‘Now, at this sad and breathless moment, we are plunged in the hunger and distress which are the aftermath of our stupendous struggle’: Though no longer Prime Minister, Churchill’s speech at Fulton on 5 March 1946 packed a formidable punch. But the context in which it was delivered was complex.
75 years ago, Winston Churchill made a speech at Fulton, Missouri, which some consider the start of the Cold War. Despite the title, its most widely-quoted sentence is: ‘From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.’ President Truman was on the platform with Churchill (who had discussed the speech with him, and with Secretary of State Byrnes, beforehand, though both later denied this). As usual with Churchill, the speech was full of soaring rhetoric, inspiring sentiments and expansive (sometimes doubtful) claims, including that World War II could ‘easily’ have been prevented if people had listened to him earlier.
Denouncing the two great dangers of ‘War and Tyranny’, Churchill praised the United States, with which the British Commonwealth and Empire had a ‘special relationship’, as standing ‘at the pinnacle of world power’. He spoke approvingly of the United Nations Organisation (which had just held its first meetings in London), though stating it would be ‘wrong and imprudent’ to entrust atomic secrets, held by the US, Britain and Canada, to the UN while ‘still in its infancy’. While expressing admiration for Marshal Stalin, and sympathy for the Soviet desire for security, he denounced Russian attempts to extend Communist influence as alarming and destabilising.
Churchill was enormously popular in America, cheered as the hero of the Second World War. According to the British Embassy, his ‘dramatically blunt review of the world situation’ made a profound impact. In Moscow, however, Stalin commented that ‘Mr Churchill and his friends bear a striking resemblance to Hitler and his friends’, assuring the Soviet people that the broad masses in Britain did not support him. In Britain, Churchill was out of office, rejected by the electorate in July 1945 in favour of a Labour administration under Clement Attlee. Though Churchill said nothing at Fulton that the government opposed directly, Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin spoke for most ministers when he said it was better for them to ignore the speech. What’s the context?
Anglo-American relations were plagued by a number of tricky issues in March 1946, bringing it home starkly how far the postwar power balance had shifted against Britain. The Financial Agreement of December 1945 had not yet been ratified by Congress, and some in the US worried about lending money to a socialist government. Herbert Morrison, visiting the US in January, reported Britain was seen as a ‘chronic invalid economically’. A few days before Churchill’s speech, Chancellor of the Exchequer Hugh Dalton sent a telegram giving details of what the money would be spent on. Meanwhile, Washington suggested that ‘sweeteners’, in the form of concessions on military base rights in British territory, or transatlantic air routes, could smooth the Loan’s passage. Though this was resented in London, beggars could not be choosers: on 5 March the Cabinet despatched the Minister of Food to Washington to plead for extra wheat supplies, to avert famine in South Africa and India, and starvation in the British Zone of Germany.
The US government was also dragging its heels on atomic cooperation, and resisting British plans to build a large scale plant in the UK. Attlee insisted this was essential for Britain to make its proper contribution to, as well as share in the benefits of atomic energy. But it was becoming clear that the Americans were determined to control atomic information, though interested in British territories that might contain useful raw materials. Discussions were complicated by the Canadian espionage case, in which one of the Soviet spies named by defector Igor Gouzenko had been British atomic scientist Alan Nunn May. On the day of the Fulton speech, Nunn May was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment.
Yet overall, Anglo-American cooperation remained close and fruitful. Also on the day of Churchill’s speech, the British-US Communication Intelligence Agreement (BRUSA) was signed, later to expand into the Five Eyes Agreement. And on the potential Soviet threat, Churchill’s speech was not out of tune with British and American policy, as demonstrated by reports from their representatives in Moscow, Kennan and Roberts.
East-West relations were increasingly troubled. On Soviet delay in withdrawing troops from Persia, obstructionism over reparations and encroachment in Eastern Europe, London and Washington were aligned. Soon after Churchill’s speech, troubled Russo-Turkish relations led both Britain and the US to send ships to the Mediterranean. But the British also had problems with Russian obduracy about the repatriation of Soviet citizens under the Yalta agreement, and complaints about British forces in Greece and Germany. Roberts reported the Russians regarded Ernest Bevin as a ‘dangerous and hostile personality’, their violent criticism suggesting a certain fear of British strength.
At the end of his speech, Churchill struck an optimistic note: ‘If the population of the English-speaking Commonwealths be added to that of the United States with all that such co-operation implies in the air, on the sea, all over the globe and in science and in industry, and in moral force, there will be no quivering, precarious balance of power to offer its temptation to ambition or adventure.’ Whatever the complexities of the context to Fulton, both the British and US governments could sign up to this aspiration. Three years later, it would find more tangible form in the North Atlantic Treaty, still the bedrock of Western defence.
 The BRUSA agreement is printed in DBPO, Series I, Vol. XI, Appendix 1.
 See https://history.blog.gov.uk/2016/03/21/whats-the-context-21-march-1946-frank-roberts-long-telegram/. George Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram’ was dated 22 February 1946.
Documentation on all the elements of this blog can be found in Documents on British Policy Overseas (DBPO), Series I: Volume IV, Britain and America: Atomic Energy, Bases and Food, 12 December 1945-31 July 1946; Volume VI, Eastern Europe 1945-1946; and Volume XI, European Recovery and the Search for Western Security, 1946-1948. On the Fulton speech in particular, see Vol. IV, Nos. 37, 39 and 48-9.