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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Winston Churchill's Iron Curtain Speech: Still Relevant, 67 Years On

By Philip White


This week marks the 67th anniversary of Winston Churchill's 'Iron Curtain' address (actually named 'The Sinews of Peace'), which he called "the most important speech of my career". And he'd given one or two of those. 

Churchill's speech in the unlikely venue of Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, was panned at the time for blasting Soviet Russia, whom many in Britain and the US still considered an ally, for warning of the potential of World War Three and for calling out the divisions between the Communist East and democratic West. Of course, Churchill's illustration of the "iron curtain" (a term he made popular but did not invent) was later embodied in the defining symbol of the Cold War - the Berlin Wall. And you can hardly watch a news broadcast on foreign affairs without hearing Churchill's term for the bond between the US and the British Commonwealth, the "special relationship" (though quite how "special" it is right now is debatable.)

But is the speech still worth listening to and reading about, all these years later? After all, we'll be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall next year and though Communism remains a force, it is hardly the global menace that Churchill spoke of. Despite these facts, I believe Churchill's "most important" speech should indeed be studied, and not merely as a historical relic. Here are a few reasons why:

1) Leadership
When he spoke in Fulton in March 1946, Churchill was no longer Prime Minister. The Conservative Party was punished for things that happened before Winston became head of a coalition government - not least the appeasement of Baldwin and Chamberlain and the poor standard of living many Britons had during their tenure. While the Tories campaigned on the strength of Churchill's war leadership, the Labour Party looked forward, creating a manifesto that addressed the postwar housing shortage, rebuilding wartime damage and, for good or for ill, extending socialized medicine. 

But though he had lost his post of prime minister, Churchill's role of statesman was not over. He recognized that his stark warning about Communism would be unpopular, as did Harry Truman, who later disingenuously denied reading the speech before Churchill delivered it.

Yet Churchill recognized that to truly lead you must be willing to risk unpopularity, even ridicule, to tell hard truths. And what he said at Fulton - about the perils of expansionist Communism, about the need for the US, Britain and the rest of the English-speaking peoples to stand together in good times and in ill - was certainly truth. As predicted, Churchill was derided as an imperialist, an old Tory, and, by Stalin himself, as a warmonger. And yet, after braving hundreds of protesters yelling "GI Joe is home to stay, Winnie, Winnie, go away" to give another bold speech days later at New York's Waldorf Astoria hotel, Churchill stood his ground, stating that "I do not wish to withdraw or modify a single word." 

2) Bipartisanship
Churchill strongly disagreed with the direction in which Clement Atlee's Labour Party was taking Britain after World War Two, unleashing the full power of his rhetoric upon them time and again in the Commons. And yet, he advised Atlee and his foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, behind the scenes on relations with the Soviet Union, and made himself available whenever they called upon his decades of experience.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Churchill over-estimated the extent of his relationship with Truman, more so than he had his friendship with FDR. But whatever their differences, the two were of a similar mind on Communism and recognized that it was a bigger issue than party lines could contain. Churchill, a Conservative and Truman, a Democrat, were willing to work together to tackle a problem bigger than both of them, and bigger than their domestic political ideologies. The international statesmen and women of today would do well to look to this example.

3) Determination in the face of adversity
Churchill's greatest triumph - seeing Hitler defeated - was soon sullied by his greatest political defeat. At the age of 71 and worn thin by the pressures of the war years, it would've been understandable if Churchill had spent the rest of his days painting, laying bricks and holding court at Chartwell. But yet he saw it as his obligation to serve Britain, its allies and the world in illuminating the ills of Communism and the need for a strong transatlantic partnership to prevent these from overcoming the principles of liberal democracy to which he'd given everything.

Yes, he did mope around for a few weeks after the election debacle, glum about the loss of 10 Downing Street and of his seat at the Potsdam power table. But when the clouds cleared Churchill picked himself off and made use of his two most potent weapons - his pen and his voice - in crafting and delivering may have indeed been the most important speech of his career. He had expressed his aim in World War Two in one word: "victory." His post-war goal can also be encapsulated in a single word: "peace."


Philip White Philip White is the author of Churchill's Cold War, published by Duckworth on 26 May, 2012. He is a writer and a guest lecturer at MidAmerica Nazarene University (Kansas City, USA), and a regular contributor to the publications of The Historical Society at Boston University. Philip’s business writing has been recognized with awards from the Public Relations Society of America and the International Association of Business Communicators. You can read Philip's musings at the Historically Speaking blog and follow him on Twitter.


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