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On this Day, in 1946: Winston Churchill delivered his famous “Iron Curtain” speech

On March 5, 1946, in one of the most famous orations of the Cold War, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill condemned the Soviet Union’s policies in Europe, famously declaring that, “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”

During the opening stages of World War II, the Soviet Union laid the foundation for what would become the Eastern Bloc by invading and then annexing several countries as Soviet Socialist Republics under the terms dictated by the infamous Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. These included eastern Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, part of eastern Finland and eastern Romania.

By February 1945, the Soviets effectively occupied Central and Eastern Europe, while strong US and Western allied forces remained in Western Europe. With an Allied victory in Europe on the horizon, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin met at Yalta, located along the Black Sea coast of the Crimean Peninsula, to discuss the post-war fate of defeated Germany and the rest of Europe.

The “Big Three” Allied leaders agreed that after Germany’s unconditional surrender, the country would be divided into four post-war occupation zones, controlled by U.S., British, French and Soviet military forces, while the city of Berlin would also be divided into similar occupation zones. The Allied leaders also determined that Germany should be completely demilitarized.

But Stalin took a harder line on the question of Eastern Europe and Poland. Pointing out that within three decades, Germany had twice used the nation as a corridor through which to invade Russia, he declared that the Soviet Union would not return the territory in Poland that it had annexed in 1939, and would not meet the demands of the Polish government-in-exile based in London.

Stalin did however agree to allow representatives from other Polish political parties into the communist-dominated provisional government installed in Poland, and to allow free elections to be held there, as well as in all territories in Central and Eastern Europe liberated from Nazi occupation, including Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. But it soon became clear that Stalin had no intention of keeping his promises.

At the Potsdam Conference, which started in late July 1945, serious differences began to emerge between the three Allied powers, with Roosevelt’s successor Harry S. Truman adopting a far more suspicious stance towards Stalin. But with the Red Army occupying much of Germany and Eastern Europe, the Soviet leader was able to effectively ratify the concessions he won at Yalta, pressing his advantage over Truman and Churchill, who was replaced mid-conference by Clement Atlee.

The participants’ mounting antipathy and bellicose language further served to confirm their suspicions about each other’s hostile intentions, and to entrench their positions. By March 1946, barely a year after the Yalta Conference, Winston Churchill, who had been invited to Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, delivered his now famous speech declaring that an “iron curtain” had fallen across Central and Eastern Europe, signaling a definitive end to cooperation between the Soviet Union and its Western allies.

Joined by President Truman on stage, Churchill began by praising the United States, which he declared stood “at the pinnacle of world power”, before warning against the expansionistic policies of the Soviet Union. Churchill notably advised that in dealing with the Soviets there was “nothing which they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for military weakness.”

While Truman and many other U.S. officials warmly received the speech, in the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin denounced the speech as “war mongering,” and referred to Churchill’s comments about the “English-speaking world” as imperialist “racism.”

And so, the British, Americans and Soviets, allied against Hitler less than a year before Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech, began drawing the battle lines of the Cold War.

Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.

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