“Churchill’s Vision and America’s Future”–Vice President George H. W. Bush’s Green Lecture March 5, 1986


Mr. President, distinguished faculty, students, ladies and gentlemen.

It is an honor to come here today to deliver this, the lecture that marks the 40th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” address here at Westminster.

To be the speaker in a series that has included indisputably the greatest orator of this century, perhaps the greatest English Language orator of all time; a series that has included the single most important address of the last 40 years; a series that has included speakers such as President Gerald Ford, C.P. Snow, Edward Heath and Clare Boothe Luce – well, to say the least, it’s all a little daunting.

Today on this 40th anniversary, it seems right to reflect on what Churchill said in 1946, on why he said it, and on how the world has changed (in part because of Churchill’s words that day), and finally to look at the challenges America faces today in light of the challenges of the last four decades.

Let me begin by recalling what the “Iron Curtain” speech was, and what it was not.

The war was just barely over when Churchill came here, and yet the world had already changed in ways entirely at odds with the hopes of the allies during the fighting.  Many had yet to comprehend how different reality was from hope.  Churchill chose this platform to clarify that distinction.

The Iron Curtain speech was not a discourse on a commonly accepted view of the world as it emerged from the war.  It was a plea for realism, a plea for a clear strategy in approaching a new and unexpected world, a plea for strength of purpose and the courage to face unwanted but unavoidable challenges.

I was a young man during the war.  I remember that there was an almost unspoken assumption, at least here in America, that the victory would produce something like the 19th century Concert of Europe – a generally peaceful world made up of basically compatible nations, in this case, of democracies rather than of monarchies.

This was clearly Roosevelt’s hope.  We know now that Churchill had cautioned him about Soviet intentions.  But Roosevelt dismissed Churchill’s warnings saying, “I think that if I give (Stalin) everything I possibly can and ask nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige, he won’t try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace.”

Roosevelt died before he could fully see the futility of these hopes as, following Hitler’s fall, reneged on the spirit, if not the letter, of his wartime agreements. The Yalta agreement, in particular, had called for democratic elections in the liberated Europe.  Instead, in the areas under Russian control, Stalin imposed Soviet-style regimes on unwilling publics.

Churchill came here to Fulton to insist that the democracies must face squarely the full implications of Soviet actions.  He gave those implications a name.  “From Stettin in the Baltic,” he said, “to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”

And he suggested a strategy for keeping the Soviets from expanding the territory behind the iron curtain while keeping the peace.

“(Peace) can only be achieved,” he said, “by reaching…. a good understanding with Russia under … the United Nations Organization… supported by the whole strength of the English-speaking world and all its connections.”  In other words, he was saying peace required a strong U.N. and a strong political, military and perhaps, economic association of the English-speaking countries – an extension of the relationship that had been primarily responsible for winning the war, at least on the western front.

It was a great strategic vision, this one that Churchill described here 40 years ago.  Let me now ask – was he right?

A large part of the answer is, obviously, yes, of course he was right.

First and foremost, he was right about the nature of the Soviet threat and Soviet oppression.  The Iron Curtain was not and is not just a metaphor.  It is a real, physical, as well as moral presence.

Three years ago on a trip to Germany, I visited a small German village called Moedelreuth.  I’ll never forget that town.  Down the main street ran a high concrete wall topped with densely packed barbed wire.  On our side, the villagers were peacefully going about the ordinary business of their daily lives.  On the Communist side, machine gun toting soldiers patrolled, and attack dogs ran on chains along the wall.

And can anyone doubt what it means to live behind the wall?  In the ‘30’s and ‘40’s, there were too many in the West who looked to the Soviet Union with admiration.  “To travel from the capitalist world to the Soviet territory,” said British writer John Strachey in those years, “is to pass from death to birth.”  This was a not uncommon view, particularly among intellectuals, even though Stalin was at the time murdering 30 million of his own people.

 Such views may have got a hearing then.  But today we know the truth.  We have the testimony of Solzhenitsyn, Shcharansky, Sakharov and so many others.  Everyone today, even intellectuals, knows what it means to live behind the Iron Curtain.

Churchill warned us not only of what the Soviets were doing, but of what they intended to do far into the future.  “I do not believe,” he said, “that Soviet Russia desires war.  What they desire is the fruits of war and the indefinite expansion of their power and doctrine.”

And so it has been.

Yes, Churchill was right about what the Soviets were doing and about what they intended to do.  His words almost immediately changed the way the Western world thought, particularly the way Americans thought. Oh, yes, there were those who disliked the speech.  Clement Atlee gave it a cold shoulder.  Eleanor Roosevelt denounced it.  But by May 1946, polls showed that more than 80 percent of the American people favored a permanent Anglo-American military alliance.

 In the end, of course, the alliance that emerged was broader than the one that Churchill envisioned.

Today, NATO includes, as members or close associates, not only Britain, Canada and the United States, but most of the democracies of Europe.

But, fundamentally, Churchill was right – right about the character of the threat; right in his strategic vision about the need for an alliance of democracies to meet the threat.

And yet, in another sense, Churchill’s strategic vision has proven both faulty and too narrow.

It was faulty in the sense that the United Nations, in which he placed such hope, has proven by and large a great disappointment.  Yes, the U.N. has had some successes, but they have mainly been in the economic and social areas.  For example, the World Health Organization has done outstanding work, and the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, despite inefficiency and infighting, has saved the lives of millions.

Nevertheless, in the crucial area of peacekeeping, the U.N. has fallen far short of the world’s hopes for it.  It has shown little ability to stop wars from erupting.  And once wars have been started, it has shown little ability to end them.

The current war between Iran and Iraq, for example, has taken hundreds of thousands of lives and presented the world with a major escalation in the use of chemical weapons.  It is just one example of the impotence of the U.N. as a peacekeeper.

The U.N. is a useful forum for international discussion, but too often in the last two decades it has also become a forum for those who disdain democratic values; who seek to undermine democratic values – a forum for the practitioners of terror and violence and for their propaganda.

There is a fundamental problem with an organization whose charter gives a nation of half a million people the same single vote in the General Assembly that it gives China, with 1.2 billion people.  It is true that resolutions of the General Assembly are not binding in international law.  But it is also true that the often outrageous and irrelevant resolutions passed by the General Assembly diminish the U.N.’s overall standing in the court of world opinion.

Having served in the U.N. and having watched it quite carefully during the last 13 years, I lament the increase in block voting.  I l ament the propagandistic attacks on the U.S.  I lament the one-sided incessant attacks on the State of Israel.  And though I do not fault the Secretary General himself, it is clear that the U.N.’s role as a peacemaker and peacekeeper is minor at best.

So, as I said, time has proved Churchill’s expectations about the world body too optimistic.  I also said that time has proven his strategic conception in some respects narrow.

Churchill’s strategic view was almost exclusively Europe centered. He referred to the British Empire, but as an extension of Britain itself, not as separate territories with independent strategic identities.

“While there is life in my body,” he said at the Yalta Conference, “no transfer of British sovereignty (over the colonies) will be permitted.”

Yet despite his opposition, by the time he died, nearly all of the Empire was gone.  Independent nations stood in its place, and in the place of all the empires of Europe.

Decolonization has not meant that Europe has become unimportant.  Europe remains today the focus of security and strategy for the United States, for Europe remains today, as Churchill saw as clearly, the Free World’s king on the global chess board.  It may not be the most powerful piece on the board, but if the other side can strip it of its defenses and trap it, the game is as good as over.

Nevertheless, the chess board and the game itself are larger and more complex than Churchill foresaw.

Churchill anticipated and sought to prevent a major, all-out war between the West and the Soviet Union. And the NATO alliance has achieved his goal.  The United States, Europe and the Soviet Union have been at peace now for 41 years.  For Europe, this is by far the longest peace in this century.

Major war has been prevented.  But smaller conflicts have not.  There have been more than 140 of these since Churchill spoke here.  Together they have claimed up to 10 million lives.  Almost all have been in regions that were once under European colonial rule – either in Asia, Africa or the Americas.  Many of these conflicts have been vehicles for the expansion of Soviet power and influence.  This was particularly true in Korea and Vietnam.

The Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, recently addressed a joint session of Congress.  I have great respect for him.  I admire the keenness of his insight.  In his world vision, Prime Minister Lee is, in some respects, a modern Churchill.

To Congress that day he described East Asian societies as “on the move,” “seething with restless energy” “transform(ing) their ancient civilizations into modern industrial societies.”

Prime Minister Lee has told me that he credits East Asia’s success in part to American actions over the past four decades – actions that included the Korean and Vietnamese wars.

By holding the Korean Communists north of the 38th parallel, the United States insured not only that South Korea would remain free, but that Japan would remain tied to the West and would continue to develop as a non-military, commercially oriented democracy. Japan has become the economic engine of free Asia.

By taking a stand in Vietnam, the United States gave Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia time to rally their people against Communist insurgencies in their own countries and, together with Singapore, to develop more stable political systems and vibrant economies.

Without the courage and commitment of America – courage and commitment that Churchill helped inspire when he spoke here – none of this would have been possible.  Without the courage and commitment of America, all of East Asia might today be sunk in a Communist swamp- a swamp as stagnant and oppressive as that in which so many millions of Vietnamese and Cambodians have perished since we left Southeast Asia more than a decade ago; a swamp from which more than a million others have fled, by boat and over land, by any means they could, to find their way to the promised land; to find their way to America.

In the past few weeks, we’ve seen how much people in the Pacific Basin revere democracy.  We used to hear it said of so many developing and newly industrialized countries that they were not ready for democracy, Well, the Filipino people have shown that not only are they ready, but that they won’t wait.

The Philippines has had key elements of a democratic system off and on for decades.  Now, the Philippine people want a true democracy, a strengthened and perfected democracy.  In their yearning for democracy, they are like so many millions on the Asian mainland, and two weeks ago many of them put their lives on the line for the privileges that we as Americans take for granted.

Now, as a result, the new truly democratically elected government in Manila is a beacon of hope for all who seek to build democracy around the world.

Today in Central America, we see another region teetering on the brink between freedom and oppression.

Five years ago there was only one democratically elected government in Central America, and that was in Costa Rica. Today there are democratically elected governments not only there, but in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and newly I dependent Belize as well.

Only Nicaragua swims against the democratic tide.

In Central America, only Nicaragua suspends all civil rights, including freedom of speech and freedom of the press.  In Central America, only Nicaragua suppresses all opposition political parties.  Only Nicaragua refuses to enter into dialogue with its political opponents.  Among current Central American governments, only Nicaragua orders the execution of political dissenters.  Only Nicaragua has harassed not only the Catholic Church (and humiliated the Pope when he visited Managua), but has persecuted Pentecostals, Mormons and Jews.  Only Nicaragua today persecutes Indian tribes within its borders.  Only Nicaragua receives support from terrorist states and terrorist organizations all over the world.  Only Nicaragua provides arms to Communist terrorists in democracies like Columbia, El Salvador and Costa Rica.

In January at the inauguration of the newly elected president of Guatemala, Nicaraguan Commandante Daniel Ortega and I were seated in the same row and during a pause in the proceedings, the press started asking questions, first of him, then of me.

To the press he said that since the American Revolution had been violent, the U.S. should support his revolution.  A strange and irrelevant line of thinking, but still….

I replied that right after they came to power, the Sandinistas received more aid from the U.S. than from any other country.  But that’s when they were talking about democracy.  Then they betrayed their own revolution.  They turned their backs on democracy and freedom.  With Soviet help they build up the largest army in Central America – an army larger and better armed than all their neighbors combined.  That’s when we finally and reluctantly gauged their true character.

We stand for the objectives of the Contadora process.  Despite our please for progress, Nicaragua has consistently played the obstructor in Contadora, for example, by breaking up last June’s Contadora meeting.  We have had many fruitless bilateral talks with Ortega’s men.  The Church in Nicaragua has proposed and we have advocated Church-mediated dialogue between the Nicaraguan Communists and their internal and external adversaries.  The democratic opposition has accepted the Church’s proposal, but the Marxists in Managua have refused.

When he spoke here 40 years ago, Churchill said of the Second World War that “there never was a war in all history easier to prevent by timely action…”  Churchill believed that the judicious use of strength when threats were small was the best guarantee that threats would not become big.  Of course, his cries of warning during Hitler’s rise were ignored.

Today, with a relatively small amount of aid to the freedom fighters, we can stop the threat to the region from the Sandinistas and support those struggling for freedom and democracy in Nicaragua.  Aid 0 not American troops, not direct American involvement – just aid.  A democratic Nicaragua is indispensable to a peaceful, stable democratic Central America.  That’s why giving aid to the freedom fighters is like taking out an insurance policy for freedom and democracy all over the region.

And it’s something more as well.

Churchill’s vision of a trans-Atlantic alliance to guarantee Europe’s peace was based on several assumptions about the world order.  Perhaps the most important was that the United States would not be preoccupied with challenges on its own borders.  That was a good assumption.  It had been true for most of American history.  And because it was true, America had been able to go to the defense of European democracies twice in Churchill’s lifetime.

If Soviet and Nicaraguan sponsored insurgencies should spread throughout Central America, it would cease to be true.  And the world would then have to ask the question:  Is America still able to help defend Europe, that Free World king on the global chess board. And if not, will Europe have to cut a deal with the Soviets?  And if Europe does, will the Pacific Rim countries have to follow?

This is what I meant earlier when I said today’s global chess board is larger and more complex than in Churchill’s time.

Some say the problem in Central America is not Communism but poverty.  There is abject poverty in Nicaragua and other Central American countries as well.  But shouldn’t people who want to escape poverty fight against Communism, not for it?

Look at the two sides of the Iron Curtain – Eastern Europe and Western Europe.  Which is poor, and which is not?

Look at Southeast Asia, at Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos on one hand, and at Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore on the other.  Where do more people live in poverty?  Where is there prosperity and opportunity?

Look at our own hemisphere.  In Cuba, Castro turned a thriving economy into a basket  case.  Nicaragua has slipped steadily downhill.  Compare there to say, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia or Costa Rica.

Or look at the Soviet Union itself – a country where ordinary people must wait in line for almost everything, although it’s different if you’re in the ruling class; a country that has found a way to make some of the most fertile land in the world disastrously unproductive.  They blame the weather, and maybe they’re right, although countries that border on the Soviet Union don’t have the same problems.

Today in Africa and India and all over the world, those who once flirted with the Soviet model are turning their eyes West.  They have found, as people everywhere have found, that the answer to poverty is not Communism, not slavery, not dictatorial socialism, but freedom.

As it was for Churchill 40 years ago, as it has been in America for more than two centuries, freedom today is the rallying cry all around the world, for example, among resisters to Soviet aggression in Afghanistan. The brutality of the Soviet war on the Afghan people is horrifying.

Saturation bombing, willful destruction of crops and livestock, reprisals against civilians – these are bad enough.  But bombs disguised as toys so they will attract children and then blow their hands and feet off – in Afghanistan, it pains me to say, Soviet tactics include waging a war on children.

By the way, some maimed Afghan children have been brought to the United States for treatment.  And I saw some of them when they were brought to the White House not long ago.  Children all over the world are so much alike.  These children could have been my own grandchildren.  Seeing them made me feel all the more strongly that we must not forget what is happening in Afghanistan.

Recently there have been press reports that the U.S. and the Soviet Union are working on a behind-the-scenes agreement over
Afghanistan.  Some stories contend that we will abandon the Afghan resistance if the Soviets will remove their army, leaving Afghanistan in the Soviet orbit and to the KGB’s render mercies.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Our position remains today what it has been all along – that a lasting solution to the war requires total Soviet withdrawal, a return of Afghanistan to true non-alignment, the right of refugees to return home with honor and dignity and without fear of reprisals and permitting the Afghan people to determine their own destiny.

Only then will the resistance fighters put down their arms.  Only then should they.

And let me add, finally and in sorrow, that we have seen no evidence in recent weeks – none at all –  that the Soviets are moving in the right direction.  If they are serious, the Soviets should seek to negotiate with the Afghan resistance.  Wouldn’t this be the most convincing sign of interest in a peaceful solution.

It was Trotsky who said that, “The dictatorship of the Communist Party is maintained by recourse to every form of violence.”  And he was right.  It must be.  Because free men and women will fight to remain free.  And those in chains will struggle to break their chains – as we’ve seen these last 40 years in East Germany and Hungary, in Czechoslovakia and Poland.

Churchill’s call 40 years ago was a call for courage in defending freedom, and not only the courage of the battlefield, but the courage for what John Kennedy called the “long twilight struggle.”

The challenge before us today is to help those who, in smaller conflicts, defend freedom and champion democracy.

The challenge before us today is to face with courage, unity and resolve all attacks on free societies and free institutions, to face, in particular, terrorism, which is a dagger at the back of all free societies.  I headed the President’s task force on terrorism.  Tomorrow we will release our report to the American people.  Let me say that I believe that Churchill’s alliance of democracies is as important in the struggle against international terrorism as it is in the struggle against Soviet expansionism.  The tragedy of Olof Palme’s assassination shows that even the most assiduously neutral cannot escape this modern scourge.

But the challenge before us is more than this.

It is to find within ourselves the kind of courage and strength of purpose that Churchill so nobly exemplified; and having found those qualities, to give leadership to an often bewildered world.

If we do not turn our back on the world, but remain engaged; if we resist the insular temptations of isolationism and protectionism; if we remain confident of our values, true to our ideals and resist paralyzing self-doubt, then I believe we can look forward to the next 40 years with confidence and hope.  We can realistically set foreign policy goals that include resolving some of the major conflicts of world affairs – not simply managing them, resolving them.  We can begin to build that world of harmony and. let me add, prosperity that we dreamed of when we fought the Second World War so many years ago.

If we do all this, the next 40 years could see Western Europe strong, united and giving all encouragement possible to the countries of Eastern Europe to re-establish their identities, their cultures and their heritages.

The next 40 years could see the U.S. and the Soviet Union, while still adversaries, nevertheless having found a path towards deep reductions in nuclear arms, as well as having banned chemical and biological weapons from the face of the earth.

And let me add that it is my fervent hope that in the next 40 years, we will see major strides towards establishing a defensive weapons system, one that lifts from the shoulders of mankind the fear of nuclear annihilation.  I believe that we have a moral obligation to put a portion of our resources into weapons that put weapons at risk rather than people at risk.

Furthermore, the next 40 years could see China confirmed in its course towards greater freedom and economic vitality, living in peace with its Asian neighbors and engaged in vibrant commerce with all countries.

The next 40 years could see this hemisphere entirely democratic, with Latin America freed of totalitarian dictators of both left and right, and coming into its own economically.

In the next 40 years, we can hope that Latin America will be largely free from the staggering burden of debt and developing broadly based, vigorous economies that offer opportunity for upward mobility to all their people, and in which the gap between rich and poor is steadily narrowing.

In the next 40 years, we can hope that the regional conflicts of the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent have been resolved.  If we are strong and determined, we can certainly hope that Afghanistan is once again free and independent.

And finally, fondly do we hope, confidently do we pray and that next 40 years will look back on the peaceful end to apartheid in South Africa, the development of a free and democratic Nambia, and a record of economic development throughout all of Africa based on incentives and the free market.

We have come so far these last 40 years.  There are formidable challenges ahead, and some look with apprehension to the future.  I don’t.  I remember Churchill’s words during the darkest days of the Second World War. “We have not,” he said “journeyed all this way across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy.”

And I remember his words at the end of his address here 40 years ago today.  Speaking of Britain and America – and I would add today, speaking of all free peoples – he said that if our “moral and material forces and convictions are joined… the high roads of the future will be clear, not only for us, but for all… not only for our time, but for the century to come.”

Let us resolve to meet the next 40 years with the same courage, the same conviction, the same moral purpose that he gave us to meet the last 40.  For surely if we do, peace and freedom will be ours, and he said, for centuries to come.   

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Westminster College

This is the editorial account for Westminster College news team. Please feel free to get in touch if you have any questions or comments.