In this lesson, we’ll learn about Winston Churchill’s 1946 ”Iron Curtain” speech.
We’ll learn what he meant by this term and how it has been applied in the context of the Cold War.
The End of WWII ; Start of Cold War
Imagine you’re in Times Square on May 8, 1945. It is V-E Day, Victory in Europe Day. There are parades, and everywhere you look people are hugging, kissing, and celebrating the end of the most destructive war in history. There is much to be hopeful about.
Yet, under the surface, a tension is boiling. The United States and the Soviet Union, although allies in the war, have grown increasingly distant. The issue of how to divide up the occupied regions of Europe looms large.Immediately after World War II, the U.S. and the Soviet Union entered into what has commonly been called the Cold War. This was a period of intense rivalry and competition that lasted until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
During the Cold War, most of Eastern Europe fell under the influence of the Soviet Union, while most of Western Europe chose to ally itself with the U.S. The term Iron Curtain has often been used to describe the fact that Eastern Europe was more or less controlled by the Soviet Union. In this lesson, we will be exploring that term. Let’s find out where the term originated and what its original context was.
Churchill’s ”Iron Curtain” Speech
If you remember, Winston Churchill had been the Prime Minister of Great Britain during World War II. Churchill was staunchly anti-Nazi but also staunchly anti-communist.
Even before the war ended, he was extremely concerned about Soviet expansion and aggression in Europe. He was right to be concerned. Through a variety of tactics, the Soviet Union was able to export its brand of communism throughout Eastern Europe. Countries like Poland, East Germany, Bulgaria, Romania, and others were more or less controlled by the Soviet Union.In May 1946, Churchill delivered a famous speech at Westminster College in Missouri.
He had recently been defeated in his reelection bid, but he nonetheless continued to warn of the dangers of communism. Speaking to the crowd, Churchill warned: ”From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” His use of the term ”iron curtain” stuck, and since then has taken on a profound symbolic meaning. We should understand one thing: the term ”iron curtain” itself had been used throughout history in various contexts. But, it was Winston Churchill who coined the term in reference to the Soviet Union and its allies.What does the use of this term connote? Iron suggests brute strength, and in this context, repression.
Churchill was expressing that those people living in Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe were subjugated, oppressed, and lacked freedoms. He regarded the ”Iron Curtain” as horrific and a tragedy because it denied the people of Eastern Europe basic human liberties.The portion of Europe behind the Iron Curtain has typically been referred to as the Eastern Bloc.
Sometimes the term Warsaw Pact is used synonymously. Technically, the Warsaw Pact was a military alliance established in 1955 between the Soviet Union and numerous Eastern Bloc states, but for most people Eastern Bloc and Warsaw Pact mean the same thing: those countries behind the Iron Curtain.
Significance ; Impact
Churchill’s 1946 speech in Missouri cemented the anti-Soviet perspective that Eastern Europe was controlled by the Soviet Union. It helped bolster American and Western European opposition to communism and the Soviet Union. In his speech, Churchill went on to argue that strong American-British relations were essential to stopping the spread of communism and maintaining peace in Europe. His speech was largely effective.
Soon after, President Harry Truman took a hard-line stance against Soviet expansion. Truman is perhaps best known for the Truman Doctrine, in which the U.S. committed itself to helping support countries who were resisting a communist take-over. In this way, Truman sought to contain the spread of communism, but not actively combat it where was already existing. If you have ever heard of the policy of containment, that is exactly what we are talking about here – containing the spread of communism.Not everyone liked Churchill’s speech.
Dictator of the Soviet Union Joseph Stalin decried Churchill’s ”warmongering.” He also argued that friendly relations between the Soviet Union and its allies were an essential defense measure to prevent the future invasion from fascists. One of Churchill’s propagandists even threw the term back on the Western Democracies, saying that the U.S. and Great Britain were guilty of constructing an ”iron curtain” themselves.
Today, the term is ripe with meaning. We understand it as the division between the Eastern Bloc and the Western Democratic states. To a degree, the Berlin Wall, which stood between 1961-1989, has been understood as the physical manifestation of the Iron Curtain. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Iron Curtain fell.
Let’s review;The Cold War was a period of intense rivalry and competition between the U.
S. and the Soviet Union that lasted between 1945-1991. Winston Churchill had been the Prime Minister of Great Britain during World War II. It was Churchill who coined the term Iron Curtain in a 1946 speech he delivered in Missouri. It refers to the fact that Eastern Europe was more or less controlled by the Soviet Union.
The Warsaw Pact was a military alliance established in 1955 between the Soviet Union and numerous Eastern Bloc states. Sometimes the terms Eastern Bloc, Warsaw Pact, and Iron Curtain are all used synonymously.Churchill’s speech influenced President Truman. Truman is perhaps best known for the Truman Doctrine, in which the U.S.
committed itself to helping support countries who were resisting a communist take-over. The Berlin Wall, which stood between 1961-1989, has been understood as the physical manifestation of the Iron Curtain.