Churchill Delivers His Iron Curtain Speech Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech was one of the inaugural moments of the Cold War. In it, the former prime minister sounded an alarm to Great Britain about Soviet encroachments in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The speech reflected a simultaneous change in U.S. foreign policy toward the Soviet Union.

Summary of Event

When Winston Churchill delivered his historic Iron Curtain speech, he uttered a phrase that may be considered the first rhetorical shot of the Cold War. The Soviet Union’s postwar posture was condemned, and the former ally of the West was portrayed as the arch-aggressor. The dramatic character of the speech is intensified when one recalls that the United States, fresh from victory, was sighing with profound relief; war-torn Western Europe was on the brink of economic collapse; and Great Britain had recently rejected its wartime prime minister, Churchill, preferring instead Clement Attlee’s Labour Party with its bold social democratic schemes. Iron Curtain "Sinews of Peace, The" (Churchill)[Sinews of Peace, The] Cold War;advent Soviet-Western relations[Soviet Western relations] U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations] John Findley Green Foundation Lecture [kw]Churchill Delivers His Iron Curtain Speech (Mar. 5, 1946) [kw]Iron Curtain Speech, Churchill Delivers His (Mar. 5, 1946) [kw]Speech, Churchill Delivers His Iron Curtain (Mar. 5, 1946) Iron Curtain "Sinews of Peace, The" (Churchill)[Sinews of Peace, The] Cold War;advent Soviet-Western relations[Soviet Western relations] U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations] John Findley Green Foundation Lecture [g]North America;Mar. 5, 1946: Churchill Delivers His Iron Curtain Speech[01700] [g]United States;Mar. 5, 1946: Churchill Delivers His Iron Curtain Speech[01700] [c]Cold War;Mar. 5, 1946: Churchill Delivers His Iron Curtain Speech[01700] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Mar. 5, 1946: Churchill Delivers His Iron Curtain Speech[01700] Churchill, Winston [p]Churchill, Winston;Cold War Truman, Harry S. [p]Truman, Harry S.;Cold War Byrnes, James Francis

The phrase “Iron Curtain” was first used by Joseph Goebbels Goebbels, Joseph , Adolf Hitler’s propaganda minister, but Churchill had also used it in a dispatch sent to President Harry S. Truman on May 12, 1945, exactly one month after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death. With Germany’s defeat imminent, Churchill tried to persuade Truman to disregard the occupation zones arranged at the Quebec Conference in August of 1943 and to continue to hold firmly the Anglo-American positions in Yugoslavia, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Denmark. Churchill concluded his message by advising Truman not to move his armies until the three chiefs of state had met and the Western Allies had reached agreement about their Eastern partner’s occupation policy.

Although Great Britain’s primary enemy, Germany, was virtually defeated at the time of Churchill’s dispatch, the United States was still fighting Japan in the Pacific. Truman was suspicious of the Soviet Union, but he was advised to hope for a settlement by exercising restraint. If he had pursued a hard line, the Soviet Union might have responded with an equally tough line and shut the West out of Berlin and Vienna. Since the atomic bomb had not yet been tested, Truman’s advisers stressed the need for cooperation with the Russians to ensure that the Russians would keep the promises they had made at Yalta to enter the Pacific war and to work toward the establishment of a world organization (the United Nations). Thus, Churchill’s top-level wartime dispatch was rejected in Washington. When Churchill used the phrase “Iron Curtain” publicly a year later, the context had greatly changed.

In the winter of 1946, Churchill was visiting Washington, D.C., and was invited to deliver the John Findley Green Foundation Lecture at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. Since Truman assured Churchill that he would preside at the lecture, the occasion assumed an official character. U.S. foreign policy still reflected confidence in the United Nations, faith in the cooperation of the Soviet Union, and a belief in the idea that power politics was an obsolete diplomatic procedure. Although traditional American isolationism supported this policy of restraint and hope, the State Department was actually experiencing the severe limitations of the policy, particularly in Poland and Iran.

Secretary of State James Francis Byrnes’s agreement with the content of Churchill’s preparatory notes for the speech seems to indicate that the Truman administration was groping for new directions in foreign policy. Indeed, the transition in the United States’ foreign policy toward the Soviet Union actually began in mid-February of 1946, as it moved from a position of accommodation to a position of firmness. On February 12, 1946, Byrnes initiated a reorientation of U.S. foreign policy by taking firmer actions in Eastern Europe. The secretary refused to recognize a Soviet-inspired accommodation in Bulgaria, and he took the position that the Soviet-dominated Romanian government was not in compliance with earlier Allied agreements. Moreover, he formally complained of harassment of U.S. officials in Albania, and he threatened to withhold U.S. recognition of their government. Likewise, he charged the Russians with holding up economic recovery in Hungary, and he complained vigorously about noncompliance with the Potsdam Declaration in Eastern Europe.

As part of this reorientation, Byrnes went to Miami for a February 17 meeting with Churchill, where the former prime minister’s upcoming speech was discussed. On February 22, Byrnes initiated a change in policy toward Iran, which encouraged that government to resist Soviet pressure, a move that thrust the United States into confrontation with the Soviet Union in the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. In a speech delivered on February 28 in New York, Byrnes announced a new policy of “patience and firmness” toward the Soviet Union. He even called for universal military training in the United States. Finally, he appointed Bernard Baruch to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission to preserve the atomic monopoly for the United States. A columnist for The New York Post wrote on March 1, “A stiffening American attitude toward Russia is in prospect. . . . evidence will soon be forthcoming.” Prior to the Churchill speech, President Truman read it with approval. Beginning in late 1945, The New York Times had buttressed support for a change along these lines by stepping up its own anti-Soviet stance.

Churchill’s speech, entitled “The Sinews of Peace,” was delivered on March 5, 1946, to an audience of forty thousand people. He opened with an urgent reminder to the American people that victory in war had left them at the pinnacle of power, where they must be sensitive to the demands of peace. He urged all nations to cooperate with the United Nations and to add to its effectiveness by establishing an “International Armed Force.” Churchill argued that the secrets of atomic weaponry, still restricted to the United States, Canada, and Great Britain, must remain safely guarded in their hands until “the essential brotherhood of men is truly embodied and expressed in a world organization.”

Speaking again in general terms, he warned the American people that, while they must be vigilant against any threat of war, they should beware of another “world marauder”—tyranny—and join with all liberty-loving people, particularly their British cousins, in proclaiming “in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man.” As a complement to the United Nations, Churchill specifically called for a “fraternal association of English-speaking peoples,” which would include a permanent defense agreement whereby British and American military forces would pursue a mutual security policy. A strong Anglo-American pact was needed to stabilize the foundations of peace.

Before the rising action of this dramatic speech reached its climax, Churchill eased into his attack upon the Soviet Union’s bellicose behavior by stating his admiration for the Russian people and his wartime comrade, Joseph Stalin. As if he were talking directly to the Kremlin, Churchill acknowledged their right to be secure on their western frontiers against the possibility of German aggression and assured them of the Anglo-American resolve to establish lasting friendship with the Soviet Union in spite of “the many differences and rebuffs.” He noted, however, that it was his duty “not to misstate the facts . . . about the present position in Europe.” Churchill then uttered his famous warning against the “Iron Curtain” that threatened to separate central and Eastern Europe from the West.

Churchill was convinced that while the Soviet Union did not want war, it did aim at the indefinite expansion of its power and doctrine. Because Churchill contended that the Soviet Union admired strength and scoffed at military weakness, his response to the descent of the Iron Curtain was to propose the establishment of Western military and moral unity. The first step toward such unity was to cement an Anglo-American defense pact. As a sign of solidarity, on the day of Churchill’s speech, Byrnes sent three strong messages to the Soviet Union, questioning their actions in Eastern Europe, China, and Iran.

In a United States seeking postwar tranquillity, the Soviet Union’s military occupation of Eastern Europe did not clearly reveal its political design. Confidence in the United Nations bolstered American hopes for a cooperative policy with the Soviet Union. In general, Churchill’s speech was considered shocking in its bold references to Russian bellicosity. Although Churchill recalled that Truman and Byrnes indicated their approval of his remarks immediately following the speech, Eleanor Roosevelt, Henry Wallace (a former vice president under Roosevelt and Truman’s secretary of commerce), and The New York Herald Tribune openly disagreed with the tone and content of Churchill’s Fulton address. Eight days after the speech, Pravda published a bitter condemnation of the speech, expressing Stalin’s indignation that Churchill’s remarks were sowing discord among the Allied governments. When Prime Minister Clement Attlee Attlee, Clement of Great Britain was asked to comment on the speech, he diplomatically retreated with a “no comment” response to Churchill’s warnings.

Despite Truman and Byrnes’s earlier reorientation of their Soviet policies, the Truman administration publicly greeted Churchill’s speech with ambivalence. Although privately respecting the former prime minister’s vision, both Truman and Byrnes publicly responded to the Russian rejoinder and the rift in public opinion by dissociating American policy from Churchill’s belligerence toward the Soviet Union. Iran, Manchuria, and the Balkans were points of conflict in U.S.-Soviet relations, but the Truman administration continued to pursue a cooperative policy. During the transition from “cooperation” to “containment,” public opinion appeared to be capricious in the extreme. The public opinion polls indicated a shift from a rejection of Churchill’s attitude to agreement with it in a matter of a few weeks.

Significance

Churchill’s dramatic Iron Curtain speech set forth the rhetorical terms that would guide Western foreign policy for decades. By 1947, Churchill’s Fulton utterances had worked their way into diplomatic realities when certain Cold War facts became clearly visible. The Soviet Union was exerting greater political pressure in Central and Eastern Europe, was uncooperative in the joint occupation of Berlin, was threatening to secure bases in Turkey, and was interfering in a guerrilla war in Greece. When Great Britain announced its withdrawal from Greece, President Truman responded in March, 1947, with his Truman Doctrine, promising military and economic aid to Greece and Turkey. The development of the Marshall Plan in 1948 and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949 further cemented the American commitment to European stability. By that time, the phrase “Iron Curtain” was a common term in the diplomatic rhetoric of the day, as American foreign policy gradually emphasized containment of the Soviet Union, which was increasingly perceived as a global menace to freedom in the West. Iron Curtain "Sinews of Peace, The" (Churchill)[Sinews of Peace, The] Cold War;advent Soviet-Western relations[Soviet Western relations] U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations] John Findley Green Foundation Lecture

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Churchill, Winston S. Memoirs of the Second World War. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959. This volume is an abridgment of the six-volume The Second World War. In this work, Churchill recalls events surrounding his famous speech.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ferrell, Robert H. Harry S. Truman: A Life. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1994. Ferrell concludes that Churchill’s speech “embarrassed” the president, who backed away from it.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Halle, Louis J. The Cold War as History. London: Chatto & Windus, 1967. Halle views the Fulton speech as a lesson in the foreign policy education of the American people.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harburt, Fraser J. The Iron Curtain: Churchill, America, and the Origins of the Cold War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. This work focuses attention on the role of Winston Churchill as “the most active protagonist of a joint Anglo-American political front against the Soviet Union” during and after World War II.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Muller, James W., ed. Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” Speech Fifty Years Later. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999. Anthology of essays reconsidering the speech from a post-Cold War perspective. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robertson, David. Sly and Able: A Political Biography of James F. Byrnes. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994. This work places the Iron Curtain speech and Byrnes’s role in context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, A. J. P., ed. Churchill Revised: A Critical Assessment. New York: Dial Press, 1969. This collection of essays from four historians and one psychiatrist attempts to bring into focus one of the major figures of the period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tropp, Sandra Fehl, and Ann Pierson-D’Angelo, eds. Essays in Context. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Reprints the text of Churchill’s speech, “The Sinews of Peace.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Truman, Harry S. Memoirs of Harry S. Truman. Vol. 2: The Years of Trial and Hope. New York: Doubleday, 1956. Truman’s account of his administration provides an interesting contrast to Churchill’s vision.

Soviets Take Control of Eastern Europe

Truman Doctrine

Marshall Plan Provides Aid to Europe

Soviet Bloc States Establish Council for Mutual Economic Assistance

North Atlantic Treaty Organization Is Formed

United States Inaugurates Mutual Security Program

Western European Union Is Established

Eisenhower Warns of the Military-Industrial Complex

Brezhnev Doctrine Mandates Soviet Control of Satellite Nations

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