Cold War anniversaries: reassessing the legacy of the Long Telegram and Iron Curtain speech

2021 marks the 75th anniversary of two crucial events of the Cold War: Churchill’s Iron Curtain Speech and George Kennan’s Long Telegram. These events are extremely important in explaining how the USA and USSR went from being allies during WW2 to enemies locked in a cold war for the next 45 years or so. The events of 1946 polarised global international relations and aided the transformation of the US’s foreign policy from isolationism to direct intervention, in doing so ensuring the inevitability of the Cold War. This direct intervention is characterised by the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan through which the USA committed to and then delivered aid for Western Europe, establishing their own sphere of influence in Europe leading to the development of the Cold War and furthering the division of Europe.

The first of these crucial events in the early Cold War, the Long Telegram, was sent from George Kennan the American charges d’affaires in Moscow to the State Department in Washington in February 1946. Although it was 8,000 words the central point was that the USSR was fundamentally expansionist and that as a result a peaceful coexistence with the USSR could not realistically be achieved, instead the USA should look to resist and contain Soviet expansion.

The impact of the telegram was revolutionary for the US government, forcing them to revaluate their stance towards the USSR. In the years following VE day Western politicians had watched the USSR’s expansion uneasily but felt there was little they could, or should, do to prevent it but the telegram changed this, popularising phrases such as ‘containment’ which seemed to offer a new way to counter the Soviet threat. In fact, in The Cold War: A New History historian John Lewis Gaddis goes so far as to say the Long Telegram ‘became the basis for United States strategy toward the Soviet Union throughout the rest of the Cold War’, reinforcing the importance of this often-overlooked event. The influence of the Long Telegram can certainly be seen in the policy of Containment set out in the 1947 Truman Doctrine which would drive US intervention in Korea and Vietnam.

The second event celebrating a significant birthday this year is Churchill’s Iron Curtain Speech. Churchill delivered his ‘Sinews of Peace’ speech (which has since come to be referred to as the Iron Curtain Speech) on 5th March 1946 at Westminster College in Fulton Missouri, with the aim of alerting Americans to the situation in Europe. Following WW2 the Soviet Union had expanded into Eastern Europe and established a Soviet sphere of influence as this famous extract from the speech demonstrates: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste 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, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow”. The full speech can be read here.

Churchill and many other Western Europeans feared further expansion of the USSR and that having fought a bloody war to free Europe from fascism this victory for democracy was being eroded and made pointless by the communist advance. Consequently, the speech struck a chord with many politicians in the US who felt that resistance was needed towards the Soviet expansion, particularly President Truman.

Churchill’s speech was certainly important in alerting the American public and politicians to the situation in Europe, providing a powerful image that captured the popular imagination and provided added impetus, stirring Truman to make policy changes. In reality though many politicians had already been persuaded of the perceived necessity of these changes by the Long Telegram. Therefore, the importance of the speech should not be overstated and should be looked at in the wider context, as one of a series of events which led to the US changing its stance towards the USSR.

In comparison the impact of the Long Telegram has often been overlooked particularly in the teaching of the Cold War at GCSE and A-level. In fact, the Long Telegram was far more important in influencing government policy and by extension the transformation of US foreign policy from isolation to intervention. Therefore, perhaps after 75 years it is time to reassess the legacy of these transformative and intertwined events of the early Cold War.

Feature image: ‘the barbed wire’, Timur Brave on

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