Did Churchill’s postwar speeches save the world?

Winston Churchill was far from a spent force after losing the 1945 general election, argues Alan Watson, author of Churchill’s Legacy: Two Speeches to Save the World. In fact, he was yet to forge his two most important legacies…

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By 1946 Winston Churchill had lost office. American troops were flooding back to the USA and Canada. Stalin’s armies occupied vast swathes of eastern and central Europe and were poised to move westwards. Britain was bankrupt and much of continental Europe in ruins. From where would salvation come? Where was the vision to thwart Stalin, rebuild Europe and secure the commitment of the USA to both objectives? The answer sprang from Churchill’s resilience, creativity and imaginative daring.

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Far from being a spent force, the speeches Churchill gave in 1946 arguably led to his most important legacies: the North Atlantic Alliance and a restored, united Europe, both founded on the principles of mutual co-operation and alliance.

Given just six months apart, in March and September 1946, the speeches Churchill made in Fulton and then Zurich defined the Cold War and showed how the west could respond. These were speeches to save the world, and himself. His courage, humanity and imagination provide us today with a fresh way of seeing the world, looking both at its dangers and its opportunities. 1946 was as vital to Churchill’s contribution to western freedom and ultimate success as was his lonely heroism of 1940.

Historian Andrew Roberts writes: “Although they were attacked and denounced at the time, Churchill’s two great speeches of 1946 created the political architecture for the whole postwar period. To a very great degree, the geostrategic world we inhabit today sprang from the words Churchill spoke at Fulton, Missouri and Zurich, Switzerland.”

In recognition of the importance of Churchill’s papers, including these speeches, Unesco has added Churchill’s archive to its International Memory of the World Register, alongside the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights.

Churchill’s role in postwar Britain

Churchill was no longer prime minister. He had been comprehensively beaten by Clement Attlee and the Labour Party in the 1945 general election. Having won the war, Churchill now faced political oblivion. The British electorate had rejected him. His ‘black-dog’ mood threatened to extinguish his resolution, though he remained determined to woo the USA and its president in the interests of both Britain and the free world.

He received a letter from Westminster College, a small college in Fulton, Missouri, asking him to give the John Findley Green lecture which had been established in 1936 to bring a speaker of international reputation to the college to discuss matters of economic, social or political concern. What caught Churchill’s attention was a hand-written note from President Truman, saying: “This is a wonderful school in my home state. Hope you can do it. I will introduce you.” Churchill made the calculation. The train from Washington DC to Fulton would mean at least 18 hours of concentrated time with the new president of the USA.

Morale recovered and opportunity spotted, Churchill planned his trip to the States, which would begin with a stint in Florida, for painting and sunshine and rest to see off his depression, and to give him the headspace to prepare his ‘Sinews of Peace’ speech.

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On the invitation from Westminster College, President Truman wrote: “This is a wonderful school in my home state. Hope you can do it. I will introduce you.” Churchill saw his opportunity. (© Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill College, The Papers of Sir Winston Churchill)

“An iron curtain has descended”

Churchill was buoyed up. Attlee sent encouragement from London: “I am sure your Fulton speech will do good.” He had also outlined the speech to Secretary of State James F Byrnes and told Attlee: “He seemed to like it very well.”

In the event, the speech was completed on board the train and shown to Truman, Byrnes and Admiral Leahy. Churchill and Truman had sat up drinking and playing poker until after 2.30 in the morning, and at first light “steaming beside the broad Missouri river”, Churchill showed the president the final text. What is more, he mimeographed it and gave copies to the president and the others present. As he later reported to British foreign secretary Ernest Bevin, the president “told me he thought it was admirable and would do nothing but good”. Significantly, Truman added: “Though it will make a stir!”

Churchill’s report of what happened on board the train was telegrammed to Bevin on 7 March after the speech. It remains the most detailed account and is printed in full in my book.

The prime purpose of the speech he gave at Fulton on 5 March 1946 was to warn Americans of what was really happening in Europe. “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent,” he proclaimed.

Behind that curtain, a Soviet system of dictatorship was being established. His message was to suggest that Stalin was far from the benign ‘good old Uncle Joe’ image that was promoted. Stalin, in reality, intended to hold sway over central Europe with his divisions and, if opportunities arose, extend his domain westwards. The British Foreign Office even predicted that he would take West Berlin, which could lead to a communist continent. Much of his speech implied rather than described the threat, but his reading of the Russians was brutally clear: “I am convinced that there is nothing they admire so much as strength and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness, especially military weakness.” What Churchill proposed was a military alliance between the USA, Great Britain and the Commonwealth, backed up by the atomic bomb to which the UK had contributed so much.

Churchill called for an Anglo-American alliance based on their shared values and the deterrent of America’s possession of the atomic bomb. He also urged the Americans to recognise the debt they owed Britain for opposing Hitler in 1940. In doing so, he contributed to the US thinking behind the need for the Marshall Plan (which would see America giving European countries billions of dollars of financial aid).

Stalin would have to react to a reshaping of western Europe rather than determine it. Yet for this to occur, American – and indeed British – public opinion had to be alerted to the Soviet threat. For containment to be acceptable, ‘good old Uncle Joe’ had to be seen for what he was.

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President Harry Truman introduces Winston Churchill, before his speech at Westminster College. Truman later insisted that his presence next to Churchill on the gymnasium platform did not indicate any endorsement of the speech. (Bettmann/Getty)

In the Fulton gymnasium, the speech seemed to go down exceptionally well. There were so many bursts of applause that Churchill had to pause intermittently, theatrically examining his gold pocket watch.

It took 45 minutes to deliver and Churchill clearly enjoyed every second. It was a speech of destiny. He was at the very centre of the world’s attention. Beside him, the president of the USA was joining, sometimes leading, the applause. Churchill knew he had Attlee’s support. He wanted to create more than a stir. He wanted to change the landscape. He was building his legacy.

The opposition to the speech would traverse the world. The initial storm of protest came in the United States – first in the media and then on the streets of New York. Predictably it also came from the Roosevelt family. Afterwards, President Truman would distance himself from the speech and at a press conference on 8 March repeatedly deny that he had known in advance what Churchill would say – a lie that risked public refutation. He even insisted that his presence next to Churchill on the gymnasium platform did not indicate any endorsement of the speech – a distortion that was not only untrue, but was revealed as such because Pathé News showed him applauding the parts of the speech that mattered.

“United States of Europe”

Newly invigorated and confident, an invitation in September 1946 to accept an honorary degree from the University of Zurich represented an opportunity that Churchill grasped without hesitation. It was made all the more attractive by the Swiss government’s offer of an excellent holiday in their country, as their guest.

At Fulton, Churchill had already laid down the markers for his second great speech of the year when he had said (although the sentence was scarcely noted): “The safety of the world requires a new unity in Europe from which no nation should be permanently outcast.” He meant Germany.

At Zurich University – with Europe devastated and Germany outcast – Churchill astonished his audience, saying: “The first step in the re-creation of the European family must be a partnership between France and Germany.” Only in this way could “a kind of United States of Europe” be built. Charles de Gaulle was apoplectic. He insisted that Germany had to be occupied and drained of all its economic strength.

But as at Fulton – where Churchill called for a military alliance to thwart Stalin, which led inexorably to the Truman Doctrine of containment, to the Berlin Airlift and eventually to Nato – so at Zurich, he lit the fuse which would lead to Franco-German reconciliation and the co-operation that persuaded the Americans to start the Marshall Aid Plan. Later, Truman wrote to Churchill that his predictions were becoming more true every day and, in the end, even de Gaulle changed his mind.

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The funeral cortege of Winston Churchill arrives at St Paul’s Cathedral during his state funeral, 30 January 1965, where commentators bemoaned the end of an era. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The catalyst of a new era?

To understand what Churchill intended with these two speeches requires perspective. The daring of his imagination and the scale of his architecture for a new western alliance was extraordinary. At the time, few recognised the symmetry of what was proposed. At Churchill’s funeral in 1965, commentators bemoaned the end of an era. In truth, Churchill was the catalyst of a new era – one built upon effective defence, economic revival and European unity.

The speeches illustrate not only Churchill’s vision but his determination to influence the thoughts and actions of free peoples in their future endeavours. In this he succeeded. It is his legacy.

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Alan Watson is the author of Churchill’s Legacy: Two Speeches to Save the World (Bloomsbury, 2016).