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

Source 3

Copy of a telegram from Churchill to President Truman


CHAR 20/218/109-110

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

Simplified Transcript

Prime Minister to President Truman

Personal and Top Secret            12.5.45

1. I am very concerned by the situation in Europe.

2. What should we do about Russia? I have always tried to stay on friendly terms with Russia. But I am now worried because of the way they have twisted the decisions made at Yalta, the attitude towards Poland and their power in the Balkans. They use Communist methods to take over countries and they have very large armies. What will happen in a year or two when the British and American armies have disbanded after the war?

3. An iron curtain has come down. We do not know what the Russians are doing in the areas they control. They control large areas of central and Eastern Europe and their control is growing.

Original Transcript


Personal and Top Secret                .12.5.45

1. I am profoundly concerned about the European situation as outlined in my No. 41.

2. Meanwhile what is to happen about Russia? I have always worked for friendship with Russia but, like you, I feel deep anxiety because of their misinterpretation of the Yalta decisions, their attitude towards Poland, their overwhelming influence in the Balkans excepting Greece, the difficulties they make about Vienna, the combination of Russian power and the territories under their control or occupied, coupled with the Communist technique in so many other countries, and above all their power to maintain very large armies in the field for a long time. What will be the position in a year or two, when the British and American Armies have melted and the French has not yet been formed on any major scale, when we have a handful of divisions mostly French, and when Russia may choose to keep two or three hundred on active service?

3. An iron curtain is drawn upon their front. We do not know what is going on behind. There seems little doubt that the whole of the regions east of the line Lubeck – Trieste – Corfu will soon be completely in their hands. To this must be added the further enormous area conquered by the American Armies between Eisenach and the Elbe, which will I suppose in a few weeks be occupied, when the Americans retreat, by the Russian power.


What is this source?

A copy of a telegram from Churchill to President Truman, 12 May 1945.

Background to this source

At the end of the war Soviet troops controlled most of Eastern Europe. Everything that had happened since February 1945 had shown, in Churchill's view, that Stalin could not be trusted to keep his promises about Poland and Eastern Europe. Events in Vienna and Austria proved this. To Churchill it looked like the Soviet Union was out to conquer the whole of Europe. Churchill was trying to push Truman into standing up to Stalin in Europe, and forcing Stalin to keep his Yalta promises.

Additional information

Victory in Europe always meant the bulk of American forces would be transferred to the Pacific to defeat Japan. Britain, like France, had won the war but was deeply in debt to America and could not afford to stand up to Russia alone. Churchill had, in 1944, devised a plan to fight Russia after the defeat of Germany, but it had been declared unfeasible by the military leaders.

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. Why is Churchill concerned about the European situation?
  2. In what ways does Churchill suggest that the Russians have misinterpreted the Yalta decisions?
  3. According to Churchill why does he feel deep anxiety about Russia?
  4. Why does he feel Western Europe will not be safe in a year or two?
  5. Why is the Iron Curtain a problem for Churchill?
  6. Does this document tell us anything about Truman’s views?

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 has always worked for friendship with Russia

The ‘Iron Curtain’ already exists in May 1945

Churchill wants Truman to keep American forces in Europe

The Soviets are trying to get total control of Austria

Churchill does not trust Stalin to stick to his agreements

Churchill does not think Truman will stand up to Stalin

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Need help interpreting the source?

  • This is an interesting and useful source for historians. We see Churchill’s state of mind and we also see him using the term Iron Curtain.
  • For historians the key issue is whether Churchill is excessively alarmed at the actions of the Soviet Union, or whether he is right to fear the Soviet Union’s control of Eastern Europe.
  • We also have to consider what this source reveals about the Americans. The impression we get is that the Americans are not interested in Europe. But is that likely to be true or is it more likely to be an indication of Churchill’s fear?

Explore the guide to interpreting telegrams

Source 4

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