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The Sinews of Peace: Churchill‘s "Iron Curtain" Speech and the Dawn of the Cold War


On March 5, 1946, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered a speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri that would reverberate throughout the world. With U.S. President Harry Truman sitting on the stage beside him, Churchill declared that "an iron curtain has descended across the Continent" of Europe, warning of the looming threat posed by the Soviet Union and calling for an alliance between the United States and Britain to confront it. The address, titled "The Sinews of Peace," marked a decisive turning point in the post-World War II era, setting the stage for the ideological struggle that would define the second half of the 20th century.

Historical Context

To understand the significance of Churchill‘s speech, it‘s essential to examine the historical context in which it was delivered. Just a year earlier, the Allied powers had emerged victorious from the deadliest conflict in human history. The United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union had joined forces to defeat Nazi Germany and the Axis powers, but as the war came to a close, cracks in the alliance began to emerge.

In February 1945, the leaders of the three nations – Franklin D. Roosevelt, Churchill, and Joseph Stalin – met at the Yalta Conference to discuss the shape of the post-war world. While the Allies agreed on the need for a united front against Germany and Japan, they also laid the groundwork for the division of Europe into spheres of influence. As historian Anne Applebaum notes in her book "Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956," the Yalta agreements "accepted the reality of Soviet power in Eastern Europe" and "legitimized the Soviet Union‘s control of the region."

In the months that followed, tensions between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union continued to escalate. As the U.S. and Britain worked to rebuild war-ravaged Western Europe, the Soviets tightened their grip on the east, installing communist governments in Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and other countries. By the time Churchill arrived in Fulton in March 1946, the wartime alliance had all but collapsed.

The Speech

Churchill‘s "Iron Curtain" speech was a clarion call to the Western world to wake up to the threat posed by Soviet expansionism. Speaking to a packed audience at Westminster College, Churchill painted a stark picture of a continent divided between the "free" West and the "totalitarian" East.

"From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent," Churchill declared. "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 some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow."

Churchill‘s use of the phrase "iron curtain" was not entirely original – it had been used by others, including Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, to describe the Soviet Union – but it quickly became shorthand for the division of Europe and the world into opposing camps. As historian David Reynolds writes in his book "From World War to Cold War: Churchill, Roosevelt, and the International History of the 1940s," the speech "dramatized the division of Europe and helped make the Cold War a reality."

But Churchill‘s address was more than just a warning about the Soviet threat. It was also a plea for a new alliance between the United States and Britain to confront it. "Neither the sure prevention of war, nor the continuous rise of world organization will be gained without what I have called the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples," Churchill declared. "This means a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States."

This idea of a "special relationship" between the two nations would become a cornerstone of Churchill‘s post-war political career. As historian Jon Meacham writes in his biography "Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship," Churchill saw the U.S.-U.K. alliance as essential to preserving Western values and standing up to Soviet aggression. "Churchill‘s great gift was his ability to see the world in moral terms," Meacham writes. "The ‘Iron Curtain‘ speech was a summons to a new crusade, a call to arms against what he saw as the forces of darkness."

Reaction and Legacy

Churchill‘s speech sent shockwaves around the world. In the United States, it was widely praised as a clear-eyed assessment of the Soviet threat and a call to action. President Truman, who had been briefed on the speech in advance, publicly endorsed Churchill‘s message. "It was an incredibly important moment in Truman‘s presidency," historian A.J. Baime writes in his book "The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World." "He had taken a stand against the Soviets, with Churchill providing the words that would define the world‘s postwar predicament."

In the Soviet Union, however, the reaction was one of outrage. Stalin denounced Churchill as a warmonger and accused him of trying to incite a new conflict between East and West. Soviet propaganda went into overdrive, portraying the U.S. and Britain as imperialist aggressors bent on world domination.

Despite the backlash from Moscow, Churchill‘s speech had an enormous impact on U.S. foreign policy in the years that followed. In 1947, President Truman announced the Truman Doctrine, pledging U.S. support for nations threatened by Soviet expansionism. The same year, Secretary of State George C. Marshall unveiled the Marshall Plan, a massive aid program designed to help rebuild Western Europe and counter Soviet influence.

As historian John Lewis Gaddis writes in his book "The Cold War: A New History," Churchill‘s speech helped lay the intellectual foundation for the U.S. policy of containment that would guide American foreign policy for the next four decades. "The ‘Iron Curtain‘ speech, by dramatizing the Soviet threat, prepared the way for the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan," Gaddis writes. "It was the rhetorical starting gun for the Cold War."

Over time, Churchill‘s speech has come to be seen as one of the defining moments of the 20th century. It is often ranked alongside other landmark Churchill addresses, such as his "We Shall Fight on the Beaches" speech during the Battle of Britain and his "Finest Hour" speech at the outset of World War II.

But the "Iron Curtain" speech also had a more personal significance for Churchill. It marked his return to the world stage after his defeat in the 1945 British general election and helped cement his status as an elder statesman and global icon. As biographer Roy Jenkins writes in "Churchill: A Biography," the speech "put Churchill back at the center of international affairs" and "made him a world figure in a way that would not have happened if he had simply remained the leader of the British Opposition."


Seventy-five years after it was delivered, Churchill‘s "Iron Curtain" speech continues to resonate as a defining moment in Cold War history. It captured the sense of unease and uncertainty that gripped the world in the aftermath of World War II, and it helped set the stage for the ideological struggle that would consume the latter half of the 20th century.

But the speech‘s legacy extends beyond its impact on U.S.-Soviet relations. It also stands as a testament to Churchill‘s enduring influence as a statesman and orator, and to his vision of a world order based on the shared values of democracy, freedom, and the rule of law.

As historian Simon Schama writes in his book "The American Future: A History," Churchill‘s speech "spoke to the American soul" and helped forge a transatlantic alliance that would shape the course of history. "Churchill‘s words, spoken in the depths of Missouri, in the heart of America, were a call to action," Schama writes. "They were a summons to a new kind of war, a Cold War, that would last for nearly half a century and change the world forever."

In the end, Churchill‘s "Iron Curtain" speech remains a powerful reminder of the importance of standing up to tyranny and defending the values that define us as a civilization. As Churchill himself put it in the closing lines of his address: "Let no one underrate the abiding power of the British Empire and Commonwealth. Because you see the 46 millions in our island harassed about their food supply, of which they only grow one half, even in war-time, or because we have difficulty in restarting our industries and export trade after six years of passionate war effort, do not suppose we shall not come through these dark years of privation as we have come through the glorious years of agony."

Those words still ring true today, as the world faces new challenges and threats to the values that Churchill held dear. As we confront the rise of authoritarianism, the spread of disinformation, and the erosion of democratic norms, we would do well to remember the lessons of the "Iron Curtain" speech and the example of leadership that Churchill set. For as long as there are those willing to stand up for what is right, the sinews of peace will always endure.