Seventy years ago today Winston Churchill gave his Iron Curtain Speech, articulating what is obvious today but was not fully then, that the Soviet Union was imposing police state Communism throughout Eastern Europe. The speech was controversial. President Truman, who had shared a train with the former prime minister to Fulton, Missouri, playing cards and drinking whiskey, later had to distance himself from Churchill’s formidable implications. Much of America had not yet decompressed from WWII, ended just six months previously, which had consumed over 400,000 American lives in four years, equivalent to 800,000 today in population percentage. Now there perhaps was to be another titanic struggle, against a recent ally no less? Military budgets were shrinking, and troops were fast coming come. Why should America now care about the fate of distant Slavic peoples and their “ancient capitals,” much less imperiled Turkey and Persia, as Churchill cited?
Churchill was clear the rising Soviet threat was global, not regional, affecting Western Europe and the Far East, as the Soviets exerted themselves through communist “fifth columns” posing a growing “peril to Christian civilization.” His own personal religious faith unclear, he always believed and was animated by the conviction that the West was defined by the common light of Gospel revelation, from which flowed the best of its law and humanity. His Fulton speech recalled his lonely warnings against Hitler and a tragically avoidable cataclysmic war. Now he warned of a new struggle, which needn’t end with war but could be met with persistent resolve.
Early in WWII, but after Pearl Harbor, as later Prime Minister Harold MacMillan recalled, Churchill one evening cryptically told his subordinate that Oliver Cromwell was a great man but had failed to foresee in his time that rising France and not declining Spain was Britain’s future strategic threat. MacMillan understood Churchill’s unelaborated point. Germany, with America in the war, inevitably would be defeated. The rising new threat to the east must now be reckoned with. This awareness did not preclude Churchill’s active negotiation with FDR and Stalin at Yalta, as he noted at Fulton. Nor had it prevented his prior secret “naughty” agreement with Stalin to divide Eastern Europe into spheres of influence. Churchill was a realist. After Fulton, and after his return to power, he desperately sought a summit with Stalin and his successors, hoping for a negotiated peaceful settlement of the Cold War, in which neither Truman nor Eisenhower were very interested.
Churchill promised that if the English-speaking peoples collaborated “in the air, on the sea, all over the globe, and in science and in industry, and in moral force, there will be no quivering, precarious balance of power to offer its temptation to ambition or adventure,” and there could be peace with an “overwhelming assurance of security.” With such resolve, the free peoples could walk forward in “sedate and sober strength.”
What Churchill urged was commonsensical wariness and perseverance, reminding an always unwilling audience that peace and security are never the natural condition of humanity but must be contended for in every age, especially in defense of what still is loosely but identifiably, in its practice of law and human rights, a Christian civilization.