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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Churchill's Iron Curtain Speech, March 5, 1946

Today in 1946, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave an address at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri entitled "The Sinews of Peace" in which he stated that "an iron curtain" had been placed across Europe. Every eastern European country behind this iron curtain had fallen or would soon fall under the Soviet Union's influence, both economically and militarily. While it is arguable whether Churchill's speech marked the beginning of the Cold War, it was certainly an accurate predictor of the events that would shape Europe for the next 45 years.

Use of the term iron curtain to describe the divide between eastern and western Europe was not new. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's Propaganda Minister, had used the term early in 1945 to describe the oncoming Soviet sphere of influence. However, it was Winston Churchill who brought the term to public attention. It was soon a household word across the English-speaking world.

Churchill's speech was initially met with widespread condemnation. President Harry Truman even went so far as to offer to send the USS Missouri to pick up Soviet Premier Josef Stalin and bring him to the United States so he could refute Churchill's assertions. Most of the American public still viewed the Soviet Union as an ally as the Second World War had ended a mere six months before. Their control of half of Europe was still seen as a temporary measure.

The tension between the Soviet Union and the rest of the allied powers was nothing new. During the Russian Civil War of 1918-1920, England, France, Japan and the United States had sent troops to support the White Russians, the forces who wanted to restore the monarchy in Russia. It was not an action easily forgotten by the communists.

On the eve of the Second World War, the Soviets signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Germany, a non-aggression agreement that, while only lasting two years, made many in the West believe that Josef Stalin was willing to do business with anyone. At the Yalta Conference in February, 1945, Stalin demanded a buffer zone of Soviet client states be allowed to exist to guard against any future attacks on the communist nation. While Churchill was dead set against such a division of Europe, President Franklin Roosevelt agreed to the plan. It would lead to the virtual enslavement of millions of Eastern Europeans.

While many in the western world were angered by Churchill's assertions, those who worked behind the scenes were beginning to see the truth of his words. George Kennan, Deputy Chief of Mission to the Soviet Union, sent a cable to the US State Department on February 22, 1946, a document that would become known as the Long Telegram. In it, Kennan asserted that the Soviet Union perceived itself to be locked in an unending struggle with capitalism and that Soviet leaders did not have an accurate picture of either the outside world or events in their own nation. He went on to call for economic pressure against the Soviet Union.

Kennan's telegram, which more closely matched Churchill's assertions than any other observation to come from behind the Iron Curtain, was widely circulated at the US State Department and even the White House. It is not an exaggeration to say that the Long Telegram helped to form the basis of American Cold War strategy.

While Churchill's claim of the existence of an Iron Curtain may have been premature in March, 1946, it didn't talk long for its existence to become obvious. By the end of the year, the Truman administration was saying behind closed doors that a reunification of Germany was an impossibility, despite Soviet promises to the contrary. Early in 1948, the Soviets declared their zone of occupation in Germany to be a separate nation, thus creating East Germany. That summer, the Berlin Blockade began when the Soviets closed all the roads from West Germany to Berlin, which was located deep inside East Germany.

While the blockade ended on May 11, 1949, the Cold War was well underway. Tensions in Europe would rise and fall over the next four decades, but a constant state of pseudo-war always existed along both sides of the Iron Curtain. The fall of the USSR in 1991 and the subsequent opening of Soviet archives has given us a glimpse of what went on in Moscow during those early years of the Cold War.

Churchill's assertion that the Soviets were bent on expansion was true, as was his belief that communist activities in nations around the world were being funded by Moscow. In the end, Churchill was vindicated by most historians. His words were true---they were simply delivered to a nation not yet ready to accept reality.

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