Iron Curtain 75 Years On: Churchill on the Fulton Flak
The 75th Anniversary of Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech at Fulton, Missouri, was celebrated this week with due ceremony. One need look no further than his leading recent biographer Andrew Roberts for an eminently readable account of the speech and its aftermath in the Daily Express.
Readers interested in further details may wish to watch or read three pertinent presentations, the first being the speech itself, the other two provided by the Hillsdale College Churchill Project:
- Sir Winston Churchill’s Fulton Speech, “The Sinews of Peace,” Westminster College, 5 March 1946 (audio; speech begins at minute 8:40)
- Sir Martin Gilbert, “The Enduring Importance of the ‘Iron Curtain’ Speech,” Hillsdale College, 22 October 2004.
- Jacob R. Weaver, “The Rhetoric of Cold War: Churchill’s 1946 Fulton Speech,” Hillsdale Churchill Project, July 2018.
Andrew Roberts in the Express summarizes the fiery reactions to the speech Churchill entitled, “The Sinews of Peace”:
The American and British press lambasted [him], the Chicago Sun saying it contained a “poisonous doctrine” and, in Britain, The Times stated that the West “had much to learn” from Soviet communism, especially “in the development of economic and social planning.” Some 93 Labour MPs tabled a censure motion against Churchill in the House of Commons, saying the speech had been “calculated to do injury to good relations between Great Britain, the USA and the USSR.”
Initially condemned as a warmonger for telling the truth, Churchill was soon acknowledged as a prophet—sometimes by the same individuals and media who had excoriated him in 1946.
Churchill shrugged off his critics and never backed off. He knew he was right, and by 1948 it was generally proven. Over the next few years he often alluded to his Fulton forecast.
Shortly on the Hillsdale Churchill site, I reprise Churchill’s references to the speech against a timeline of events and endnotes proving every word of his warning. Herewith a brief summary.
As Andrew Roberts notes, many people were offended that Churchill should question the motives of dear old “Uncle Joe,” the Soviet dictator. Hadn’t Stalin helped win the war? Some even insisted Russia had won it alone. Anthony Montague Browne, Sir Winston’s last private secretary, had a different memory:
It was only a few years previous that the Russians had concluded that hangman’s pact with Nazi Germany, closely followed by their cynical attack on Poland, and then on Finland, and the gobbling up of the Baltic States. Then there was the German U-boat base on Russian soil near Murmansk, that didn’t get much publicity…. The Soviet press gloated over every British defeat—and there were plenty to gloat over. Then at last the cannibals fell out—after Stalin had angrily rejected British warnings of the forthcoming German onslaught. It now seems astonishing that the Left can represent wartime Russia as nobly sustaining the fight to save us.
President Truman, who had accompanied Churchill to Fulton and smiled and nodded as he spoke, next suggested that Stalin might come and present his side of the story. (In the event, Uncle Joe did not take up this invitation.)
Churchill’s first reply to “Fulton flak” was jocular. Three days later he addressed the General Assembly of Virginia. “Do you not think you are running some risk in inviting me?…. I might easily, for instance, blurt out a lot of things, which people know in their hearts are true, but are a bit shy of saying in public, and this might cause a regular commotion and get you all into trouble.”
A week later in New York the cacophony had grown, and Churchill stuck to his guns:
I do not wish to withdraw or modify a single word. I was invited to give my counsel freely in this free country and I am sure that the hope which I expressed for the increasing association of our two countries will come to pass, not because of any speech which may be made, but because of the tides that flow in human affairs and in the course of the unfolding destiny of the world.
In October, speaking in Parliament, he was unrepentant. The Fulton speech, he said
had a mixed reception…and quite a number of Hon. Members of this House put their names to a Motion condemning me for having made it. [Today] it would attract no particular attention…. It was easier in Hitler’s day to feel and forecast the general movement of events. But now we have not to deal with Hitler and his crude Nazi gang. We are in the presence of something very much more difficult to measure.
The light dawns
In March 1947, the President proclaimed the Truman Doctrine, and read reports of desperate conditions in Europe that would lead to the Marshall Plan. Churchill viewed Truman’s actions with satisfaction. What he said at Fulton would today
be regarded as a stream of tepid platitudes…. I am very glad we are able to give our full support to the United States in the efforts she is making to preserve Freedom and Democracy in Europe, and to send food to its distressed and distracted countries…. Such a process should be treated on all occasions with the respect which is its due. No country in the world has ever done anything like it on such a scale before.
Fulton after all had been a plea for peace through accommodation, not a call to war. Churchill returned to that theme in January 1948:
It is idle to reason or argue with the communists. It is, however, possible to deal with them on a fair, realistic basis, and, in my experience, they will keep their bargains as long as it is in their interest to do so, which might, in this grave matter, be a long time, once things were settled.
Unfortunately, a month later Czech communists deposed President Edvard Beneš, with the same celerity as Hitler had in 1938. In June, Stalin solidified his grip on Hungary and began the blockade of Berlin. Truman, with Britain’s support, replied with the Berlin Airlift. Nine months later the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was founded.
Speaking at M.I.T.’s Mid-Century Convocation in March 1949, Churchill once more alluded to his Fulton speech. The criticism he’d had after Fulton was no more. Now he was vindicated, and felt gratified:
Today there is a very different climate of opinion. I am in cordial accord with much that is being done. We have, as dominating facts, the famous Marshall Aid, the new unity in Western Europe and now the Atlantic Pact. No one could, however, have brought about these immense changes in the feeling of the United States, Great Britain and Europe but for the astounding policy of the Russian Soviet Government….Why have they done it? It is because they fear the friendship of the West more than its hostility. They cannot afford to allow free and friendly intercourse to grow up between the vast areas they control and the civilized nations of the West.
“An approaching scientific ability to control thoughts…”
M.I.T. was the end of a chapter, but the tale goes on, Roberts concluded: “…totalitarianism is on the rise in our battered world today, and democracy needs another champion with the prescience and eloquence of Churchill to warn us of the consequences. Churchill’s statement that ‘freedom of speech and thought should reign’ is anathema to the totalitarians who now rule over half of the global population, and needs to be restated.” Indeed his message is stunningly relevant:
One of the questions which you are debating here is defined as “the failure of social and political institutions to keep pace with material and technical change.” Scientists should never underrate the deep-seated qualities of human nature and how, repressed in one direction, they will certainly break out in another. The genus homo—if I may display my Latin—still remains as Pope described him in An Essay on Man 200 years ago:
Placed on this Isthmus of a middle State,
A being darkly wise and rudely great…
Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.
Laws just or unjust may govern men’s actions. Tyrannies may restrain or regulate their words. The machinery of propaganda may pack their minds with falsehood and deny them truth for many generations of time. But the soul of man thus held in trance or frozen in a long night can be awakened by a spark coming from God knows where and in a moment the whole structure of lies and oppression is on trial for its life.
Again today “we are in the presence of something very much more difficult to measure.” Are today’s generations up to the challenge?