How might Churchill's Iron Curtain speech have increased tension between the superpowers?
Given all that had transpired across Europe before, during, and after the Second World War, it is questionable whether Winston Churchill’s March 5, 1946 speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri increased tensions between the "East" and the "West." After all, most scholars agree that the Cold War had its seeds in the period of Revolutionary Russia in 1917 when the Romanov Dynasty was overthrown and power eventually consolidated in the hands of the Bolsheviks. Additionally, tension between the American-British alliance and Russia was evident throughout World War II. Indeed, the wartime conferences at Yalta and Potsdam involving Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin were all famously strained as the assembled wartime allies attempted to negotiate post-war arrangements. Legitimate Russian concerns about the potential future resurgence of Germany were increasingly, as the Red Army pushed towards Berlin, obviated by expressions of Soviet domination over territories in Eastern and Central Europe liberated from Germany. Finally, communist parties across Europe had been instructed by Moscow to work both openly and surreptitiously to undermine democratic movements in order to ensure Soviet control over the governments that were emerging post-German occupation.
Churchill’s speech can hardly be considered a factor in increasing tensions between the West and the Soviet Union given Stalin’s genocidal policies against several ethnic groups within the Soviet Empire and the tens of millions of Ukrainian and Russian deaths directly attributable to Stalin’s policies. Furthermore, while many students and others understandably focus on Churchill’s comment that “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent,” rarely does one remember an important passage in the speech that preceded that famous dictum:
“I have a strong admiration and regard for the valiant Russian people and for my wartime comrade, Marshall 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, or should 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. It is my duty to place before you certain facts about the present position in Europe.”
Again, Churchill, a particularly learned individual, did not raise the clarion call against repression and subversion in a conceptual vacuum. A lot was going on in Europe both during and following the war that contributed to rising tensions on the continent; though Churchill's speech was highly significant, his speech should be viewed as an indication of the growing tension between the superpowers, not as its catalyst. To reiterate, Churchill was aware of the extent of famine that killed millions in Russia and Ukraine as a result of Stalin’s policy of forced collectivization. He alluded to this in his comments:
“When I stand here this quiet afternoon I shudder to visualize what is actually happening to millions now and what is going to happen in this period when famine stalks the earth. None can compute what has been called ‘the unestimated sum of human pain.’ Our supreme task and duty is to guard the homes of the common people from the horrors and miseries of another war. We are all agreed on that.”
As German troops were pushed back into their homeland and Soviet troops took their place across Eastern and Central Europe, the populations of those regions witnessed one tyranny replaced by another. German occupation was surrealistically brutal, but its replacement with repressive communist regimes stood in marked contrast to the freedoms enjoyed in France, Belgium, Holland and other areas liberated by the United States and Britain. Once again, to quote from Churchill’s speech:
“We cannot be blind to the fact that the liberties enjoyed by individual citizens throughout the United States and throughout the British Empire are not valid in a considerable number of countries, some of which are very powerful. In these States control is enforced upon the common people by various kinds of all-embracing police governments to a degree which is overwhelming and contrary to every principle of democracy.”
To what degree Stalin took umbrage from Churchill’s comments that day in Missouri is a matter of speculation mixed with limited knowledge of the Soviet dictator’s actual thoughts. As brutal and ruthless as was Stalin, Russian concerns about the future of Central Europe were legitimate. That concern, however, does not excuse Stalin’s homicidal tendencies and the brutal regimes he imposed on those countries his troops liberated.
Churchill delivered his famous "Iron Curtain Speech" in March of 1945, after he was no longer Prime Minister of Great Britain. Invited to speak at Fulton College in Missouri, he said that "an iron curtain has descended across the continent." Churchill was referring to the Soviet Union's takeover of buffer states in Eastern Europe after World War II. He also spoke about "fifth column" Communist activity--meaning espionage and other secret activities meant to undermine existing governments--in Western and Southern Europe.U.S. President Harry Truman was on the stage with Churchill and was receptive to his message of working with Great Britain to defer Communism.
Churchill's message might have inflamed post-war tensions between the West and the Soviet Union by first producing a metaphor of an iron curtain that alarmed the West and made the Soviet Union seem impenetrable. His speech positioned the one-time allies as oppositional in their aims, rather than as potentially able to work together to reshape the post-war world. Churchill also aroused paranoia on the part of the West that spies were at work to destabilize Europe and turn it Communist, and the Russians, for their part, saw the speech as the first attack in what would become the Cold War.
In March of 1946, when Churchill gave this speech, the Cold War was not yet in full swing. The US and the USSR were suspicious of one another, but not yet to the point of open conflict. Churchill’s speech pushed both sides towards conflict. It did so by comparing the threat of communism to the threat posed by Hitler.
In this speech, Churchill says that appeasing the Soviets would be like appeasing Hitler. By saying this, he encouraged the US to take a hard line against communism. By saying it, he also encouraged the Soviets to feel that the West was strongly opposed to them. Less than a year after they were allies, Churchill is comparing them to the common enemy that they had just faced. This would clearly have caused the Soviets to have less trust for the West.
In this way, Churchill’s speech gave each side more reason to mistrust the other.