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Dispatch: The Iron Curtain Speech

University commencement speakers have become tricky business these days, but politics has always been a fickle mistress, Less than a year after leading his country - and the world – through the darkest days of World War II, Winston Churchill was unceremoniously thrown out of office in July of 1945. So he was a private citizen when Harry Truman invited him to speak a Westminster College in the president’s home state of Missouri.

Delivered to the college on 5 March 1946, Churchill laid out the facts of this strange new world that had developed since the end of the world. It was a good speech, you should read it. It’s the one with the that immortal line: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.”

The speech is so good that Russian historians mark it and the starting gun of the Cold War – and not Joseph Stalin’s speech almost a month earlier, on 9 February, in which he said that war with the West was inevitable. You could make a fairly solid argument that Russian historians, then and now, wrestle with the core concepts of “Aggression” and “Self Defense.” For the record, Churchill called for peace in these “anxious and baffling times.” Europe was still on it’s back, wounded and numb from the war, as the USSR was quickly moving to shape Europe in its image.

Like diplomat George Keenan’s famous “Long Telegram”, the gist of Churchill’s speech is that containment of the totalitarian system was the best way forward, that the Soviets only understand force and cohesion and would only temper their ambitions when faced with counter-pressure from the West. Plus ça change.

The interesting thing about the speech is that Churchill, unlike Vladimir Putin, knows that his beloved homeland is no longer a great power and that the glory days are behind it. Britain no longer reigns supreme its Commonwealth, and the United States must work together to ensure peace in the modern world.

He addresses students entering adulthood in a nuclear age, and spoke of war and tyranny – opining that if these two are removed that science and co-operation can, in the next few decades create “a expansion of material well-being beyond anything that has occurred in human experience.” You have to give it to the old guy, that is as apt a description of the liberal post-World War II order as there is. It lifted more people out of poverty that any other period in history.

The science that Churchill was so optimistic about also had its’ dark face. Technology has made sure that there is no more isolation from the destruction of foreign wars, which in a nuclear age, just might destroy all of it and send us back into a new Dark Ages.

Let's not let that happen.


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