A New Cold War? Churchill's 'Iron Curtain' Speech Revisited

Seventy years ago today, Winston Churchill delivered his famous speech in Fulton, Ohio, widely seen as the symbolic beginning of the Cold War. Today, more and more people believe that the Cold War has made a comeback. Valdai Club expert, writer and diplomat Sir Rodric Braithwaite shares his view of whether fears of a new Cold War are valid.

Talk of a new Cold War has become increasingly fashionable in Moscow, Washington, and London. People chatter loosely about nuclear weapons, about the ability of each to reduce the other to ashes, sometimes in language even more extreme than the stuff we heard in the past. Luckily there are serious and knowledgeable people in all three capitals who are writing and speaking more sensibly. But although the decline in the relationship between Russia and the West is indeed disturbing, it bears almost no resemblance to the hair-trigger nuclear confrontation which for nearly four decades was the defining characteristic of the old Cold War.

This is the seventieth anniversary of Winston Churchill’s speech in Fulton, Ohio, which some see as marking the beginning of the Cold War. The speech does not read well today. Its language is grossly overblown, and the proposals for a United Nations air force and an Anglo-American condominium are wholly impractical: it is the speech of an old man, out of office, without responsibility. But people remember Churchill’s image of an Iron Curtain falling across the continent so that Stalin could secure his sole authority in Eastern Europe in defiance of his obligations: a provocation for many Russians, a prophecy for many in the West.

Historians are still arguing about the origins of the Cold War. Hostility between the Soviet Russia and the West began with the Revolution, and there is little point trying to attribute the blame for what happened thereafter. But a crucial turning point - far more significant than Churchill’s speech at Fulton - was the moment in August 1945, when Stalin learned that the Americans had successfully dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

He immediately determined to break the American monopoly, lest the Americans were tempted to use it as an instrument of blackmail, and by the beginning of the 1960s both America and the Soviet Union had thermonuclear warheads and the missiles to deliver them onto the other’s territory. In May 1961 President Kennedy asked his experts how many Americans would die if the Russians struck first, and how many would die if the Russians retaliated against an American first strike. They said that sixty million Americans would die in a Soviet first strike; but if the Americans struck first up to thirty million Americans would still die in the Soviet counterstrike. For Kennedy the only sensible conclusion was that thermonuclear war must be avoided at all costs.

Over the next twenty five years both sides nevertheless continued to pile up their weapons beyond any possible utility, sufficient to have destroyed not only America and the Soviet Union, but much of the rest of the Northern hemisphere as well: an outcome which no political objective could justify. It was not that the politicians and soldiers on both sides were stupid or irresponsible. On the contrary, the leaders - Eisenhower, Kennedy, Khrushchev, Nixon, Brezhnev, Andropov - were wholly appalled at the prospect of nuclear war. But they were trapped by their belief, and that of their people, that they could not afford to let the other side get ahead. Meanwhile their soldiers planned for nuclear war, as was their professional duty, even though they too feared that once the first nuclear shot was fired the exchange would spiral out of control.

In the end it was two politicians who mustered the courage to escape from the vicious circle. Reagan and Gorbachev understood that the only way out was to break the mould, to talk, to build up trust, and to dismantle the legacy of forty years of mutual suspicion, confrontation, and fear. It is thanks to them and their people that the rest of us, Russians and all, no longer have to worry that our world might end in a mushroom cloud. Gorbachev’s Russian critics at least owe him their gratitude for that.

It is very different today. Although the relationship between Russia and the West is so bad, it is not driven by ideology, and it is not a world-wide confrontation sucking in third parties with no interest in the dispute. Both sides still have immensely destructive nuclear arsenals, but they are not poised to launch them at a few minutes notice on receipt of an ambiguous electronic signal on a computer screen. However virulent the East-West relationship may now be, it seems most unlikely to decline that far.

This is not to downplay the problems of today. In the West we have never appreciated the political and emotional impact on Russians of the Soviet collapse, of Western triumphalism, of economic collapse, of the enlargement of NATO and the bombing of Serbia. Russians in their turn cannot understand why we in the West have been so upset by the Russian war with Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, the destabilisation of Eastern Ukraine. As in the bad old days of the real Cold War, each once again expects the worst of the other. We are back at the bad old business of demonising our opponent.

Prime Minister Medvedev made some usefully conciliatory points in his recent speech in Munich. He lamented the suspension of the channels for consultation between Russia and the West, and the decline in the mechanisms for arms control which were a main instrument for managing the old Cold War. He talked - in my view with some exaggeration - of rolling towards a new Cold War. But I sympathised with him when he remarked that he was sometimes confused whether we are living in 2016 or 1962. The real threats to this small world today, as he said, are quite different from what they were then.

Whatever else they remember of the Fulton speech, people now usually forget that Churchill spoke there of his admiration for Russia, of his desire for constant, frequent, and growing contacts with the Russian people, and of the need for a good understanding with Russia if a true peace was to be preserved. That message is as valid today as it was seventy years ago. Let us hope that we do not have, once again, to wait forty years before the right statesmen emerge to put things back on track.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.