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, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow.

Winston Churchill in “Sinews of Peace,” delivered at Westminster College on March 5, 1946

On March 5, 1946—75 years ago—Winston Churchill delivered the “Sinews of Peace” at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. “Special relationship” to describe US-UK relations and “Iron Curtain” both became household terms after the speech, and some, particularly Russian historians, point to this moment as the official start to the Cold War.

At the time, Churchill was serving as leader of the opposition in Parliament after losing the UK general election in 1945. The world was recovering from the Second World War and ready for peace. Many in the United States and elsewhere were optimistic about future relations with the Soviet Union, an American and British ally just a few months before, and the possible peace that might come from the United Nations, whose Security Council started its first session in London in January 1946. Yet the former and future prime minister delivered a startling message to Americans who were largely unprepared to countenance the prospect of a looming, decades-long conflict against communism after winning the war against fascism. Though the American public was not ready for Churchill’s message, at least some in the US government were. “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” (or “The Long Telegram”) by George F. Kennan, the deputy chief of mission of the United States to the Soviet Union, arrived secretly to the State Department in Washington, DC, in February 1946. In July 1947 under the pseudonym “Mr. X,” Foreign Affairs published this article describing the need to contain the USSR.

Many Americans disliked and criticized the speech. For instance, Christianity and Crisis editor and founder Reinhold Niebuhr called it “ill-timed and ill-advised” in the only reference his journal made to it in 1946. He and others in the publication were discussing the possibility of US-USSR cooperation or alliance, and how the new United Nations might benefit global order with “world government.” Niebuhr blamed Churchill for unwisely heightening tensions and undermining a “creative solution” to the “atomic bomb problem.” Yet Churchill better understood what the Soviets had already done in Eastern Europe. The problem was not the speech, but the Soviet actions the speech exposed. While many Americans dreamed of an alliance with Moscow and “Uncle Joe” (the friendly image of Joseph Stalin in Western media), they forgot that the Soviet Union had a vote on whether they wanted to be an ally or adversary.

In this episode of the Foreign Policy ProvCast, Joseph Loconte and Mark Melton discuss the “Sinews of Peace,” the post-World War II situation in Eastern Europe, why the American public and media disliked Churchill’s message, what President Harry Truman knew about the speech beforehand, whether or not the future special relationship between the US and UK was obvious in March 1946, and the speech’s legacy.

Loconte also co-wrote an article with Nile Gardiner about the “Sinews of Peace” for National Review.