Churchill believes the Soviet Union “desires the fruits of war and the indefinite expansion of their power and doctrines.” How might those expansionist desires challenge the Western principle of national political self-determination, a cause it championed during World War 2?
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After World War II, the Soviet Union had its vast military forces concentrated in all major capitals and strategic objectives of Eastern Europe, which inherently gave it control over these countries as they began political reconstruction. Before the end of the war, Stalin began to integrate secret police and agents to enforce his will and eliminate any opposition. There were numerous targeted political and ethnic cleansings to create homogenous states. The army maintained control over radio and media, preventing any unfavorable opinions from emerging and spreading Soviet propaganda. Practically every aspect of life, particularly regarding political activism or social organizations were tightly controlled. The Soviet Union in the attempt to create a buffer zone began to permanently establish its army in the countries and create infrastructures of control (Dubinsky, 2012). All these actions went directly against the principles of self-determination which emphasized the legal right of the country to have free elections and establish their laws and political status. If any elections were held, citizens were either forced or influenced to vote for a pro-Soviet candidate that usually ran without serious opposition. There was a little attempt from the Soviet Union to mask their full determination to maintain control over Eastern Europe.
Churchill’s speech acknowledges “Russia’s need to be secure on her western borders,” but at the same time, it raises concerns about Soviet actions in Eastern Europe. Is Churchill being inconsistent? Or does he provide concrete justifications for those concerns?
At the famed Potsdam conference in 1945, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin began to construct a plan for Europe after Germany’s surrender. It was meant to ensure stability and peace on the continent and fight against the forceful occupation and principles of Nazi Germany. However, there was a mutual distrust from Stalin to Western leadership, and he covertly implemented mechanisms of control in the states of Eastern Europe that were liberated by the Soviet Union. Fearing another invasion into Russia, Stalin was determined to create a massive buffer zone and line of defense from the West, no matter the cost to the people of these countries. Churchill shows empathy for the trauma that USSR experienced and understands its concerns. However, he draws on the examples of appeasement practiced pre-WWII that justified Germany’s expansion for the sake of safety which led to deadly conflicts. Therefore, a different political approach needs to be found to guarantee safety without eliminating the right of Eastern Europe to self-determination.
In his speech, Churchill asserts “There is nothing they (the Russians) admire so much as strength, and nothing for which they have less respect for than military weakness.” If he isn’t advocating a direct military confrontation with the Soviet Union, then what is he saying?
This phrase became the pivotal point and a cornerstone of Western opposition to Soviet ideology throughout the Cold War. Churchill famously disliked and mistrusted Stalin and the Soviet Union, but he realized that after WWII, Europe could not afford another deadly conflict. Both sides had massive troops accumulated in Europe, and it was the Soviet policy to continue this strategic build-up. This phrase was a response by initiating “negotiation from strength” (Larres, 2017). Churchill realized that the Soviet Union was not ready for war as well, therefore a threat of conflict is the only available method to make Stalin and his leadership to consider reason over blind ideology.
Churchill delivered this speech to an American audience, but after reading it one might conclude it could have been given in any western country. Why did he pick the US?
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One of the primary reasons for making the speech in the US was to re-create the WWII alliance between Britain and America to face any global threat and support the Western Democratic ideals in the face of Soviet expansion. This was a call for the support of unity in the North Atlantic and to avoid the events of WWII when America did not open a second front until 1944. As many soldiers were returning home, Europe began to be vulnerable to Soviet attack (which was building up troop presence in the region). Churchill wanted to call on the US for the protection of its allies and values (Harriman, n.d.).
Dubinsky, V. (2012). How Communism took over Eastern Europe after World War II. Web.
Harriman, P. (n.d.). The True Meaning of the Iron Curtain Speech. Web.
Larres, K. (2017). Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’ speech in Context: The attempt to achieve a ‘good understanding on all points’ with Stalin’s Soviet Union. The International History Review, 1-22. Web.