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

Source 8

Letter from Churchill to Truman


CHUR 2/158/47

Simplified Transcript

24 Sept. 1947

My dear Harry,
As our friend Lou Douglas is going back to the USA I am asking him to bring a letter. I want to say how much I admire your policy. I want to thank you for trying to save the world from hunger and war. I wish I could come and visit you but I am busy here in England. I think that I would win an election if it were called now.

You have my best wishes and the support of Britain.
Winston Churchill

Original Transcript

(Original in Mr. Churchill’s own handwriting.)

24 Sept. 1947.

My dear Harry,
As our friend Lou Douglas is going home for a spell I cannot resist sending by his hand a few lines to tell you how much I admire the policy into which you have guided your great country; and to thank you from the bottom of my heart for all you are doing to save the world from famine and war. I wish indeed I could come over and see you and many other friends in the Great Republic. The political situation here requires my constant presence. I think there is no doubt that if there were a General Election, the Conservatives would be returned by a majority. That is however the reason why an election is unlikely.

You have my warmest good wishes in your memorable discharge of your tremendous office, and you can be sure that all the strongest forces in Britain are, and will be, at your side if trouble comes.

Yours very sincerely,

What is this source?

A copy of a letter from Churchill to President Truman, 20 September 1947.

Background to this source

In March 1947 Truman had first announced the Truman Doctrine which established that the United States would provide political, military and economic assistance to all democratic nations under threat from external or internal authoritarian forces. The intention was to stop communism spreading. This was followed soon afterwards by a large financial aid plan for Europe, known as the Marshall Plan. It was hoped that communism would not appeal to countries which were economically prosperous.

Additional information

The immediate cause of the Truman Doctrine was the statement by the British Government that it could no longer afford to help the Greek Government fight the communists in the Civil War. In June the Marshall Plan was announced, offering $12billion reconstruction aid to the countries of Europe, beginning 3 April 1948. And in early September, the USA and Latin American countries signed the Rio Pact, setting up a security zone in the Americas. All these actions by Truman followed the disputes with the Soviet Union over Persia [now Iran] and Turkey in 1946.

The 1945 General Election, which saw Clement Attlee take the office of Prime Minister, was a crushing defeat for Churchill. He had been considering retirement and there were many in the Conservative Party who were keen for him to go. Churchill realised that the Cold War speech was probably the most important one he had ever given and the impact it had re-energised him. By the time he returned to England after his vacation in America, he had decided to take on the mammoth task of writing his history of the Second World War and also to remain on the political stage by continuing as Leader of the Conservative Party and Leader of the Opposition.

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. Who is 'Harry?'
  2.  According to Churchill, who is responsible for the policy the USA is now following?
  3. What is Truman saving the world from?
  4. What does Churchill mean when he talks about 'your memorable discharge of your tremendous office?'
  5. Why can't Churchill visit the USA himself?
  6. The note at the top of this letter explains that it is a copy of a handwritten letter sent by Churchill to Truman. Why did Churchill take the trouble to hand-write the letter?

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 and Truman are great friends

Churchill disagrees with the policies Truman is following

Churchill thinks that his Iron Curtain speech was successful

Everyone in Britain supports Truman's policies

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Go to notes for teachers

Need help interpreting the source?

  • Churchill was clearly very happy with Truman’s action. One important question here is whether he thinks Truman has acted the way he has because of Churchill’s advice. Or would Truman have done the same anyway? This raises interesting questions about Truman’s involvement in the Iron Curtain speech and what Churchill wanted to achieve with the Iron Curtain speech and whether he achieved his aim.

Explore the guide to interpreting letters