March 20, 2015

“An Iron Curtain has descended across the continent…”

American politics was polarized between those who thought Stalin was an imperialist bent on expansion by force and those who saw him as a protector of Russian security. This division created uncertainty regarding the form American policy should take, but there was an inexorable move from accommodation to confrontation that would culminate a year later with the proclamation of the Truman Doctrine.

Into this vortex walked Winston Churchill to speak at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri. He would profoundly influence the outcome at the debate.

Churchill had accepted President Truman’s invitation to speak in the President’s home state for two reasons: he wanted to campaign for a loan for Britain and, more importantly, he wanted to forge an Anglo-American alliance against the Soviet threat which, he was convinced, the Labour Government was incapable or unwilling to confront. He told Lord Moran: “I think I can be of some use over there: they will take things from me. It may be that Congress will ask me to address them.” The only invitation extended by Congress came from hostile Republicans who wanted to cross-examine him about Pearl Harbour.

Churchill and Truman had planned to meet in Florida but a rash of strikes forced the President to remain in Washington, so Churchill went to Cuba for a few days before meeting the President. Truman later said that he told Churchill, “It’s your own speech, you write it,” but Admiral Leahy recorded in his diary that the President and Churchill spent many hours talking about the speech.

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 Churchill also asked Prime Minister Mackenzie King of Canada to come to Washington because he appreciated King’s knowledge of the Americans. King sent the Canadian Ambassador to the United States, future Prime Minister Lester Pearson, to Churchill’s assistance. Pearson found a half-clad Churchill working in bed with a breakfast tray beside him. Pearson read the speech and recommended that Churchill not refer to the recent conflict as “The Unnecessary War” for fear of providing justification for American isolationists to avoid foreign entanglements. Churchill agreed.

WSC also spent time with British Ambassador Lord Halifax, who noted Churchill’s intensity in preparing his remarks but did not inform the government in London. It was evident that Churchill and Truman were about to pronounce a change in direction from Roosevelt’s policy of good relations with the Soviet Union while keeping a certain detachment from Britain.

There was increasing press awareness that something was up. The New York Post reported that “a stiffening American attitude towards Russia is in prospect … the evidence will soon be forthcoming. In Mr. Truman’s conversation with Winston Churchill here and Churchill’s subsequent talks in Florida with Secretary Byrnes and Bernard Baruch the new program began to take shape.”

On March 4th and 5th Truman and Churchill travelled by train from Washington to Jefferson City, Missouri and then drove to Fulton, twenty miles further. After lunch they joined the procession to the gymnasium of Westminster College, where Churchill gave one of his most famous orations, commonly referred to as the Iron Curtain speech. Truman had predicted that the speech would create quite astir and it did, throughout the entire world.

On March 8th, speaking in the presence of General Eisenhower to the General Assembly of Virginia in Richmond, then to the most senior officers of the American military, and finally at a dinner in New York City, Churchill repeated the themes of his Fulton speech. The philosophical underpinnings of those themes were expressed by Churchill in an impromptu speech to Canadian soldiers who were sailing home on the ship which brought him to North America, the Queen Elizabeth: “Yesterday I was on the bridge, watching the mountainous waves, and this ship — which is no pup — cutting through them and mocking their anger. I asked myself, why is it that the ship beats the waves, when they are so many and the ship is one? The reason is that the ship has a purpose, and the waves have none. They just flop around, innumerable, tireless, but ineffective. The ship with the purpose takes us where we want to go. Let us therefore have purpose, both in our national and Imperial policy, and in our private lives. Thus the future will be fruitful for each and for all, and the reward of the warriors will not be unworthy of the deeds they have done.”

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