The Day Churchill Came to Town: The "Iron Curtain" Speech in Fulton, Missouri
The Sinews of Peace
March 5, 1946, dawned unseasonably mild, and a small Midwestern college town was about to play a big role in history. The events of that day included a stirring speech by Winston Churchill in Fulton, Missouri, the echoes of which seem to reverberate there still. Through a remarkable set of circumstances, the former Prime Minister of Britain had accepted the invitation of the college president, Franc L. McCluer, via the President of the United States, Harry Truman.
The speech took place in a gymnasium overflowing with guests at Westminster College, a small liberal arts college located about 100 miles from St. Louis. Churchill was presented with an honorary degree on this occasion, as was Truman. Thousands of visitors filled the streets of Fulton, many having traveled from St. Louis and elsewhere.
“The Sinews of Peace,” as the speech was formally titled, was later often called the “Iron Curtain Speech,” because in it Churchill alluded to the Soviet influence cutting off Eastern Europe from the rest of the world like an “iron curtain” descending. He was said to have coined the term with this speech, but he had used it previously in his letters. (Sinews perhaps referred to bonds of collaboration among the countries he was calling upon to be aware of the dangers and come together in the fight against communism).
Invited by the college president with the assistance of US President Harry Truman (a native of Independence, Missouri), Churchill traveled from Washington to Missouri with Truman by train. The two enjoyed playing poker during the trip, and upon arrival at Jefferson City, they then motored to Fulton by limousine. Churchill, the British prime minister who had been defeated in the recent 1945 election, made the most of the appearance at the college with Truman by delivering a timely speech which received wide coverage and was later felt to signify the beginning of the “Cold War." Churchill may have felt that, as a private citizen, he could make a less restricted impact by delivering the speech at this moment in time with the US President by his side. Truman later claimed to have been unaware of the content of Churchill’s speech before it was delivered, but he clearly recognized the gravity of the message.
The speech was somewhat uncomfortably received by the general public at the time, as the Soviet Union was considered an ally of the US and Europe, and the hope for postwar peace was being shaken by this dark portrayal of the world situation.
“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”— Winston Churchill, March 5, 1946
Invitation and Planning
Knowing that Churchill planned to visit the US in early 1946, Westminster College President F.L. McCluer composed a letter of invitation. In it he asked Churchill to deliver a talk on international affairs at Westminster as part of a series of lectures in the spring of 1946, under sponsorship of the John Findley Green Foundation. McCluer then connected with President Harry Truman through Westminster alumnus Major General Harry Vaughan, Military Aide to the Missouri-born Truman. McCluer visited Washington and shared the letter with Vaughan, who suggested they show it to the President.
Truman then appended a handwritten postscript to the letter, which was sent to Churchill in early October 1945. The note said: "This is a wonderful school in my home state. Hope you can do it. I'll introduce you. Best regards, Harry Truman.” Churchill accepted the invitation to speak at the college, while politely declining the remainder of the lecture series. But the stage was set for an incredible historical event.
A.P. Green (grandfather of U.S. Senator Kit Bond), a local firebrick manufacturer and Westminster College trustee, coordinated plans for a special meal for the honored guests. Green had hoped for the luncheon to be served at his spacious home in Mexico, Missouri, and even constructed a formal gateway to his property for the occasion, but the 30-mile trip was found not to be a logical fit. The luncheon was instead held at the campus home of Westminster President F.L. McCluer, with Callaway County ham and tomato aspic on the menu. The gateway entrance to the Green estate, now part of a public park, has ever since been called the "Churchill Gate," and bears a plaque with that inscription.
F.L. McCluer's invitation had mentioned suitable compensation, and in February 1946 a letter from Peter Solly-Flood of the British Embassy was received by General Harry Vaughan. The letter states that although Churchill expected no gift, if the university particularly wished to give him a present, he would be interested in a small painting by Thomas Hart Benton, a Midwestern artist.
Subsequently a Benton painting entitled "The New Fence" was presented to Churchill, and McCluer's office remitted payment to the artist of $150.
In 2014 the painting was eventually returned to Missouri by its current owner, to be displayed in the National Churchill Museum.
Truman and Churchill had become acquainted while attending the Potsdam conference in Germany in the summer of 1945, following the Nazi surrender in May of that year. The gathering included the leaders of the “Big Three,” Prime Minister Winston Churchill of the UK, President Harry Truman of the US, and General Secretary Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union. The purpose of the conference was discussion of postwar economic matters following the collapse of the Nazi state and terms surrounding Japan’s surrender.
A general election had been held in the United Kingdom on July 5, and the results were yet to be revealed when the conference began on July 17. After the Labour Party’s victory was announced on July 26, Churchill stepped aside and the new prime minister, Clement Attlee, assumed representation of the UK.
In the year since the end of World War II in September 1945, Churchill had grown increasingly concerned about the influence of Stalin’s Soviet Union over Central and Eastern European countries. He saw the insidious reach of communism and totalitarianism throughout the region as a threat comparable to the nightmarish situation Hitler's regime had brought about, and believed it could lead to war once again.
Now no longer in office as prime minister, he welcomed the opportunity to visit this small Midwestern college in Harry Truman’s home territory and deliver a warning speech that he knew would be heard around the world.
Winston Churchill was re-elected prime minister in 1951 and served until 1955. He died at age 90 on January 24,1965.
The Churchill Museum: Concept and Construction
In anticipation of the 20th anniversary of the speech at Westminster, plans got underway in 1961 for the development of a Churchill memorial and library as well as campus chapel. The dismantling and relocation of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury, from London to Fulton was agreed upon. The 1677 Christopher Wren church building, which had been bombed out during the war, still sat in its demolished condition and was in danger of being razed.
The massive undertaking was noted in the London Times as "perhaps the biggest jigsaw puzzle in the history of architecture." Meticulous reconstruction began in 1964. Former President Harry Truman participated in the groundbreaking ceremony in April of that year. The foundation stone was laid in 1966, and the memorial dedication was finally held on May 7, 1969, five years after the project began. The building was placed on the corner of Seventh and Westminster in Fulton, and the lower-level museum was built beneath it.
Initially called the Winston Churchill Memorial and Library, the facility was granted designation by Congress in 2009 as the National Churchill Museum.
A sculpture entitled “Breakthrough” stands near the museum. Designed by Churchill’s granddaughter, Edwina Sandys, the piece was constructed with sections of the Berlin Wall following its demolition in 1989.
Visit the National Churchill Museum
501 Westminster Ave, Fulton, MO 6525
10:30 AM to 4:30 PM
Closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Year's Day
1. Jones, Jay. “Winston Churchill’s Missouri Connection.” Chicago Tribune, 30 Dec. 2014.
2. Cain, Aine. “In 1946, Winston Churchill gave a speech at a tiny Missouri college that changed the way everyone thought about Russia.” Business Insider, 21 May 2017.
3. White, Philip. Our Supreme Task: How Winston Churchill's Iron Curtain Speech Defined the Cold War Alliance. New York: Public Affairs, 2012.
4. Gray, Jenny. "Westminster College, dignitaries remember Winston Churchill's visit to Fulton." News Tribune, Jefferson City, 14 Oct. 2016.
5. Hinton, Harold B. "Churchill Assails Soviet Policy." The New York Times, 5 May 1946.
© 2017 KT Dunn