Winston Churchill's Iron Curtain Speech: Summary, Analysis & Significance

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  • 0:03 The End of WWII &…
  • 1:13 Churchill's 'Iron…
  • 3:14 Significance & Impact
  • 4:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we'll learn about Winston Churchill's 1946 ''Iron Curtain'' speech. We'll learn what he meant by this term and how it has been applied in the context of the Cold War.

The End of WWII & Start of Cold War

Imagine you're in Times Square on May 8, 1945. It is V-E Day, Victory in Europe Day. There are parades, and everywhere you look people are hugging, kissing, and celebrating the end of the most destructive war in history. There is much to be hopeful about. Yet, under the surface, a tension is boiling. The United States and the Soviet Union, although allies in the war, have grown increasingly distant. The issue of how to divide up the occupied regions of Europe looms large.

Immediately after World War II, the U.S. and the Soviet Union entered into what has commonly been called the Cold War. This was a period of intense rivalry and competition that lasted until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. During the Cold War, most of Eastern Europe fell under the influence of the Soviet Union, while most of Western Europe chose to ally itself with the U.S. The term Iron Curtain has often been used to describe the fact that Eastern Europe was more or less controlled by the Soviet Union. In this lesson, we will be exploring that term. Let's find out where the term originated and what its original context was.

Churchill's ''Iron Curtain'' Speech

If you remember, Winston Churchill had been the Prime Minister of Great Britain during World War II. Churchill was staunchly anti-Nazi but also staunchly anti-communist. Even before the war ended, he was extremely concerned about Soviet expansion and aggression in Europe. He was right to be concerned. Through a variety of tactics, the Soviet Union was able to export its brand of communism throughout Eastern Europe. Countries like Poland, East Germany, Bulgaria, Romania, and others were more or less controlled by the Soviet Union.

In May 1946, Churchill delivered a famous speech at Westminster College in Missouri. He had recently been defeated in his reelection bid, but he nonetheless continued to warn of the dangers of communism. Speaking to the crowd, Churchill warned: ''From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.'' His use of the term ''iron curtain'' stuck, and since then has taken on a profound symbolic meaning. We should understand one thing: the term ''iron curtain'' itself had been used throughout history in various contexts. But, it was Winston Churchill who coined the term in reference to the Soviet Union and its allies.

What does the use of this term connote? Iron suggests brute strength, and in this context, repression. Churchill was expressing that those people living in Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe were subjugated, oppressed, and lacked freedoms. He regarded the ''Iron Curtain'' as horrific and a tragedy because it denied the people of Eastern Europe basic human liberties.

The portion of Europe behind the Iron Curtain has typically been referred to as the Eastern Bloc. Sometimes the term Warsaw Pact is used synonymously. Technically, the Warsaw Pact was a military alliance established in 1955 between the Soviet Union and numerous Eastern Bloc states, but for most people Eastern Bloc and Warsaw Pact mean the same thing: those countries behind the Iron Curtain.

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