Socialist Worker

1946: when the iron curtain was drawn

Winston Churchill made a famous speech 60 years ago this month, heralding the beginning of the Cold War. Ian Birchall looks at its consequences

Issue No. 1991

Winston Churchill had his sights set on Russia after the Second World War

Winston Churchill had his sights set on Russia after the Second World War

A couple of years ago George Bush praised Winston Churchill as “the rallying voice of the Second World War, and a prophet of the Cold War”. In claiming that Churchill had foreseen the Cold War, Bush was referring to a speech given by Churchill at Fulton, Missouri, 60 years ago this month.

Having been catastrophically defeated in the 1945 general election, Churchill, though supposedly leader of the Tory opposition, went to the US for ten weeks, promoting lucrative book deals. There were no complaints that he was “neglecting his constituency duties”.

The Fulton speech analysed the post-war international situation in the overblown style which was to win Churchill the Nobel Prize for Literature. It contained a phrase which was to become a commonplace of political language:

“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.”

The phrase “iron curtain” had first been used to describe revolutionary Russia by Labour Party writer Ethel Snowden in 1920. More notoriously, it had been used by the Nazi leader Joseph Goebbels in 1945, predicting the consequences of a German defeat:

“The Soviets, according to the agreement between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, would occupy all of east and south east Europe along with the greater part of the Reich.

“An iron curtain would fall over this enormous territory controlled by the Soviet Union, behind which nations would be slaughtered.”

In 2002 Churchill was voted “the Greatest Briton of all time” in a BBC poll. It is regarded as unpatriotic to criticise him. But the real Churchill was a more unsavoury figure.

He was a racist and a bitter enemy of the organised working class. In 1926 he had played a key role in defeating the General Strike. He hated the Russian Revolution. As war minister in 1919 he encouraged military intervention against Russia.


Above all Churchill was a nationalist. Many Tories thought that the Nazis, with their racist and anti-working class policies, couldn’t be all bad.

But Churchill saw Hitler as a threat to the British Empire and was prepared to fight him. Hence in 1940, when Britain was isolated, Churchill became an appropriate choice as war leader. He developed alliances with both the US and Russia.

In October 1944, Churchill visited Moscow and met Stalin. Churchill wrote on a half sheet of paper a proposal for the post-war division of Europe. He pushed this over to Stalin. In Churchill’s own words:

“There was a slight pause. Then he took his blue pencil and made a large tick upon it, and passed it back to us. It was all done in no more time than it takes to set down.”

The carve-up was modified at the end of war conferences at Yalta and Potsdam, but in essence the agreement that Russia should have control over Eastern Europe as its share of the war booty remained.

If Europe was divided by a sinister iron curtain, then one of those chiefly responsible was Winston Churchill.

At Fulton Churchill was introduced by US president Harry Truman. Back in 1941, Truman had given one of the frankest accounts of US aims in the Second World War:

“If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany and that way let them kill as many as possible, although I don’t want to see Hitler victorious under any circumstances.”

Britain, the US and Russia formed an alliance. For the moment anti-Communism was forgotten – just as the US backed Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan in the 1980s, only to turn on them later.

But already a new conflict was taking shape. With Hitler gone, and Britain and France weakened, the world was now divided between the rival imperialisms of the US and Russia.

Stalin got what he wanted from the deal. The establishment of “People’s Democracies” in Eastern Europe meant little to the people, who rebelled against Russian control repeatedly from 1953 to 1989.

But Russia acquired a set of colonies which were a source of cheap imports and a market for expensive exports.

Stalin was not a man of peace. He was a murderous thug. But there is no reason to believe that he had further territorial ambitions. To have taken over Western Europe with its well developed working class movement would have been more trouble than it was worth.

There is little evidence that Stalin encouraged the Chinese Revolution of 1949 – he had contemptuously described Chinese Communists as “margarine Communists”.

Mao Zedong’s forces filled the vacuum when the previous regime collapsed through its own corruption.

But the US and its allies needed a threat to persuade taxpayers to back a massive rearmament programme. Churchill focused attention on the threat posed by Communist Parties in Western Europe:

“Communist fifth columns are established and work in complete unity and absolute obedience to the directions they receive from the Communist centre.

“The Communist Parties constitute a growing challenge and peril to Christian civilisation.”

Churchill was guilty of monumental ingratitude. The Communist Parties were indeed under Moscow’s orders – but those orders were to do nothing to upset the balance of power.

In France and Italy, Communist ministers were serving in coalition governments. Their parties opposed all strikes.

In Britain, before the 1945 election, the Communist Party called for a continuation of the war time coalition – including Churchill. It was the right wing Labour leaders who saw they could win the election on their own.

Churchill’s 1946 speech was a warning shot – the Cold War proper began a year later, with the declaration of the “Truman doctrine”.

The US threatened to intervene against any revolution it believed to be “Communist”. Communist ministers in France and Italy were bounced out of government.


One of the targets was the organised working class in Western Europe. The CIA engineered splits in the main union federations in France and Italy.

In 1948 it seemed a left alliance, including Communists, might win the Italian elections. British and US warships anchored off Italian ports. The US government announced that no Communist voter would be allowed to emigrate to the US. So much for democracy.

As both sides developed nuclear weapons, the Cold War became a balance of terror. Neither side was prepared to challenge the other’s heartlands.

In 1956, despite many crocodile tears, the West gave no positive assistance to the Hungarian rising. Bloodshed was confined to peripheral Third World areas, notably Korea and Vietnam.

The Cold War was a monstrous game of chicken – a series of crises each of which could have led to all-out war. I remember as a child frequently running to the front door to get the newspaper to see if the war had started yet.

The series reached its climax with the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when the world seemed on the eve of destruction. After that there was a lull, before the Cold War revived in the late 1970s.

For socialists the Cold War posed a problem. Should they line up with Russia, which claimed to be socialist, or should they recognise that the Eastern Bloc was a travesty of socialism and side with the Western powers against it?

One of the most acute analyses of the Cold War was written in 1950, at the time of the Korean War. Entitled “The Struggle of the Powers” it was signed “R Tennant” – a pseudonym of Tony Cliff, the founder of the Socialist Workers Party. It appeared in the first issue of Socialist Review, a duplicated magazine with a circulation of just 350.

It concluded, “In their mad rush for profit, for wealth, the two gigantic imperialist powers are threatening the existence of world civilisation, are threatening humanity with the terrible suffering of atomic war.

“The interests of the working class, of humanity, demand that neither of the imperialist world powers be supported, but that both be struggled against. The battle cry of the real, genuine socialists today must be: Neither Washington nor Moscow, but international socialism.”

Ian Birchall's A Rebel's Guide to Lenin (£2) is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848.

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Sat 11 Mar 2006, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1991
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