Remembering Churchill on 75th Anniversary of ‘Iron Curtain’ Speech


On March 5, 1946, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill issued a warning to the West in his famous “Iron Curtain” speech.

In Fulton, Missouri, Churchill spoke of the impending “struggle between communism and the democratic West,” The Heritage Foundation’s Joseph Loconte and Nile Gardiner wrote in a March 3 article in National Review.

Loconte and Gardiner join “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss the deeper meaning of that speech and why Churchill stressed the importance of the alliance between Great Britain and the United States.

They also discuss what Churchill’s message would be to the Western world if he were alive today, 75 years after the speech, delivered at Westminster College in the company of President Harry Truman.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.

Virginia Allen: I’m so pleased to be joined by Joseph Loconte, the director of The Heritage Foundation’s Center for American Studies, and Nile Gardiner, the director of Heritage’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom. Thank you both so much for being here.

Nile Gardiner: It’s great to be here. Thank you.

Allen: So, March 5th marks the [75th] anniversary of Winston Churchill’s famous “Iron Curtain” speech. You all have just co-authored a wonderful piece on the significance of this speech and why it really stands in history as a powerful defense of freedom.

So, Dr. Loconte, I would love to begin with you. Would you mind just setting the scene of this speech for us? What was happening at this moment in history, and why was Churchill delivering this address at Fulton College in Missouri? Kind of a random location in some ways.

Gardiner: Yeah. Thank you, Virginia. And let me just say, again, what a great pleasure it is to be with my colleague, Nile Gardiner. I hope this is the first of many podcasts, a symbol of the enduring strength of the Anglo-American relationship. Let me just put that out there.

Allen: Absolutely

Joseph Loconte: This is an incredibly significant speech that Churchill delivers in Missouri, 75 years ago this week. And the reason it’s so significant is that he’s the first world leader to acknowledge what has really already happened, the beginning of the Cold War.

Some critics of Winston Churchill, particularly from the left, like to blame him for somehow initiating the Cold War with this speech, but that’s not the case at all. It’s already happened. So, think about the context, the immediate context. The Allied forces, the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union, they’ve been fighting together against Nazism. That war, the Second World War, comes to an end in September of 1945.

So, here we are now just five months later, and Winston Churchill is warning that the next great geopolitical threat, it’s not fascism. Fascism has been defeated. It’s Soviet communism. It’s the Soviet Union, who had been the ally of Great Britain and the United States through much of the Second World War.

The point here, Virginia, is no one wants to hear this speech. No one wants to hear someone talking about another great totalitarian threat that threatens to envelop all of Europe. That’s why the speech is so controversial and unpopular, particularly in United States, but also in Great Britain. And Nile can probably address that question as well.

Allen: Yes, and Dr. Gardiner, I would love for you to speak to that, because as Dr. Loconte says, people were hoping, as you point out in your piece, that this was really going to be a celebratory speech, counting the successes that Great Britain and America had had in winning the war. And yet, as you all write, Churchill shared a really foreboding message of the struggle between communism and the democratic West.

So, what was it that Churchill was seeing across the Western world and in Russia that concerned him so much that it led him to deliver, really, a speech of warning?

Gardiner: Well, that’s a great question, Virginia. And as my colleague Dr. Loconte pointed out, Churchill’s speech really has gone down in history as one of the most important speeches of modern times, actually.

And Churchill, of course, was as always many, many decades ahead of his time. He had in the 1930s, of course, warned against the rise of Nazi Germany. His warnings were unheeded, of course, across much of Europe, and in the 1940s, Churchill began to warn against the dangers posed by the rise of Soviet Russia and the rise of communism.

And his warnings were, of course, absolutely prescient, decades ahead of his time. And Churchill made it absolutely clear that the free world must prepare for another epic confrontation, this time against the forces of communism.

And Churchill, of course, was accused in the 1940s, as he was accused in the 1930s, of being a warmonger, of all sparking another global conflict. And you had many on the left who were strongly critical of Churchill’s remarks in Fulton, Missouri. Just as they were critical of his remarks in the early 1930s, when he warned against the rise of Nazi Germany.

And so, Churchill had to deal with the doubters, those who said that he was simply stirring up an imaginary future conflict. In reality, of course, Churchill was standing up on behalf of the free world, a warning against another totalitarian power. And Churchill really was a tremendous visionary, who really was preparing the free world for another mighty confrontation against the forces of evil.

And thank God we had Churchill in 1946 warning the free world about the huge confrontation to come, because Churchill is absolutely right. He was 100% right, in terms of his predictions, warning about the tremendous threat that Soviet communism posed to the free world. And we owe a huge, immense debt of gratitude to Churchill for giving us this very timely warning back in 1946.

Allen: And who were those individuals that really took note of Churchill’s message of warning? You mentioned that a lot of Americans were kind of taken aback, and Europeans were taken aback, by this message, but who listened, and what was the impact of leaders paying attention and saying, “We need to heed this warning by Churchill”?

Loconte: Well, I’ll take a stab at it, and Nile, you can also jump in here, friend. This was a speech that really went around the world. I should say quickly that Josef Stalin, the head of the Soviet Union, took note of the speech, condemned it, and compared Winston Churchill to Adolf Hitler.

Remember, they’ve just been allies in the Second World War fighting Hitler. And now you have Josef Stalin accusing Churchill of behaving like Adolf Hitler, because he’s talking about the importance of a special Anglo-American relationship, the United States and Great Britain coming together to face down totalitarianism. So, Stalin is one person who’s listening and taking umbrage.

Certainly, all the political leadership, the political class in the United States and Great Britain is shaken by the collar, I think is a good way to put it.

I think, from the end of the Second World War until this moment here in February of 1946, there’s a growing realization among the world leaders, especially in the United States, that the Soviet Union is breaking, they’re breaking every promise they made to the democratic allies at Yalta in 1945 to allow democratic elections in Eastern Europe.

Remember, Eastern Europe had been occupied by the Nazis. The Soviets supposedly liberated Eastern Europe, but the Soviet Army never left. So a liberation became an enslavement over those proceeding months with the communist parties taking control, not having free and fair democratic elections in Eastern Europe, like Stalin had promised.

So, everyone now, I think the political leadership, our State Department; on Great Britain’s side, the Foreign Office; they’re all now put on notice that someone is calling out the Soviet Union, what everyone knows really has been happening. You finally have a world leader who’s willing to say it and to say we have to stand against it.

Allen: That phrase, “Iron Curtain” is so, so powerful and is obviously just lived throughout history. What exactly did Churchill mean when he said, “An Iron Curtain has descended across the Continent”?

Loconte: Let me read the quote Virginia, then Nile, over to you. The quote that has become so famous, that so captured what was happening in Europe, in the political divisions of Europe. Here’s the quote: “A shadow has fallen upon the scenes, so lately lighted by the Allied victory,” he said. “From Stettin in the Baltic, to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain has descended across the Continent.” Nile, over to you.

Gardiner: Thank you. Thank you very much, Joe. And the Iron Curtain, of course, refers to the divide between the free world represented by the West and the totalitarian world represented by Soviet communism.

And this was the first time, of course, that the term, the phrase “Iron Curtain” had been used with regard to the present situation in Europe. And Churchill’s warning was that this Iron Curtain that was descending over Europe would actually result in tens of millions in Eastern or Central Europe losing their freedom.

He said there was no room for complacency. The West must stand up to Russia’s attempts, basically, to deny the freedom of large numbers of people in Europe, who—many of them, of course—had been occupied previously by the iron fist of Nazi Germany. Soon, they would be occupied by the iron fist of the Soviet Union as well.

Loconte: Exactly.

Gardiner: And so, this was Churchill’s warning. And it was the first time that a leading Western politician had drawn the attention of the world to the immense threat ahead and the fact that so many Europeans would very shortly be living under a new totalitarian regime that would cast a dark shadow over much of Europe.

Allen: Dr. Loconte, anything you would like to add?

Loconte: Well, Nile has captured it beautifully. Virginia, I think it’s hard for us to conceive, and it would have been so difficult for the Americans and the Europeans who fought so hard for the liberation of Europe.

Think about it. The liberation of Europe from Nazi Germany, what really then happens, what Churchill is acknowledging is, Eastern Europe has now exchanged one totalitarian system for another. That’s the horrifying thing. That’s the truth that no one wants to face.

Yes, Western Europe is democratic. Moving in a democratic and capitalist direction, it’s going to be protected by the United States and Great Britain and NATO. But now Eastern Europe was going to be lost to Soviet communism. And that’s the horrifying thing. You can hardly get your mind around six years of the bloodiest war the world has ever known—and you wind up with half the continent of Europe still enslaved.

Allen: Wow. Such a sobering threat. Dr. Gardiner, you head Heritage’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, and you had the distinct honor and privilege of actually working with Lady [Margaret] Thatcher. How did Churchill’s words in his speech paint such a clear picture of the importance of that alliance between Great Britain and America?

Gardiner: Yes. That’s an extremely important point because not only is the Fulton speech remembered, of course, for the Iron Curtain warning, but also the Fulton, Missouri, speech is seen as the formal birthplace of the term the “special relationship.”

And the special relationship, of course, is in many respects still today the beating heart of the free world. It is the partnership, the alliance, the friendship between the United States and Great Britain, the two leaders of the free world.

And Churchill’s speech really made the “special relationship” a household term, basically, and Churchill spoke about the tremendous importance of the United States and Great Britain and the English-speaking world standing together as the vanguard of freedom, standing up to the forces of totalitarianism.

And this speech is very, very significant, because it really is, I think, the formation of the Anglo-American special relationship, and the special relationship, at the end of the day, has kept the free world free. It was the special relationship that really defeated the might of the Soviet empire, that brought down the Berlin Wall.

It formed the backbone of the NATO alliance formed just a few years later after Churchill’s speech in 1946. And the Anglo-American special relationship today remains an immensely powerful force. It is the guardian of the free world.

And as you mentioned, of course, Margaret Thatcher was a great believer in the Anglo-American special relationship. She was a huge admirer of Winston Churchill, and Margaret Thatcher has gone down in history alongside Churchill as the greatest leader of Britain in modern times.

And Margaret Thatcher, I think, in many respects followed in the footprints of Winston Churchill. And she took Churchill’s words in Fulton, Missouri, to her heart. And she made those words a centerpiece of her own leadership as British prime minister [from 1979 to 1990].

And so, Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill together, really two great leaders who advanced the U.S.-U.K. special relationship, two great leaders as well who saved the free world, two great leaders who are the standard-bearers for freedom in our time. And we owe both leaders an immense debt of gratitude.

Loconte: Yes. And, Virginia, if I could add to that briefly—and beautifully said, Nile, I can’t improve on that—but I want to add an element here about how courageous and visionary and, in some ways, revolutionary Churchill’s speech was in that regard.

In the American and British relationship, because he understands that the natural impulse of Americans is, “OK, we won the war. Let’s go home.” Kind of like we did in the First World War, not engaged in European affairs, we’ve got our own problems and isolationist cocoon.

And he is summoning the United States to take on a leadership role that many Americans do not want to take on, but he has immense international prestige, of course, because of his leadership during the Second World War. And he’s challenging the United States not to make the mistake it made after the First World War, to engage in the world against the Soviet Union. But to do that in a special partnership with Great Britain.

And no statement has been understood better, the cultural sympathy that these two countries have for one another, their shared cultural, political, moral, and religious traditions. So, the English Bill of Rights, the Magna Carta, English common law, and the Declaration of Independence.

For Winston Churchill, these were all the same piece. This was all the same story of freedom really being played out. And he saw that alliance is absolutely essential to defense of freedom in the world.

Margaret Thatcher saw exactly the same thing, as did Ronald Reagan. And, it seems to me, there are lessons here for us in the here and now about the importance, the geostrategic importance, of that relationship, our shared cultural and political values, and what we can accomplish together when we work together in defense of freedom.

Allen: If you would, what are a couple of those lessons that we should take away today and keep in mind?

Loconte: Well, let me throw out a couple. I’ll give Nile a chance to talk here as well. I’m talking a bit too much here for us. And this comes out of Churchill’s long political experience in life. The doctrine of appeasement was the fatal flaw of both the Europeans and the Americans leading up to the Second World War, in giving the totalitarian dictators what they want and the hopes of peace, famously with Adolf Hitler, in Munich in 1938.

But this is one of the key lessons that Churchill, and finally the Americans, we Americans, learned. You cannot appease a dictatorship. You cannot appease a barbarian power. You have to meet it with force. “Peace through strength” would be the Ronald Reagan equivalent of that.

And I think every time we lose sight of that, every time we think that sweet diplomacy without the show of the potential use of force is going to be empty diplomacy and counterproductive. But over to you, Nile.

Gardiner: Great points there, Joe. And just to add to what you’ve said already: I think that, above all, Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech is a warning against the perils of appeasement. It is a call for the West to be strong, robust, and determined to stand up to the forces of evil.

And with Winston Churchill, he saw things in very stark terms. I mean, he believed that, if the free world did not stand up immediately to the forces of barbarism, to the forces of totalitarianism, then the free world itself would ultimately fall to the forces of totalitarianism.

And so Churchill’s speech here is a call for the West to have a backbone, to be strong, to have resolve in the face of our adversaries. And that’s a message, of course, that was inherited later, decades later by President Reagan, as you mentioned, through his “peace through strength” strategy.

It was also a message that was inherited by Margaret Thatcher in 1976, when she delivered her “Britain Awake” speech as leader of the opposition.

And that speech was dubbed by the Russians, actually, as the “Iron Lady” speech. In fact, it was the Russians who first called Margaret Thatcher “the Iron Lady,” and her speech in 1976 was a warning, a wake-up call to the free world that the Russians were on the march, that the Soviet Union had to be defeated in this great conflict between the free world and the forces of tyranny.

And so, Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech really is a forerunner to many of the great speeches that we saw several decades later by both Reagan and Thatcher. And he really laid the foundations for both Reagan and Thatcher, and, of course, also, for the tremendous partnership between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. That really was an incredibly powerful, special relationship in the 1980s.

Loconte: That’s exactly right, Nile. And let me add quickly in terms of leadership lessons here. There is that lesson, peace through strength, but then also I think Churchill embodied this in himself in a way that few leaders do today, I have to say, sadly.

It’s the willingness to tell hard truths to their own citizens. Moral truth, political truth, unpleasant truths that could cost you an election, but speak truth into the situation because that’s what your conscience and reason and your moral compass instructs you to do.

He did that throughout his career. The Iron Curtain speech is another example of it. And of course, both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher who were such admirers of Churchill. They embody that same quality. Tell hard truths, necessary truths to your populations. Treat them like adults and call them to a noble cause and ask them to be willing to sacrifice for that cause.

That’s Churchill’s legacy, part of it. And certainly something that both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher imbibed as they studied his life.

Allen: If Churchill was alive today, what do you think would be his message to Great Britain, to America, and to the Western world? Dr. Loconte, we’ll begin with you and then Dr. Gardiner.

Loconte: Well, that’s a terrific question, Virginia. It’s a tough one to answer. What would be his message to the world today, to us, particularly? I think, to the democratic leadership … Churchill was not opposed to international alliances, the need for democratic allies to work together, a kind of community of democracies.

He was not opposed to that at all, but I think he had the special insight into the importance of safeguarding and strengthening the British and American relationship. And I think his message would be, we’ve got to take that more seriously, because we have unique assets and strengths that only our countries have to the degree that we have them.

It doesn’t mean that there aren’t other great contributions that other nations can make to the cause of freedom. We have to bring them along, but there is a special strength and a reserve and a history that both countries have and share that, I think, can make a difference for good on the world stage that no other combination of countries can make, the Great Britain and the United States.

I think he would be emphasizing the relationship right now. Nile, what do you think?

Gardiner: Great points there, Joe. And I heartily agree with everything you said. I would add that Churchill’s message today would be, as you said.

Firstly, it would be that the United States and Great Britain must lead on the world stage. There’s no alternative to U.S. and British leadership. I think secondly, Churchill’s message would be that we have to stand up to our adversaries.

And today, of course, you have to add China to the list of global adversaries that Churchill had to face so many decades ago. And today, China is emerging as a huge threat to the free world. And I’m in no doubt that, if Churchill were with us today, he would be calling upon the free world to stand up to communist China, just as he called on the free world to stand up to Soviet Russia.

And so his message today [would] be one of resolve strength. He’d be urging the free world, the NATO nations to invest more in defense. He’d be urging the free world not to be complacent at all in the face of tyrannical regimes.

Loconte: Yes.

Gardiner: And it’s also my view, I think, that if Churchill were alive today, he would be celebrating the fact that Britain is no longer part of the European Union.

And of course, Margaret Thatcher, my former boss, was a big believer in Brexit. A big believer that Britain should be freed of the shackles of the EU. I’m in no doubt that Churchill, were he alive today, would share those sentiments as well, because Britain is a far greater nation, a far stronger nation, a far more powerful force on the world stage outside of the European Union.

And sovereignty, freedom, self-determination are so fundamentally important to the Margaret Thatcher worldview and also to the Churchill worldview as well.

Allen: Excellent. Thank you both so much. Dr. Loconte, before I let you all go, I do want to ask you about the book that you are writing. You’re currently working on a book on Winston Churchill at the 1945 Yalta Conference.

Loconte: Yes.

Allen: Could you just give us a quick preview and let us know when that book will be available for us?

Loconte: Yes. When will it be written, Virginia? Thank you. I’m in the process, in all my free time, as I work on this book. It’s a tremendously fascinating topic to me because you have these three oversized personalities—Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Josef Stalin—representing different worldviews, if you will.

Josef Stalin, of course, he’s an atheist, a communist, but he’s a charming communist. And he knows exactly what he wants at Yalta, and he gets most of it. Franklin Roosevelt, a progressive. Yes, he represents American liberal democracy, but he’s also pretty naive, especially naive about Stalin and the Soviet Union. And then you have Winston Churchill.

There’s a kind of moral realism to Churchill, and maybe there’s a sort of cultural Christianity as well, but there’s definitely a moral realism to Churchill that I think Roosevelt lacks and, certainly, Stalin lacks. And he brings that to the table.

So, these three clashing personalities in a real struggle for what is the postwar world going to look like? And it’s a messy story. It’s a morally complex story. So, I’m excited to be in the midst of it, in the documents, in the personalities, and stay tuned for a book, probably not this year, but I’m hoping next year.

Allen: That’s great. Well, we look forward to reading that book when it does come out. We’ll be sure to have you back on to discuss it. Gentlemen, thank you both so much for your wisdom and your insight on this topic. It’s great to talk with you both today.

Loconte: Thanks.

Gardiner: It’s a great pleasure. Thank you very much, Virginia.

Loconte: Thank you.

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