George Will Dissects ‘Iron Curtain’ Speech in 34th Enid and R. Crosby Kemper Lecture
When former British Prime Minister Sir Winston S. Churchill spoke before a packed gymnasium at Westminster College on March 5, 1946, he carefully linked two important words to convey a critical message to the world, said Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist George F. Will.
“The first word he selected suggested the danger of permanence,” he said, referring to the word “iron.” “The second word Churchill chose was ‘curtain.’ Curtains are put up to prevent people from seeing things,” Will continued. “And Churchill knew that the evil architects of the iron curtain had something to hide.”
Will, who delivered the 34th Enid and R. Crosby Kemper Lecture from his Washington, DC, home during the 75th anniversary of Churchill’s “Sinews of Peace” speech, said Churchill did what great orators do. “He distilled two two-syllable words into a phrase that reflected the high stakes of the era’s politics.”
Churchill’s description of an “iron curtain” descending across Europe and dividing the areas under Soviet influence from the West presaged the West’s Cold War against the former Soviet Union, a tension-filled conflict that lasted 43 years.
“But part of Churchillian realism, which is my subject today, is the knowledge that nothing necessarily lasts,” Will said. “Nothing. The only political things that last are the things that we work tirelessly to make permanent … or get rid of.”
Churchill was honest, candid, and forthright in his address, even though people often do not want realism, he said.
“Reality, you see, can be distressing and demanding and dangerous,” Will explained. “So, at Fulton, Churchill did what real political leaders do not flinch from doing. He said something that his audience, which actually was the entire American nation, did not want to hear.”
Will said the world needed the United States in 1946 to repair Europe’s shattered nations.
“It simply is not possible for the United States to be merely what [John Quincy] Adams called ‘the well-wisher of those who are longing for freedom,'” Will said. “It is not possible because our national premise is that the principles by which we live and that we espouse are explicitly universal.
“The United States, or as Churchill liked to call us, the Great Republic, was weary (immediately following WWII), but rose to the challenge that he issued at Westminster College three-quarters of a century ago,” Will said.
Will added that he believes Americans again are weary today.
“Were Churchill to return to Fulton today, he would, I am confident, say something like this: There is a democracy recession underway around the world,” Will said, referring to authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe and Asia that are “using sinister applications of science and technology to impose a totalitarianism even more suffocating than those that flourished in the 20th century.”
He then drew attention to a line from Churchill’s “Sinews of Peace” speech.
“There never was a war in all history easier to prevent by timely action than the one which has just desolated great areas of the globe,” he said quoting Churchill, explaining that greater foresight could have prevented the WWII.
“What prevents timely action is unrealism, the human tendency to flinch from unpleasant facts,” Will said.
Will also saluted Churchill’s skilled leadership stating, “As he did in the 1930s, in the 1940s Churchill saw things early, and he said things clearly.”
Will, the author of 13 books, has covered politics and domestic and foreign affairs for The Washington Post since 1974. He won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1977 and is a regular contributor to MSNBC, where he provides commentary on politics.
At the conclusion of his remarks, Will was inducted into the Association of Churchill Fellows at Westminster.
The 34th Enid and R. Crosby Kemper Lecture was made possible by a generous donation from the Kemper Foundation of Kansas City, MO.