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Excerpt: “Best Little Stories from the Life and Times of Winston Churchill”

Author C. Brian Kelly will be on hand at the 27th International Churchill Conference in Charleston, South Carolina to autograph copies of his new book. Look for him in the conference vendor’s area.

By C. Brian Kelly

Poker Pals


One of the most famous speeches in history can be traced in large part to a scribbled note from a U.S. president to a former prime minister of England. “Dear Winnie,” Harry S. Truman scribbled on the bottom of an acquaintance’s letter, “This is a fine old school out in my state. If you come and make a speech there, I’ll take you out and introduce you.” That suited Winston very well, and there he was, on the afternoon of an early March day in 1946, boarding a train to Missouri with Truman, various aides, and “the usual entourage of Secret Service men,” reported Margaret Truman.


Actually, it was Winston who first thought of traveling to America to impart some of his deepest thoughts. “I think I can be of some use over there; they will take things from me,” he told Lord Moran. Thus, in late 1945, it was announced that he would be visiting America. About that time, too, Frank Lewis “Bullet” McClure, president of Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, was looking for an eminent speaker for the small Presbyterian school’s annual Green Foundation lecture, recalled Robert Pilpel in Churchill in America.


McClure told Westminster alumnus Brig. Gen. Harry Vaughan, a White House military aide, that the school would like to land Churchill as its speaker. In no time, McClure found himself at the White House closeted with Vaughan’s boss, Harry Truman, who then promised to forward the invitation to Chartwell “under aegis of the Presidential Seal,” Pilpel wrote. That was when Truman scribbled his “Dear Winnie” note of encouragement on the bottom of the letter.


“Thus the stage was set for what was to become ‘Fulton’s Finest hour,'” added Pilpel, also noting that Winston decided to make a holiday out of the speaking engagement as well. “I want sun, solitude, serenity, and something to eat, and perhaps something to drink,” he told Moran. “On January 14 [1946], accordingly, he and Clementine arrived in New York aboard the Queen Elizabeth en route to the Miami Beach estate of…Colonel Frank Clark [a Canadian wood-pulp magnate].” After restful days painting, indulging in nonrationed foods for a change (eggs were a welcome novelty), and beginning to work on his speech, Winston turned up in Washington, ready for the sojourn to Truman’s homestate of Missouri.


The speech ahead would be serious, but for the moment it was a lighthearted, convivial group boarding the ten-car presidential special. “Dad assigned General Vaughan to keep Mr. Churchill liberally supplied with his favorite liquid refreshment,” Margaret Truman recounted. This decision prompted a Churchillian pronouncement on his drinking habit: “When the General delivered the first drink,” Margaret noted, “Mr. Churchill held it up to the light, and said, ‘When I was a young subaltern in the South African [Boer] war, the water was not fit to drink. To make it palatable we had to add whiskey. By diligent effort I learned to like it.”


As Winston soon found out, too, a hand or two of poker were in the offing for the long hours ahead on the overnight train. Margaret recounted: “Dad proposed to teach Mr. Churchill the intricacies of poker, about which he claimed to know nothing. He soon had the poker-playing Missourians doubled up with comments such as, ‘I think I’ll risk a few shillings on a pair of knaves.’ But their laughter dwindled as he displayed a startling knowledge of the game, plus some sly remarks that he had played something like it during the Boer War.”

According to the late White House Counsel Clark Clifford’s autobiography Counsel to the President, however, it was Winston who, at dinner on the train, proposed: “Harry, I understand from the press that you like to play poker.” To which Truman allowed, “I have played a great deal of poker in my life.” In Clifford’s version of the story, it was Winston, playing in his blue, one-piece zippered “siren suit,” who then turned out to be the lamb among wolves.

At an early point, it seems, Truman enjoined his aides: “This man is cagey and is probably an excellent player. The reputation of American poker is at stake and I expect every man to do his duty.” Later, when Winston clearly wasn’t doing very well, Truman warned, “I don’t want him to think we’re pushovers, but at the same time, let’s not treat him badly.” In the end, Clifford wrote, Winston probably lost a total of about $250—”just enough so that he could not go back to London and brag that he had beaten the Americans at poker.”


Meanwhile, after arriving at Fulton the next day, according to Margaret, “Mr. Churchill’s desire for liquid refreshment became something of a problem. Fulton was a dry town. Dad ordered General Vaughan to spare no effort or expense to find their speaker a drink. After some frantic scouting, the General produced the wherewithal and arrived in Mr. Churchill’s room, liquor and ice water in hand.


“‘Well, General,’ said the guest of honor. ‘I didn’t know whether I was in Fulton, Missouri, or Fulton, Sahara.'” Less than a hour later, Truman introduced the distinguished visitor to the Westminster College audience.

Iron Curtain Speech

After seeing Winston stumble a bit as a poker player on the overnight train to Fulton, Missouri, White House counsel Clark Clifford was then treated to a stunning display of Winston’s strong suit-his oratory. First, though, the presidential party led by Harry Truman and including Winston Churchill as honored guest arrived in Jefferson City, the state’s capital, about 11:20 a.m. on March 5, 1946. A motorcade took them through the town, Robert Pilpel reported in Churchill in America, and then accompanied them on the twenty-five mile drive to Fulton, home of Westminster College. There, with Winston’s liquid needs presumably tended to, they lunched at college president Bullet McClure’s home, and then it was on to the speech making in the school’s crowded gymnasium.


Truman’s introduction, typically, was brief. Noting that he had met both Winston and Joseph Stalin at Potsdam (“a conference,” he said, without naming it), Truman said he became “very fond of both of them.” As for the day’s occasion, Truman said, “I understand that Mr. Churchill is going to talk about the sinews of peace. I know he will have something constructive to say to the world.”


Presidential counselor Clifford, for one, would never forget what came next. “From the point of view of high rhetoric,” he recalled, “I had never heard anything like it before. As a demonstration of the power of ideas, it was an astonishing tour de force.” The tour de force was Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech, which was instantly famous and controversial all at once. The reaction was a “furor,” Margaret Truman wrote.


What Winston said that day in 1946 strikes us today as simple fact, but he was the first major Western figure to point out the aims and results of Soviet aggression in no uncertain terms: “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, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow.”


It basically was what Winston already had written to Truman back in May 1945, even before Potsdam. Also true was a second observation from Winston’s speech at Fulton: “From what I have seen of our Russian friends and allies during the war, I am convinced that there is nothing they admire so much as strength and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for military weakness.” Thus, Margaret Truman observed, Winston “urged an Anglo-American ‘fraternal association’ to stop Russia’s persistent aggression.”


Simple truths stated or not, the outcry was immediate. Stalin of course reacted “with grim evidence of his paranoia,” Margaret Truman noted in her biography of her father. “He accused the United States of allying itself with Great Britain to thwart Russia. He declared Churchill’s speech at Fulton was an unfriendly act. ‘Such a speech if directed against the United States would never have been permitted in Russia.’ Never was there more tragic evidence of the Russian dictator’s complete inability to understand a free society.”


But there also was critical reaction in the West, the United States and Britain included. Among other American critics, Senator Claude Pepper (D-FL) not only denounced the speech but warned against becoming “a guarantor of British imperialism.” James Roosevelt, son of the late president, said Winston’s statement at Fulton represented only “the British point of view.”


On a related theme, many in the American press, wrote Margaret Truman, echoed the New York Herald Tribune’s Bert Andrews in saying Truman “went along largely with what Mr. Churchill had to say, if not entirely.” This was not true, Margaret insisted. She, unlike her father’s critics, was able to cite his personal letter to his mother and sister, dated only days after the speech, in which he said: “I’m glad you enjoyed Fulton. So did I. And I think it did some good, although I’m not yet ready to endorse Mr. Churchill’s speech.”


Just a year later, however, Truman was quite ready to declare his anticommunist Truman Doctrine, by which it would be the official policy of the United States to provide moral and financial assistance to “free peoples” resisting takeover by “armed minorities or by outside pressures” (that is, by communist subversion, insurgency, or overt aggression). “With this declaration,” noted Pilpel, “the United States assumed responsibility for backing the existing regimes in Greece and Turkey against Communist insurgency, thereby relieving the British, who were financially unable to bear the burden any longer.” Then, too, “exactly fifteen months after Fulton, the new American Secretary of State, George Marshall, proposed a plan for European recovery”—the Marshall Plan.


Still, at the time of Winston’s Fulton speech, Margaret Truman insisted, “Dad did not have the slightest idea what Mr. Churchill was going to say at Fulton until they met at the White House before boarding the train to Missouri. He approved of Mr. Churchill saying it, because he was not a head of state. In fact the ex-prime minister made a point of reminding his audience that he represented no one but himself. My father in no sense considered the speech a break with Russia, nor did he want one. In fact, he later invited Marshal Stalin to come to Missouri and deliver a speech, stating Russia’s point of view on the various disputes that were imperiling the peace.”


Stalin never came and instead the cold war succeeded World War II.



Additional note: If Winston in the meantime had to weather one storm over his iron curtain remarks, he also, before finishing his 1946 visit to the United States, had to confront another stormy but old issue as well, Pilpel points out in his book on Winston in America. Traveling to New York City after further visits to Washington, two stops in Virginia, and a visit to FDR’s grave at Hyde Park, Winston ran afoul, quite separately, of complaining Irish and communist protesters. The communists naturally didn’t care for his iron curtain remarks, while the Irish still remembered Winston’s “link to the Black-and-Tans.”


The irony here “was that Churchill had been one of the most instrumental factors in bringing about an Irish settlement in the years before and after World War I,” wrote Pilpel. “As a Liberal he had been a staunch advocate of Irish independence since 1905, and as Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1922 he had helped negotiate the Ulster compromise which made that independence possible.”

Who First Said It?

Here’s a historical footnote to ponder. Rather than Winston Churchill, could it have been the leadership of Nazi Germany that came up with the term “iron curtain”? On the other hand, could it have been an Englishwoman who was a socialist member of Parliament visiting Bolshevik Russia in 1920? Or even a German admiral talking about submarines during World War I, with no reference to the Russians in mind at all? All three, and perhaps more, are distinct possibilities… and somewhere along the line Winston picked up on the phrase himself.


Peter Millar, writing in the London Sunday Times of May 7, 1995—on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of V-E Day—seems (among others) to have opted for the Nazi leadership as Churchill’s inspiration. “In the closing days of the war the analyses in London and Berlin were uncannily identical,” Millar wrote. He then cited a statement by Nazi chief propagandist Josef Goebbels that appeared in the weekly Das Reich in February 1945 as the Red Army closed in on Berlin from the east, while the Western Allies advanced from the west.


As reported by Millar, and perhaps coming to Winston’s attention at the time, Goebbels had written: “If the German people lay down their arms, the Soviets—even after the agreements between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin— would immediately occupy all of east and southeast Europe, including large parts of the Reich. Before this vast territory, including the Soviet Union, an iron curtain would descend.” Surmised Millar: “Churchill, with his expert eye for a good line, was to make it his own later.”


Nor was the Goebbels reference a chance and isolated remark, it seems. As Millar goes on to explain, the iron curtain reference was to be “a keynote phrase in German diplomacy” during the fateful springtime of 1945. “Even with Hitler dead and Germany in ruins it resurfaced when Count Schwerin von Krosigk, the rump Reich government’s new foreign minister, made a broadcast to the nation for the ears of Western leaders on May 2.” In the east, von Schwerin said, “the iron curtain, behind which, unseen by the eyes of the world, the work of destruction goes on, is moving steadily forward.”


Note, by this time, the term appears to have achieved such accepted status as to qualify for the definite article the. Note, too, how similar to a worried Winston’s own statement in his telegram of May 12, ten days later, to Harry S. Truman: “An iron curtain is drawn down upon their front. We do not know what is going on behind.” And, finally, the key lines in his famous iron curtain speech at Fulton, Missouri, on March 5, 1946: “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.”


Often forgotten or ignored is the fact that a presumably still-unwinding, vacationing Winston wrote his wife, Clementine, from the south of France in late 1945, weeks before Fulton, to say, in part, that little was known “behind the Russian iron curtain, but [he added] evidently the Poles and Czecho-Slovakians are being as badly treated as one could have expected.” This letter reflected the same overall theme that was to be heard at Fulton: “The Bolshevization of Europe proceeds apace and all the Cabinets of Central, Eastern and Southern Europe are in Soviet control, excepting only Athens.”


The term iron curtain by itself cannot be considered unique to the postwar events in Europe, not when, for one thing, it literally meant the curtain sometimes used to close off the stage in a theater or any other closing off or fencing in. For instance, at another time when Winston himself might have been paying close attention, German Adm. Alfred von Tirpitz during the First World War apparently used the term in quite an unrelated context. As recalled by neurosurgeon Jules C. Ladenheim of Teaneck, New Jersey, in a letter to the editor of the New York Times, von Tirpitz in 1916 told an American interviewer, “We shall envelop England within an iron curtain.” Explained Ladenheim, “He was referring to an impending German submarine blockade.” Ladenheim added, “Churchill, who was First Lord of the Admiralty, tucked away the phrase in the recesses of memory and drew it out three decades later, when the generation that could recognize it was dead and forgotten.”


Or, again at a time and place when the decidedly anti-Bolshevik Winston Churchill could have been listening, in 1920 socialist MP Ethel Snowden visited the Soviet Union with a British delegation and came away with a decidedly negative impression. She described the Soviet Union’s western border area as an iron curtain in her book Through Bolshevik Russia, but it appears she really meant the border controls imposed by the countries adjoining Russia, rather than Russian border monitoring.

No Breakfast, Thanks

It would have been nice, but…


A visit to Virginia and an address to the General Assembly were on the itinerary for Winston after the iron curtain speech at Fulton, Missouri, and he thought it would be fitting for him to deliver that address in the old colonial capital of Williamsburg rather than in the capitol at Richmond. He had turned down similar invitations from Kentucky and South Carolina, but he acceded to the Virginia legislature’s invitation, supplemented personally by Governor William M. Tuck, because, he said, of his readings of history. The Virginia legislature, dating back to colonial days at Jamestown, was (and is) the oldest in North America. Since he already had agreed to visit Williamsburg on March 8 with his old comrade in arms, Dwight D. Eisenhower, now U.S. Army chief of staff, Winston thought he perhaps could address the lawmakers that day and in the same locale—itself quite historic.


But Tuck replied that scheme posed problems. Before World War II, he wrote, the Virginia Assembly had made it a practice early in its biennial sessions to meet at least once in the old capitol building still standing in the restored part of town known as Colonial Williamsburg. That tradition had been dropped during the war, though, and now Winston was proposing to have the lawmakers travel to Williamsburg for a day very late in their session. In fact, it would be just one day before the assembly’s scheduled adjournment. “Many of the leaders of the Assembly believe that much of the important and necessary work may be neglected, or acted upon without proper consideration, if the General Assembly should leave Richmond for the day on March 8,” Tuck wrote on February 19 to Winston, who was still enjoying a restful interlude at Miami Beach.


Instead, Tuck invited Winston, Clementine, and party to breakfast at the executive mansion, where Winston had stayed with Gov. Harry F. Byrd Sr. and his family two decades before. And so, it was agreed and so it took place…making front-page news in the local newspapers. Winston addressed the Virginia legislature in Thomas Jefferson’s Capitol at Richmond, which, as Governor Tuck said, “is itself quite old and historic.”


As for the speech itself, Robert Pilpel noted in Churchill in America: “Smarting a bit from the furious controversy his Westminster speech had stirred up, he rhetorically inquired of the legislators: ‘Do you not think you are running some risk in inviting me to give you my faithful counsel on this occasion? You have not asked to see what I am going to say. I might easily, for instance, blurt out a lot of things 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.'”


When the Virginians obligingly laughed at this, Winston went on to make it clear, from his speech anyway, that “he did not repent of a single syllable he had uttered at Westminster College.” He warned: “Peace will not be preserved by pious sentiments. It will not be preserved by casting aside in dangerous times the panoply of warlike strength.” And then, with all that said, he continued on to Williamsburg with Eisenhower.


And breakfast in the governor’s mansion that morning? Did it go well? Not exactly, since Winston turned down the invitation, saying it would be better for him to have his usual breakfast in bed aboard the train from Washington and then go straight to the Capitol for his address to the General Assembly.


And that’s exactly what he did. “The 72-year-old [but not until November 30] Briton came sleeping into the city aboard a five-car train from Washington at 5:45 a.m.,” reported James Jackson “Jack” Kilpatrick for Richmond’s afternoon News Leader. “He stayed snoozing peacefully until about 8:30 o’clock and then breakfasted alone on grapefruit, bacon and eggs and coffee,” wrote the reporter, later to become the newspaper’s editor and then a nationally syndicated columnist. “He was to be greeted by State officials at 10 o’clock and shortly thereafter was to leave for the Capitol.”

Winston, Eisenhower, and Tuck then rode the mile-plus distance from Broad Street Station to the Capitol in an open car, despite falling rain that “drenched” crowds of onlookers, the morning Times-Dispatch’s James B. Gibson reported. “Mr. Churchill acknowledged the plaudits of the multitude, gesturing with his big, black cigar and now and then saluting the crowd with his famous ‘V’ salute.” Awaiting him and his address at Jefferson’s capitol, Gibson noted, was “a joint assembly of the oldest parliament on the mainland of the Western Hemisphere.”



Additional note: In Williamsburg later that day there was a brief flurry of fright among the onlookers when the horses hooked up to an open eighteenth-century carriage shied “violently” with Winston and Eisenhower aboard. Explained Pilpel, the two men had just climbed into the carriage “for a tour of the town when photographers’ flashbulbs caused the horses pulling it to rear violently in their traces.”


Eisenhower grabbed Winston’s arm protectively, “while Winston himself settled his hat more firmly on his head and clamped down on his cigar.” Once the horses settled down, it seems, the tour continued on—but on foot.



Additional note two: For the record, this writer, as a staff member at the late Washington Star, interviewed the late Governor Tuck during the 1970s and came away with the impression that Churchill originally planned his iron curtain speech for Williamsburg instead of Fulton, until told the Virginia Assembly was too busy for the one-day diversion in Williamsburg. Whether this writer misunderstood, or the governor three decades after the fact misremembered the true scenario, is unclear. However, the governor, at another time, also told political reporter James Latimer of the Richmond Times-Dispatch: “He decided to come. And sometime afterwards—after he had come and gone—it occurred to me he had in mind delivering that Iron Curtain speech to us at Williamsburg.”


Loved That Man

Before leaving America in 1946, Winston Churchill paid tribute to his wartime ally Franklin Delano Roosevelt by visiting his gravesite eleven months to the day of FDR’s death in Warm Springs, Georgia, on April 12, 1945. Thus, it was on March 12, 1946, that Winston, accompanied by Eleanor Roosevelt, placed a wreath of carnations and rhododendron leaves by the late president’s grave at the Roosevelt estate on the Hudson River above New York City. At the site, “he stood apart, bareheaded and silent, lost in memories of his departed friend,” wrote Robert Pipel in Churchill in America. “Bright sunshine played on the simple stone of whitemarble, and a sharp breeze ruffled the pine boughs surrounding it.”


When Winston finally turned away, his eyes were brimming, and he was heard to sigh, “Lord, how I loved that man.”

Copyright © 2008 by C. Brian Kelly. Reprinted from the book Best Little Stories from the Life and Times of Winston Churchill with permission of its publisher, Sourcebooks.


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