Origins of Churchill Phrases: “Special Relationship” and “Iron Curtain”

Origins of Churchill Phrases: “Special Relationship” and “Iron Curtain”

Pregnant Phrases

The his­to­ri­an Christo­pher Har­mon capa­bly answers a ques­tion on the ori­gin of these famous expres­sions, and kind­ly asks me to con­firm his find­ings. They are right as usu­al. (Dr. Har­mon wrote a fre­quent­ly cit­ed mono­graph, “Are We Beasts?” Churchill on the Moral Ques­tion of World War II “Area Bomb­ing.” His five books include the grad­u­ate-lev­el text­book Ter­ror­ism Today .)

Special Relationship

Chris Har­mon writes:

“Spe­cial rela­tion­ship” appears sev­er­al times (and in sur­pris­ing ways) in Churchill’s 1946 Ful­ton speech, “The Sinews of Peace.” It is impor­tant nev­er to say that it was coined there.  I believe Churchill coined the phrase in a pri­vate let­ter to Clement Attlee in ear­ly Octo­ber 1945. It appears there are no oth­er print­ed uses in Churchill’s papers until Ful­ton. The Amer­i­can press did not pick up on the phrase much at the time. But there was much dis­cus­sion of the theme of UK-US “fra­ter­nal rela­tions” in and after the war. “Fra­ter­nal rela­tions” is a favored WSC phrase, used many times. It appears most notably in the mar­velous Har­vard speech (6 Sep­tem­ber 1943). There Churchill applied it to the prospect of com­mon British-Amer­i­can citizenship.

It is valu­able to read the Har­vard Speech and, per­haps, Churchill’s remarks (to most of the lead­ing U.S. com­man­ders) at the Pen­ta­gon on 9 March 1946. Intro­duced by Eisen­how­er, he laud­ed among oth­er things the thor­ough edu­ca­tion of the Amer­i­can offi­cer corps. Few remem­bers that speech in that unusu­al place.

Fraternal Relationship

Churchill with his pref­er­ence for pre­cise Eng­lish pre­ferred “fra­ter­nal” to “spe­cial.” He used both pub­licly at Fulton:

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. This is no time for gen­er­al­i­ties, and I will ven­ture to be pre­cise. Fra­ter­nal asso­ci­a­tion requires not only the grow­ing friend­ship and mutu­al under­stand­ing between our two vast but kin­dred sys­tems of soci­ety, but the con­tin­u­ance of the inti­mate rela­tion­ship between our mil­i­tary advis­ers, lead­ing to com­mon study of poten­tial dan­gers, the sim­i­lar­i­ty of weapons and man­u­als of instruc­tions, and to the inter­change of offi­cers and cadets at tech­ni­cal col­leges. It should car­ry with it the con­tin­u­ance of the present facil­i­ties for mutu­al secu­ri­ty by the joint use of all Naval and Air Force bases in the pos­ses­sion of either coun­try all over the world.

Appear­ances of the phrase “Spe­cial Rela­tion­ship” occu­py four pages in my quo­ta­tions book, Churchill by Him­self, 116-19.) But Chris Har­mon is right to men­tion Churchill’s ear­li­er and pre­ferred adjec­tive, “fra­ter­nal.” I remem­ber a 1985 Lon­don talk by Sir Winston’s last pri­vate sec­re­tary, Antho­ny Mon­tague Browne:

We all know the French Republic’s slo­gan, Lib­er­ty, Equal­i­ty, Fra­ter­ni­ty. Peo­ple are very keen on Lib­er­ty and Equal­i­ty. But Win­ston Churchill liked Fra­ter­ni­ty, because the oth­er two sprang from it. I sup­pose the vis­i­ble threat of war makes Fra­ter­ni­ty an obvi­ous nec­es­sary qual­i­ty. We could do with it now.

“Iron Curtain”

Sim­i­lar­ly, Dr. Har­mon con­tin­ues, the phrase “Iron Cur­tain” was not coined at Fulton:

Prece­dents are in for­eign­ers’ descrip­tions of what they were see­ing in Bol­she­vized Rus­sia. Var­ied usages include Nev­er Despair, the final vol­ume of Mar­tin Gilbert’s great biog­ra­phy. Churchill’s first use is also known: 12 May 1945 in a telegram to Tru­man (Churchill Archives, CHAR 20/218). It is almost unknown that Churchill poked Stal­in by utter­ing the phrase “iron cur­tain” dur­ing the Pots­dam Con­fer­ence in July 1945. Much lat­er came the famous pub­lic use in Fulton.

But the phrase is much old­er than that. In the Wall Street Jour­nal on 5 March 2021 Mark Lon­car tracks it to the reli­gious reformer Mar­tin Luther, in his reli­gious bat­tles with Pope Leo X:

In 1521 Luther wrote an essay, “Con­cern­ing the Let­ter and the Spir­it.” The rel­e­vant pas­sage is as fol­lows: “The let­ter [law] does not allow any­one to stand before his wrath. The Spir­it does not allow any­one to per­ish before his grace. Oh, this is such an over­whelm­ing affair that one could talk about it end­less­ly! But the pope and human law have hid­den it from us and have put up an iron cur­tain in front of it.”

20th Century Iron Curtains

Jonathan Rose in The Lit­er­ary Churchill tracks “Iron Cur­tain” to the peace agi­ta­tor Ver­non Lee (1917), Queen Elis­a­beth of Bel­gium (1915), and H. G. Wells in The Food of the Gods (1904). “Iron Cur­tain” was also used in 1918 by the Russ­ian émi­gré philoso­pher Vasi­ly Rozanov in Apoc­a­lypse of Our Time. Ethel Snow­den’s Through Bol­she­vik Rus­sia (1920) described Rus­sia as being behind an “Iron Cur­tain.”  Rose says Churchill denied hear­ing any of these: “No. I didn’t hear of the phrase before—though every­one has heard of the ‘iron cur­tain’ which descends in a theatre.”

The phrase resur­faced with Goebbels in Das Reich (25 Feb­ru­ary 1945). As Chris notes, Churchill first used it in a telegram to Tru­man on 12 May 1945. But its most famous appear­ances was at Fulton:

From Stet­tin in the Baltic to Tri­este in the Adri­at­ic, an iron cur­tain has descend­ed across the Con­ti­nent. Behind that line lie all the cap­i­tals of the ancient states of Cen­tral and East­ern Europe. War­saw, Berlin, Prague, Vien­na, Budapest, Bel­grade, Bucharest and Sofia…. In front of the iron cur­tain which lies across Europe are oth­er caus­es for anxiety….

Ethel Snowden, maybe…

Churchill read vora­cious­ly, and stored favorite lines in his capa­cious mem­o­ry. I doubt if Churchill read Goebbels, Rozanov or the rest, except for Wells. But I wouldn’t bet against Ethel Snow­den, who first used it to describe Russia.

Snow­den was a fem­i­nist, a paci­fist, a tee­to­taler, a social­ist and a suf­fragette. Per­fect for Churchill’s appar­ent­ly apoc­ryphal quip about all the virtues he despised and none of the vices he admired. So why would she attract Churchill’s attention?

Churchill admired strong-mind­ed, left-lean­ing women, like Beat­rice Webb. Not to men­tion his wife Clemen­tine, a life­long Lib­er­al. Or Lady Astor, with whom he nursed a kind of grudg­ing affec­tion. Also, Ethel mar­ried Philip Snow­den, Labour Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment who lat­er became Chan­cel­lor of the Exchequer.

Churchill per­son­al­ly admired Snow­den, writ­ing favor­ably of him in 1931. Snow­den died six years lat­er. Churchill wrote a trib­ute in the Sun­day Express and. In the midst of vast polit­i­cal tur­moil, Dame Ethel thanked him…

…for your beau­ti­ful arti­cle on my hus­band. It is the finest thing which has appeared and bears the brand of sin­cer­i­ty. I am deeply grate­ful to you, and touched by your kind­ness beyond the pow­er of ade­quate expres­sion. Your gen­eros­i­ty to a polit­i­cal oppo­nent marks you for ever in my eyes the ‘great gen­tle­man’ I have always thought you. Had I been in trou­ble which I could not con­trol myself, there is none to whom I should have felt I could come with more con­fi­dence that I should be gen­tly treated.

That was cer­tain­ly the kind of “fra­ter­nal” let­ter which might have drawn Churchill’s interest.

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