This speech made famous the notion of the “Iron Curtain”. Furthermore it defined the parameters of the Cold War. So powerful were Churchill’s words that President Truman had to distance himself from his remarks amid their international notoriety. Yet the speech also outlined the rationale for the “Special relationship” between Britain and the United States. Together, Britain and the US adopted a deep opposition to Communism and, and as a result, it virtually shaped the rest of the rest of the 20th century.
Churchill, even at this relatively young age, demonstrated great writing skill; he understood the way in which words could wield great power, create moods and stir passions. He was clearly aware, however, of a particular “mental flaw”; his tendency to allow the power of certain phrases to govern his principles, to use words that sounded good – with the power to win an audience – over those that reflected a genuine view or argument.With great self-awareness, he writes in this letter to his mother that “I am very much impressed with C. J. R. [Cecil Rhodes] having ... detected my mental flaw. I do not care so much for the principles I advocate as for the impression which my words produce and the reputation they win me ... I vy often yield to the temptation of adapting my facts to my phrases”. He adds, though, that “a keen sense of necessity or ... injustice would make me sincere”.

Churchill lived such a long life that he had many London residences:  it would be nice to feel that, as a result of interest such as yours, blue plaques will one day be put on all of them. For example, in the same street where Churchill spent several years as a child, there is a blue plaque on another house informing passers by that “from this house Chopin went to give his last concert.” Nor is there any plaque on 105 Mount Street, his first bachelor apartment, in which he lived from 1900 to 1905, and from which, incidentally, he went to the House of Commons to make his maiden speech; and in which he was living when he crossed the floor of the House from the Conservative to the Liberal benches. 

However, the German eruption swept like a sharp scythe around the right and rear of the Armies of the north. Eight or nine armored divisions, each of about four hundred armored vehicles of different kinds, but carefully assorted to be complementary and divisible into small self-contained units, cut off all communications between us and the main French Armies. It severed our own communications for food and ammunition, which ran first to Amiens and afterwards through Abbeville, and it shore its way up the coast to Boulogne and Calais, and almost to Dunkirk. Behind this armored and mechanized onslaught came a number of German divisions in lorries, and behind them again there plodded comparatively slowly the dull brute mass of the ordinary German Army and German people, always so ready to be led to the trampling down in other lands of liberties and comforts which they have never known in their own.
On September 3, 1939, the day Britain declared war on Germany, Chamberlain appointed Churchill to his old post in charge of the Admiralty. The signal went out to the fleet: “Winston is back.” On September 11 Churchill received a congratulatory note from Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt and replied over the signature “Naval Person”; a memorable correspondence had begun. At once Churchill’s restless energy began to be felt throughout the administration, as his ministerial colleagues as well as his own department received the first of those pungent minutes that kept the remotest corners of British wartime government aware that their shortcomings were liable to detection and penalty. All his efforts, however, failed to energize the torpid Anglo-French entente during the so-called “phony war,” the period of stagnation in the European war before the German seizure of Norway in April 1940. The failure of the Narvik and Trondheim expeditions, dependent as they were on naval support, could not but evoke some memories of the Dardanelles and Gallipoli, so fateful for Churchill’s reputation in World War I. This time, however, it was Chamberlain who was blamed, and it was Churchill who endeavoured to defend him.

The speech was generally praised for its accomplished argument and delivery. The Daily Express wrote that “He held a crowded house spellbound”, the Manchester Guardian, of a “carefully turned speech, filled with antitheses of a literary flavor”. In this card, John Cumming Macdonald MP congratulates Churchill on his "brilliant speech", saying that his father's spirit seemed to hover over him; "you have inherited marvellous ability and aptitude". Others were not so sure: H. W. Massingham wrote in the Liberal Daily News: “Mr Churchill has many disadvantages ... [he] does not inherit his father’s voice – save for the slight lisp – or his father’s manner. Address, accent, appearance do not help him”.


Thus it was that the port of Dunkirk was kept open. When it was found impossible for the Armies of the north to reopen their communications to Amiens with the main French Armies, only one choice remained. It seemed, indeed, forlorn. The Belgian, British and French Armies were almost surrounded. Their sole line of retreat was to a single port and to its neighboring beaches. They were pressed on every side by heavy attacks and far outnumbered in the air.

In 1911 the provocative German action in sending a gunboat to Agadir, the Moroccan port to which France had claims, convinced Churchill that in any major Franco-German conflict Britain would have to be at France’s side. When transferred to the Admiralty in October 1911, he went to work with a conviction of the need to bring the navy to a pitch of instant readiness. His first task was the creation of a naval war staff. To help Britain’s lead over steadily mounting German naval power, Churchill successfully campaigned in the cabinet for the largest naval expenditure in British history. Despite his inherited Tory views on Ireland, he wholeheartedly embraced the Liberal policy of Home Rule, moving the second reading of the Irish Home Rule Bill of 1912 and campaigning for it in the teeth of Unionist opposition. Although, through his friendship with F.E. Smith (later 1st earl of Birkenhead) and Austen Chamberlain, he did much to arrange the compromise by which Ulster was to be excluded from the immediate effect of the bill, no member of the government was more bitterly abused—by Tories as a renegade and by extreme Home Rulers as a defector.
On June 18, 1940, Churchill attempted to lift up England following the fall of France and the successful evacuation of most of England’s supporting forces from the continent. At the moment of great apparent danger to British national survival, he spoke not only of endurance but of noble causes of which Britain was fighting (freedom, Christian civilization, the rights of small nations): “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’” The speech lasted thirty-six minutes. The final passage of his typescript was laid out in blank verse format, which historians believe shows the influence of the Old Testament psalms on Churchill’s oratorical style.

By repeating “we shall” ten times as a mantra, Sir Winston was employing a rhetorical device that originated with the classical Greek orators and continues to be used to the present day. In a prior Forbes post, I wrote about how Emma Gonzalez, a teenage survivor of the Florida high school shooting, rocketed to media fame with a speech using the same technique.
In the book, I do not criticise Churchill’s speeches, except for noting the obvious misfires, on which Matthews himself comments. Churchill was clearly an excellent speechmaker, and there was no-one else available who could conceivably have done the task better. He enjoyed enviably high levels of popularity, and that he made a strong positive contribution to British morale, both through his speeches and through other aspects of his leadership. (That is not the same thing, though, as saying that his speeches made the decisive difference between victory and defeat.) What I am arguing is that, nevertheless, the speeches generated considerably more criticism and controversy them than we are usually led to think, either by academic historians or by media representations. The fact of this dissent is still perfectly consistent with millions of people having been inspired and galvanised by the speeches in exactly the way that we have always been told. And by highlighting the criticisms, it is certainly not my intention to endorse them: many, undoubtedly, were misconceived. But if we do not acknowledge and understand them, then we can neither comprehend the political world in which Churchill was operating, nor appreciate the true nature of his oratorical success. (I reflect on the latter here: https://history.blog.gov.uk/2013/12/02/we-shall-fight-on-the-beaches-three-things-you-never-knew-about-churchills-most-famous-speech/.) It is clear to me from my email inbox and postbag that many people think that to draw attention to contemporary negative reactions is equivalent to denigrating the speeches themselves and indeed Churchill the man. Paradoxically, though, Churchill’s anti-appeasement speeches of the 1930s are valorised exactly because he ploughed on when so many people disagreed with him!
In the most famous passage of his speech, Churchill warned Britain about the possible collapse of France and that, consequently, she would stand alone against Germany and face an invasion. He left the House in no doubt what the resolution would be should that occur: 'We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!'.
…1941, Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill announced the formation of the United Nations, a wartime alliance of 26 nations. In 1943 Roosevelt began planning the organization of a postwar United Nations, meeting with congressional leaders to assure bipartisan support. The public supported Roosevelt’s efforts, and that fall Congress passed resolutions…
Meanwhile, the House should prepare itself for hard and heavy tidings. I have only to add that nothing which may happen in this battle can in any way relieve us of our duty to defend the world cause to which we have vowed ourselves; nor should it destroy our confidence in our power to make our way, as on former occasions in our history, through disaster and through grief to the ultimate defeat of our enemies.
As War Prime Minister Churchill was tireless in his refusal to surrender Britain to Germany. His now famous speeches were an inspiration to British people to stand firm in the face of adversity. His strong relationship with Roosevelt led to an influx of American supplies to support the war effort. He also maintained an alliance with Stalin following Germany’s invasion of Russia in 1941.
In the book, I do not criticise Churchill’s speeches, except for noting the obvious misfires, on which Matthews himself comments. Churchill was clearly an excellent speechmaker, and there was no-one else available who could conceivably have done the task better. He enjoyed enviably high levels of popularity, and that he made a strong positive contribution to British morale, both through his speeches and through other aspects of his leadership. (That is not the same thing, though, as saying that his speeches made the decisive difference between victory and defeat.) What I am arguing is that, nevertheless, the speeches generated considerably more criticism and controversy them than we are usually led to think, either by academic historians or by media representations. The fact of this dissent is still perfectly consistent with millions of people having been inspired and galvanised by the speeches in exactly the way that we have always been told. And by highlighting the criticisms, it is certainly not my intention to endorse them: many, undoubtedly, were misconceived. But if we do not acknowledge and understand them, then we can neither comprehend the political world in which Churchill was operating, nor appreciate the true nature of his oratorical success. (I reflect on the latter here: https://history.blog.gov.uk/2013/12/02/we-shall-fight-on-the-beaches-three-things-you-never-knew-about-churchills-most-famous-speech/.) It is clear to me from my email inbox and postbag that many people think that to draw attention to contemporary negative reactions is equivalent to denigrating the speeches themselves and indeed Churchill the man. Paradoxically, though, Churchill’s anti-appeasement speeches of the 1930s are valorised exactly because he ploughed on when so many people disagreed with him!
I am not reciting these facts for the purpose of recrimination. That I judge to be utterly futile and even harmful. We cannot afford it. I recite them in order to explain why it was we did not have, as we could have had, between twelve and fourteen British divisions fighting in the line in this great battle instead of only three. Now I put all this aside. I put it on the shelf, from which the historians, when they have time, will select their documents to tell their stories. We have to think of the future and not of the past. This also applies in a small way to our own affairs at home. There are many who would hold an inquest in the House of Commons on the conduct of the Governments--and of Parliaments, for they are in it, too--during the years which led up to this catastrophe. They seek to indict those who were responsible for the guidance of our affairs. This also would be a foolish and pernicious process. There are too many in it. Let each man search his conscience and search his speeches. I frequently search mine.
He continued by stating that the paramount mission facing the world was the prevention of another global war. Raising his forefinger twice in emphasis, he pointed to two institutions with major roles in the maintenance of peace: the United Nations and the continuing “special relationship” between Britain and America. “The United Nations,” he said, “must be a reality and not a sham, and not some cockpit in a Tower of Babel.”
Then came the crucial final line, which is often forgotten amidst the cries to battle on beaches and streets. “And even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving,” Churchill said. “Then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
Muller says that the lecture commenced with full "pomp and ceremony," and both Churchill and Truman received honorary degrees from the school, according to National Churchill Museum chief curator Timothy Riley. According to contemporary coverage of the event in the New York Times, a crowd of 8,000 Fulton residents turned up, along with 20,000 visitors "from as far distant as St. Louis."
Here is where we come to the Navy--and after all, we have a Navy. Some people seem to forget that we have a Navy. We must remind them. For the last thirty years I have been concerned in discussions about the possibilities of oversea invasion, and I took the responsibility on behalf of the Admiralty, at the beginning of the last war, of allowing all regular troops to be sent out of the country. That was a very serious step to take, because our Territorials had only just been called up and were quite untrained. Therefore, this Island was for several months particularly denuded of fighting troops. The Admiralty had confidence at that time in their ability to prevent a mass invasion even though at that time the Germans had a magnificent battle fleet in the proportion of 10 to 16, even though they were capable of fighting a general engagement every day and any day, whereas now they have only a couple of heavy ships worth speaking of--the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau. We are also told that the Italian Navy is to come out and gain sea superiority in these waters. If they seriously intend it, I shall only say that we shall be delighted to offer Signor Mussolini a free and safeguarded passage through the Strait of Gibraltar in order that he may play the part to which he aspires. There is a general curiosity in the British Fleet to find out whether the Italians are up to the level they were at in the last war or whether they have fallen off at all.
“This was one of the most prescient strategic documents that Churchill ever wrote,” his son Randolph recorded decades later in the official biography. When Arthur Balfour, sometimes a critic of Churchill, re-read this memo shortly after the outbreak of the war in September 1914, he wrote to Churchill’s private secretary, “It is a triumph of prophecy!” More importantly, the Agadir crisis had reawakened in Churchill his previously expressed worries about the prospect of total war between modern nations. It caused him to change his mind about his earlier opposition to a naval buildup. He wrote in retrospect that “although the Chancellor of the Exchequer and I were right in the narrow sense [about the number of battleships], we were absolutely wrong in relation to the deep tides of destiny.”1 Churchill’s political focus would now change from domestic to foreign affairs, where it would remain for most of the rest of his life.
Very different is the mood today. Britain, other nations thought, had drawn a sponge across her slate. But instead our country stood in the gap. There was no flinching and no thought of giving in; and by what seemed almost a miracle to those outside these Islands, though we ourselves never doubted it, we now find ourselves in a position where I say that we can be sure that we have only to persevere to conquer.
War came as no surprise to Churchill. He had already held a test naval mobilization. Of all the cabinet ministers he was the most insistent on the need to resist Germany. On August 2, 1914, on his own responsibility, he ordered the naval mobilization that guaranteed complete readiness when war was declared. The war called out all of Churchill’s energies. In October 1914, when Antwerp was falling, he characteristically rushed in person to organize its defense. When it fell the public saw only a disillusioning defeat, but in fact the prolongation of its resistance for almost a week enabled the Belgian Army to escape and the crucial Channel ports to be saved. At the Admiralty, Churchill’s partnership with Adm. Sir John Fisher, the first sea lord, was productive both of dynamism and of dissension. In 1915, when Churchill became an enthusiast for the Dardanelles expedition as a way out of the costly stalemate on the Western Front, he had to proceed against Fisher’s disapproval. The campaign aimed at forcing the straits and opening up direct communications with Russia. When the naval attack failed and was called off on the spot by Adm. J.M. de Robeck, the Admiralty war group and Asquith both supported de Robeck rather than Churchill. Churchill came under heavy political attack, which intensified when Fisher resigned. Preoccupied with departmental affairs, Churchill was quite unprepared for the storm that broke about his ears. He had no part at all in the maneuvers that produced the first coalition government and was powerless when the Conservatives, with the sole exception of Sir William Maxwell Aitken (soon Lord Beaverbrook), insisted on his being demoted from the Admiralty to the duchy of Lancaster. There he was given special responsibility for the Gallipoli Campaign (a land assault at the straits) without, however, any powers of direction. Reinforcements were too few and too late; the campaign failed and casualties were heavy; evacuation was ordered in the autumn. 

This speech may be regarded as the most important Churchill delivered as Leader of the Opposition. It contains certain phrases - “the special relationship,” “the sinews of peace “ - which at once entered into general use, and which have survived. But it is the passage on “the iron curtain” which attracted immediate international attention, and had incalculable impact upon public opinion in the United States and in Western Europe. This speech ultimately defined the parameters of the Cold War.
Toye has a theory on why people were -- and in some cases, still are -- so eager to believe this urban myth. “As a piece of psychological speculation one might hazard that they feel that the account of the almost mystical power of Churchill’s oratory, as it is usually presented, is in some sense too good to be true,” he writes in his book. Clearly, the mystique surrounding Churchill’s speeches is too good to be true. He did not have people cheering in the streets, shouting his name, and diving headfirst into the war effort after a single speech. They were certainly not responding to his “husky, rather stuttering” voice, which was not widely heard that day.
At the Board of Trade, Churchill emerged as a leader in the movement of Liberalism away from laissez-faire toward social reform. He completed the work begun by his predecessor, Lloyd George, on the bill imposing an eight-hour maximum day for miners. He himself was responsible for attacking the evils of “sweated” labour by setting up trade boards with power to fix minimum wages and for combating unemployment by instituting state-run labour exchanges.
At the outbreak of World War II, Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty in command of the Royal Navy. At the same time the current Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, wanted to appease Germany and Hitler. Churchill knew this would not work and warned the government that they needed to help fight Hitler or Hitler would soon take over all of Europe.
Toye is surely right that Churchill did not command unanimous support during the war, a fact he demonstrates by lacing his book with contemporary reactions to the wartime speeches. Along with the published diaries of politicians and other officials, he has again turned to two other underutilized sources. Between May 1940 and December 1944, the Ministry of Information (MoI)’s Home Intelligence Division produced weekly reports on public reaction to, among other things, ‘ministerial broadcasts and pronouncements’ (p. 7). To that can be added the reports and, especially, the individual diaries collected by the sociological research organization, Mass-Observation (MO). Toye mines both of these rich seams of material to drive home the point that Churchill’s oratory failed to win over all of his listeners even when, as the Home Intelligence Division reported, his prestige was at ‘its highest level’. In a victory speech after El Alamein, Churchill famously told the nation ‘this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’ His masterful phrasing was not enough, however, to impress the aunt of one MO diarist. After the broadcast, she turned to her niece and remarked: ‘He’s no speaker, is he?’ (pp. 148–50)

Churchill’s opposition to Indian independence, his support for Edward VIII’s abdication, his call for Britain to form an alliance with Russia and his continual warnings about the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany led to his being seen as an extremist. However, when the Second World War broke out in 1939 Churchill returned to government as First Lord of the Admiralty. When Chamberlain resigned as Prime Minister in 1940 Churchill took his place at the head of a coalition government.

In November 1915 Churchill resigned from the government and returned to soldiering, seeing active service in France as lieutenant colonel of the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers. Although he entered the service with zest, army life did not give full scope for his talents. In June 1916, when his battalion was merged, he did not seek another command but instead returned to Parliament as a private member. He was not involved in the intrigues that led to the formation of a coalition government under Lloyd George, and it was not until 1917 that the Conservatives would consider his inclusion in the government. In March 1917 the publication of the Dardanelles commission report demonstrated that he was at least no more to blame for the fiasco than his colleagues.

Churchill wrote every word of his many speeches — he said he spent an hour working on every minute of a speech he made. At the Morgan Library are several drafts of a single speech from February 1941, when England stood alone against the Nazi onslaught and Churchill appealed to President Roosevelt for aid. The first draft looks like a normal typescript; the final draft, says Kiely, "looks like a draft of a poem."

The enemy attacked on all sides with great strength and fierceness, and their main power, the power of their far more numerous Air Force, was thrown into the battle or else concentrated upon Dunkirk and the beaches. Pressing in upon the narrow exit, both from the east and from the west, the enemy began to fire with cannon upon the beaches by which alone the shipping could approach or depart. They sowed magnetic mines in the channels and seas; they sent repeated waves of hostile aircraft, sometimes more than a hundred strong in one formation, to cast their bombs upon the single pier that remained, and upon the sand dunes upon which the troops had their eyes for shelter. Their U-boats, one of which was sunk, and their motor launches took their toll of the vast traffic which now began. For four or five days an intense struggle reigned. All their armored divisions-or what Was left of them-together with great masses of infantry and artillery, hurled themselves in vain upon the ever-narrowing, ever-contracting appendix within which the British and French Armies fought.


“The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
The essence of good House of Commons speaking is the conversational style, the facility for quick, informal interruptions and interchanges. Harangues from a rostrum would be a bad substitute for the conversational style in which so much of our business is done. But the conversational style requires a fairly small space, and there should be on great occasions a sense of crowd and urgency. There should be a sense of the importance of much that is said and a sense that great matters are being decided, there and then, by the House. ... It has a collective personality which enjoys the regard of the public, and which imposes itself upon the conduct not only of individual Members but of parties.
As a twenty-six-year old, Churchill took his seat as a Conservative member in the new Parliament and four days later made his maiden speech. He spoke immediately following Lloyd George, ensuring the young politician a very full house. Churchill had, of course, prepared his speech very carefully and more or less learned it by heart. Although this isn’t unusual in a maiden speaker, Churchill – more unusually – continued this meticulous preparation throughout his career.
Meanwhile, the House should prepare itself for hard and heavy tidings. I have only to add that nothing which may happen in this battle can in any way relieve us of our duty to defend the world cause to which we have vowed ourselves; nor should it destroy our confidence in our power to make our way, as on former occasions in our history, through disaster and through grief to the ultimate defeat of our enemies.
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