Winston Churchill Visits Fulton

This article originally appeared in the March 2021 issue

An Invitation

Iron Curtain. It’s a term that most Americans recognize as a dark reference to the post-World War II barrier separating Russia and its affiliate countries from the rest of Europe and the noncommunist world. It is a catchy turn of phrase, conjuring the image of an invisible philosophical, political, and military wall erected between implacable foes.

The term itself, however, had decidedly less sinister origins, and long predated both the Second World War and the Soviet Union. It goes back to the late 1700s and originally referred to the fireproof theater curtains that protected patrons in the event of an onstage fire. During the war, various high-ranking German officials, including Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, used the term in referring to the Soviet Union’s growing sphere of influence. However, it was no less a world figure than Sir Winston Churchill, a Conservative member of Parliament and former British prime minister, who made the term “Iron Curtain” a worldwide household phrase, and he did so in a post-war speech delivered at tiny Westminster College in the central Missouri heartland town of Fulton.

Churchill recognized early on that his country’s recent wartime ally, the Soviet Union, had ideological goals that were already proving inimical to the West. And when he was invited to speak at Westminster College on March 5, 1946, as its Green Lecturer, he saw it as an opportunity to issue a warning of what he viewed as the imminent threat the Soviet Union posed to America and the West at large.

By inviting Churchill to be its Green Speaker for 1946, the college was conveying a special honor upon him. A decade earlier, it had established the Green Lecture Series as an endowed memorial commemorating the late prominent St. Louis attorney and Westminster graduate, John Findley Green. The series, which continues to this day, “makes it possible to present lectures designed to promote understanding of economic and social problems of international concern” and provides that “the speaker shall be a person of international reputation.”

Although he unquestionably held “an international reputation,” Churchill had recently been voted out of the office he had held while guiding Britain successfully through the late war. The world was stunned. This was the man who, throughout the bombings, battles, and setbacks, had been the defiant face of a war-torn Britain. A 2011 study by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) stated that, “between 1940 and 1945 Winston Churchill was probably the most popular British prime minister of all time,” with a nationwide approval rating of 83 percent.

However, the study continues, “the very qualities that had made him a great leader in war were ill-suited to domestic politics in peacetime. … The conduct of the war … was his overriding passion, and military victory was by far the most important of his goals—thus everything else, including party politics, was secondary.” At the end of the conflict, bereft of both direction and purpose, Churchill led his Conservative Party to a staggering defeat.

Churchill’s triumph in World War II made him a historical figure, but he also received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 and was a prolific painter.

Now, Westminster College was inadvertently giving him the opportunity not only to ring a warning bell regarding Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin, but also as a means of reintroducing himself into world affairs. President Harry S. Truman had added a brief postscript to the college dean’s invitation, encouraging Churchill to visit what he termed “a wonderful school in my home state.” He added, “Hope you can do it. I’ll introduce you.” The seventy-one-year-old Churchill accepted the dean’s invitation, and with it, the president’s offer.

Churchill took full advantage of his trip to the States. Accompanied by his wife and daughter, he left England in January and landed in Florida for a vacation. He briefly left the Sunshine State to travel to Washington, DC, for a meeting with Truman and Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, during which they reviewed the weighty theme of his upcoming speech.

Churchill’s topic was a timely one. Just ten months earlier, Germany had officially surrendered, and the Soviet Union and the United States had emerged from the war as the world’s two most powerful nations. The Soviets had suffered terribly during the conflict, losing tens of millions of lives and witnessing widespread structural and material destruction at the hands of Germany. The United States had extended some nine billion dollars to the Soviet Union through a lend-lease program, and a wide range of political understandings were reached between Russia and its wartime allies at such high-level meetings as the Moscow, Tehran, Yalta, and Potsdam conferences.

Meanwhile, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin had embarked on an openly aggressive and relentless program of territorial acquisition and ideological expansion in Eastern Europe, as the gulf between the former allies rapidly widened. The governments of the world’s noncommunist nations looked at the situation in one of two ways. According to one school of thought, Stalin was virtually insatiable in his commitment to Soviet expansion, and he would respond only to concessions from other nations. The second viewpoint maintained that the Russian strongman was open to the concept of world peace but would not consider loosening his hold on Eastern Europe as long as the United States, among others countries, denied him involvement in the future of certain nations, including Japan.

President Truman and his State Department vacillated between the two perspectives, desperately seeking the best path to an understanding of their increasingly aggressive adversary. Churchill had no such doubts. As he saw it, there was no chance of a benign path to the West’s peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union. Stalin was determined to disperse the Communist doctrine throughout the world, and anyone who opposed him was to be considered his enemy. Resistance was the only viable option.

Fully aware of Churchill’s message, Truman was determined that the college venue would provide him with a forum. The president and his guest boarded a specially designated Baltimore and Ohio train for the overnight thousand-mile trip to central Missouri on March 4. They were accompanied by the president’s advisers, as well as some sixty journalists and photographers. Churchill and Truman, both avid poker players, passed the time at cards.

Next morning, the party detrained in Jefferson City and drove the last twenty-four miles to Fulton. Besides serving as the home of Westminster College, Fulton—founded in 1825, shortly after Missouri attained statehood—has a colorful history. The early 1800s were precarious times for settlers on the then-Western Frontier. The county to which Fulton belongs was named after James Callaway, grandson of Daniel Boone and captain of a troop of Missouri rangers during the War of 1812. The veteran of several engagements with both the English and their Native American allies, Callaway was killed in an Indian attack in 1815.

The town was originally named Volney, after a French count. The residents, however, bridled at the “foreign” name and changed it to honor Robert Fulton, the father of American steamboat travel. Incorporated as a city in 1859, the overwhelmingly pro-Southern Fulton mobilized on the side of the Confederacy in 1861, helping to successfully defend the county from Union incursion. The elated citizens promptly dubbed their county the “Kingdom of Callaway,” a title that still survives.

Nearly from its beginnings, Fulton was an institutional town. The home of the first mental health facility west of the Mississippi, by 1851 it was the Callaway County seat and could boast a school for the education of the deaf, a female seminary that became Synodical College, and Fulton College—the future Westminster College. And now, it would host two of the most famous figures in the world.

While delivering his famous speech, Churchill appeared in academic regalia. During his visit, he received an honorary degree from Westminster College.

The Speech

After lunch, the presidential party proceeded to the college gym, where Churchill was presented with an honorary degree. It was here that the speech was scheduled to be delivered, and predictably, the audience was huge. According to The New York Times, eight thousand Fulton residents attended, while some twenty thousand others traveled distances to hear it, some from as far as St. Louis.

Good to his word, Truman made the introduction. After a brief lighthearted reference to the “two Westminsters,” Churchill began his speech by reminding Americans—and their recent wartime allies—of their responsibility to provide aid to the millions of refugees in Europe and Asia whom the war had left homeless and destitute. He soon launched into the point of his speech, with a phrase that has since been quoted innumerable times: “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.” He proceeded to name them, one by one, then went on to present his chilling two-point theme: the Soviet Union must not be allowed to continue its expansion into Europe and elsewhere, and the only two countries in a position to stop Stalin were Britain and the United States.

Churchill listed all the global trouble spots in which Russia was imposing its interests, adding, “Nobody knows what Soviet Russia and its Communist international organization intend to do in the future, or what are the limits, if any, to their expansive and proselytizing tendencies. … We should be most unwise not to face them squarely while the time remains.”

Winston Churchill brought his trademark cigars to Fulton, where he also shared his classic V for Victory sign. A crowd nearly thirty thousand strong turned out to greet Churchill and President Harry S. Truman.

Reaction to the speech was swift in coming and overwhelmingly negative. Not surprisingly, Russia weighed in two days later, with a furious Stalin accusing Churchill of fomenting a hawkish attitude toward the Soviet Union. And while there were those who were willing to accept Churchill’s dire predictions as an accurate portrayal of the current global political situation, there were others who viewed him as an overly dramatic alarmist. Politicians and newspaper editorials accused Churchill of unleashing panic, at best, and warmongering, at worst.

Four years of war had left Americans exhausted, and to many, the threat of a confrontation with Russia was unthinkable. Less than a year after fighting alongside the Russians against a common fascist foe, some still considered the Soviet Union our friend and refused to believe that Stalin was creating what would amount to a global schism.

President Truman himself refrained from openly endorsing Churchill’s position, adopting a position of neutrality, and averring that he had had no idea what his former ally was planning to say. This was patently untrue, given the meeting in which he and Secretary of State Byrnes had reviewed Churchill’s talking points in advance of the event. Truman was in an awkward position, however, and supporting Churchill’s stance would automatically send a negative signal to Stalin.

By March 1946, Truman had occupied the White House for less than a year, after only a brief stint as vice president. He was still finding his way on the international stage, and what he now confronted—indeed, what Churchill had essentially forced him to confront—was as daunting a challenge as he would ever face. The attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki less than a year before had clearly demonstrated that the waging of war would never again be the same, and the prospect of a nuclear conflict with the world’s other superpower was inconceivable.

Over time, however, Truman adopted Churchill’s position. James Muller, editor of Churchill’s Iron Curtain Speech: Fifty Years Later, states, “He sort of let it percolate for a while and came around publicly to agreeing with him gradually. From Truman’s point of view, the speech was important because the geopolitical situation had changed so much with the defeat of Nazi Germany and the new threat from the Soviet Union. It was somewhat easier to have Churchill, the great English-speaking ally of the United States from the war, to come and warn about the danger from the Soviet Union and from communism than for Truman to do it himself.”

Churchill’s speech in Fulton, the first of several he would give in America before returning to London by month’s end, was arguably one of the most important to be delivered in modern times. Ultimately, the undeniable force and logic of his message made his conclusions impossible to refute. Once the initial shock of Churchill’s message had abated, Americans would come to see the Fulton speech as a clear road sign warning of the global political upheaval to come. It would not be long before his predictions became a reality, and the phrase, “Iron Curtain,” became a part of the global vocabulary.

Officially, the speech was titled “Sinews of Peace.” It has come down through the decades, however, as the “Iron Curtain Speech,” although there are political pundits who refer to it as the “Speech that Started the Cold War.” Whatever one chooses to call it, Churchill’s message was clear and prescient, forecasting what would prove at best a freezing of relations between the Soviet Union and the noncommunist West and at worst a decades-long period in which the shadow of nuclear war loomed over the world.

In our own troubled times, overshadowed by years-long allegations of Russian interference in our most venerated processes and institutions, perhaps it is appropriate to recall that it was Winston Churchill—our stalwart wartime ally and unwavering peacetime friend—who, on that late winter’s day in Fulton, gave us fair warning.

While delivering his famous speech, Churchill appeared in academic regalia. During his visit, he received an honorary degree from Westminster College.

Museum & Memorial

In 1940, a seventeenth century London church, designed and built by famed British architect Sir Christopher Wren, was destroyed during a German air attack. It was the second time destruction had been visited on the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury; the so-called Great Fire of London had left it a smoldering wreck in September 1666.

After the German bombing, the church was slated for demolition, but the administrators of Westminster College had another vision. They requested that the church be shipped to Missouri in pieces, to be reconstructed on the college campus, where it would serve as both a chapel and a memorial to Winston Churchill.

In 1965, the structure was shipped to Fulton. Today, it stands as America’s National Churchill Museum.

The Fulton museum is truly one of the state’s best. It educates visitors on the whole of Churchill’s prolific, ninety-one year life. Aside from his notable triumph in World War II, the museum covers his artistic pursuits as a fiction writer and painter, as well as his role in other significant world events such as the separation of Ireland and Britain.

The museum also covers events from beyond Churchill’s life, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, sections of which are displayed outside the museum in an art installation that Churchill’s granddaughter created. The museum hosted President Ronald Reagan for the dedication of the piece.

Many Londoners thought the prospect of moving the ruined Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury, a foolish one; as one British newspaper opined, “The City of London is glad to get rid of the smoke-charred ruins that have become an eyesore.”

Photos // America’s National Churchill Museum at Westminster College, Yousuf Karsh, Library and Archives Canada, Notley Hawkins