Iron Curtain 75 Years On: Churchill on the Fulton Flak

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:

Fulton aftermath

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.

Short memories

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.)

Standing firm

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. Reports of des­per­ate con­di­tions in Europe 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?

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