An Uneducated Man Speaking His Mind: Winston Churchill and American Universities
Winston Churchill was always somewhat ambivalent about education. He recalled that his schooldays were “the only barren and unhappy period of my life,” and he never attended university.1 Yet he received many honorary degrees in the United States, Great Britain, and Europe. The occasions for these awards gave him the opportunity, originally as Britain’s wartime prime minister and later as an international statesman, to discuss the benefits of education and make wide-ranging assessments of the state of the world. He delivered speeches at universities all over Europe, from Bristol to Brussels, from Leiden to London. But it was his American addresses at Harvard University, the University of Miami, Westminster College, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, from the years 1943 to 1949, which were the most significant.
At the beginning of this period, Churchill was Britain’s wartime prime minister and a fervent believer in the Anglo-American alliance. Later, after his election defeat in 1945, he became the leader of the Conservative opposition. Desiring to rebuild his political career, he saw the advent of the Cold War as an opportunity to revive the Anglo-American relationship, which he feared had lapsed after the Allied victory in 1945. In calling for Great Britain and the United States to take concerted action against the expansionist aims of the Soviet Union, he was also re-establishing himself as someone with important things to say about the state and the future of the contemporary world. The ideal place for him to speak his mind on these topics proved to be on American campuses. He utilized these opportunities not only to promote the importance of the Anglo-American relationship, first against Nazi Germany and then the Soviet Union, but also to offer his thoughts on the general importance of higher education.
Churchill’s first major speech on the campus of an American university was at Harvard in 1943. By then, he had already been Chancellor of Bristol University for fourteen years, and this had given him an enhanced appreciation of higher education. Indeed, in all the speeches he delivered on American campuses, he constantly stressed the importance of a university education and lamented his own lack of it. At Harvard, he also praised the university for its wartime efforts, by which “all classes and courses have been transformed,” and with “sacred vocations having been swept away” in order to help and “make warriors and technicians for the fighting fronts.” With the threat of Nazi Germany remaining, and the war against Japan still to be won, he devoted most of his speech to urging “the doctrine of fraternal association” between Great Britain and the United States “for the sake of service to mankind.”2
By the time Churchill delivered another speech at an American university, circumstances had greatly changed for him, his country, and the Anglo-American relationship. The Allies had won the war, Churchill had been voted out of office, and Britain was impoverished and exhausted. In early 1946 he went on vacation in America and delivered speeches at the University of Miami in February 1946, and at Westminster College, in Fulton, Missouri, the following month. He felt a special gratitude to the University of Miami because it had trained RAF Cadets during the war, and this was the one address he delivered on an American campus solely concerned with proclaiming and applauding the importance of a higher education. The graduates of American colleges and universities, he noted, were “numbered not by the million but by the 10 million,” and these were “measureless advantages’ which the United States enjoyed.3 He also hoped that those whose university education had been interrupted by the war might now be able to complete their studies. But he refrained from mentioning world affairs because he would soon be speaking in a very different academic setting—one dignified by the presence of the President of the United States—that would be a more appropriate occasion to deliver a major address. And so, one week after Miami, Churchill travelled to the small town of Fulton, Missouri, to deliver his most famous address on an American campus.
Churchill only agreed to speak at Westminster College because President Truman had endorsed the invitation and had offered to introduce him at this small college in his home state of Missouri. Churchill gladly agreed, knowing the President’s presence would offer him an unrivalled platform and opportunity. After a brief acknowledgment that the other Westminster was the place where he received much of his education in Great Britain, he sought to make two major points. The first was the need to strengthen “the fraternal association” and the “special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States.” The second was to alert the Americans to the growing threat presented by Communist Russia to world freedoms and especially to Europe, where, he famously observed, “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.”4
While Churchill used the Fulton opportunity to send a far-reaching international message, he was also largely concerned with his own political rehabilitation. He sought to demonstrate that he still had important things to say to a world moving beyond the war and show that, despite his electoral defeat in 1945, his political career was not finished. He had proven before that he had an uncanny ability to predict the future when he warned of Hitler’s aggressive intentions and been vindicated by events. He now made similar prophecies about the Soviet Union. By reminding his audience of his earlier opposition to Hitler, and by urging the need for similar vigilance in the case of Stalin, Churchill’s speech made a major impact. It stiffened the stance of the American president and the American people and offered a new justification for the revival of the Anglo-American “special relationship.” The former prime minister reestablished himself as a global figure with important things to say linking past, present, and future.
In the short run, Churchill’s “iron curtain” speech was exceptionally controversial, not only in the United States and the United Kingdom but also (predictably) in Russia, where it was denounced and condemned. But it was also very influential. While Churchill’s thoughts on the importance of the Anglo-American “special relationship” did not at first go over as well as he hoped, his warnings about the Cold War were in time widely heeded, especially in governing circles in Washington and London. Churchill’s Fulton address was also significant because its success encouraged him to begin work on his war memoirs as soon as he returned to Britain. One of his central themes in these volumes was the importance of the Anglo-American relationship, not just during the Second World War, but—by implication—in the present and the immediate future, too.
B y the time Churchill delivered his speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in March 1949, many of the warnings he had delivered three years before at Fulton about the hostile intentions of the Soviet Union had been vindicated. Thus his latest address was eagerly awaited. Speaking at the larger venue of the Boston Garden in place of an auditorium at MIT, Churchill began by stressing the importance of educational institutions dedicated to science and technology, and lamented that, by comparison, Great Britain “suffered” due to the “lack of colleges of university rank in which engineering and the allied subjects are taught.”5 He ended with some commentary on international politics, stating that “Thirteen or fourteen men in the Kremlin” were “holding down hundreds of millions of people” with an aim at “the rule of the world,” which showed his continuing awareness of, and genuine disdain for, the ongoing threat of Communist Russia.6
The speech at MIT would be Churchill’s last major address for an American university. Although later invited to the University of Pennsylvania, Churchill could not attend for a variety of reasons. He did, however, give speeches at the many universities in Britain and Europe that in the years after 1945 showered him with honorary degrees. Almost without exception, he preferred to speak on these occasions about the benefits and importance of higher education, rather than to offer, as he did in the United States, more general observations on the state of the world. Only at one European campus did he speak to a broader subject when, at the University of Zurich in September 1946, he promoted the idea of a United States of Europe as a counterpoise to the Communist bloc further east. This speech was very much a companion and complementary address to that which he had delivered at Fulton just a few months before.
In general, Churchill preferred to speak at European universities on the merits and virtues of higher education, whereas in the United States he offered ex cathedra statements about the condition and the prospects of the world. While many of his later speeches make reference to the Anglo-American special relationship, he first made that idea public at Harvard in 1943. His prophetic Iron Curtain speech at Fulton has been viewed as alerting the western world to the beginning of the Cold War. Lastly, at MIT, Churchill’s claim that the Kremlin was trying to rule the world and that America’s possession of the atomic bomb was all that had prevented the Communists from overrunning Europe after the war proved to be both controversial and influential around the world.
Although Churchill did not deliver any speeches at American universities after 1949, the importance he attached to education persisted, particularly his belief in the need for institutions to train scientists, technologists, and engineers. He regarded MIT as a place unrivaled in its scientific prowess, and he resolved to create a similar place of higher learning in Britain. The result was Churchill College, Cambridge, devoted to the study of technology and science but perhaps best known today for being home to a magnificent Archives Centre in which the pre-eminent collection of papers is that of Churchill’s. Thus, although his most famous speeches to academic audiences were given at American colleges and universities, it is at Cambridge, on the other side of the Atlantic, that Churchill’s connection with higher education has proved to be the most enduring.
Brendan Sofen recently earned his BA in History at Princeton University. This article is developed from his senior thesis, which he wrote under the direction of Sir David Cannadine.
1. Winston Churchill, My Early Life, 1874–1904 (New York: Scribner, 1996), p. 25.
2. The War Speeches of the Rt. Hon. Winston S. Churchill, 3 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1953), vol. 2, pp. 510, 515.
3. Winston S. Churchill, The Sinews of Peace (Rosetta Books, 2014), pp. 89–90.
4. Ibid., pp. 98, 100.
5. Ibid., pp. 40–41.
6. Ibid., pp. 48–49.
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