Churchill’s world seemed to have ended with the WWII. The British Empire was lost, Britain was bankrupt and his Conservative Party was voted out of office.
Once again, he refused to accept defeat, re-launching himself on the international stage with a powerful warning about the Soviet ‘Iron Curtain’ that the Russians were drawing down across Europe. He also made repeated appeals for closer Anglo-American unity and greater European integration, themes which continue to dominate British foreign policy.
He returned as a peacetime Prime Minister in 1951, participating in the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, but failed to get a hoped-for summit meeting with the Russians. Poor health finally forced his retirement in 1955 though he remained a Member of Parliament until June 1964. He died aged ninety on 24 January 1965, the seventieth anniversary of his father’s death, and was given a State Funeral.
This section will tell you more about the final two decades of Churchill’s life – his second premiership and his ‘long sunset’.
Churchill felt strongly that Britain had a key role to play in world politics; it was ‘the only country in the world which had an important interest in all ‘three great circles among the free nations and democracies’ (the Commonwealth, the English-speaking world and Europe). He believed he could help Britain play its role in all three and this was one of the main reasons why he refused to retire. He continued to exert his influence and express his views about the need for a new approach to diplomacy in the face of post-war reality.
I am now going to say something that will astonish you. The first step in the recreation of the European family must be the partnership between France and Germany.
Churchill, 19 September 1946, ‘The Tragedy of Europe’
Churchill’s speech at Fulton in 1946 was followed by a similarly important speech on the state of Europe later that year. Churchill’s power, influence and prestige internationally meant that his speeches were taken seriously and widely reported, and he became regarded as a leading figure in the European movement. But he wasn’t, as some have said, a committed ‘European’; he always felt that Britain should not be subsumed within a federal Europe. He always remained a British nationalist. His speeches must also be seen in the context of the time.
In November 1945, Churchill was invited to give one of a series of annual lectures at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri. The letter of invitation was annotated by President Truman who offered to introduce Churchill, and therefore guaranteed a high profile event.
From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.
Churchill, 5 March 1946
Churchill’s speech, given on 5 March 1946, was to prove enormously influential. Originally entitled ‘The Sinews of Peace’, it became better known as the ‘Iron Curtain’ speech because of his use of a phrase now in common use. This was Churchill’s first public declaration of the Cold War, in which he warned the western world about the ‘iron curtain’ that was descending over Europe, drawn down by the Russians, and called for greater Anglo-US cooperation, in what he called a ‘special relationship’, in the battle against Soviet expansionism. Click here to see Churchill give this speech in the presence of US President Harry S. Truman.
Churchill wanted to see Britain as the interlocking link between three circles – the Empire and Commonwealth, Europe and the United States. But the British Empire was fading fast. The Empire never really recovered from the Second World War. British authority in India had been eroding since the early 1930s and the hand-over of power was now inevitable. But Churchill was still against relinquishing responsibility for the governance of the country to ‘men of straw’.
It is with deep grief I watch the clattering down of the British Empire with all its glories and all the services it has rendered to mankind.
Churchill, 6 March 1947: ‘Europe Unite’ speech
Eventually, Churchill realised that the glory days of the Empire were over and he had to support the Independence of India Bill. Learn more about Indian Independence at the British Library India Office Records.
In fact, Churchill was more than ready for retirement. Only a year after his resignation, days before his eighty-second birthday, he finally admitted that he was not the man he was; he could not be Prime Minister now. Only a week after his last cabinet meeting, he and Clemmie went on holiday to Syracuse.
I am not the man I was. I could not be Prime Minister now.
Churchill to Lord Moran, 26 November 1956 (cited in Langworth Churchill: In His Own Words)
Even though he was not the man he was, and despite his failing health, Churchill began his ‘retirement’ with some of his old vigour and energy. For an elderly man, he was remarkably resilient and determined. He embarked on holidays, painting tours and new writing projects.
In 1951, Churchill finally avenged that devastating defeat of 1945 and was back in Downing Street. He was nearly seventy-seven. During this second period as Prime Minister, what he later referred to as ‘several years of quiet steady administration’, Churchill devoted much of his energy to foreign affairs; to Cold War issues, strengthening Anglo-American relations (that ‘special relationship’) and to retaining Britain’s position as a global power.
I want so much to lead the Conservatives back to victory. I know I am worth a million votes to them.
Quoted in Churchill, Michael Wardell, ‘Churchill’s Dagger: A Memoir of La Capponcina’, Finest Hour 87, Summer 1995
He didn’t do much in the way of domestic policy-making – stating once that the government’s priorities were ‘houses and meat and not being scuppered’ (John Colville, 22–23 March 1952).
Churchill didn’t enjoy being in opposition after 1945 and he didn’t attend the House of Commons very often, leaving the day-to-day party management to others. He didn’t seem particularly interested in economic issues, and the Conservatives came to seem increasingly out of step with the drive towards welfare and reconstruction.
In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, then, he ‘looked like a dinosaur at a light engineering exhibition’ (Aneurin Bevan, ‘History’s Impresario’). Vulnerable at home, unable to influence policy (and generally unwilling to), Churchill played to his strengths. He knew that he had the most to offer in his role as the great elder statesman who had ‘won the War’, and for the second time in his career, he turned his attentions abroad – and to the US.
The best that can be said for Churchill as leader of the Conservative Party is that he exercised a vague but olympian authority and kept the show on the road.
Paul Addison, review of Gilbert, Never Despair
On 2 June 1953, following the death of her father, George VI, the young Princess Elizabeth was crowned Queen of England, the occasion filmed by television cameras – against Churchill’s wishes. He felt the Queen would find it a strain and that ‘[i]t would be unfitting that the whole ceremony … should be presented as if it were a theatrical performance’ (speech to House of Commons).
The future queen insisted and the filming went ahead. Churchill became a Knight of the Garter, becoming Sir Winston Churchill in April 1953 in time for the Coronation. He’d refused the honour when offered it by George VI after his election defeat in 1945, famously saying (but not to the king): ‘How can I accept the Order of the Garter, when the people of England have just given me the Order of the Boot?’.
After Germany’s surrender in May 1945, Churchill wanted his wartime coalition government to continue until the defeat of Japan which wasn’t anticipated for another year at least. But Labour and the majority of the Liberals refused and pulled out of the coalition. Churchill headed a Conservative ‘caretaker’ government for a brief period until Parliament was dissolved and the first general election for ten years was held.
I must tell you that in spite of all our victories a rough road lies ahead. What a shame it would be, and what a folly, to add to our load the bitter quarrels with which the extreme socialists are eager to convulse and exploit these critical years. For the sake of the country and of your own happiness I call upon you to march with me under the banner of freedom towards the beacon lights of national prosperity and honour which must ever be our guide.
Churchill, 21 June 1945
Shortly after his return from Fulton, Churchill began to write his war memoirs. With a team of researchers working on his behalf, and a very ordered (if somewhat laborious) approach to drafting and editing, he soon had the first volume finished. appeared in six volumes between 1948 and 1954.
Churchill never claimed the memoirs were ‘history’; they were rather a contribution to history. Although their very breadth and coverage gave the impression that they were a definitive account, there were omissions, of course. was Churchill’s interpretation of the events, the work of a man seeking to place his role in the war – and in history. The books sold well, with a combined first printing of over 800,000 copies.
Winston Churchill gives his ‘Iron Curtain’ speech in Fulton, MO in 1946
Churchill was out of power at the time of his famous speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, in 1946, after the Labour Party’s landslide victories in the July 1945 election. Himself reelected, Churchill was a potent leader of the opposition in through 1951.
Mr Churchill was invited to give the Green Lecture, named for the John Findley Green, an alumni of Westminister College.
This speech is known for one of it’s most famous phrases, “Iron Curtain” but it’s also known as the “Sinews of Peace” speech. (Churchill never named his own speeches.) Churchill was introduced by President Harry Truman to deliver this address on 5 March 1946.
Churchill’s speech at the Conservative Party Rally
Ibox Park, Glasgow, 20 May 1949
Anyone who believes Churchill was ‘past it’ after 1945 has only to view this excerpt from a speech full of powerful rhetoric and humour, punctuated with the loaded pauses and gestures which were his trademark. Two and one-half years later, the Conservatives would return to office–and Churchill to Downing Street.
ON APRIL 9th, 1963, a deeply moved Sir Winston Churchill, sitting in his London home with his wife beside him, watched a satellite relay of a White House ceremony giving him honorary US citizenship. It had been hoped that he would not only witness the event by TV but would also he able to respond. However, the relay station at Goonhilly, Cornwall, was not ready to transmit and it was decided not to request French help for this special Anglo-American occasion.
In Washington, several hundred guests, including Averell Harriman, Dean Acheson and three sons of Franklin Roosevelt, gathered in the White House Rose Garden. A very special guest was 92-year old Bernard Baruch, a close friend of Sir Winston’s. Observing from a window and recovering from a stroke was the American President’s father, Joseph Kennedy, a former Ambassador to Great Britain and opponent of American involvement in the war. The Churchill family was represented by his son Randolph Churchill and grandson, Winston.
Proceedings of the International Churchill Societies 1988-89
Box Hill, Dorking, Surrey, 22 October 1988
I AM grateful to the Society for endowing me the privilege of pronouncing the oration upon this occasion. It was forty years ago and more that, in a very junior capacity, I had another privilege: that of being at the service of Sir Winston when he was leading the Opposition in the 1945 Parliament. And I thank you also for inviting my wife who, so it happened, was also at the service of Sir Winston Churchill in the 1940s and in 1950.
I cannot forget, finding myself at Burford Bridge, that it was only a few hundred yards from here that I worked in the early hours of the Battle of Britain, amidst the noise of German aircraft flying over. I was then a junior staff officer in the First Armoured Division stationed at Dorking. And that memory is intertwined for me with this place and with those years.
The philosopher Aristotle in.defining tragedy stated, you may think rather surprisingly, that it must have mekos or “length.” The phenomenon of Winston Churchill would have been impossible, whatever his other qualities, without the exceptional length of his public life and experience. From the battle of Omdurman with the last classic cavalry charge in British military history, to Britain’s acquisition of the hydrogen bomb as a member of the American alliance, was a stretch of fifty-seven years, a period which covered both the culmination and the dissolution of the British Empire, the transformation of British society and politics by extension of the franchise to include all adults, and a technological transformation of life in Britain at least as extensive as the first Industrial Revolution.
A speech to the Sir Winston S Churchill Society of Edmonton, Alberta, 1979
By Christopher Soames
Published by permission in Finest Hour 58, Winter 1987-1988
YOUR HONOUR, Mr Justice Steer, Mr Ivany, Gentlemen. You’ve been so kind to me that I must say there were some moments when I hardly recognised myself. You referred to the GCMG [ed. Grand Cross of the Order of St. Mary and St. George] which stands for “God Calls Me God,” and then the GCVO [ed. Grand Cross of the Victorian Order]. I received these very close together, and I then received a rude telegram from a friend, who said, “What! Twice a knight at your age?” [Laughter] It’s not strictly true, actually, it’s about someone else; but it will do…
Nothing would have more gratified and indeed moved Winston Churchill than to have known how successful has been this Society which he knew had been founded in his closing years here in Edmonton. And what great personal efforts have been made by successive presidents and executives to make a constructive contribution to its work.
Indeed it is now one of three well established Winston Churchill Societies, here, in Calgary, and now the new one in Vancouver.
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The International Churchill Society (ICS), founded in 1968 shortly after Churchill's death, is the world’s preeminent member organisation dedicated to preserving the historic legacy of Sir Winston Churchill.
At a time when leadership is challenged at every turn, that legacy looms larger and remains more relevant than ever.