March 5th 1946: ‘Iron Curtain’ speech

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Churchill making the speech in Missouri

 

On this day in 1946, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill made his famous ‘Iron Curtain’ speech at Westminster College, Missouri. The term had been used prior to 1946, but this was the most public use of it. In the ‘Sinews of Peace’ address, Churchill used the term ‘iron curtain’ to reference a Soviet dominated Eastern Europe. At the time, the West still saw the Soviet Union as an ally after the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War Two, but Churchill’s speech heralded the onset of the Cold War tensions between the capitalist West and communist Russia. As the Cold War took hold, the phrase became popular as a reference to repressive Communist domination of Europe which hid Soviet actions and set a clear divide in Europe.

 

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Cartoon showing the Soviet iron curtain

 

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the continent”

 

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Churchill and Harry Truman

 

This speech can reasonably be argued to be the beginning of the Cold War which defined the European political landscape for the remainder of the century. There had been mounting criticisms of the communists prior to this, but Churchill’s speech was one of the first truly adversarial public speeches given by a major world leader targetting the Soviet Union. Churchill’s fiery rhetoric shaped the fear of communists which abounded in the Western bloc. People were convinced that there were communists in their midst, trying to create another iron curtain across their country. This fuelled the virulent anticommunism of America in the 1950s, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy (R – WI.). McCarthy and his peers sought to drive all communist influence out of the United States, often sacrificing the pluralist principles that had traditionally been a bedrock of American ideology. The House Un-American Activities Committee conducted a series of high-profile hearings where they questioned people with supposed links to communism. The discovery of Soviet spies such as Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs only served to intensify fears. The ‘Cold War’ that Churchill helped set into motion had its ‘hot’ moments too. The Korean and Vietnam Wars were certainly ideologically driven and whilst not fought between the United States and Soviet Union directly, were still ‘proxy-wars’. The battle of the ideologies was also played out in other countries, where each side would try to prop up a leader who was friendly to their cause, often at the expense of democracy and civil liberties for the local people. This tense battle between two nuclear powers, who knew direct war meant unprecedented destruction, continued until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. There are even those who claim that the Cold War continues today, especially with the current tensions between Russia and Ukraine. Some see Russia’s military action there as Russia trying to reassert its communist-era domination of Eastern Europe. Therefore, Churchill’s iron curtain speech was a momentous symbolic event and paved the way for the Cold War, the influence of which is still felt today.

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