by Bruce L. Brager
(Reprinted with permission from The Iron Curtain: The Cold War in Europe)
"From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has
descended across the Continent."
Winston Churchill, March 5, 1946 
"Due to the situation which has evolved as a result of the formation of the
Commonwealth of Independent States, I hereby discontinue my activities at the
post of President of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics."
Mikhail Gorbachev, December 25, 1991 
Visiting Central Europe, about 1962, the visitor would not see a real "iron
curtain." There was no huge piece of grim drapery splitting Europe between
Communist dictatorships and democracies. A curtain can be removed easily, an
iron curtain cannot. A curtain temporarily shuts off one area from another. An
iron curtain symbolically represents an attempted to permanently, artificially
and arbitrarily split off an area from its neighbors.
Such an arbitrary border, frequently imposed by outside powers, directly and
indirectly affects the lives of the people on both sides. Day to day social
contacts between people on both sides can suddenly be cut off. Economic
contacts, perhaps those underway for centuries, can suddenly be cut off or
continued only under strictly regulated conditions. The effects of such a
border, in particular that in Europe, can be felt worldwide. An arbitrary
border can bring peace to a war torn area, but at the risk of a far greater war
then had been seen before. Perversely, this very risk can bring peace, by
raising the stakes if a war starts to unacceptable levels.
A curtain, even one made of iron, might have added just a bit of decoration,
might have added to the quality of the scenery. There was no literal iron
curtain, but there was a lot of steel – barbed wire, ground radar, watch
towers, machine guns in the hands of soldiers willing to use them. One could
tell where democracy ended and totalitarianism began, on borders extending from
the Arctic Circle almost to the Mediterranean Sea.
The "Iron Curtain," a phrase introduced to the public in a speech by former
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1946, represented the European part
of the "Cold War," the generally peaceful but highly dangerous forty-year
competition between the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union and
its allies. "Central front" was also applied to the European theater of the
Cold War, a deliberate use of a military term applied perhaps not in
expectation but in fear that the Cold War would become hot.
The Iron Curtain, symbolic though it was, had a geographic center -- West
Berlin. Since the end of the Second World War, by agreement among the major
allies fighting Nazi Germany -- United States, Britain and the Soviet Union --
the United States, Britain and France had occupied West Berlin. West Berlin had
a democratically elected mayor. Despite Soviet protests, and despite an
official status summarized in a 1971 treaty as "not a constituent part of the
Federal Republic of Germany and not governed by it," West Berlin was
effectively part of West Germany.
Beginning in 1961, West Berlin had a steel and concrete curtain surrounding the
city and cutting it off from East Berlin and East Germany, the country
established from the Soviet zone of occupation of Germany. The wall had been
intended to keep East Germans from fleeing to West Berlin and freedom. With a
few exceptions, it did that. But it also made a rather crude statement that
Communist governments, running self-declared workers paradises, did not trust
their own people not to leave when they had the chance. The Berlin Wall
declared that freedom was too much of a temptation; that not even an official,
if arbitrary and artificial, border was not enough. A real wall was necessary.
One of the central events of the Cold War occurred on June 26, 1963, about half
way through the Cold War, just a few feet from the Berlin Wall.
The Cold War, at least the tense standoff between the two superpowers, had
eased off from the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. The ill-advised Soviet
placement of offensive nuclear weapons in Cuba, 90 miles from the southern tip
of the United States, had come within hours, or less, of touching off a nuclear
war. By June 1963, both sides had pulled back from that highly dangerous brink.
The treaty banning nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere, the first such
treaty between the USSR and the United States, was being negotiated. Military
tensions were easing.
The arbitrary border called the Iron Curtain, however, remained as strong as
ever. Europe was still split, with contacts between the sections limited.
Eastern Europe was still not free, continuing under the tight control of the
Soviets. The Berlin Wall still stood. American President John F. Kennedy,
visiting Europe, had come for a brief trip to Berlin to show continued American
support for West Germany and for Berlin. Kennedy spoke, within site of the
wall, to a crowd of at least one million people (60% of West Berlin's
population at the time) about what West Berlin meant to the free world. As
Kennedy spoke, a real curtain, large and red, made of cloth, hung on the
Brandenderg Gate, the ceremonial center of the old and united Berlin, just
inside East Berlin. The curtain, as was intended, blocked Kennedy's view into
East Berlin, and East Berliners' view of him.
The climax of Kennedy's speech is what is remembered about that day. The climax
was particularly dramatic, even for a President known for dramatic speeches:
"There are many people in the world who really don't understand, or say they
don't, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world.
Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that Communism is the wave of
the future. Let them come to Berlin. . . and there are even a few who say that
it is true that Communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic
progress, ‘Lasst sie nach Berlin Kommen.'
Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never
had to put a wall up to keep our people in. . .
We. . . look forward to the day when this city will be joined as one – and this
country, and this great continent of Europe – in a peaceful and hopeful globe.
When that day finally comes, as it will, the people of West Berlin can take
sober satisfaction in the fact that they were in the front lines for almost two
All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore,
as a free man, I take pride in the words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner."
Because of a slight error on translation, Kennedy actually said he was a
pastry, ein Berliner. A citizen of Berlin was "Berliner." However, the Germans
certainly knew what he meant. Kennedy speech writer Theodore Sorenson, who
probably wrote the speech, later wrote that "The West Berliners. . . gave John
Kennedy the most overwhelming reception of his career."
Favorable References to the Devil
People of Kennedy's and Sorenson's generation probably recognized the irony
that Berlin had become a symbol of freedom and resistance to expansionist
tyranny at the height of the Cold War. Though never the ideological center of
Nazi Germany – that dubious honor belonged to Munich and Nuremberg -- thirty
years before Berlin was the center of government, the control center of the
greatest threat to freedom and security the world has known. Aside from the
Jews, for whom Nazi leader Adolf Hitler had a pathological hatred, Communism
was Hitler's main target.
Communism was both different and a rival to Nazism. Both systems were threats
to the democratic west. However, as soon as he learned of the June 22, 1941
massive German invasion of the Soviet Union, British Prime Minister Winston
Churchill, a bitter foe of Communism, declared, "If Hitler invaded Hell I would
at least make a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons."
The United States, still not at war, expanded its program of aid, already
providing vital assistance to Great Britain, to include the Soviet Union. Six
months later, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United
States into the war, formal military cooperation began.
The Soviet Union never became part of the close military partnership formed
between Britain and the United States, including the unified Combined Chiefs of
Staff controlling both nations' military forces. There was strategic
coordination, starting with Stalin's urgings for the British and Americans to
open a second front in Europe. Stalin also agreed that, once Germany was
defeated, the Soviet Union would enter the war against Japan.
For the first few years of the partnership, political as well as military
harmony seemed to prevail. The August 1941 "Atlantic Charter" informal
agreements between Roosevelt and Churchill supported the idea of no forced
territorial changes and the rights of people to choose their own governments.
In January 1942 these were formalized in the United Nations Declaration, which
the "Big Three," and 22 other nation, signed. A similar agreement among the Big
Three and China was signed in Moscow in October 1943.
By January 1945 the end of the war, at least in Europe, was close. The last
German offensives of the war, the Battle the Bulge and Operation Northwind, had
been stopped and pushed back with heavy German casualties. The Soviets had
begun their final push in the east. On February 4, 1945, Roosevelt, Churchill
and Stalin met at Yalta, a port on the Black Sea in the southern part of the
President Franklin D. Roosevelt was at sea on January 30, 1945, his 63rd
birthday. Various groups on board the American warship on which he was sailing
presented him with a total of five birthday cakes. James F. Byrnes, director of
the Office of War Mobilization, and later Secretary of State, asked Roosevelt's
daughter if the President was well. Roosevelt's daughter, and his doctor,
assured Byrnes that Roosevelt had a cold and a sinus infection, but was
otherwise fine. "Since he had so often ‘bounced back' after an illness," Byrne
wrote two years later, "I dismissed my fears." Roosevelt looked better by
the time the ship reached Malta, where he and his party would change to an
airplane for the rest of the trip to Yalta, where the Big Three, Roosevelt,
Churchill and Stalin, would meet.
At Malta Roosevelt flew for the first time in an airplane built for his
personal use, nicknamed the Sacred Cow. The plane even had an elevator, to
enable Roosevelt to enter the plane in his wheel chair. (Roosevelt had been
disabled with polio 25 years before.)
Byrnes later wrote about another concern. "So far as I could see, the President
had made little preparation for the Yalta Conference. His inauguration had
taken place the Saturday before we left and for ten days preceding that he had
been overwhelmed with engagements." Byrnes, White House Chief of Staff
Admiral William D. Leahy, and Roosevelt had discussed some of the issues.
However, Byrnes learned at Malta that Roosevelt had an extensive file of
studies and recommendations prepared by the State Department. He continued,
"Later, when I saw some of these splendid studies I greatly regretted that they
had not been considered on board ship. I am sure the failure to study them
while en route was due to the President's illness. And I am sure that only
President Roosevelt, with his intimate knowledge of the problems, could have
handled the situation so well with so little preparation."
Roosevelt's chief confidant, Harry Hopkins, was also sick during the
conference. Byrnes may be right that Roosevelt's lack of preparation did not
hurt the conference, but one has to wonder if the health of the chief
participant, and his chief aide, played a role in the eventual results of the
Roosevelt has been described as focusing too much on an idealistic peace,
assuming that other nations would realize our good will and behave reasonably
because this was the "right" thing to do. One historian has written, "Roosevelt
had ignored almost entirely the fundamental problem of security [italics
in original], the foundation on which peace has always existed. He had
concentrated on building structures and institutions to run a world in which
goodwill and understanding would reign supreme."
Stalin, virtually the sole architect of Soviet foreign policy, was quite happy
to play along. "As long as the Alliance lasted, Stalin believed his could
outsmart Western leaders and continue the redistribution of spheres of
influence. . ." is the view of two recent Russian historians, working with
newly declassified Soviet documents. As far back as 1944, George Kennan, then a
diplomat with the American embassy in Moscow, tried to warn Washington policy
makers about Soviet attitudes towards Roosevelt concept of trying to organize
"Western concepts of future collective security and international collaboration
seem naïve and unreal to the Moscow eye. But if talking in unreal terms is the
price of victory, why not? If the Western World needs Russian assurances of
future collaboration as a condition of military support, why not? Once
satisfied of the establishment of her power in Eastern and Central Europe,
Russia would presumably not find too much difficulty in going through whatever
motions are required for conformity with these strange western schemes for
collaboration and preservation of peace. What dangers would such collaboration
bring to a country already holding in its hands the tangible guarantees of its
own security, while prestige would demand that Russia not be missing from any
councils of world power."
The Yalta conference opened on February 4, 1945. The Americans arrived with the
long-term goal of gaining final Soviet approval to the formation of a peace
organization, a structure to ensure peace, the United Nations. The rapid
progress of the Allies armies made it necessary to also discuss European
political and military problems. A major goal of the United States and Great
Britain was to get a fixed date for the Soviet Union to declare war on Japan.
This was easy to settle. Stalin agreed that the Soviets would move against
Japan three months after the Germans surrendered. Stalin kept this promise, in
return for territorial concessions in Asia.
Another problem was the future role of France. Britain wanted France to play a
full role in postwar Germany, the Soviets felt France had not played much of a
role in the war and should not play much in the peace. Eventually the Big Three
agreed that France could have a zone of occupation in Germany – not a problem
for Stalin, since this would come from American and British zones. France would
have membership in the Allied control council for Germany. However, French
leader Charles DeGaulle would not be invited to attend Big Three meetings.
Permanently dismembering Germany into smaller states was discussed. This
suggestion had been raised in late 1943, at the Big Three meeting in Tehran.
The Yalta participants decided to pass the issue to a lower level meeting, and
nothing ever came of the proposal. Stalin, for one, was still thinking about a
united Germany becoming Communist and an ally of the Soviet Union.
The three leaders discussed German reparations, requiring the Germans to make
some effort to pay the material cost of the damage World War Two had done.
Churchill pointed out the Germany was so damaged by the war that the Allies
could not hope to extract anything approaching the economic value of what they
had spent, or lost, defeating Germany. German reparations after World War I had
been paid with the help of loans from the United States. The official State
Department minutes of the meeting noted that ". . . there had been only two
billion pounds extracted from Germany in the form of reparations by the Allies
after the last war and that even this would not have been possible had not the
United States given Germany credit."
Roosevelt responded to this, in the words of the minutes, "that he remembered
very vividly that the United States had lost a great deal of money. He said
that we had lent over ten billion dollars to Germany and that this time we
would not repeat our past mistakes." Roosevelt seems not to have
anticipated how strong the United States would emerge from the war, and added
that the United States could not afford to aid the Germans economically.
Winston Churchill was strongest in raising the issue of the dangers of a
starving Germany if too many reparations were demanded and taken. He focused on
the fact that the Germans must be left enough resources to pay reparations. A
starving Germany would benefit no one. Churchill was thinking of the way
reparations were handled after World War One. Even though Germany paid
reparations with loans from the United States, Germany was economically
devastated. Poor economic conditions bred resentment, and laid the groundwork
for Hitler. Realism at Yalta put limits on reparations.
A few years later this same realism with intersect with the realities of
dealing with the Soviet Union and evolve into the American and British desire
to have the western portion of Germany get back on its feet economically.
Economic viability in western Germany would enable the Germans to feed
themselves, and substantially cut the cost of occupation. Becoming part of the
western European economic system would also lock at least part of Germany into
a democratic path. Control of Germany would be accomplished by tying West
Germany to the western European democracies both economically and militarily.
Even if Churchill and some members of the British and American staffs were
thinking this far ahead, and they might well have been, these would not be good
arguments to use with Stalin. Churchill was well advised to use the arguments
he used, that Germany needed to keep enough resources to avoid becoming a
basket case and to produce enough to pay what reparations were demanded. The
leaders decided to leave the details to a commission. Reparations did not prove
to be a major practical issue.
Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov later complained "We collected
reparations after the war, but they amounted to a pittance." However, the
Soviets took enough from their occupation zone in Germany to make it harder
when they tried to create the German Democratic Republic, East Germany.
Molotov, contradiction his earlier statement, commented on this dilemma.
"Quietly, bit by bit, we had been creating the GDR, our own Germany. What would
those people think of us if we had taken everything from their country? After
all, we were taking from the Germans who wanted to work with us."
The most controversial decision to emerge from Yalta dealt with the postwar
Polish government. Poland had been divided between Germany and the Soviet Union
in 1939, and invaded by both that September. However, the Soviets were accurate
when they told Churchill that the Nazi-Soviet pact of that year was made
obsolete by the German invasion of the Soviet Union. By August 1944, the Soviet
army had pushed the German back almost to Warsaw. On August 1, 1944, the Polish
Home Army, the chief non-communist resistance force, heard the sounds of
German-Soviet combat not far to the east. They began an uprising against the
Nazis, partly out of a desire to liberate themselves before the Soviets
arrived. Stalin stopped his army in the area for several weeks as the Germans
defeated the uprising, wiped out the Home Army, and almost obliterated Warsaw.
Just before leaving for Yalta, Churchill told his private secretary, "Make no
mistake, all the Balkans, except Greece, are going to be Bolshevised, and there
is nothing I can do to prevent it. There is nothing I can do for Poland
either." Churchill was a realist, still seeped in the balance of power idea
that had been the basis for British foreign policy for three hundred years. In
October 1944, for example, Churchill and Stalin had come to the "percentages"
agreement on how much influence each nation would have in the Balkans. The Big
Three eventually agreed that, until elections would be held, the
Soviet-supported government of Poland would be the government, but with added
Looking at maps of the area, throughout the last four hundred years, Poland
almost seems to move back and forth. With few natural borders in the central
European plane, Poland could anywhere people want it to be. Before World War
Two, Poland was a basically landlocked country between the main body of Germany
and East Prussia. A small corridor gave Poland an outlet to the Balkan Sea.
Recreated in 1945, Poland moved west, giving up territory to the Soviet Union
in the East in exchange for German territory in the west.
Churchill and Roosevelt were dealing at Yalta with a man, Stalin, more complex
than he is normally credited with being, combining balance of power, Communist
ideology, a fair amount of personal paranoia, and the overwhelming desire not
to allow any further invasions of Soviet territory. Stalin had no compunctions
about taking the actions he thought particular circumstances demanded. He had
shown himself in the past willing to use extreme brutality, but this was not
the only method he had available. "By 1945 one could find some rudiments of the
revolutionary imperial paradigm in Stalin's foreign policy, but he was fully
prepared to shelve ideology, at least for a time, and adhere only to the
concept of a balance of power."
The Yalta Conference would issue a statement grandly declaring that all
countries had the right to choose their own form of government. Stalin made it
clear what was his first priority. In discussing Poland's post war future,
minutes of one Yalta meeting describe Stalin at one point saying,
"Mr. Churchill had said that for Great Britain the Polish question was one of
honor and that he understood, but for the Russians it was a question both of
honor and security. Throughout history, Poland had been the corridor for attack
on Russia. . . It was not only a question of honor for Russia, but one of life
Roosevelt remained the most idealistic of the three leaders at Yalta. He
maintained the desire for a post war world based on mutual cooperation, not on
power and spheres of influence. The last time he spoke to the American
Congress, on March 1, 1945, Roosevelt summarized what he thought he had
achieved at Yalta by stating that "The Crimea Conference ought to spell the end
of the system of unilateral action, the exclusive alliances, the spheres of
influence, the balances of power all the expedients that have been tried for
centuries – and have always failed."
The main criticism of Yalta was that the United States, and Britain,
surrendered Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union. Political commentators and
historians have also complained that the Soviets broke their word – at least
somewhat contradicting the first argument. However the Soviet Army already had
control of most of Eastern Europe, or would have this control before the war
ended. Stalin had told one of his aides that the armies would impose the
political systems where they stopped. This is what would happen. The arbitrary
border which divided Europe evolved, one can say, simply because it could
evolve. Each side imposed its system where its armies ended up.
Churchill and Roosevelt still needed Soviet cooperation, at least until the war
with Japan was successfully completed. In accepting the borders, so to speak,
of the Soviet area of influence, Churchill and Roosevelt were accepting
reality. Whatever effect they may have on the people directly involved,
arbitrary borders do have a certain logic for their creators.
Two years later James F. Byrnes, who became American Secretary of State two
months after Yalta, wrote about the conference that "There is no doubt that the
tide of Anglo-Soviet-American friendship had reached a new high. But President
Roosevelt had barely returned to American soil when the tide began to ebb."
Adapted from Chapter One of
Bruce L. Brager
The Iron Curtain: The Cold War in Europe
Foreword by Senator George J. Mitchell
Introduction by James I. Matray
California State University, Chico
Philadelphia: Chelsea House, Publishers, copyright 2004
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. Quoted Brian Crozier, The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Empire ,
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. Quoted, Theodore C. Sorenson, Kennedy , New York: Harper & Row,
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. Sorenson, Kennedy , page 600.
. Quoted in Forrest C. Pogue, "The Struggle for a New Order," in Snell, John
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. James F. Byrnes, Speaking Frankly , New York: Harper &
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. Byrnes page 23.
. Byrnes page 23.
. Don Cook, Forging the Alliance: NATO, 1945-1950 , New York: Arbor
House/William Morrow, 1989, page 3,
. Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshkov, Inside the Kremlin's Cold War:
From Stalin to Khrushchev , Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard
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. Quoted Cook page 5.
. United States Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States,
Diplomatic Papers, The Conferences at Malta and Yalta , Washington:
Government Printing Office, 1955, page 621.
. U.S. State Department, Yalta , page 621.
. Quoted Zubok page 31.
. Quoted Zubok, page 49.
. Sir John Colville, The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries ,
London: Norton, 1985, entry for 23 January 1945. Found Walker page 11.
. Zubok and Pleshakov, 34.
. US Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States. (The
Conferences at Malta and Yalta) Page 621.
. Quoted Cook page 8.
. Byrne, page 45.
- - -
Copyright © 2005 Bruce L. Brager
(Reprinted with permission from The Iron Curtain: The Cold War in Europe)
Written by Bruce L. Brager. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Bruce L. Brager at:
About the author:
Bruce Brager is a writer specializing in military history, defense and foreign
policy. He is the author of ten published books and over fifty
Published online: 08/20/2005.