Churchill’s Formula: the Story of a Speech That Changed the World

On March 5th 1946 Winston Churchill delivered a speech marking the beginning of the Cold War.

Friends and enemies

The end of World War II was seen by many as the birth of a new world in which there would no longer be room for hostility and violence. These illusions were dispelled promptly – the war against fascism was replaced by the opposition of yesterday’s allies. The global conflict, which was on the verge of World War III, was called the Cold War.

The starting point of its countdown is considered to be March 5th 1946 – the day when in the American Fulton British politician Winston Churchill delivered a speech that became an ideological justification for the West’s opposition to the Soviet Union.

Contradictions in the anti-Hitler coalition on various issues existed since its establishment. Particularly painful was the issue of post-war peace, in which the Soviet Union intended to play a much more important role than it had before World War II.

The resilience of the anti-Hitler coalition was ensured not only by a community of interests, but also by the good relationship established between US President Franklin Roosevelt and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Roosevelt, the only president in the history of the United States to be elected to office four times and pulled America out of the depths of the great depression, treated Stalin with emphasised respect. The head of the United States believed that the interests of the USSR in the post-war world should be fully taken into account.

Unlike Roosevelt, the old anti-communist Winston Churchill believed that immediately after the end of World War II, the countries of the West should focus on isolating the USSR and displacing it from Europe.

British Prime Minister’s “unthinkable” plans

In the spring of 1945, on Churchill ‘s orders, the British military started to develop a plan for Operation Unthinkable – a military action against the Soviet Union. The Joint Chiefs of Staff of Great Britain concluded: “The numerical superiority of Russians on land makes the possibility of achieving limited and rapid (military) success extremely doubtful.”

The lack of guarantee of the success of the military operation against the USSR caused these plans to be temporarily put aside, and they were engaged in influencing the Soviet Union by political methods.

Churchill’s negative attitude towards the USSR was long held back by Franklin Roosevelt, but on April 12th 1945 the American president died. Harry Truman, who replaced him, was much closer to Churchill in his views and also advocated exerting pressure on the Soviet Union. These plans were based on the nuclear bomb, which appeared in the service of the United States.

In the summer of 1945 Churchill himself suffered a serious blow to his self-esteem. While he was making plans to confront Stalin, English voters voted for Labour in the election, leaving Churchill’s Conservative government out of the frame.

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The former Prime Minister officially led the opposition, but appeared rarely in parliamentary meetings, devoting more time to writing publicist articles and working on memoirs.

Truman approves

At the same time, the “last romantic of the British Empire” did not want to retire at all, cherishing the hope of returning again to the list of the leaders of the fate of the world.

In the countries of the West, including the United States and the United Kingdom, many public figures advocated friendly relations with the USSR, considering the Soviet Union’s claims to be a legitimate concern for its security, and that it, having suffered huge losses in the war, has every right to them.

Neither Churchill nor Truman was satisfied with such sentiments in society. It was necessary to cement in the West the image of the USSR being the enemy, perhaps much more dangerous than the defeated German Nazism.

Churchill spent the winter of 1945-1946, on the advice of doctors, in the United States and closely communicated with Truman. In December 1945 Westminster College in Fulton invited Churchill to give a lecture on “international relations”.

Churchill agreed to speak at Fulton with the condition that President Truman accompany him and attend the speech.

Britain was preparing a speech that was supposed to put it back into great international politics. In order to give it weight, the presence of the head of the United States was necessary.

At Fulton, Churchill and Truman were travelling by one train, and the British introduced the American to the text of his speech. He called the speech “excellent”: in his words, “although it will cause confusion, it will only lead to positive results”.

The President of the United States was satisfied that Churchill would make a programmatic speech proclaiming the struggle against the Soviet Union. Truman was careful, preferring to reserve the opportunity to break away from Churchill’s words. The British himself acted in this case almost as a private person, not bound by any obligations.

“Free World” vs. “tyranny”

The speech, which Winston Churchill gave in front of 1,500 listeners, lasted only 15 minutes 33 seconds, but it divided the world into “before” and “after.” Behind was a joint fight against fascism, and ahead was a exhausting race of systems, which several times brought the world to the brink of a nuclear apocalypse.

In the first part of the speech, Churchill acknowledged US leadership: “The United States is at the top of world power”. As a junior partner, the politician named the threats facing the “countries of the free world” led by the United States – “war and tyranny”. At the same time, Churchill believed that only the United States and the “countries of freedom” could possess the secret of atomic weapons, as such a state of affairs was a guarantee of peace.

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Then the politician started to indicate what kind of evil the “free world” must fight against. “We cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that the freedoms that citizens have in the United States, in the British Empire, do not exist in a significant number of countries, some of which are very strong. In these countries, control over ordinary people is imposed from above through various kinds of police governments to such an extent that it is contrary to all principles of democracy,” said Churchill.

In the second part of the speech, the retired British Prime Minister explicitly called the Soviet Union the cause of “international difficulties”: “No one knows what Soviet Russia and its international communist organisation intend to do in the near future and if there are any boundaries to their expansion.”

Force against “Russian friends and comrades-in-arms”

Next, Churchill, in order not to look like a man who had forgotten who had broken the ridge of fascism, performed a curtsy to the former allies: “I very much respect and admire the valiant Russian people and my military comrade Marshal Stalin… We understand that Russia needs to secure its western borders and eliminate all possibilities of German aggression. We invite Russia with full right to take a place among the leading nations of the world.”

And then there were the famous words that for decades became the main symbol of the Cold War: “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… The Communist parties, which were very small in all these Eastern States of Europe, have been raised to pre-eminence and power far beyond their numbers and are seeking everywhere to obtain totalitarian control.”

In articulating the essence of the threat, Winston Churchill outlined the methods of fighting it: “From what I have seen of our Russian friends and Allies during the war, 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. For that reason the old doctrine of a balance of power is unsound.”

Thus, Churchill concluded that in order to oppose Soviet expansion, “countries of freedom” should have an overwhelming advantage in military force, which should ensure “mutual understanding with Russia”.

Stalin responds

Churchill’s speech at Fulton made a vexing impression on many – despite all the curtsies and reservations, it was essentially a call for putting military pressure on the country bearing the brunt of the fight against Hitler’s Germany. In addition to the fact that in Western countries many members of the public considered this a real betrayal of the Russians, there was a logical assumption that the Soviet Union would not humbly tolerate pressure being exerted on itself. And the result of this confrontation could be a new war, which Churchill seemed to want to avoid.

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The world froze in anticipation of Moscow’s response. And the capital of the USSR was not in a hurry. For Joseph Stalin, such sentiments of Churchill were no secret, but the Soviet leadership did not want to force events.

Churchill’s speech was not published in full in the Soviet media in the spring of 1946, but its content was recounted in detail in the TASS report of March 11th.

The response came on March 14th 1946 in an interview with Joseph Stalin to the “Pravda” newspaper.

The Soviet leader advocated restraint and stability, but did not bow to the former ally: “Hitler started the cause of war by proclaiming racial theory, declaring that only people who speak German represent a fully-fledged nation. Mr Churchill starts the cause of unleashing war too with racial theory, arguing that only English-speaking nations are fully-fledged nations designed to lead the fate of the world. German racial theory led Hitler and his friends to conclude that Germans, as the only complete nation, should dominate other nations. English racial theory leads Mr. Churchill and his friends to conclude that nations speaking English, as the only complete ones, should dominate the rest of the nations of the world.”

Churchill is dead, but the affair lives on

Stalin’s response turned out to be no less verified than Churchill’s speech. Britain’s thoughtful comparison with Hitler left no doubt – the Soviet Union raised the glove thrown at it and will respond similarly to an attempt to put pressure on it.

The opposing sides started to tighten the ideological bolts, beginning to fight against the “pernicious influence of the enemy” in their ranks.

Churchill did achieve what he wanted by retaking his place as one of the world’s most notable politicians. However, he was no longer destined to play a major role in the Cold War – the generation of politicians who launched this process came off the stage in just a few years.

The concept of “countries of freedom” fighting against “tyranny” set out by Churchill at Fulton proved extremely tenacious. Western politicians from the beginning of the 21st century, based on the same principles, interfere in the affairs of other states, overthrowing unwanted regimes.

Andrey Sidorchik

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