Vladimir Putin turned seventy on October 7, and Garry Kasparov was not in the mood for a celebration. The Russian dissident, author and chess grandmaster had been invited to address the community of Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, where, seventy-six years ago, Winston Churchill famously announced the descent of an “iron curtain” across the European continent. Seldom has a phrase so vividly captured a geopolitical phenomenon as Churchill’s clarion call about the looming threat posed by the Soviet Union. As Russia once again threatens European peace, it fell upon the shoulders of an exiled Russian democrat to issue a dire warning about the fate of what used to be called “the free world.”
Standing in the college chapel before a rapt audience, whose voices had just moments earlier joined in a stirring, organ-accompanied rendition of “Jerusalem,” Kasparov castigated the West for continually underestimating the danger posed by the revanchist regime in Moscow. “This war is decades in the making,” Kasparov said of Putin’s brutal rape of Ukraine. “Thirty years of making concessions that were intended to keep the peace but only postponed the war.” To those in the West who make the ostensibly pragmatic argument that the price of supporting Ukraine is too high, a complaint one hears these days from the nationalist right as much as from the anti-imperialist left, Kasparov had a pragmatic retort. “The price of stopping a dictator always goes up. It may seem expensive today, but it’s only going to be more tomorrow.”
Slyly making note of Putin’s birthday, Kasparov proffered a vision of the autocrat on the cusp of his eighth decade. “Somewhere in Russia, deep in a bunker, the little dictator is celebrating what has become the most dangerous, difficult year of his life,” Kasparov said, reveling in the imagined fate of the man whose war against Ukraine will define his already bloodsoaked legacy. “I bet he would not even allow there to be a knife in the room to cut the cake!”
As Kasparov had implied with his remark about Western concessions dating back three decades, the current Cold War may be an extension of the old one, in which case it never even ended.
Some trace the origins of the East-West clash to the 1947 American decision to supply arms to anti-communist forces in Greece and Turkey. Others point to the 1945 Yalta Conference, where the victorious allies essentially consigned Eastern Europe to the nascent Soviet sphere of influence. Or perhaps the 1917 Russian revolution itself was the cause, and the global contest was fore-ordained the moment Bolshevik revolutionaries with their missionary plans seized the levers of a large and powerful state.
As apposite an event as any, though, to mark the Cold War’s start is Churchill’s Fulton address, which he delivered on March 5, 1946. “The Sinews of Peace” articulated a postwar strategy for ensuring the survival of liberty; the West adhered to it for over four decades, and ultimately succeeded in prompting the peaceful collapse of the Soviet empire. Though the speech surely stands as one of the most influential of the twentieth century, few remember today just how controversial it was at the time. As voices from across the political spectrum once again counsel appeasement of a Russian regime hellbent on subjugating its neighbors, it’s worth revisiting Churchill’s speech, and the reaction to it.
Churchill was several months into his tenure as leader of the opposition when President Harry Truman invited him to the small college in his home state of Missouri. It was less than a year after the surrender of Nazi Germany, and few in the West were keen to hear a political leader, even one as widely admired as Churchill, speak of their wartime Soviet ally in the terms one reserves for an adversary. Nonetheless, when Churchill presented Truman with a draft of the speech on the presidential train to Westminster, the president was pleased. “He told me he thought it was admirable,” Churchill told Prime Minister Clement Attlee and foreign minister Ernest Bevin, “and would do nothing but good, though it would make a stir.”
Make a stir it did. At Westminster, Churchill cast the world situation in stark terms. While praising the recently established United Nations, he counseled that the organization would be insufficient to the task of keeping the peace. “Courts and magistrates may be set up,” he warned, “but they cannot function without sheriffs and constables.” With the advent of the nuclear bomb, the world had changed fundamentally, for “now war can find any nation, wherever it may dwell between dusk and dawn.”
Most worrisome for Churchill’s American audience was his characterization of the Soviet Union, then forcibly extending its power across Eastern Europe. “From what I have seen of our Russian friends and allies during the war, I am convinced that there is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than weakness, especially military weakness.” As for those who would deride as shrill and bombastic his characterization of the emerging global conflict, Churchill had only to cite his record on the just concluded one. “Last time, I saw it all coming and cried aloud to my own fellow countrymen and to the world, but no one paid any attention.” (Kasparov, who in 2015 published Winter is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped, claimed a similar vindication. “Winter is no longer coming,” he said in Fulton. “Winter is here.”)
Truman applauded Churchill throughout his lecture, and his visage evinced no sign of displeasure at what his guest had to say. It was not the first time Churchill had invoked the image of an “iron curtain” to describe Soviet policy. Days after Germany’s surrender, he had sent a telegram to the new American president employing this exact phrase. Nor could anyone at the State Department claim to be shocked by Churchill’s warning, the essence of which had been emphasized in another, much longer secret telegram dispatched to Washington just two weeks earlier by the chargé d’affaires at the American embassy in Moscow. In that 8,000-word document, informally dubbed “The Long Telegram” and later published pseudonymously in Foreign Affairs as “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” a diplomat named George Kennan outlined the Soviet threat in terms similar to those used by Churchill, counseling a Western policy of “containment.”
Though Churchill’s speech would eventually be lauded for its prescience, the overnight response from the American press was extremely harsh. “The country’s reaction to Mr. Churchill’s Fulton speech must be convincing proof that the US wants no alliance, or anything that resembles an alliance, with any other nation,” declared a Wall Street Journal editorial. The Nation disparaged Truman as “remarkably inept” for offering the former prime minister a platform to add “a sizable measure of poison to the already deteriorating relations between Russia and the Western powers.” Walter Lippmann, the dean of the Washington press corps, called the oration in Fulton a “catastrophic blunder.” Joseph Stalin fumed that it constituted a “call to arms.”
At a press conference three days after the speech, Truman denied that he had read it beforehand, and insisted that his presence on the dais did not signal an endorsement of Churchill’s words. He told his undersecretary of state Dean Acheson to skip a reception for Churchill in New York, and complained to his secretary of commerce Henry Wallace that Churchill had “put me on the spot.” (Later that year, after Wallace delivered a speech declaring that the United States had “no more business in the political affairs of Eastern Europe than Russia has in the political affairs of Latin America, Western Europe and the United States,” Truman fired Wallace, who returned the favor by challenging him for the presidency in 1948 on the ticket of the pro-Soviet Progressive Party.) Hoping to assuage Stalin’s hurt feelings, the president sent his Soviet counterpart an invitation to speak at the University of Missouri, which Stalin declined.
Events over the ensuing year forced Truman to backtrack and acknowledge that Churchill had been right all along. In 1947, anxious at the prospect of local communist parties exploiting war-ravaged European societies, secretary of state George C. Marshall announced the European Recovery Program, an unprecedented $13 billion effort to rebuild the continent. The Marshall Plan, as it would come to be known, was directly inspired by Churchill’s call for a continued American presence in Europe. The following February, Truman answered Britain’s plea that the United States assume responsibility for supplying arms to anti-communist forces in Greece and Turkey, announcing the initiative that became known as the Truman Doctrine. “Your Fulton… speech becomes more nearly a prophecy every day,” a chastened Truman wrote Churchill.
The three-part strategy of containing Soviet expansionism in Europe, bolstering anti-communist forces around the world, and criticizing communist ideology with strong moral rhetoric, would be inconsistently applied by American presidents over the ensuing four decades. And throughout that “long twilight struggle,” as President John F. Kennedy termed the Cold War, debate raged about its origins. On one side were those like Churchill, Truman, Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, who identified Soviet tyranny as the root problem, and the triumph of liberal democracy as the ultimate goal. On the other side were Wallace and his intellectual heirs, not all of them on the left, who believed that the West was at least equally to blame, and that it needed to accept Soviet communism as a permanent feature of international affairs. When Jimmy Carter, two years after America’s humiliating withdrawal from Vietnam, diagnosed America as “now free of that inordinate fear of communism,” many of his countrymen wearily agreed.
But as Churchill wisely understood, the Cold War was not some misunderstanding between two rival superpowers, a territorial dispute that could be settled at a negotiating table. It was a profound manifestation of the eternal human struggle for freedom over bondage. Nor was the Cold War the fault of the West. If the West “chose” to enter the Cold War, it was a choice forced upon it by the Soviet Union. And it was a righteous choice at that, similar to the one Abraham Lincoln foreshadowed in 1858 when he declared that “a house divided against itself cannot stand” and that the United States could not “endure, permanently half slave and half free.” As long as there are dictators, there will be those who resist.
The disintegration of the Soviet Union and concomitant rhapsodies about the end of history convinced a new generation that this enduring feature of the human condition had taken a back seat to other, softer problems, like global warming, disease and refugee flows. There was a constant refrain during the presidency of Barack Obama that humanity had so evolved that the global challenges of an earlier era, and the tools needed to meet them, were obsolete. In his first speech to the United Nations as president, Obama declared that “alignments of nations rooted in the cleavages of a long-gone Cold War” were a thing of the past. His now infamous response to Mitt Romney’s assertion that Russia was America’s primary adversary — “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back” — managed to be both profoundly shortsighted and historically ignorant. After Russia annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine two years later, Obama and his hapless secretary of state John Kerry repeatedly expressed befuddlement at how a “twenty-first century” country could have the gall to act like a “twentieth” or even “nineteenth-century” imperial power.
“We must not get into a new Cold War” has become the shared mantra of national conservatives and transnational progressives, replacing “forever wars” as the great inhibiting slogan of Western foreign policy. Insisting that our relationship with communist China need not be “irredeemably antagonistic,” former California governor Jerry Brown advocates “planetary realism,” what he defines as “an informed realism that faces up to the unprecedented global dangers caused by carbon emissions, nuclear weapons, viruses and new disruptive technologies, all of which cannot be addressed by one country alone.” The creation of an Orwellian police state, the genocide of the Uighur Muslims, the militarization of the South China Sea and threats to “reunify” with Taiwan by force, all these must be put aside because “the only path that avoids the horror of war — is to accept that China’s system is different from ours, get our own house in order and seek a decent modus vivendi.”
It’s worth asking Brown and his fellow travelers what they think Asia will look like if the American-led order there collapses and China assumes the position of regional hegemon. What will be the consequences, not only for our consciences but for the international state system, if an island democracy of 24 million people is conquered militarily? Pro-Chinese satrapies in South Korea, the Philippines and even Japan are sure to follow, perhaps not immediately, but over time.
An ethic of democratic universalism, far from perfectly applied, guided Western strategy during the first Cold War, and so it inspires us now. “New Sinews of Peace” was the title of Kasparov’s address in Fulton, a cribbing he acknowledged: “Not very original, I admit, but the threats we face and the answers we seek today are not origi-nal either.”
To illustrate his solidarity, Kasparov brought along three fellow advocates of liberty from some of the world’s most repressive governments with him to Missouri: Masih Alinejad, the outspoken Iranian women’s rights activist on whom that despicable regime has put out a warrant for murder; Abdalaziz Alhamza of Syria, a survivor of Bashar al-Assad’s dungeons; and Leopoldo Lopez, a Venezuelan democrat who spent years languishing in jail and under house arrest. (The night before Kasparov’s address, I spoke with Lopez about his imprisonment, and one aspect of it made my writer’s skin crawl: to torture him psychologically, his jailers placed a stack of books beyond the bars outside his jail cell, just out of reach.) “If only Russian men were as brave as Iranian women!” Kasparov exclaimed, a gesture of gratitude that reduced the steely Alinejad to tears. “These values, these people, these movements — they are the new sinews of peace.”
We don’t acknowledge it often enough, but the Cold War was a noble, valiant struggle that the West was right to fight and had no choice but to win. It was thrust upon us by Russian despotism and Russian predation, as is the current conflict. What sparked the war in Ukraine? A country on Europe’s eastern edge heard our rhetoric about democracy, freedom and national self-determination, and had the temerity to take it seriously. It chose a Western path — and is now being punished for it. The West is implicated in Ukraine’s life struggle, whether we like it or not.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s December 2022 World edition.