WINSTON CHURCHILL'S "Iron Curtain" speech, delivered in the gymnasium of Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, on March 5, 1946, is one of the two or three most significant speeches of the twentieth century. It was made at a pregnant moment in history, as America's wartime alliance with Soviet Russia was giving way to Cold War. Churchill's carefully wrought words bespoke a half century of study and observation of international politics, and an underlying philosophy whose roots can be traced to major political thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The speech is remembered today as a seminal pronouncement on behalf of the Atlantic solidarity and clearheaded realism that ultimately carried the West to victory in the Cold War. What is less remembered is that at the time the address brought down on Churchill a torrent of controversy. Much of the criticism directed toward him had its roots in philosophic assumptions at odds with Churchill's, ones that took it as self-evident that a thorough-going transformation of the state system was both possible and desirable. Churchill thought otherwise.
Interest in this controversy from the chair of hindsight fifty years later is not merely academic, for the main issues discussed by Churchill -- the role of the United Nations in what many hoped would be a new world order, control of new weapons of mass destruction, the efficacy of military power and alliances in ensuring peace -- animate debate in our post-Cold War world no less than they did at the dawn of that age.
The "Iron Curtain" Speech
FOLLOWING HIS unexpected and personally devastating defeat in the British general election in July 1945, Churchill received hundreds of invitations to lecture. One came to him in October 1945 from President Truman, who forwarded a letter from Franc L. McCluer, president of Westminster College in Truman's home state of Missouri. Truman wrote on McCluer's letter, "Hope you can do it. I'll introduce you." When the Attlee government gave its approval, Churchill sent Truman his tentative acceptance in November. He arrived in New York with his wife, Clementine, on January 14,1946.
After a seven-week holiday in Florida, Churchill joined Truman in Washington for the rail trip to Missouri. Disembarking at Jefferson City, the state capital, following a journey that took a day and a night, they drove the twenty-four miles to Fulton. On reaching the town, whose population of 6,500 had swelled to 30,000 for the occasion, they proceeded through crowded streets in an open limousine. Following a luncheon, both donned academic gowns and followed a procession into the college gymnasium, where two thousand dignitaries, faculty, students, and other guests were seated, joined by a national radio audience.
Churchill first set the scene, observing that "The United States stands at this time at the pinnacle of world power", and that "It is a solemn moment for the American Democracy. For with primacy in power is also joined an awe-inspiring accountability to the future." He spoke of the paramount goal of protecting the people in their "myriad cottage or apartment homes' from the "two giant marauders, war and tyranny." He then turned to the need to prevent, first, war -- by means of the new "temple of peace", the United Nations:
We must make sure that its work is fruitful that it is a reality and not a sham, that it is a force for action, and not merely a frothing of words, that it is a true temple of peace in which the shields of many nations can some day be hung up, and not merely a cockpit in a Tower of Babel.
Before we cast away the solid assurances of national armaments for self-preservation we must be certain that our temple is built, not upon shifting sands or quagmires, but upon the rock.
Churchill's rock was, above all, organized armed force. just as courts cannot function without sheriffs, the UN "must immediately begin to be equipped with an international armed force." As a first step, he suggested that each state delegate a certain number of air squadrons to the UN; they would remain national forces but be directed by the world body.
But when he then turned to another major issue of the day, Churchill unhesitatingly endorsed the Western monopoly of the atomic bomb, emphasizing his opposition to entrusting U.S. and British knowledge of its secrets to the U.N. "It would be criminal madness to cast it adrift in this still agitated and un-united world", he warned. No country had slept less well because the secrets of the bomb were held in American hands, but this would not have been the case had "some Communist or neo-Fascist State monopolised for the time being these dread agencies." Churchill went on:
God has willed that this shall not be and we have at least a breathing space to set our house in order before this peril has to be encountered: and even then, if no effort is spared, we should still possess so formidable a superiority as to impose effective deterrents upon its employment, or threat of employment, by others.
The atomic secret could be confided to the UN, said Churchill, "when the essential brotherhood of man is truly embodied" in that institution, "with all the necessary practical safeguards to make it effective." President Truman was among those applauding at this point.
Prevention of tyranny, the second of the two marauders, was Churchill's next subject. He alluded to Russian-sponsored repression in Eastern Europe, where "the power of the State is exercised without restraint, either by dictators or by compact oligarchies operating through a privileged party and a political police." Churchill acknowledged that the United States and Great Britain could not interfere forcibly, but insisted that "we must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world." He noted that the Magna Carta and the other great symbols of English liberty "find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence." These "title deeds of freedom", he proclaimed, should be "the message of the British and American peoples to mankind."
Political liberty also rests on economic well-being. Churchill observed that poverty and privation were to many the "prevailing anxiety" in that bleak first postwar year. He foresaw that "science and co-operation" would bring in the next few decades "an expansion of material well-being beyond anything that has yet occurred in human experience." The "hunger and distress which are the aftermath of our stupendous struggle" will pass, he averred, "and there is no reason except human folly or sub-human crime which should deny to all the nations the inauguration and enjoyment of an age of plenty."
Now Churchill reached the first crucial message of his address:
Neither the sure prevention of war, nor the continuous rise of world organisation will be gained without what I have called the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples. This means a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States.
He then outlined his concept of this relationship in terms of continued wartime military cooperation and joint use of military bases. The principle of the Permanent Defense Agreement between the United States and Canada should be extended to all in the Commonwealth, leading eventually, he hoped, to common citizenship. Until that happened, Churchill was concerned to build a special Anglo-American relationship both to ensure continued worldwide U.S. involvement and to maintain the position of a depleted and exhausted postwar Britain.
A good argument can be made that in looking across the sea to maintain Britain as a great power, as he had done with such success in the war, Churchill overlooked a more realistic role for postwar Britain as the leader of a revived Europe, when such a role was there for the asking. Britain finally joined Europe a quarter century later under much reduced circumstances, having missed the opportunity to shape the new community at its birth. Churchill's romantic vision (which the Attlee government essentially shared) came to grief in the Suez debacle of 1956.
Churchill pursued his theme at Fulton with delicacy. He knew his American history, and the country's idealistic, decidedly un-British tradition in foreign affairs. He had been a senior member of the British government twenty-seven years before, when America and the world stood at another "solemn moment" in history. He had recounted in The World Crisis, his history of the First World War, how President Wilson's dream of a new world order, in which alliances and power politics would be abolished in favor of a world organization, had ended in bitter failure. He knew the United States had never joined a peacetime alliance, and had little appetite for entanglement outside the Western Hemisphere. He also knew well the immense difficulty with which President Roosevelt had endeavored to break down his people's isolationist impulse, on which effort Britain's very life had depended in 1940-1.
Thus mindful of the sensibilities of his audience, Churchill never used the word alliance. Instead, he subtly joined the concept of the "special relationship" with the budding American romance with the UN. Rejecting the view that such a relationship between the two countries would contradict the principle of world...