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The True Meaning of the Iron Curtain Speech

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By Pamela C. Harriman
Finest Hour 58, Winter 1987-1988

Editor's Note: This speech was delivered on 19 May 1986 to the Friends of the Memorial, New York City Branch. Two lines were updated by the editor in the light of the Soviet-American Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, signed in December 1987. This was the first time the complete text was published, outside of the Congressional Record. - Editor.



Pamela-HarrimanAmbassador HarrimanTODAY we honor the anniversary of an event, which, like so many in Winston Churchill's life was accounted as an historic moment, and yet the man himself was out of power. He was unique among the leaders of 20th century democracy in that his influence did not disappear with his office. Perhaps his only rival in this respect was General DeGaulle, who pales by comparison with Churchill's capacity to stand astride the world stage, even while relegated to the backstage of opposition in his own country.

This role had not come easily or early to Churchill. In his long political exile of the 1930s, he was a lonely voice, "crying in the wilderness," and few turned to hear him or to see the approaching storm. Yet he never tired, for he always knew that history, too, had its claims. Perhaps he understood that because he wrote history as much as he made it. He was an author as well as an orator. He was not only a Prime Minister; he was also a prophet of things to come.

It was this unique ability that he took with him to Fulton, Missouri, 40 years ago last March. Winston Churchill made his mistakes; but he was more often right than wrong on more matters of consequence than any other statesman of this century.

He was not only an early, isolated critic of appeasement. He was also one of the first - perhaps the first non-scientist - to comprehend and describe the dawning wonders and terrors of modern invention. In a 1932 essay - more than a decade before the Manhattan project - he speculated "that new sources of energy, vastly more important than any we yet know, will surely be discovered. . . . Nuclear energy is incomparably greater than the molecular energy we use today. . . . There is no question that this gigantic source of energy exists. What is lacking is the match to set the bonfire alight, or it may be the detonator to cause the dynamite to explode."

He wrote of "wireless telephones and televisions" - and of genetic engineering. He looked to a time, "50 years hence," when "explosive machinery will be available upon a scale which can annihilate whole nations." In 1925 he wrote of "guided missiles" and of "electrical rays which could claw down aeroplanes from the sky."

Churchill was different from most political leaders in that he thought beyond the next election to the next generation. It was this sense of perspective which enabled him to persevere despite recurring disappointments in his public life. His moment of triumph did not come until he was 66, past the normal retirement age, and long after he had been written off. In its greatest trial, Britain found its greatest modern leader. Yet five years later, with the war won, he was defeated for reelection. He had the world's honor and respect, but not his country's vote.

So it was that a year after that, President Truman invited Churchill - as prophet and not Prime Minister - to speak in Truman's home state, at Westminster College - "a name," as Churchill said, "somewhat familiar to me. "It was 5000 miles from the Parliament at Westminster to this midwestern college podium. And the speaker of the day brought with him one of the most famous speeches of all time, a speech which is so often cited as a text for our time.

When he spoke of the "Iron Curtain" that had descended from "Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic," Winston Churchill was acknowledging and announcing a truth which so many in the West were so unwilling to admit - the onset of the Cold War. So powerful was the phrase, it cut like a thunderbolt through the public dialogue; so pronounced was the turning point marked by this speech, so wise does it seem at least in retrospect, that leaders since then return to it and quote it repeatedly to validate their own policies.

Half of the lectures delivered since 1946 in the Westminster series, in which Churchill spoke, have been primarily or partly commentaries on his speech. Presidents, Vice-Presidents, Cabinet officials, Senators, Ambassadors, and one other British Prime Minister have followed in his footsteps.

All this, I suspect, would evoke from Churchill a reaction something like Lincoln's description of the man tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail: "If it wasn't for the honor of the thing, I'd rather walk." Winston Churchill sought to be memorable, but I am certain that he would rather be remembered for what he actually said and believed, and not have his remarks misused as an all-purpose proof text for the prevailing policies of the hour. He spoke so often and so well over so many years that by taking selected words out of the context of their times, virtually anyone who is clever enough can quote Churchill to suit his own purposes.

So what did he really say at Fulton, Missouri? What did he mean, and how does it apply today?

First, as one of the architects of the Grand Alliance he, in effect, recognized the tragic reality of its dissolution. No one else of similar authority had said what he did so plainly or so publicly before. And this, too, he had foreseen. At the Cairo Conference in 1943, he told Harold Macmillan of his fears about the rise of Soviet power, and the failure of the West to observe and respond to the danger.

Second, he traced the roots of the dawning conflict to Soviet territorial ambitions. As he put it, "What they desire are the fruits of war, and the indefinite expansion of their power and doctrines."

Power and doctrine - Winston Churchill had read history and he knew that ideology was not simply or solely the reason for Soviet aggression and subversion; it was, in sinister combination, the rationalization of conquests otherwise coveted. The Soviet commissars were fulfilling, on a grander scale, the expansionist ambitions of the Russian czars. This continuing, expansionist impulse was felt in Eastern Europe in the 1940's; it is felt in Afghanistan today.

Third, he urged the West to be firm - in the form of both closer British Commonwealth -American association and a new European unity, from which, he said, "no nation should be outcast." Already again, prophetically, he was anticipating the then - almost unimaginable rapprochement between France and Germany. Most of all, Churchill gently warned, firmness required American involvement; we cannot afford, he said in politer words than these, a repetition of the catastrophic American retreat from international responsibility after World War I.

He saw the emerging parallel in 1946; in less than a year, the United States Army had shrunk by nearly 90 percent. The boys were coming home, but Churchill was reminding us that now all Europe and the world were our neighborhood.

He was looking toward a system of collective security; he was anticipating NATO by three years, each year marked by recurrent and escalating crisis with the Soviet Union. So he asked the Western powers "to stand together," and he concluded: "There is nothing [the Russians] admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than weakness, especially military weakness,"

It is at this point, for the most part, that the reading, citation, and interpretation of the Fulton speech all stop. Probably that is because it was Churchill's sounding of the alarm about Soviet misdeeds which drew the most attention and the most controversy at the time. Indeed that aspect of the speech aroused nearly violent protest among many people, who once again were hoping that they had finished the war to end all wars. In New York a few days after Fulton, the police had to be called out to protect the former Prime Minister from hostile demonstrators parading outside the Waldorf-Astoria, where he was staying.

To the extent the "Iron Curtain is seen and cited as a powerful and historic warning against an emerging and ruthless adversary, we can say of this interpretation: so far, so true. We can largely say this, even when, as frequently happens, the interpretation ignores the subtleties of Churchill's argument. But if we stop here - if that is all we see in the speech - then all we are getting is a half-truth.

There are three other points Winston Churchill made at Fulton which apply with equal force today - but which do not seem to be as clearly heard or heeded in the councils of power.

First, the address was a plea for peace, not conflict. It began with a reminder that "our supreme task and duty is to guard the homes of the common people from the horrors and miseries of another war." Churchill viewed that prospect with undisguised apprehension. He spoke of future world conflict, and I quote, "as incomparably more rigorous than what the world has just been through. The Dark Ages may return - the Stone Age may return now on the gleaming wings of science, and what might shower unmeasurable material blessings upon mankind may even bring about its total destruction.

Forty years ago, when the West held a nuclear monopoly, Churchill was not talking of "winnable" nuclear wars; he was worried about nuclear wars in which the only winner would be death. And to him, even then, the issue was urgent: "Beware I say; time may be short. Do not let us take the course of allowing events to drift along until it is too late."

Second, the former and future Prime Minister insisted that there was a basis on which to deal with the Soviets. He had stated it before, shortly after the outbreak of the war in 1939. In another famous phrase which is also usually only half-quoted, he said: "Russia. . . is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest."

The part about national interest is the part of the quote that is often left out. But in 1946, at Fulton, Churchill identified precisely what that interest was: The Soviets might want expansion, but they did not want war. The inevitable truth of that principle, in the atomic age, still eludes foolish and dangerous people on both sides of the Iron Curtain, who assume that on the other side, a first strike is being planned, a nuclear exchange is being actively considered, and therefore, arms control is an impossible dream or an undesirable snare. To them, Churchill replied, 40 years in advance: "What we have to consider . . . is the permanent prevention of war." This, he believed, was in the Russian interest as surely as our own.

Third, Winston Churchill was convinced that the West should actively pursue what he called "a good understanding with the Russians. There is the solution which I would offer to you.

He was to expand on this theme again and again. At the Conservative Party Conference in North Wales in 1949, during the most frigid days of the Cold War, he called on the West to take the initiative in opening talks with the Soviets. This time, it was the hawks who assailed him. They and their ideological descendants prefer to edit Fulton, to forget the Party Conference, and to neglect the sweeping proposal of Churchill's second Prime Ministership in 1953.

After Stalin's death in March of that year, the new Soviet regime appeared to Churchill to be signaling, in various ways - for example, in the Austrian treaty negotiations - a new readiness to reduce tensions. He believed there was a least a glimmer of light, a possibility of progress. He told President Eisenhower in a letter: "A new hope has been created in the unhappy, bewildered world." And he suggested that the West make a new approach to Moscow. He wrote in a top secret message; "If we fail to . . . seize this moment's precious chances, the judgement of future ages would be harsh and just."

The moment, unfortunately, remained unseized. John Foster Dulles and some in his own Foreign Office accused Winston Churchill of starting down the road of appeasement. As the recently published diary of his private secretary, Sir John Colville, recounts, it was one of the bitter moments of Churchill's life when Eisenhower rejected the policy of negotiation.

The issue is not whether the policy surely would have worked; many of his friends conceded that at that time it might very well have failed. But Winston Churchill was steadfast in believing that it should be tried. As he said in 1955, in one of his last, great speeches to Parliament, "I have hoped for a long time for a top-level conference where these matters can be put plainly and bluntly" - and he was talking then specifically about the issue of nuclear weapons.

This is the complete Churchill, not the hardliners' conveniently quotable half. He was, I believe, right about the Soviet danger - and the nuclear danger. He was right to warn against appeasement - and equally right to warn against a rigid, all or nothing approach to the Russians. Today his insights, in their full form, still have the freshness of morning, the crispness which has not wilted through the years. But we cannot have his counsel about the Soviets without his counsel about ourselves: the two parts are of a single piece, shaped by a single, subtle mind, the product of a complex and realistic world view.

Across four decades, Winston Churchill's voice and his advice still speak to us and they come to this: yes, you can deal with the Russians but only if you have both strength and suppleness, a willingness to stand your essential ground, and yet to see a great common interest which transcends inevitable rivalries, regional conflicts, and petty quarrels.

Now the question is, how have we applied this prescription in the long passage of time since the Fulton speech? Sometimes not at all, sometimes with great uncertainty, and always with great inconsistency.

In his brief years in office, President Kennedy, who took a special pleasure in conferring honorary American citizenship on Winston Churchill, became the post-war American leader who seemed to understand best the Churchill formula of toughness and negotiation. One October, he prevailed in the Cuban missile crisis - a victory which he then used as an opportunity to seek a Test Ban Treaty. By the next July, he had sent Averell Harriman to Moscow to conclude the agreement.

He was in many ways a fitting negotiator, not least in terms of our topic today. Just after the Fulton speech, Churchill and Harriman had met in Washington for a long private talk. Harriman shared Churchill's conclusion, as he reported it in his notes - that he was "very gloomy about coming to any accommodation with Russia unless and until it became clear to the Russians that they would be met by force if they continued their expansion.

Seventeen years later, after the Soviet installation of missiles in Cuba had been met and repulsed, it was Averell Harriman who initiated, for the United States, the first great accommodation of the postwar era.

Most of the time, however, we appear to have followed only half the lesson of this history - to stand fast - and not the other half - that the stand should not be a stopping place but a departure point toward making the world safer for human survival. Each tough stand, once taken, should be another step in the long journey toward peace.

A number of observers had believed - or hoped - that in his second term, Ronald Reagan could and would move in the direction now being followed. He certainly does have the same kind of freedom of action Richard Nixon had when he reopened the door to China; no one can rightly accuse him of being soft. He has a far more receptive Senate than Jimmy Carter found when he submitted an arms agreement in 1979.

Just as a certain measure of strength is a precondition for negotiating a treaty with the Soviets, so perhaps a certain measure of perceived toughness is a precondition for securing its approval here at home. Ronald Reagan undoubtedly meets that test. Over and over again, from the beginning of his Administration, he has attacked the Soviets as the "focus of evil in the world" and he has constantly urged larger and larger defense budgets to meet the Soviet threat.

Yet the President and his Secretary of Defense, so intent on demonstrating their resolve, so fond of quoting Churchill, still seem reluctant to take the full measure of Churchill's advice. The Administration talks of arms control; under public pressure, the President speaks of the unwinnability of nuclear war. But our negotiations in Geneva so far resist any compromise on the Star Wars concept, even in return for the most comprehensive strategic arms agreement. However, the Russians have conceded ground on the question of intermediate range missiles in Europe, and agreed to a treaty in this area regardless of what happens on SDI.

Winston Churchill had a purpose in his strategy of deploying strength in dealing with the Soviets. He was, as Sir John Colville has said, a leader who adopted a "flexibility" which "may have a certain relevance in the 1980's. His aim, as he expressed it in the Fulton speech, never wavered. He said, "What is needed is a settlement, and the longer this is delayed, the more difficult it will be and the greater our dangers will become." To Churchill, military strength, divisions, missiles were not an end in themselves; he armed in order to parley.

Over 40 years since the Fulton speech it is fitting to ask: What is the aim of the Reagan policy? Did they expect by military intimidation or economic exhaustion, to bring the Soviet system down - something that Churchill, one of the original anti-Bolsheviks, considered foolhardy in the atomic age? If so, did they expect the Soviets to go gently into the twilight of their diminishing power, or abjectly accept an internal collapse?

These are not realistic hopes, but danger fantasies, and we should pray that no one in office really has such irrational views. Perhaps the Administration's stubborness is a bargaining strategy. But the strategy can be justified only if, at the end of the negotiating process, there is a negotiated agreement.

I would be more encouraged if the President would read the entire Fulton speech and Winston Churchill's other postwar writings. He would discover that the spirit of Winston Churchill was one of both resolution and conciliation: of magnanimity based on strength-and that is the spirit the world urgently needs today.

In short, we should recall that Churchill entitled his Fulton speech: "The Sinews of Peace" - not of war. And I would like to close with some words he was composing at nearly the same time he was drafting the speech. He wrote:

"Those who are prone by temperament and character to seek sharp and clear-cut solutions of difficult and obscure problems, who are ready to fight whenever some challenge comes from a foreign power, have not always been right. On the other hand, those whose inclination is to bow their heads, to seek patiently and faithfully for peaceful compromise, are not always wrong. On the contrary, in the majority of instances they may be right, not only morally but from a practical standpoint. How many wars have been averted by patience and persisting good will! . . . How many wars have been precipitated by firebrands! How many misunderstandings which led to war could have been removed by temporizing! How often have countries fought cruel wars and then after a few years found themselves not only friends but allies!"

These words are from the first volume of Winston Churchill's World War II memoirs, in preparation even as he traveled to Missouri. He called the volume "The Gathering Storm." We would be well advised today to heed his warning, to hear the real Churchill voice and views. For now we must deal with the potentially even more cataclysmic storm gathering in our own time.


Image: ¬©Diana Walker for TIME Magazine.