Iron Curtain Speech | Study Guide

Winston Churchill

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Iron Curtain Speech | Summary & Analysis



Context of the Postwar Era

The "Iron Curtain" speech was given by former British prime minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965) at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, on March 5, 1946. President Harry S. Truman (1884–1972), an alumnus of the school, introduced Churchill. As the head of Great Britain's government from 1940 to 1945, Churchill had led his nation through World War II (1939–45). During the war, the Allied Powers (led by Britain, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union) fought against the Axis Powers (led by Germany, Italy, and Japan). Allied victory was declared in Europe in May 1945. In the Pacific, the Allies declared victory in September 1945, shortly after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. In October 1945, the United Nations was founded with the mission of maintaining international peace.

By the time Churchill gave his speech, he had been voted out of power. (This loss was a huge surprise, since Churchill had been a popular and successful wartime leader. Some scholars see Churchill's defeat as linked to his preference for working with coalitions, rather than for consolidating power.) Visiting the United States as a private citizen, he used his speech to communicate his apprehension that the Soviet Union, an ally during the war, had ambitions to spread communism throughout eastern Europe and beyond. Fears of communism had existed since the Russian Revolution in 1917, when communist forces overthrew the tsar (the Russian monarch) and founded the Soviet Union. The Soviets and the other Allies had an uneasy relationship throughout World War II, with cooperation based on mutual enmity with Nazi Germany. Churchill correctly anticipated that relations between the Soviet Union and the West would sour quickly after the war.

Churchill spoke to a crowd of around 3,000 at the midwestern college, but the entire world was his true audience. Churchill called his speech "The Sinews of Peace"—sinews are tendons and ligaments, strong and tough pieces of tissue that connect muscles and bones. Churchill laid out an argument that strong ties between the United States and Britain would be critical in preserving peace and freedom in the world. But it was his use of the metaphor of the "iron curtain" that would capture the world's attention. This image described the division of Europe into democracies in the West and nations to the East that had come under the control of the Soviet Union. This division marked the start of the Cold War, a period of political hostility between the Soviet Union and Western democracies that lasted more than 40 years.

Churchill: A Famous Speaker and Leader

Churchill begins his speech with pleasantries, thanking Westminster College for bestowing on him an honorary degree. He makes a connection between the college's name and the Palace of Westminster, home to the Houses of Parliament, Britain's legislative body. Churchill had served many years at Westminster as a member of Parliament and later as Britain's prime minister. In the introduction, Churchill also thanks President Truman for providing him with the opportunity to address a "kindred nation." This phrase is the first of many that Churchill, whose mother was American, uses in the speech to describe the relationship between the United States and Great Britain as a familial one.

Churchill presents himself to the audience as a "private visitor," not a politician. He professes to be glad to have the freedom to speak his mind and offer advice in a postwar era that he describes as both "anxious and baffling." He claims to have no agenda and to speak only for himself. Churchill's use of understatement here is effective. His efforts to minimize his reputation and his purpose for speaking seem to underscore the fact that he is renowned as an orator and as a wartime leader. He may be speaking to a few thousand people at a small midwestern college, but the advice that he offers in this speech is intended to influence public opinion around the world.

Preserving Peace and Democracy in the Postwar World

Moving into the heart of his message, Churchill expresses his concern for the future. He is worried that the effects of the Allied victory are only temporary. He wants to ensure that "what has been gained"—the preservation of democracy and the defeat of totalitarianism in Europe—will be maintained in the future. At the time Churchill delivered this speech in March 1946, the world was still recovering from global conflict. The Allied victory was only months old: Germany accepted defeat in May 1945; Japan surrendered in September.

In the aftermath of the war, the United States had become a dominant world power. Churchill notes the position of the United States and warns that with such power comes great responsibility and accountability. Churchill then rhetorically ties America to Britain by introducing the idea of a new opportunity for both countries. Switching from discussing the sense of duty and anxiety that "you"—Americans—must feel, he describes the situation for "us." He urges "the English-speaking peoples" to act thoughtfully and with persistence, as they had during the war. Churchill again stresses the bond between the United States and Britain (also seeking to include Canada and other members of the British Commonwealth, a group of nations that had been part of the British Empire and remained close allies of the United Kingdom). He is also trying to encourage Americans to think of Britain as an equal, setting Britain above and apart from the United States' other allies. Churchill returns to this idea of a link through the English language several times in the speech.

Borrowing from U.S. military jargon, Churchill then considers the "overall strategic concept," or planned course of action, for the future. As he sees it, the goal of Western democracies must be to protect innocent, ordinary people around the world from the "two giant marauders, war and tyranny." He describes war as a curse, referencing the ruin it brings upon both average, individual people and glorious civilizations. He paints a dire picture of a recovering world that is vulnerable to "wicked men" and powerful, aggressive countries. Speaking of "our supreme task and duty," he stresses the notion that a collective "we"—democratic nations, or perhaps humanity as a whole—has an urgent responsibility to provide humble, ordinary people with protection against the "horrors and miseries of another war."

A Strong UN as a Key to Peace

Churchill recommends several steps the world's nations should take to maintain peace. First, he considers the role of the newly established United Nations (UN), which was founded in 1945. Formed in the immediate aftermath of World War II, the United Nations is an international organization whose primary mission is to prevent wars and secure human rights. Churchill alludes to the arguments that many people, especially Americans who were weary of international entanglements, made against their country joining the organization. He concedes that it will take effort to ensure the organization is true to its purpose, "not a sham" or a "Tower of Babel." The latter is a reference to a biblical story of people who built an ambitiously tall tower in an effort to reach heaven. God reacts by causing the people to all speak different languages; they are unable to communicate and are divided and scattered. The Tower of Babel represents lack of unity and failure. Churchill urges nations to work together and ensure the UN is a success. He argues that the UN must be a "true temple of peace" built on a solid foundation—an image he will return to later. In acknowledging that the path to world peace will be difficult and long, Churchill uses figurative language associated with vision. Throughout the speech, he uses the imagery of eyes open, closed, or blind to symbolize vigilance or inattention to the conditions of the postwar world.

Churchill goes on to propose practical steps he believes will make the United Nations an effective organization. Primarily, he stresses the need for the UN to have an armed force. He advises the UN to begin by forming an international air force. He proposes a vision of how this could be organized, with countries retaining some independence while also agreeing to work together under a unified command. This proposal addresses anxieties many people had about ceding authority to an international body. Noting that he had hoped to see something like this done after World War I, Churchill makes a strong appeal for it to be done now. His references to the two world wars that have occurred are made to support his argument that countries must now work together. If not, he implies, the next world war will inevitably break out.

The New Threat of Nuclear War

Churchill then turns to the pressing issue of how to contain the atomic bomb, a type of nuclear weapon. The United States had completed development of the first atomic bomb during World War II. It dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, each time killing tens of thousands of civilians in a matter of minutes. The use of the bombs brought the war in the Pacific to an end and ushered in the new threat of nuclear war. Speaking just a few months later, Churchill indirectly addresses the shock and fear many felt about the dawn of the new nuclear age, cautioning against the idea of sharing knowledge and expertise with the newly formed UN. He explains that the United States, Britain, and Canada currently all have the knowledge of how to build such a devastating weapon. He then claims that around the world people are comfortable with the idea that the knowledge and materials needed to create an atomic bomb are mostly concentrated in the United States. But, he says, if the opposite were true—if communist or fascist countries held this power—the world would have great cause for fear. He suggests that if totalitarian states do gain this capacity, the consequences to the whole world would be disastrous. It would make sense, Churchill says, to share nuclear secrets with the UN only if and when there is real unity among nations, as well as systems in place to guarantee safety. Essentially, Churchill calls for nuclear power to stay solidly in American, British, and Canadian hands, even though he also wants to see the UN take shape as an important player on the world stage. (The Soviet Union went on to test a nuclear bomb in 1949.)

Responsibility of Democracies to Protect Against Totalitarianism

Churchill discusses the problem of tyranny, which he suggests is an even greater threat than the threat of another war. He notes that the freedoms guaranteed by British and American law are not enjoyed by the citizens of every nation. He describes police states in eastern Europe empowered by dictators and tyrants. While acknowledging that it is not the role of the British or Americans to interfere in another nation's affairs, he declares that Western democracies must "never cease to proclaim" the "great principles of freedom and the rights of man." He considers these principles to be the legacy of English-speaking nations. He cites the foundational documents of British and American democracy, the Magna Carta (1215) and the Declaration of Independence (1776). By placing English and American democratic traditions on equal footing and by asserting their preeminence, Churchill lays the groundwork for another key argument in his speech—that in the postwar era, Britain and the United States should be the primary protectors of democracy in the world.

Churchill concludes this section of his speech by returning to the theme of anxiety in the postwar world. He invites his audience to imagine a world without poverty, hunger, struggle, and deprivation. He predicts that over time science and cooperation will lead the people of all nations to "an age of plenty" and describes a world in which peace and justice lead to material wealth. In a sense, Churchill's vision did come to pass for some countries. In 1946 Germany and Japan were both defeated nations; with support of their former adversaries they both became, within a few decades, powerful economies and peaceful nations.

Britain and the United States: A Special Relationship

Churchill next lays out the claim that Britain and the United States must be at the helm of the effort to prevent war and develop international cooperation. He contends that these goals depend upon a "fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples." What Churchill wants is an alliance based on the "special relationship" between the United States and Great Britain, including the remaining countries of the British Empire and the countries of the British Commonwealth. He describes Britain and the United States as kindred societies, with close relationships and many similarities. By using the word kindred (related), Churchill characterizes the relationship between the nations as a familial one. With the word fraternal (brotherly), he again suggests familylike bonds, but also a relationship of equal peers.

At this time of Churchill's speech, Britain was in some respects a waning power. It was nearly bankrupt after years of war. The food and fuel shortages and rationing of wartime had not yet come to an end. (Indeed, they would go on for another eight years.) In addition, the British Empire had begun to crumble. Within a few years, several countries that had been under British control would declare their independence, including India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Some historians suggest that at this time Britain needed the United States far more than the United States needed Britain. Churchill's proposal of a special relationship is in some ways an attempt to recast Britain's position, claiming a powerful position by cementing its relationship with the United States, which had come out of World War II in a dominant position.

Churchill describes the proposed alliance as mutually beneficial. The nations would share military advice and intelligence, even to the point of mingling their armed forces. He argues that merging militaries would bring financial savings and provide strategic advantages. He points out that the United States already has a solid relationship with Canada, a member of the British Commonwealth. He assures his listeners that a U.S.–British alliance would not undermine the mission of the United Nations, which he hopes will be a powerful institution, able to play an influential role in maintaining world peace. He provides historical examples of collaborations among nations that have only helped strengthen the peace.

Returning to the image of the United Nations as a temple of peace, Churchill envisions a world in which friends and neighbors overcome their differences and work together to build a harmonious society. If they do not, Churchill warns, war could again break out and this time lead to the destruction of humankind. Churchill's warning is simple but dire: time is short, and the formation a strong alliance between Britain and the United States is the only way to prevent future wars powered by nuclear weaponry.

Descent of the Iron Curtain

Although Churchill's main purpose for speaking is to argue for a strong alliance between Britain and the United States, it is the final section of his speech that had the greatest impact. Here, Churchill turns his attention to the threat of Soviet communism in postwar Europe. He begins with an arresting image of a shadow falling over Europe, darkening a region that had only recently been "lighted by the Allied victory." While praising the Soviets as an ally during the war, Churchill is nevertheless wary of Stalin's postwar ambitions. He fears an expansion of Soviet communism into regions the Allies had liberated from Adolf Hitler's (1889–1945) totalitarian rule. Postwar Germany was likely a Soviet target. Per the terms of Germany's surrender, Germany and its capital city, Berlin, were divided among the Allies. As an Allied power, the Soviet Union took control of what became known as East Germany and East Berlin. At the time of Churchill's speech, it was not inconceivable that the Soviets might try to absorb the rest of Germany.

Churchill describes the descent of an "iron curtain" across the European continent, from Stettin, Germany (now Szczecin, Poland), in the north to Trieste, Italy, in the south. Churchill's iron curtain is a metaphor for an ideological dividing line falling across Europe, with Western democracies on one side and communist states on the other. Churchill inventories the historic capital cities that have fallen within what he terms "the Soviet sphere" and describes the police states rising up within them. He describes how Soviet influence on many governments is spreading, and the danger of continuing expansion of communist power. His argument can be seen as a seed of the policy of containment, the effort to stop the spread of communism, that the United States and other Western countries adopted in the following decades.

An ardent anticommunist, Churchill laments that this is "not the Liberated Europe" the Allies fought to save. In his appeal to the United States, Churchill reminds his audience that during two world wars, millions of American soldiers were sent overseas to defend democracy in Europe. He warns that without concerted efforts to bring real peace to Europe, more war is likely. He goes on to note that European countries not currently behind the Iron Curtain, including Italy and France, are unstable and vulnerable. He describes the growth in many countries of "fifth columns"—groups of communist sympathizers who seek to help outsiders overthrow their governments and install Soviet-style regimes. Looking beyond Europe, Churchill also notes the threat of communism spreading to Turkey, Persia (now Iran), and China.

Warning Against the Mistakes of the Past

In addition to fears about communism, Churchill's alarm about the state of the world is related to the failures of the Versailles Treaty (1919), which ended World War I, and the League of Nations (1920), a politically weak precursor to the United Nations. The terms of the Treaty of Versailles harshly punished Germany following World War I. Many historians believe that the treaty's severe terms led directly to economic hardships, the rise of Hitler and fascism in the region, and the outbreak of World War II. Churchill worries that the same sequence of events could happen again. His message is that anxieties about the spread of communism and about the potential for another world war are well founded, and strong cooperation among democratic allies is thus crucial.

Despite his warnings, Churchill rejects the inevitability of war. He believes that while the Soviets desire to expand their power and influence, they do not want to fight another war. However, he argues that the rest of the world must not be blind to Soviet ambitions or simply hope to maintain peace by trying to find an acceptable balance of communism and democracy throughout Europe or the world. He rejects the old approach Europe had previously taken to international conflict: efforts to maintain a balance of power among rivals. He also alludes to the failed policy of appeasement Britain and other European countries had tried to take with Hitler and the Nazis, cooperating with a dangerous and aggressive German government in the hope of avoiding war. In 1946, appeasement was understood to have been a disastrous approach. By noting that the dangers of communism will not be solved by a policy of appeasement or seeking an illusory balance of power, Churchill is challenging nations not to make the mistakes of the past. He also recalls his own positions prior to World War II, when he strongly objected to appeasement. Lamenting that "I saw it all coming and cried aloud ... but no one paid any attention," Churchill is seeking to shore up his own place in history, but he is also essentially pleading for his audience not to ignore him now.

Peace through Strength and Unity

Characterizing the Soviets as a people who admire strength and despise weakness, Churchill argues that the Soviet threat can only be dealt with by a show of strength and solidarity from democratic countries. He exhorts the world's democracies to stand together and take action or face the "catastrophe" of the spread of communism. While he does not specify particular action, he implies that Britain, the United States, and the United Nations must be willing to confront the Soviet Union and challenge the ways that it is trying to expand.

Churchill ends his speech on a rousing note, insisting that no one should doubt the fortitude of the people of Britain, the British Empire, and Commonwealth countries (which included Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa). In joining their population and resources, he says, Britain and the United States can become an unassailable force for democracy in the world. Finally, he urges following the principles of the United Nations. A strong U.S.–British alliance, along with support for a strong UN, are the keys Churchill offers to stabilize the precarious postwar world.

Legacy of the "Iron Curtain" Speech

Churchill's address became known as the "Iron Curtain" speech for its image of the way Europe was being divided between communism and democracy. However, Churchill titled his speech "The Sinews of Peace," an allusion to the way strong bonds between allies could protect against war. His purpose was to urge the United States to function in a kind of "fraternal association" with other English-speaking democracies that, with the United Nations, would act to maintain world peace and deter the spread of communism. He described a special relationship between the United States and Britain, based on shared language, culture, and values. Yet it was the image of an iron curtain that captured the attention of people around the globe. Churchill's metaphor for the dangerous division of Europe, with numerous countries already under Soviet control, brought attention to the idea that communism was a serious threat to Western democracy. As a result, some historians credit this speech with inaugurating the Cold War, although that term would not be widely used until 1947. Indeed, others point to 1945, just at the close of World War II, as the start of the Cold War. But Churchill's speech proclaimed and explained this major new conflict to the world. It also previewed the policy of containment—the foreign policy of the United States and other Western countries aimed at stopping the spread of communism. The United States and Britain did work closely together during the Cold War, and after it. Both countries continue to refer to the special relationship, with each generally considering the other a strong and reliable ally.

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