International History of the 1940s

By David Reynolds | Go to book overview

14
Churchill, Stalin, and the 'Iron Curtain'

Churchill's speech at Fulton, Missouri, on 5 March 1946 is perhaps the most celebrated of his long and distinguished oratorical career. The claim that 'an iron curtain' had descended across the Continent echoed around the world, becoming one of the most famous and influential soundbites of the Cold War. It also created an enduring image of Churchill as Cold Warrior that has obscured the complexity of his thinking on relations with the Soviet Union. This chapter looks closely at Churchill's speech, arguing that the way it was received did not entirely square with what he had intended. To understand this, we need to appreciate the volatility of his attitude to the Soviet Union in 1945–6 and also, paradoxically, the remarkable persistence of his wartime optimism about Stalin.

The term 'iron curtain' has a long prehistory. It dates back at least to the First World War, and Churchill had used it a good deal in 1945–6 before it hit the headlines at Fulton. On 12 May, four days after Victory in Europe had been declared, Churchill cabled President Truman warning that 'an iron curtain is drawn down upon their front. We do not know what is going on behind. There seems little doubt that the whole of the regions east of Lu¨beck-Trieste-Corfu will soon be completely in their hands.' Churchill was probably reminded of the phrase 'iron curtain' by Nazi propaganda in the dying days of the Third Reich, but the underlying idea had taken shape in his mind weeks before as he struggled for diplomatic access to Poland. To Roosevelt on 16 March he referred to 'an impenetrable veil' on 1 April he complained to Stalin that 'a veil of secrecy' had been 'drawn over the Polish scene'. Both these telegrams are quoted in his war memoirs.1 On 18 May he spoke of an 'iron screen' during a brisk dressing down of Feodor Gusev, the Soviet Ambassador. Common to all these references is the theme of concealment: the Western Allies did not know what the Soviets were

Earlier versions of this chapter were presented at Churchill College, Cambridge, in 1996 (a lecture
to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Fulton Speech); at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New
Jersey in 2001; and at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri, in 2002. I am grateful to Piers
Brendon, Allen Packwood, Lloyd Gardner, Warren F. Kimball, Jerry D. Morelock, and John
Hensley for these opportunities.

1 Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War (6 vols., London, 1948–1954), vi. 377, 383,
498–9.

-249-

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