This week in history: The "Iron Curtain" speech

24 March 2015

By Pan Macmillan

March 5, 1946: The "Iron Curtain" speech was delivered by Winston Churchill at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri  

The successful Conservative wartime leader, Sir Winston Churchill, had been defeated by Clement Attlee's Labour Party, who achieved a landslide victory in the general election of 1945.

Churchill, however, remained as leader of His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition and would serve a final term as Prime Minister when the Conservatives return to power six years later.

In the spring of 1946, Churchill, who was half-American, and in 1963 became the first individual ever to be acknowledged as an Honorary Citizen of the United States, had been invited to America to receive an honorary degree from Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. The ceremony on 5 March was attended by the US President Harry S Truman, and Churchill gave a lengthy speech in which he surveyed the state of the postwar world. Initially billed as ‘The Sinews of Peace’ and containing the first reference to a ‘special relationship’ between Britain and America, it has gone down in history as the ‘iron curtain’ speech after the chilling phrase Churchill used to describe the borderline in Europe between the countries of the West and nations of Eastern Europe then under Soviet Russian control.

An extract from Churchill’s speech:

‘Nobody knows what Soviet Russia and its Communist international organisation intends to do in the immediate future, or what are the limits, if any, to their expansive and proselytising tendencies.

I have a strong admiration and regard for the valiant Russian people and for my wartime comrade, Marshal Stalin. There is deep sympathy and goodwill in Britain-and I doubt not here also-towards the peoples of all the Russias and a resolve to persevere through many differences and rebuffs in establishing lasting friendships. We understand the Russian need to be secure on her western frontiers by the removal of all possibility of German aggression. We welcome Russia to her rightful place among the leading nations of the world. We welcome her flag upon the seas. Above all, we welcome constant, frequent and growing contacts between the Russian people and our own people on both sides of the Atlantic. It is my duty however, for I am sure you would wish me to state the facts as I see them to you, 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. 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 many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow.’

The full speech can be listened to here