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Churchill and the Cold War: Why did Churchill make his famous ‘Iron Curtain’ speech in 1946?

Photograph of President Truman and Prime Minister Churchill standing on the rear platform of a special Baltimore & Ohio train (evidently en route to Fulton, Missouri for Churchill's "Iron Curtain" Speech), with the President's Military Aide, General Harry Vaughan, seated nearby.

When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 Churchill quickly promised aid to Stalin, and a wartime alliance grew up. Arctic Convoys took arms to Russia, losing many ships on the way. Stalin increasingly demanded a 'Second Front' to take pressure off the beleaguered Russian forces, something Churchill was reluctant to commit to (read more about the Second Front in the investigation). However this was promised in 1942, and was finally delivered in 1944. At wartime meetings in Teheran and Yalta, Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt plotted the continuing course of the anti-Fascist war. Military co-operation increased as the war continued, although often Stalin blamed the West for not doing its fair share in the war against Germany. He repeatedly accused the West of trying to bleed the Soviet Union to death.

At the Yalta Conference, in February 1945, held when it was obvious the war was nearly over, the three leaders made arrangements for Europe after the war, including the right to hold free elections as soon as possible after the fighting stopped. It was also agreed that there were to be new borders for Poland, and German de-Nazification and military occupation. However, even the Americans agreed that the wording of the Yalta agreement about free and fair elections was so vague it would be difficult to enforce. Debating the agreement in the House of Commons many MPs expressed reservations about the provisions for Poland, feeling the Poles had been let down by the terms negotiated at Yalta. A communist government was quickly installed in Poland by Stalin, and Roosevelt began to feel he had been deceived by Stalin. ‘In the Tehran and Yalta conferences, the spheres of interests were divided between the allies,’ says Russian historian Dr Kirill Anderson, ‘and what was later called Eastern Europe became part of the Soviet sphere of interests.' In effect, the West agreed the division of Europe to give the Soviet Union security along its borders.

Yalta Conference, Krim: (from the left) Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Josef Stalin; in the background Admiral William D. Leahy (M) - undated Vintage property of ullstein bild (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

By the time of the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, Roosevelt was dead and had been replaced by Truman. Halfway through the conference Churchill was replaced as Prime Minister by Clement Attlee, so at Potsdam Stalin was faced by two new democratic leaders who were still finding their feet. Stalin in effect controlled Central and Eastern Europe. The West had, as previously agreed, evacuated its troops from parts of Central and Eastern Europe (see Source 4 for more details). Perhaps, as Churchill suggests in Source 6, the seeds of mistrust were already there, by the time of the defeat of Germany. Given the fact that Russia and the Soviet Union had repeatedly been invaded by the West, [1812, 1914, 1919 and 1941] Stalin did have a legitimate right for secure borders and he knew the only way to get them was by holding on to his wartime gains.

➜ Investigation page

➜ The sources

➜ Notes for teachers

Find out more

Kevin Ruane: Winston Churchill and the Cold War*
Stalin's reply to Churchill's speech at Fulton, March 5 1946
Soviet Power in Eastern Europe
President Truman and the Origins of the Cold War
FBI Files Reveals Winston Churchill’s Secret Bid to Nuke Russia to Win Cold War

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