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The Iron Curtain: The Cold War in Europe

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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 [1]

"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 [2]

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,"[3] 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 decades.

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."[4]

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."[5]

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."[6] 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 Soviet Union.


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."[7] 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."[8] 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."[9]

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 conference.

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."[10]

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. . ."[11] 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 for peace.

"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."[12]

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."[13]

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."[14] 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."[15] 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."[16]

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."[17] 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 non-Communist members.

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."[18]

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 and death."[19]

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."[20]

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."[21]

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


Cook, Don Forging the Alliance: NATO, 1945-1950 , New York: Arbor House/William Morrow, 1989.

Crozier, Brian The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Empire , Rocklin, California: Forum, an Imprint of Prima Publishing, 1999. Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1980

Galeotti, Mark, Afghanistan: The Soviet Union's Last War , London: Frank Cass, 1990.

Gillon, Steven M. and Diane B. Kunz, America During the Cold War , Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993.

Pogue, Forrest C. "The Struggle for a New Order," in Snell, John C., The Meaning of Yalta , pages 3-36, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1956.

Sorenson, Theodore C., Kennedy , New York: Harper & Row, 1965.

Walker, Martin, The Cold War: A History , New York: Henry Holt and Company, a John Macrae Book, 1993.

Zubok, Vladimir, and Constantine Pleshakov, Inside the Kremlin's Cold War: From Stalin to Khrushchev , Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1996.


[1]. Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat: Winston Churchill's Famous Speeches , edited, with an introduction by David Cannidine, London: Cassell, 1989, page 303.

[2]. Quoted in Steven M. Gillon and Diane B. Kunz, America During the Cold War , Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993, page v.

[3]. Quoted Brian Crozier, The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Empire , Rocklin, California: Forum, an Imprint of Prima Publishing, 1999, Page 178.

[4]. Quoted, Theodore C. Sorenson, Kennedy , New York: Harper & Row, 1965, Page 601.

[5]. Sorenson, Kennedy , page 600.

[6]. Quoted in Forrest C. Pogue, "The Struggle for a New Order," in Snell, John C., The Meaning of Yalta , pages 3-36, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1956, page 6.

[7]. James F. Byrnes, Speaking Frankly , New York: Harper & Brothers, 1947, page 22.

[8]. Byrnes page 23.

[9]. Byrnes page 23.

[10]. Don Cook, Forging the Alliance: NATO, 1945-1950 , New York: Arbor House/William Morrow, 1989, page 3,

[11]. Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshkov, Inside the Kremlin's Cold War: From Stalin to Khrushchev , Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1996, page 26.

[12]. Quoted Cook page 5.

[13]. 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.

[14]. U.S. State Department, Yalta , page 621.

[15]. Quoted Zubok page 31.

[16]. Quoted Zubok, page 49.

[17]. Sir John Colville, The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries , London: Norton, 1985, entry for 23 January 1945. Found Walker page 11.

[18]. Zubok and Pleshakov, 34.

[19]. US Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States. (The Conferences at Malta and Yalta) Page 621.

[20]. Quoted Cook page 8.

[21]. 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 articles.

Published online: 08/20/2005.
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