Westminster College Gymnasium

"From Stettin¹ in the Baltic to Trieste² 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. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest, and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, . . ."

Winston Churchill, March 05, 1946


In 1945 the president of Westminster College in Fulton, MO asked Winston Churchill via President Harry Truman via Truman's military aid General Harry H. Vaughan, an alumnus of Westminster College, to make a speech at the college as part of annual lecture series. Churchill had lost the British premiership in 1945 and therefore had the free time to travel to the U.S. - that and he wasn't the kind of man who was afraid to speak in public.

In 1946, with the end of WWII, there were two prevalent schools of thought in the West regarding how best to engage with the Soviet Union. The first was that the Soviets were committed to a continuous unlimited expansion and the second was that they might be amenable to a peaceful coexistence with the West. Churchill firmly believed in the first and used his speech at Westminster College on March 05, 1946, to make his feelings clearly known.

The speech, officially titled the "Sinews of Peace", has come to be known as the "Iron Curtain" speech, as that is the phrase that connected with those who heard and read it. The phrase itself though wasn't coined by Churchill as it was commonly used in Britain to describe fireproof safety curtains in theaters (regardless of the material used). The term had previously been used to describe the separation from the Soviet Union and the West in 1918 and even been used by of all people, Joseph Goebbels - the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, on 25 February 1945, when he commented that if Germany should lose the war, "An iron curtain would fall over this enormous territory controlled by the Soviet Union, behind which nations would be slaughtered." Churchill himself had previously used the phrase in regards to the Soviet Union at least twice in 1945.

Many in the US did not think Churchill was correct, as many in the public still regarded the Soviet Union as an ally who helped defeat Nazi Germany. In the days that followed the speech, press coverage was extensive--and largely quite critical - editorials were generally negative - with the British government just ignoring it. Even Truman took a neutral stance and claimed to have not even seen a copy of the speech beforehand (which was untrue). His administration was in the process of vacillating between the two schools of thought. Though Churchill was quickly proven correct and Truman settled on a hard-line policy against the Soviets by the end of 1946.

The speech also first mentioned the phrase "special relationship", where he specifically called for "a fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples" and interestingly "I feel eventually there will come - the principle of common citizenship."

The speech itself was held inside the Westminster College Gymnasium which was built in 1929. When I stood in Churchill's footsteps I noticed it is a simple no-frills structure, unairconditioned, with bleachers that fold up against the wall and exposed brick and roof trusses - a place where Archie and Reggie might play basketball or ogle cheerleaders. While I'm sure this austereness wasn't an issue when Churchill spoke, there is little doubt in my mind that if the speech were given today, it would have to be held in a larger "more suitable" arena or have required a $250 million renovation (paid with PAC money or via corporate sponsorship).

Churchillian scholars can read his quite readable speech here or the balance can view a heavily edited video of it, here³.

President Harry S. Truman, Winston S. Churchill M.P. and the author (left to right)

In 1961, Westminster College sought to commemorate Churchill and this historic speech. The Church of St. Mary, Aldermanbury was built in the 12th century and re-built by Christopher Wren. It was heavily damaged in WWII and subsequently laid in ruins. The college purchased the church in 1966 and had it transported brick by brick to its campus. It was then reassembled and completely renovated, with a Churchill museum installed in the lower level. In 2009 Congress declared the museum “America’s National Churchill Museum”.

The museum does an outstanding job chronologically covering the entire life of Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, KG, OM, CH, TD, DL, FRS, RA from his aristocratic birth in 1874 as a direct descendant of the 1st Duke of Marlborough to his retirement from Parliament in 1964 after 53 years of almost continuous service. His life in between as soldier, war correspondent, POW, cabinet member, veteran of WWI, painter, bricklayer, writer, First Lord of the Admiralty, Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, and Prime Minister (again), is thoroughly cataloged.

Churchill took up painting in 1915 at the lowest point in his political career and continued through retirement. He started with watercolours but then transitioned to oils. A gallery in the back of the museum displays five original Churchill paintings. Churchill's honorarium for his speech was quite fittingly a modest Thomas Hart Benton painting that has subsequently been donated to the museum and is also on display.

June 28, 2022

Firth of Forth (Winston S. Churchill, oil on canvas, c. 1925)

Winston Churchill in the Westminster College Gymnasium - March 05, 1946

Footnotes:

¹ The former Undersecretary of State for the Colonies was too hopeful when he staked the origin of the Iron Curtain, as Stettin (now Szczecin) is located on the border of East Germany and Poland and is 277 km east of the final location of the Iron Curtain.

² The current Member of Parliament for Woodford was a little more accurate when he defined Trieste as the termination of the Iron Curtain, though the freedom-loving inhabitants of Yugoslavia may have quarreled with this location.

³ The future Nobel Prize winner mispronounces the capital of Bulgaria as "Soph ē ă", as opposed to the correct pronunciation of "Sō fee ă.", and was only slightly better with "Byew dă pest".

Note: After visiting the gymnasium I realized through subsequent investigation that I was standing in the incorrect footsteps. While Churchill may very well have at some point that day stood where I stood in the above photo, he gave his speech about 30 feet away (up against the wall on the northern side of the gym).

"Leave the past to history especially as I propose to write that history myself”

Winston S. Churchill