Closer Readings Commentary

Winston Churchill on the Origins of the Cold War: The Fulton Speech

Truman waves from convertible as Churchill sits next to him smoking a cigar
Photo caption

President Harry Truman waves from back of convertible as former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill sits next to him smoking a cigar. Churchill was in Fulton, Missouri to deliver his "Sinews of War" speech.

"I must say Winston’s speech echoes the sentiments of all. None but he could have said it."

—Pierson Dixon, British Foreign Officer

In the past few years, we highlighted how the writings of Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Britain (1874–1965) could profitably engage students in the study of informational texts through memorable language and powerful arguments. “Blood, Toil, Sweat, and Tears,” the speech Churchill delivered as he took office as prime minister during the dark days of World War II, illustrates the kind of complexity, quality, and range expected in college-bound student reading.

Yet Churchill’s most famous and influential speech was given after the war, after his party was defeated in the election of 1945, at a small college in the American heartland that became, for one day, the center of the world. Churchill delivered “The Sinews of Peace” speech—commonly remembered for its description of the “iron curtain” that had descended on Europe—in the presence of President Harry Truman on March 5, 1946, at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. Almost 70 years later, it is still worth study for its own sake and for what it tells us about the origins of the Cold War.

Important agreements regarding the postwar world had been reached by the American, Soviet, and British leaders at Yalta and Potsdam, but the Soviets wasted no time in violating them. For an overview of the European situation as seen by American policy makers, see the background sections of two EDSITEment lessons, Victory and the New Order in Europe and The Sources of Discord.

Churchill intended to visit the United States early in 1946 for a holiday, but he also yearned for a chance to make a political impact, perhaps by addressing Congress. When no such offer came, he seized on an invitation to speak at Westminster College. Since President Truman promised to go there with him, Churchill knew the world’s press would follow.

Some historians have argued that the Cold War started with this speech. Others have pointed out that Churchill said little more than what Truman and his key advisors already thought but dared not say just yet: That the proper means of responding to an international bully like Stalin was a credible threat of force. In fact, diplomat George F. Kennan had already said this in his “Long Telegram” from Moscow to the State Department a month before Churchill’s speech.

Because of his great reputation, Churchill’s speech became a key moment in the start of the Cold War. Only a man who had warned throughout the 1930s of the danger that the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany posed to peace, could tell the world:

Last time I saw it all coming and cried aloud to my own fellow-countrymen and to the world, but no one paid any attention. Up till the year 1933 or even 1935, Germany might have been saved from the awful fate which has overtaken her and we might all have been spared the miseries Hitler let loose upon mankind. There never was a war in all history easier to prevent by timely action than the one which has just desolated such great areas of the globe.

This can only be achieved by reaching now, in 1946, a good understanding on all points with Russia under the general authority of the United Nations Organization and by the maintenance of that good understanding through many peaceful years, by the world instrument, supported by the whole strength of the English-speaking world and all its connections. There is the solution which I respectfully offer to you in this Address to which I have given the title “The Sinews of Peace.”

As private citizen, Churchill could go out on a limb, denouncing Russian aggression and calling for an Anglo-American alliance to confront Stalin. At first, much, but by no means all, American and British reaction was hostile to this “warmongering.” As events moved on, however, it was increasingly viewed as necessary, and Churchill, as both brave and prophetic.

The wide support that the speech ultimately garnered paved the way for Truman’s own tough policy of “containment” and the Marshall Plan for rebuilding war-ruined Europe.

Churchill returned again and again in the last ten years of his political life to the theme of Anglo-American cooperation that had worked so well during WWII. (FDR's Lend Lease program is a good example of the pre-war program to support the Great Britian and the other Allies).  This was the one great issue that he cared about above all others: the need for the English-speaking people with their common heritage of language, literature, law, and constitutional government to stand together as defenders of freedom. As he said in the “Sinews” speech:

[W]e must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world and which through Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Habeas Corpus, trial by jury, and the English common law find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence.

For teachers who want to do a careful reading of the main points of the speech, we suggest the lesson plan on the Churchill Centre website, developed during an NEH Summer Institute on Winston Churchill.

We also recommend the following EDSITEment lesson plans which cover some of the key stages in WWII diplomacy and the Cold War: