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

Source 2

Copy of a telegram from Churchill to President Truman


CHAR 20/218/101-102

We've highlighted the parts of the document which appear in the transcription below.

Simplified Transcript

Telegram from Prime Minster to President Truman

Personal and Top Secret                12.5.45

The latest message from the Russians about events in Vienna is unacceptable. The Russians should not be able to ban our officials from Vienna. I am happy to accept that we should talk about how to divide Vienna into zones but we should be allowed to enter the city to survey the scene there.

Original Transcript



Personal and Top Secret                12.5.45.

The latest reply of the Soviet Government about our Missions proceeding to Vienna is wholly unsatisfactory. It is quite unacceptable that the Russians should continue in this manner to exclude our representatives from Vienna. I am perfectly willing that the question of zones in Vienna should be concluded in the E.A.C. [European Advisory Commission], but I feel that we should insist that our representatives should first be allowed to make a survey on the spot. Field Marshal Alexander holds the same view very strongly.

What is this source?

A copy of a personal telegram from Winston Churchill to President Truman.

Background to this source

Austria became part of Germany in 1938 and so was treated as a defeated nation at the end of the war. At the Moscow Conference (October-November 1943) the Allies set up the European Advisory Commission (EAC) to discuss exactly how to deal with states such as Austria. It was agreed that Austria would return to an independent country after Germany was defeated. It was to be split, like Germany, into zones of occupation after the war. On 29 March 1945 Soviet troops entered Austria, and began setting up a government. French, British and American troops crossed the border into Western Austria in late April/early May. It wasn't until July that the borders of the zones of occupation were agreed by the Allies.

Additional information

The Soviet Union wanted a Communist government in Vienna, and to exploit Austrian assets as reparations to help rebuild the Soviet economy. In the Austrian election of November 1945 the Communist Party received only 5% of the vote. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union continued to exploit Austria's industry for its own ends. Some historians argue that the Cold War started in Austria, in 1946, rather than across Europe in 1947. Austria was occupied by Allied troops until 1955.

How can we use this source in the investigation?

Remember we are hoping that this source can be useful to us in investigating why Churchill made the Iron Curtain speech in 1946. Sources usually help historians in two ways:

Surface level: details, facts and figures

  1. According to Churchill, what are the Soviets doing?
  2. Why does he think this is a problem?
  3. What does he propose to do about it?
  4. Who is Field Marshal Alexander?
  5. Why is Churchill saying this in a personal telegram to President Truman?

Deeper level: inferences and using the source as evidence

Which of the inferences below can be made from this source?

On a scale of 1-5 how far do you agree that this source supports this inference? Which extract(s) from the source support your argument?
Churchill is unhappy with the attitude of the Soviets toward the West

Churchill suspects the Soviets are up to something he won't like

Churchill is trying to push Truman into action

The Soviets are trying to get total control of Austria

This source makes the Iron Curtain speech seem reasonable

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Need help interpreting the source?

  • In terms of tackling the main question we need to consider what this reveals about the actions of the Soviets and the reaction of Churchill to those actions. The key issue is whether Churchill is over-reacting. If we take Source 1 at face value it appears Churchill is over-reacting. But if we do not accept that Stalin is genuinely friendly towards Britain then this probably makes Churchill’s suspicions look more valid.

Explore the guide to interpreting telegrams

Source 3

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