A Brief History
On March 5, 1946, while speaking at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, former British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, uttered the term “Iron Curtain” in reference to the divide between the Soviet led Communist Bloc and the democratic/capitalist Western group of nations led by the United States. The phrase quickly assumed common and pervasive use amongst Westerners as both a derisive and ominous term describing the Communist Bloc.
World War II (1939-1945) had left the world with 2 competing camps of military and political power, the West and the East, the West being the US, UK, France and other democratic allies versus the Eastern, Communist countries headed up by the USSR and later joined by China. The USSR had snapped up control of much of Eastern Europe toward the end of World War II and did not give up that hegemony after the war, creating a belt of client or buffer states, vassals that the USSR used to “protect” itself from the Western democracies. Those “slave” nations (as described in the Western press) were closely monitored and controlled by the USSR and the people had limited ability to traverse the borders into the Western “Free World” countries. Likewise, Western access to Eastern Bloc countries was also tightly controlled.
Winston Churchill became the British Prime Minister in 1940 during the darkest days for the UK during the early part of World War II, and he delivered rousing speeches and inspiration to the British and Commonwealth people to keep up the fight. In 1945, Churchill was turned out in favor of his Deputy Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, although Churchill was returned to 10 Downing Street in 1951, serving again as Prime Minister until 1955.
From 1945 until resuming his old job as Prime Minister in 1951, Churchill led the Conservative Party and kept up his political visibility, including making appearances and speeches abroad. Visiting Missouri’s Westminster College in the USA in 1946, Winston made an epic speech warning about the dangers of Soviet Communism in which he declared:
“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.”
His speech has become famous for not only making the phrase “Iron Curtain” an everyday term, but also for his strident warning about Soviet/Communist hegemony over much of Europe. Additionally, Churchill advocated for strengthened relations between his country, the United Kingdom, and the United States in leading the Western “Free World” in the confrontation with Soviet Communism.
Though the term, “Iron Curtain,” was not invented by Churchill, he is given credit for coining the phrase as used throughout the Cold War (1947-1991, though the beginning date is debated to be as early as 1945). Little did Churchill and other Cold Warriors realize that decades later, after the Cold War supposedly ended with the break-up of the Soviet Union and the release of its satellite states in 1991, that a new version of the Cold War would develop in the 21st Century, with Russia under the dictatorship of Vladimir Putin assuming the former role of the USSR against the Western democratic countries.
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For more information, please see…
Applebaum, Anne. Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956. Anchor, 2013.
Morris, Max. The Smart Words and Wicked Wit of Winston Churchill. Skyhorse, 2017.
The featured image in this article, a map by BigSteve of the Iron Curtain as described by Winston Churchill during his 5 Mar 1946 “Sinews of Peace” speech in Fulton, Missouri, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.