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Churchill Speech Still Holds True Today

  • Sonia Winter

Washington, March 5 (RFE/RL) - It is 50 years today that the great British statesman Winston Churchill made his famous speech declaring an "Iron Curtain" has descended across Europe dividing the continent into Soviet and Western spheres.

His words on March 5, 1946 shattered a post-World-War Two facade of allied unity and became a symbol of the beginning of the Cold War that lasted 45 years until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Three years ago, the last president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, came to the same college in America's heartland to speak from the same podium where Chuchill stood, and put a symbolic end to the Cold War.

Like Churchill, Gorbachev too had been voted out of office and was just a private citizen when he came to Westiminster College in Fulton in the midwestern state of Missouri in early May, 1992.

But unlike Churchill's visionary "Sinews of Peace" or "Iron Curtain" speech as it came to be called, Gorbachev's lengthy address, titled "The River of Time and the Imperative of Action," has not resounded through the years.

Gorbachev spoke for more than an hour but few people today would be able to quote a single sentence of what he said.

Nevertheless, Gorbachev's decision, announced last week, to be a candidate for the Russian presidency in the forthcoming June election, gives new significance to his Fulton address.

In it Gorbachev did faintly echo Churchill's thoughts on the future role of the United Nations as an effective guardian of world order. But then he wandered off into an unrealistic vision of world government gradually replacing the perspectives of national government. Much in Gorbachev's speech probably would have been distasteful to Churchill.

While Churchill called on the U.S. and English-speaking nations to stand firm against Soviet aggression, Gorbachev said Washington was as guilty as Moscow in starting the Cold War. He criticized some then current U.S. policies and said the United States cannot be the sole leader in world affairs.

In a veiled reference to Russian minorities in the Baltic states and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, Gorbachev said minority rights must be upheld and force should be used to punish nations that violate minority human rights.

Some American analysts at the time said Gorbachev's Fulton speech showed he was a lukewarm reformer and still philosophized like the Communist Party General Secretary he once was.

But Churchill's 1946 speech is generally regarded as his most significant and far-reaching, not counting his wartime oratory. Its major tenets ring as sound and true today, with as much relevance as they did half a century ago.

Churchill said in Fulton in 1946 that "The safety of the world...requires a new unity in Europe from which no nation should be permanently outcast."

He said that to maintain peace, western nations had to reach "a good understanding on all points with Russia" and develop relations of cooperation and goodwill.

Churchill said: "We welcome Russia to her rightful place among the leading nations of the world....Above all, we welcome...constant, frequent and growing contacts between the Russian people and our own people on both sides of the Atlantic."

He spoke of admiration, sympathy and goodwill towards the Russian peoples and said there is a western resolve "to persevere through many differences and rebuffs in establishing lasting friendships."

Churchill had no illusions about the desire of some circles in Russia for what he called "the indefinite expansion of their power and doctrines."

He said that "nobody knows...what are the limits to their expansive and proselytizing tendencies."

It was at this part, two thirds into his speech, that Churchill uttered the famous quote: "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe."

He warned that the difficulties posed by Russia will not be removed by waiting to see what happens or by a policy of appeasement. Churchill counselled military strength and political unity of the western alliance.

Above all, to counter Soviet Moscow's control and influence, Churchill said democratic nations must work for "the establishment of conditions of freedom and democracy as rapidly as possible in all countries."

Unlike Gorbachev, Churchill rejected the use of force against tyranny and human rights abuses, saying "it is not our duty at this interfere forcibly in the internal affairs of countries."

Instead, he advised "never to cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man."

Churchill noted that "the United States stands at this time at the pinnacle of world power." That carries with it, in his words "an awe-inspiring accountability" for the safety, welfare and freedom of all people everywhere.

The U.S. and its allies have a duty, Churchill said "to guard the homes of the common people" from tyranny, war and poverty.

He suggested the best way to do that was through the world body of the United Nations, which should be equipped with its own international armed force.

But Churchill said nations still needed "the solid assurances of national armaments for self-preservation" until it is clear that the United Nations is an effective global authority, "that it is a reality and not a sham, that it is a force for action, and not merely a frothing of words."

Churchill's inspiring words will be remembered this week at Fulton in four days of ceremonies replicating some of the circumstances and events of half a century ago.

The main speaker will be another former British Prime Minister -- Margaret Thatcher -- now Baroness or Lady Thatcher. She was honored with the title and elevated to Britain's upper chamber of parliament, the House of Lords, after she resigned from the premiership.

The head of Westminster College, James Traer, says Thatcher was chosen because "she represents the Churchillian stature of British statesmanship." She was the first woman to hold Britain's highest elective office and remained Prime Minister for more than 12 years. That's longer than Churchill, who was voted twice in and twice out of office and held the position for a total of nine years.

Thatcher faithfully followed Churchill's exhortation to maintain a seamless military and political alliance with the United States. She agreed with former U.S. President Ronald Reagan's policy of opposing the Soviet Union with a strong military build-up. But she was also the first western leader to say Gorbachev was different from his predecessors in the Kremlin and proclaimed that "we can do business with this man."

When she speaks this Saturday at Westminster College in Fulton, Thatcher will see a statue inaugurated by Gorbachev in 1992.

When he came to Fulton to symbolically end the Cold War, Gorbachev stepped through the sculpture called "Breakthrough" to get to the stage. It was created by Edwina Sandys, Churchill's granddaughter, from eight sections of the Berlin Wall and remains on the college grounds at Fulton as permanent reminder of the misery and suffering Churchill so eloquently opposed.