Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” Speech (A Black History Month Perspective)

Truman and Churchill in Missouri

Churchill’s Westminster College audience, March 5, 1946 (Life/Getty Images)

This year is the seventieth anniversary of Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech, a.k.a. “Sinews of Peace,” a.k.a., the Fulton address, which means that we will soon be hearing all about it once again. The speech is central to the iconography of the Cold War, of anti-communism, and of Anglo-American specialness. Countless historians, biographers and rhetoreticians have examined almost every aspect of it: when and where it was written, whether it was pre-approved by others, including President Truman, and, indeed, how it was received. On the last point, we know that the speech was met with a mixture of cheers and boos. The reactions tended to be politically and ideologically determined. Conservative politicians and the media praised the speech for its realism about the nature of the postwar settlement: at last someone had the courage to publicly say that the victor nations could not forever be friends.  In contrast, most liberals, socialists, and communists condemned the speech as inflammatory. With so many hopes pinned to the newly created United Nations Organization (UNO), the last thing the world needed was geopolitical tension between the Western powers and the Soviet Union, they argued. But that was not all. Some leftists went further still. Churchill’s notion the Anglo-American “special relationship” and “fraternal association” constituted the ultimate sinew of world peace smacked of racial supremacism, they said.

What do we know about this last group? In his interview in Pravda, which was translated and published by The New York Times on 14 March, Stalin chastised Churchill for articulating a Hitlerite “racial theory” that could incite another war. For many historians, this event stands for the sort of over the top propaganda that lays bare Soviet cynicism, malfeasance and hostility.  This interpretation is not wrong, but it sidesteps the fact that many non-communists wholeheartedly agreed with Stalin on this point. For the African American elite at the time, the Fulton address was a continuation of the “master race game,” as the sociologist Horace Cayton put it, or another ballad in the chorus of “Anglo-Saxon domination,” to borrow from the then world-famous Paul Robeson.

Robeson-rat_cachetsWhile it is possible to dismiss such denouncement as products of Kremlin agitprop—many of Robeson’s discourses survive only because the FBI kept a close tab on his “subversive” activities—the historical record indicates that they probably represented the majority view of the leadership of a thirteen million-strong English-speaking people. What Robeson publicly said and wrote in response to the Fulton speech in his capacity as the chairman of the “radical” Council on African Affairs is strikingly similar to the opinions expressed by the executive secretary of the “moderate” National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or the editors and commentators in the “mainstream” Pittsburgh Courier, one of the highest-circulating African American newspapers in 1946. And that was only in America. Details about how the speech was received globally are still scant, but it is safe to speculate that similar criticism would have been heard from around the colonized world.  So viewed, rather than a cross between grand strategy and political utopia that contributed to “the Cold War,” Churchill’s call for Anglo-American unity is also an expression of a certain kind of racialized supremacy.

The (Private) Citizen’s Speech  

The textual, lexical and syntactical structures of the Fulton speech have now been analyzed to death.  Among the metaphors use, the first place goes to the metallurgical-theatrical “iron curtain,” a reference to Soviet aggression so powerful that it renamed the speech itself. Then there is the corporeal “sinews of peace,” mentioned above, the architectural-construction site “temple of peace,” which referred to the UN, and finally the “Tower of Babel,” referring to humanity in the language of the three Abrahamic religions. There is also an analogy, the “lessons of appeasement,” plus of course the “special relationship,” one of those great phrases with which Churchill at once reflected and constructed history.  The “special relationship” was supposed to be the punchline or, as Churchill put it, the “crux”: if war against tyranny is a constant of modern history, and if the newborn UNO is unable to counter the new tyranny growing in the East, then only a common Anglo-American front can make tyrants reconsider their course of action. In other words, the postwar Big Three condominium was collapsing under the weight of the Iran-Azerbaijan crisis and other crises, and Churchill was offering a remedy: the “fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples” grounded in the “special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States.”

Word Frequency Query

The word “race” appears in the speech once, and not in a context that deserves emphasis: “It is from the quarrels of the strong parent races in Europe that the world wars we have witnessed, or which occurred in former times, have sprung.”  So, how was it that “race” was everything that Cayton and Robeson took from it?  The basic insight of semantics is that the meaning of a text is context-bound such that it depends on the different spaces and times, textual and otherwise, with which a text is engaged. The white audience of students and VIPs at the gymnasium of Westminster College probably understood the speech very differently from the audiences at the historically black colleges and universities or those in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, Bronzeville, Harlem, Shaw/U Street, etc. To begin with, the latter had good reasons to be suspicious about the speaker. The Atlantic Charter and Africa from an American Standpoint (1942), a study produced by the Committee on Africa, the War, and Peace Aims, is one testament of the African American thought on Churchill’s historical role. As Robert Vitalis shows in his last book, the Charter rang hollow to those who heard the British prime minister declare in September 1942 that the document’s principles—especially Point 3, the one about self-determination—were not really meant to apply to the “peoples” of Africa and the Asia-Pacific.


Of course, this was not how history was being written at the time. Color and Democracy (1945) was reviewed in Foreign Affairs as a hysterical “anti-British tract” simply because its author, W.E.B. Du Bois, dared to remind the readers that “Mr. Churchill stands for that part of Britain which is stubbornly determined to maintain the place of the British Empire as a superstate ruling a large part of the world,” or that “The eight points of the Atlantic Charter were so obviously aimed at European and North American conditions that Winston Churchill frankly affirmed this to be the case.” But Du Bois was only being polite. Here is a passage from Churchill’s 1930 counterfactual history essay “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg”:

Let us only think what would have happened supposing the liberation of the slaves had been followed by some idiotic assertion of racial equality, and even by attempts to graft white democratic institutions upon the simple, docile, gifted African race belonging to a much earlier chapter in human history. We might have seen the whole of the Southern States invaded by gangs of carpetbagging politicians exploiting the ignorant and untutored colored vote against the white inhabitants and bringing the time-honored forms of parliamentary government into unmerited disrepute. We might have seen the sorry force of black legislators attempting to govern their former masters. Upon the rebound from this there must inevitably have been a strong reassertion of local white supremacy. By one device or another the franchises accorded to the negroes would have been taken from them. The constitutional principles of the Republic would have been proclaimed, only to be evaded or subverted; and many a warm-hearted philanthropist would have found his sojourn in the South no better than “A Fool’s Errand.”

Any Churchill defender will of course jump up to say that the “speculative” context of this particular essay gave the author a license to say silly things (after all, Churchill himself often admitted to saying silly things).  Yet, this passage could also be seen as a moment of candour that adequately captures the background knowledge through which Churchill processed ideas about human difference.  (And yes, one needs not label Churchill the “other Hitler” in order to acknowledge his deeply racialized reservations about the expansion of suffrage to African Americans).  What is more, as the historian Paul Addison once observed about this essay, the line separating fiction and nonfiction can be thin: “This counter-factual fantasy was more than an entertainment: it was a fable.” No less important, it was a story that Churchill never re-evaluated later, much less disowned.  The essay in question was originally published in Scribner’s Magazine, but I got the above quote from the 1961 reprint–one duly vetted by Churchill–in The Wisconsin Magazine of History (44: 4, pp. 243-251, at p. 245).  This I find remarkable considering that 1961 was the year of, to use but one relevant example, the Freedom Rides, civil rights activist-led bus trips in the American South aim to combat the sort of “strong reassertion of local white supremacy” and promote the “constitutional principles of the Republic.”

wrightbookViewed another way, the fact that “race” appears only once in the speech is precisely the problem.  Indeed, while Churchill’s pronouncement on the importance of international cooperation in fighting tyranny and poverty are in many ways politically and morally progressive, they are fatally blunted by his inattention to racialized exclusion and oppression as a cause of said tyranny and poverty.  This was no oversight.  Other than the great capitalist-communist dance, the other major political context of the speech was the global anti-colonial revolt. Churchill knew this of course, but chose to ignore it—the choice he made repeatedly throughout his career.

This is something African American writers understood all too well.  Prima facie evidence is Richard Wright’s 1956 reportage of the Bandung Conference: The Colour Curtain (I notice that Tillman Durdin’s New York Times review of Wright’s book and the one Merze Tate published in The Journal of Negro History overlap in some curious ways).


Will Zhou Enlai join us in this photo op? (It’s a trick question)

The text of the Fulton speech can be problematized further still, starting with Churchill’s use of fraternity, friendship, and kinship. On the level of daily politics, these concepts, and the tropes based on them, were code for the word “alliance,” which was still a great no-no in the U.S. at the time. On a deeper level, however, these words are code for something closer akin to what Cayton and Robeson heard in the speech. Consider the concluding sentence: “if all British moral and material forces and convictions are joined with your own in fraternal association, the high-roads of the future will be clear, not only for us but for all, not only for our time, but for a century to come.” This was no simple call for a defensive military alliance, but for a political (and economic and cultural etc.) community in charge of “the future glory and safety of mankind.”  Now, as Carole Pateman, Charles Mills, and Mona Ozouf and others have argued, brothers, friends and the family are some of the most reoccurring figures in modern theories of the social contract.  Putting aside the conceptual differences between and among these concepts, it can be said that their common purpose is to manage order in political communities. The talk of brotherhood, fraternity and family thus may help relax political tensions between Xs and Ys, but it does so only by protecting the privileges of community leaders (usually an all-male, all-white class of adult persons). Parallels to the Fulton speech are evident. In addition to claiming moral superiority and articulating Anglo-Americans as the special edition of humankind, Churchill’s rhetoric essentially reproduced the old international hierarchy. Thus, while the UNO Charter does open some new possibilities—in the speech Churchill famously proposed that the new organization be equipped with a standing air force—in no way does it change the division of the world into what he identified as “Powers” and “States.” On one level, this can be interpreted as a “classic” crude realpolitik view of the world that reduces international political life to relations of super- and sub-ordination among sovereign nations. But on another level, as Du Bois explained in Color and Democracy, this was a blueprint for maintaining the global colour line. The Atlantic and San Francisco Charters might help (some) “dependent peoples” get their own states, but powerhood was reserved for, shall we say, the traditional owners of the system.

These more abstract points are important for understanding Churchill’s deployment in the speech of one of his all-time favourite phrases—the English-speaking peoples. Historian Richard Toye calls this a “seemingly racialized vision in which the Britons of the ‘White Dominions’ and America were linked as part of a broader global community with a common interest in defending freedom.” In the speech, the English-speaking peoples are indeed spoken into existence on the basis of myths of shared past—a past that is passing straight from the Magna Charta in 1215 (of course patriated in the name of today’s English-speaking peoples) to the joint use of military bases in 1946. They are also spoken into existence in terms of a shared duty and destiny to promote peace, order, and good government in the world.  Where I disagree with Toye, respectfully, concerns his qualification of Churchill’s vision as “seemingly racialized.” Whether a less racist and de-racialized concept of “people” was possible at the time or not can be debated—consider what philosophers and historians of race  say on how Du Bois spoke of peoplehood, for example—but I think it is safe to say that nothing the great man said in the Fulton speech or any other text he left behind contradicts the thesis that in his view non-white English-speakers were either the out-group or deeply sub-ordinate to white English-speakers.


The idea of the English-speaking peoples is one of the keys for understanding Churchill’s theories of politics and of history.  By my count, he used the phrase at least once in public in 1911, 1917, 1918, 1921, 1931, 1932, 1933, 1940, 1942, 1943, 1946, 1954, 1955, and 1963—in addition to his monumental History of the English-Speaking Peoples. (Privately, Churchill wrote about the English-speaking peoples, then called “communities,” already in 1898.) The rhetorical continuity is all the more remarkable considering the drastic global transformations that occurred in this period.  The phrase that graces the title of Churchill’s most famous book, as Peter Clarke has demonstrated, had entered the lexicon of the educated classes across the English-speaking world well before Churchill entered politics. Crucially, it appears to have been coined in the context of the late nineteenth century liberal Atlantic—a network of progressive intellectual and political elites who engaged each other in reflections on the changing role of government in the context of industrialization. The key moment was the 1871 Treaty of Washington in the sense that this peaceful resolution of the American Civil War-era disputes between London and Washington added grist to the mill of those who claimed that Anglo-American commonalities—language, literature, lineage, etc.—facilitated Anglo-American cooperation.

Clarke also convincingly demonstrates that it was the transatlantic Victorian liberal thought, and not simply his own Anglo-American heritage, that helped Churchill imagine the English-speaking peoples as a historical entity. Less convincing, respectfully, is Clark’s claim that, by the time Churchill first used this phrase in public the meaning of “English-speaking peoples” had come to refer to nations and institutions rather than races. The key document here is the third edition of a pamphlet on the Irish Home Rule, published in the winter of 1911-12. Settling the Irish question, Churchill wrote in the preface, would bring Britain “nearer in bonds of friendship and association to the United States,” and thus pave the “road to the unity of the English-speaking races.” Crucially, this course was said to be sensible in the context of the coming geopolitical game: “We see the four consolidations of the human family which are in the ascendant—the Russian power, the Yellow races, the Teutonic alliance, and the English-speaking peoples.” Judging on what we think we know about the range of intersubjective meanings of all these phrases in this particular historical context, it is likely that Churchill was speaking of four racial communities rather than something else. He clearly saw them as power containers in a state of mutual struggle–and quite possibly an evolutionary struggle rather than “merely” a political one. Why might that be?

The Last Greater Briton  

The majority view in the academic literature is that the Anglo-American special relationship began during World War II.  This view chimes with a realpolitik understanding of international politics: absent the mortal Axis threat, there would be no close collaboration between the U.S. and Britain, and therefore no foundation for the development of the special relationship. While several studies since at least Coral Bell’s 1964 book have suggested that the origins of Anglo-American specialness can be traced back to the early 1900s, 1890s and even earlier, historical consensus remains stable; by most reasonable “hard” measures—the depth and frequency of summitry diplomacy and/or the scale and scope of intelligence and weapon technology sharing and joint warfare practices—the special relationship owes its existence to the wartime developments in the 1940s.

While this periodization is sound, it tends to obscure the role played by the so-called cultural affinity—that is, by the ideas, discourses, institutions, and networks that enabled the deep and durable forms of cooperation that later came to characterize the special relationship. This is especially important in the political, social and cultural context of the Fulton address and specifically Churchill’s statement about shared Anglo-American inheritance contained in it. To go back to Clarke, the phrase English-speaking peoples gained currency in the wake of the 1871 Treaty of Washington. This sounds right to me. What is critical is that the same period also saw the rise of two nearby and interrelated concepts/conceits: Greater Britain and the Anglo-Saxondom. A closer look at each can shed additional light on what Churchill’s Fulton message.


Greater Britain is as old, if not older as the idea of the English-speaking peoples (and what Clarke did for the latter, Duncan Bell did for the former—a definitive intellectual history). Introduced in British political discourse in 1869 by the politician and author Charles Dilke, it referred to the British and Irish Isles, the United States, Canada, Australasia, and India. Dilke was onto something. According to the historian James Belich, an informal, loosely bounded, and de-centered cultural and economic community of like-minded English-speaking peoples indeed came into existence at the time, thanks to a confluence of nineteenth century development in political participation and ideology, transportation and communication technologies and, especially, migration and settlement. The last development was revolutionary in the sense that modern history had never before witnessed such a mass, ideologically motivated and permanent transfer of population. Between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the year of Churchill’s birth, almost six million Britons moved permanently to the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—a multifold increase in relation to the period before Napoleon. Further, in contrast to earlier British migrants to these areas who were often convicts, soldiers and adventures, the nineteenth century migrants can be characterized as tightly knit communities, with considerable social and often economic capital and with high levels of mutual support. The combined effect was to re-reinforce and indeed “clone” a number of key institutions and practices from Old Britain such as representative government, the common law, the diffusion of the franchise among white men, and political decentralization.

Belich’s main argument is that Greater Britain was primarily economic and cultural, yet it bears keeping in mind that this new nineteenth century reality enabled a radical re-imagination of the political space among powerful segments of the Anglo-American ruling elite. In the 1880s, people like Andrew Carnegie in the U.S. and J.R. Seeley in Britain publicly toyed with the idea of an Anglo-American (re-)union, with some of their contemporaries going so far to draw parallels between Greater Britain on the one hand and Italian and German unifications on the other. Churchill’s appeal for the fraternal association at Fulton heavily borrowed from this once-commonplace political discourse. John Charmley, one of Churchill’s greatest detractors among British historians, is arguably right when he says that when the great man spoke of Anglo-American “unity” in the 1940s, he really meant “union”—presumably à la Carnegie or Seeley.  And if union was impossible, then “Pax Anglo-Americana” would do.

This leads us to Anglo-Saxonism. Symbiotic and complementary with Greater Britain and the English-speaking peoples, Anglo-Saxonism is a body of ideas that once posited that the unity and supremacy of racially defined Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Versions of this discourse arguably go back the English Reformation and the English Civil War and can be found in various geographic contexts throughout the modern period, certainly including the U.S. in 1946. Compared to Greater Britain, the boundaries of the Anglo-Saxondom were less elastic in the sense that its proponents rarely if ever acknowledged Irish Catholics, much less Hindu, Muslim and other Indians, as fellow in-group members. This is crucial: a vast and informal zone of economic and cultural exchange, Greater Britain also constituted itself via deeply racialized divisions, exclusions, and hierarchies. And if you ask me, absent the power and pervasiveness of Anglo-Saxonism, the great rapprochement would have been unlikely, which, in turn, would have hobbled the political possibility of Anglo-American cooperation in the subsequent decades, with all sorts of consequences for the postwar liberal international order and all that.


According to the historical literature on the subject, American and British Anglo-Saxonisms developed in relation to different racialized Others, different internal tensions, different colonial politics–and they both started to dissipate, ideologically and discursively, sometime during or after World War I. Churchill might have bucked this last trend.  In biographies, his relationship to Anglo-Saxonism is sometimes reduced to a sentence or two about his professed dislike for the Anglo-Saxon Review, the chic quarterly founded and edited between 1899 and 1901 by his American-born mother Jennie Jerome, a.k.a. Lady Randolph Churchill. This is misleading. James Lawrence, who no one can accused of being some radical left-winger, puts it much better:

By his mid-twenties, Churchill had absorbed the current racial dogma that identified the Anglo-Saxon race as uniquely qualified to rule and share the blessings of a civilization…This conceit dominated his wartime and post-war dealings with Americans and made him enemies in both countries.

Anglo-Saxonism indeed made Churchill some enemies, but among large segments of ruling classes on both sides of the Atlantic it clearly made him more than a few friends, too.  Furthermore, if this racial dogma operated the way many of us now think racial dogmas operate–via mostly unreflective attitudes, beliefs, feelings, practices and so on–then it should not be surprising that Churchill managed to produce and reproduce Anglo-Saxonist supremacy without making overt declarations about ‘race wars’ and ‘race alliances’ (he never wrote an essay or gave a speech explicitly dealing with ‘race’).

This “deeper” political and historical context is what helps explain why the Fulton address was denounced at the time with such vigour and, by some, also with venom.  Without understanding the historical role of Anglo-Saxonism and Churchill’s relationship to it, we cannot fully understand neither the content and tone of the address nor Cayton’s or Robeson’s reactions to it.  The “iron curtain,” the magnetic metaphor that almost instantaneously entered the idiom of the educated people around the world, has become synonymous with Churchill’s Fulton address. Together with Stalin’s “election” speech in February 1946 and George Kennan’s subsequent Long Telegram, the address is almost universally regarded as a textbook document for understanding the origins of the Cold War. This is not wrong, but more can be, and should be, said about  it. Especially by way of commemoration.


5 thoughts on “Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” Speech (A Black History Month Perspective)

  1. The inspiration for Churchill’s speech, astonishingly, was one by Joseph Goebbels:
    “If the German people lay down their weapons, the Soviets, according to the agreement between Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, would occupy all of East and Southeast Europe along with the greater part of the Reich. An iron curtain would fall over this enormous territory controlled by the Soviet Union, behind which nations would be slaughtered.” Article titled ‘Das Jahr 2000’ printed in the newspaper Das Reich, February 25, 1945, pp. 1-2
    Goebbels in turn took the metaphor of the Iron Curtain from the Russian Vasily Rozanov, who saw an Iron Curtain descending over Russia in 1918.


  2. Hi James (if I may)! Thanks for reading our blog indeed. Yes, I think this Goebbels connection is becoming commonplace in biographies, but I would not call it an ‘inspiration’. The metaphor goes back to Rozanov, and had been employed Brits before Goebbels, the case in point being Labour’s Ethel Snowden in her 1920 reportage ‘Through Bolshevik Russia’. Her words “behind the ‘iron curtain’ at last!” probably constitute the First Snowden affair.


  3. Pingback: Canada and the Anglo World—the Brexit Edition | The Disorder Of Things

  4. An iron curtain would fall over this enormous territory controlled by the Soviet Union, behind which nations would be slaughtered.” Article titled ‘Das Jahr 2000’ printed in the newspaper Das Reich, February 25, 1945, pp.


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