5 March 1946. Winston Churchill, 8 months on from his defeat in the 1945 UK general election, travelled to the small town of Fulton, Missouri to deliver a speech in the presence of US President Harry S. Truman at Westminster College.
His words set a major precedent in post-war relations between the Western powers and the Soviet Union including the appearance of the phrase ‘iron curtain’, which would come to be used to describe countries living within the Soviet sphere of influence.
There is deep sympathy and goodwill in Britain — and I doubt not here also — toward the peoples of all the Russias and a resolve to persevere through many differences and rebuffs in establishing lasting friendships. It is my duty, however, to place before you certain facts about the present position in Europe. 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.
Churchill had already used the words ‘iron curtain’ in a 1945 telegram to Truman as well as in a speech in front of the British House of Commons. The term had previously been applied to the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany, notably by Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels.
From allies to foes: The West and the Eastern Bloc
Immediately after the conclusion of World War Two, which came about due to a concerted, combined effort of the Allied nations against the expansionist Axis Powers, the lines of friendship and hegemony were being redrawn, with the United States on one side and the Soviet Union on the other.
Money and resources for rebuilding the territories under Western jurisdiction would largely come from the United States. Russia, who suffered losses far greater than the US or UK, would secure them from Eastern Germany and other countries that would make up the Eastern Bloc.
While both the US and the Soviet Union were exerting their influence over the defeated former Axis powers and the victims of their war machines, Churchill — an unashamed imperialist himself — helped paint Russia as a dangerous expansionist power, which did not respect ‘military weakness’ and needed to be strongly dealt with.
Churchill was making a clear effort to secure Britain’s role as a major player on the side of the US in the coming struggle against the Russians and warning against communist activists in Western and Southern Europe, which he depicted as obedient agents of the Soviets.
His aim was to forge a ‘special relationship’ between the two countries, which he underlined in terms of culture: ‘We not only speak the same language, we think the same thoughts.’
Reactions to Churchill’s speech
Western public opinion regarding Stalin and the Soviets would never be the same. On both sides of the newly dubbed Iron Curtain, perceptions of once-brave and useful allies were being transformed into mortal enemies through propaganda. The competing teams were reorganising.
Though Churchill’s remarks about the US as the clear ‘pinnacle of world power’ and continuing role in Europe were appreciated by the Americans, US officials were not interested in propping up a fading world power in Britain. Nonetheless, Churchill’s skills as an orator and stateside popularity were useful to the Truman administration and beyond.
Stalin’s response to the ‘Iron Curtain’ speech — which Churchill titled ‘The Sinews of Peace’ — was to accuse the former PM of war mongering and racism. Soviet propaganda subsequently turned against the US and its allies.
A new cold war reality
While the tools of the Cold War were softer and more ideological, the spoils, as in all wars, were strategic: power and resources. But like any war, it needed public support.
Churchill’s comparison between the years before Hitler’s rise to power and the present Soviet threat in Europe was heavy handed, but effective. The United States and Britain had a new enemy and its name was communism.