iron curtain

iron curtain

During the Cold War, the division between western Europe and the Soviet bloc countries was called the “iron curtain.” The iron curtain was never a physical barrier, but served as a metaphor to describe the limit of Soviet influence.

The phrase “iron curtain” may have existed as early as the 19th century. But British prime minister Winston Churchill was the first to use it in its modern sense. In a speech at Westminster College, Missouri in 1946, Churchill declared:

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. Athens alone-Greece with its immortal glories-is free to decide its future at an election under British, American and French observation.

Historians generally agree that Churchill’s speech marked the opening of the Cold War. Not only did Churchill clearly lay out the demarcation of Soviet and western power, he also talked about the need to use maximum military strength to defeat the Soviets. Churchill also warned that there were “fifth columns” in the west aligned with the Soviet Union and conspiring to take down western democracies.

Churchill’s speech was enthusiastically received by the US president, Harry Truman, and by his administration. Truman had already begun to argue that the Soviet Union needed to be confronted with a show of strength and that it must be contained. In Russia, Churchill’s speech was described as both imperialist and racist by leaders in the Kremlin.

The iron curtain was, for the most part, a metaphorical division. However, Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, which separated communist East Germany from West Germany, served as a physical symbol of that division. President Ronald Reagan played on that symbol when he delivered a rousing speech from the western entrance to that gate, in 1987. Reagan implored Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, to tear down the gate and, by doing so, bring the Cold War to an end:

Behind me stands a wall that encircles the free sectors of this city, part of a vast system of barriers that divides the entire continent of Europe. . . . Standing before the Brandenburg Gate, every man is a German, separated from his fellow men. Every man is a Berliner, forced to look upon a scar. . . . As long as this gate is closed, as long as this scar of a wall is permitted to stand, it is not the German question alone that remains open, but the question of freedom for all mankind. . . .

General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate.
Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate!
Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!