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