On March 5, 1946, Winston Churchill stepped up to the podium at a tiny college in rural Fulton, Missouri. Flanked by US President Harry Truman, the former British prime minister proceeded to point out the cold war brewing between America and Soviet Russia.
This speech, titled “The Sinews of Peace,” ended up sounding the alarm on the fracturing relationship between the post-war superpowers.
The famous speech first started to come together the previous October, when Churchill received a letter from Westminster College President F.L. McCluer, asking him to come a deliver a talk on international affairs at the school.
The letter featured a remarkable postscript from a different president: “This is a wonderful school in my home state. Hope you can do it. I’ll introduce you. Best regards, Harry Truman.”
Churchill had only met Truman once before, during the Potsdam Conference. As the Allies decided how to deal with the defeated Nazi Germany, the political landscape shifted back in Britain. The Labour Party beat Churchill’s Conservatives in the general election, costing him his position as prime minister.
Part of Churchill’s decision to make the taxing trip out to Missouri was borne out of his desire to reclaim his old post.
“Fulton really is right in the heartland of America,” James Muller, University of Alaska in Anchorage professor and editor of “Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’ Speech Fifty Years Later,” tells Business Insider. “In the middle of nowhere, almost.”
Churchill also hoped to connect with Truman, whom he had found a bit distant at Potsdam.
Speaking at Westminster College gave Churchill the perfect opportunity to establish a relationship with the US president. The two politicians took the train from Washington, D.C. to Jefferson City, Missouri together; Truman dominated Churchill at poker the whole way.
Muller says that the lecture commenced with full “pomp and ceremony,” and both Churchill and Truman received honorary degrees from the school, according to National Churchill Museum chief curator Timothy Riley. According to contemporary coverage of the event in the New York Times, a crowd of 8,000 Fulton residents turned up, along with 20,000 visitors “from as far distant as St. Louis.”
“It was a heck of a spectacle,” says Hillsdale College president, “Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free Government” author, and director of Hillsdale’s Churchill Project Larry Arnn. “Westminster College is in a little town in Missouri and the greatest people in the world show up. Of course, it’s a huge deal.”
During his speech, Churchill spoke about the “special relationship” between the US and Britain, and popularised the now-famous phrase “the iron curtain,” a metaphor he used to describe the Soviet Union’s imperialist ambitions and the spread of communism into its satellite states.
However, Churchill also said that he rejected “the idea that a new war is inevitable; still more that it is imminent.”
“The speech sort of marked the opening of the Cold War, and that helps to conceal the fact that the speech is a plan for peace — ‘The Sinews of Peace,'” Arnn says. “Sinews are tough things, cords that tie muscles to bone. He’s trying to build a structure, an organ for peace. He wants it to be strong, and that means there’s going to be weapons involved, but he wants it to be successful, and that means there has to be diplomacy involved too, and, in fact, a world alliance.”
Reactions to the speech in England and the US were mixed. Many still viewed the USSR as a close ally. The New York Times said Churchill had painted “a dark picture of post-war Europe.”
“The hopes were this time we’d get it right and there would be peace,” Arnn says. “There was a great deal of war weariness. Of course people didn’t like somebody sounding the alarm.”
Truman declined to immediately and publicly back up Churchill’s assertions. He also said that he had no idea what the former prime minister was going to say in his speech.
“He sort of let it percolate for a while and came around publicly to agreeing with him gradually,” says Muller. “… I rather doubt that it was completely factual when Truman says he had no idea what Churchill was going to say.”
Despite some initial controversy, the speech would ultimately mark a shift in American attitudes toward the Soviet Union.
“From Truman’s point of view, the speech was important because the geopolitical situation had changed so much with the defeat of Nazi Germany and the new threat from the Soviet Union,” Muller says. “It was somewhat easier to have Churchill, the great English-speaking ally of the United States from the war, to come and warn about the danger from the Soviet Union and from communism than for Truman to do it himself… It wasn’t completely original. There had been various observers of foreign affairs who had suggested that this change was about to happen but from the public’s point of view, it was really a startling change.”
As the Cold War dragged on, Truman’s White House adopted a policy of containment to prevent the spread of communism.
Churchill went on to give many speeches on international affairs, calling for Europe to unite against communist encroachment and for France and Germany to ally to prevent future wars. He even predicted that communism would ultimately die out in Russia, telling some of his younger aides that they would live to see it — Muller says that one of the those associates actually died in 1987, just missing out on witnessing the collapse of the Soviet Union. Churchill himself would also regain his position as prime minister in 1951.
Today, Fulton, Missouri has its own museum dedicated to Churchill. It’s housed in a seventeenth century Sir Christopher Wren church that was blown up in the Blitz, shipped across the ocean, and re-assembled in Fulton.
“Fulton became a site of pilgrimage for people who wanted to see where Churchill had given the speech,” Muller says. “It’s kind of amazing when you come to this little town and this rather small campus in the middle of Missouri to see this Christopher Wren church rising in the middle of the campus.”
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