Churchill's March 5, 1946 Iron Curtain Speech: A Lesson for Today?

March 6, 2014

Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill spoke at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, on this day in 1946. His phrase -- “an iron curtain has descended across Europe” -- was seen by some as the beginning of the Cold War. But Churchill wanted nothing more than to rally the democracies to take a strong stand, a united stand for their own freedom.

Churchill understood Russia’s great suffering during World War II. More than twenty million Russians, Ukrainians, and other peoples of the then-USSR had perished in what they called “the Great Patriotic War.” Churchill certainly wanted no new world war.

His message was essentially the same that wise American presidents from George Washington to Ronald Reagan had spoken of -- peace through strength. With President Harry Truman on the same stage, the honored world statesman said:

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. If however [the Western democracies] become divided or falter in their duty and if these all-important years are allowed to slip away then indeed catastrophe may overwhelm us all.

Last time I saw it all coming and I 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 history easier to prevent by timely action than the one which has just desolated such great areas of the globe. It could have been prevented in my belief without the firing of a single shot, and Germany might be powerful, prosperous and honored today; but no one would listen and one by one we were all sucked into the awful whirlpool. We surely must not let that happen again.

Because President Truman and the Western European allies heeded Churchill’s timely warning then, we were spared a Third World War. With American leadership from both political parties, programs like the Marshall Plan and military and political institutions like NATO brought us together in time to save freedom and peace.

What we have seen in recent years is the very opposite of what Churchill counseled. President Obama ceremoniously tossed Churchill’s bust out of the Oval Office. With it, into the snow, went much of Churchill’s wisdom, too.

In his first week in office, Mr. Obama flourished his pen and affixed his left-handed signature to an Executive Order closing the U.S. Detention Facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. This was so ordered within one year. “So let it be written! So let it be done!” [Sound the trumpets.]

And nothing happened. I have never thought it was a good idea to close Gitmo. But if the President of the United States so commits his administration to a policy -- and then so clearly fails to follow through, he invites contempt. He broadcasts weakness. Five years later, Gitmo is still open.

Former Sec. of State George Schulz was once asked what was the most important foreign policy decision made by his chief, President Reagan. Without hesitation, he said: “The firing of the air traffic controllers.” Reagan hated firing those hard-working government employees, but he knew that federal law forbade such strikes. He appealed to the controllers to return to work. They refused. He fired them.

Even the secret police of the Soviet Union took notice. With Reagan, said the KGB, “words are deeds.” With President Obama, the world has learned, words are words.

Russian President Putin has not brought down the Iron Curtain across Eastern Europe. But every move Mr. Obama has made in five years toward Russia has telegraphed American weakness.

From the adolescent stunt of Hillary Clinton’s red “reset” button in early 2009, to Mr. Obama’s behind-the-hand comment to Dmitri Medvedev “Tell Vladimir I can be more flexible after the election [of 2012],” the message has been one of irresolution and confusion.

Reagan built up the U.S. military in order to deal with the Soviets from a position of strength. He was able in 1987 to sign the biggest arms reduction treaty with Gorbachev in world history.

It’s worth saying again: Ronald Reagan signed the biggest arms reduction treaty – INF -- in world history.

Did that get Reagan the Nobel Peace Prize? Of course not. President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for oratory. For words.

Everything that Reagan, Thatcher, the Pope, Lech Walesa, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and others achieved in the 1980s is at risk today.

Churchill had words for that, too. Noting the failure to back their words with strong actions, Churchill warned the democracies not to “resume the follies which had nearly cost them their lives.”

Churchill’s “Iron Curtain Speech,” delivered this day in 1946. It’s well worth reading.