Guest Post: Tobias Gibson on “Sinews of Peace and the Importance of Churchill”

Today’s guest post comes to us from Tobias Gibson who is Chair of the Political Science Department and the Director of the Security Studies Program at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri.  If that institution rings a bell, you may be recalling it was the site of Winston Churchill’s famous “The Sinews of Peace” lecture or, as it is more commonly known, the “Iron Curtain” speech.

As March is the 75th anniversary of the legendary address, it could not be more timely to hear Tobias’ thoughtful reflections on it (and Churchill).  As you will read, both Churchill and his speech still have much meaning for us as we face the challenges of the 21st century.

Sinews of Peace and the Importance of Churchill

by Tobias Gibson

“And wherever men are fighting against barbarism, tyranny, and massacre, for freedom, law, and honour, let them remember that the fame of their deeds, even though they themselves be exterminated, may perhaps be celebrated as long as the world rolls round.” The Birth of Britain, Winston Churchill

On March 5, 1946, Winston Churchill, former British Prime Minister during World War II, came to Westminster College, in Fulton, Missouri and described the budding new threat of communist Soviet expansion across Europe.

Pulling no punches, Churchill issued the warning that “[f]rom Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.”  He continued, describing continental stage behind the dropped curtain which held “…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 speech joined early declarations of the budding conflict between the world’s superpowers.

In the immediate aftermath, the response to the speech was measured. To be sure, many agreed with Churchill’s warning. However, a sizeable portion of the radio audience was concerned that Churchill not only was wrong, but that he was willingly turning against an ally that had prevented Nazi expansion on the eastern front, and then liberated Poland and advanced on Hitler and the Nazi army.

Yet, two years after the Churchill’s cautionary speech, a coup in Czechoslovakia, supported by the Soviets, led to a communist takeover, and few months later the Soviets began the Berlin Blockade. And, Churchill’s speech ushered in the truism that eastern Europe was indeed on the dark side of an iron curtain.

As the 75th anniversary of the Sinews of Peace speech comes and goes, both Winston Churchill and “cold war thinking” have both come under fire.

Debate of Churchill’s reputation is warranted. He was notoriously curmudgeonly, did not always treat those close to him well, and was known to berate some who were not as prepared as he was for meetings. He was often described as ruthless, aggressive, bullheaded, and insensitive. And, he was adamant, especially early in the allied efforts of World War II, that the British colonies would remain in British hands after the war—despite the very clear western move toward self-governance as a reason for the colonies to help fight Nazi tyranny.

Perhaps most notably and damningly, several critics and detractors of Churchill and his legacy point to his perspective on Gandhi, his racist views of Indians, (who he described as “beastly”), Jews, and other groups. Like our Founding Fathers, coming to grips with the entirety of Churchill and his legacy is a debate worth having.

Yet, an honest debate, devoid of hyperbole is necessary to fully understand the life, ideology, and policy of Churchill. In a recent work, Churchill biographer Andrew Roberts and Zewditu Gebreyohanes challenge critics to look more deeply into the life and times of Churchill, and the threats he faced, actions he took, and lessons he learned throughout his career. For example, they argue that a detailed look would illustrate that “[f]ar from holding the extreme, hateful views ascribed to him . . . on the question of racial identity, Churchill actively rejected racially-based injustice and was simply an ardent patriot who felt great pride in Britain’s global civilizing mission. Churchill’s intentions were both noble and moral.”

In addition to critique of Churchill as a person, “Cold War thinking” has also become a target, especially as the Biden administration comes into office and its foreign policy takes shape. I have suggested elsewhere that the common view of Churchill’s speech as merely a warning of a US versus USSR struggle is an incomplete understanding of the framework that Churchill laid out—not merely to counter the Soviets, but to expand democracy and subsequently peace across the globe.

In recent years, democracy has contracted. Scholars have sounded warnings for years. As democratic norms have waned, despotism and authoritarianism are increasing in all corners of the world.

Thus, a commitment to the protection and expansion of democracy is as necessary now as it was when Churchill spoke on March 5, 1946. And, as such, a rich understanding of Churchill’s speech goes beyond the “iron curtain,” a turn of phrase he used in the speech to understand what he meant as the titular sinews of peace. I’ve written elsewhere that the speech offers a blueprint for American foreign policy—even today. Indeed,

Churchill implored for the security of individuals when he asked:

What then is the overall strategic concept which we should inscribe today? It is nothing less than the safety and welfare, the freedom and progress, of all the homes and families of all the men and women in all the lands.

Moreover, according to Churchill, the needs of the people were beyond mere sustenance; security necessitated more than merely basic rights. Churchill declared in no uncertain terms that:

All this means that the people of any country have the right, and should have the power by constitutional action, by free unfettered elections, with secret ballot, to choose or change the character or form of government under which they dwell; that freedom of speech and thought should reign; that courts of justice, independent of the executive, unbiased by any party, should administer laws which have received the broad assent of large majorities or are consecrated by time and custom.

Churchill’s speech was as much a description of security as justice, human rights and rule of law as it was a blueprint for the security of nations.

In short, despite the debate that spans the Atlantic about Churchill’s legacy, the world needs to act on the basis of his “Cold War thinking” now more than ever. If democracy is to be preserved—as an ideology, an institution, and governing norm—unwavering devotion to justice, human rights, and rule of law is imperative.

About the author:

Tobias T. Gibson is the John Langton Professor of Legal Studies and Political Science at Westminster College, in Fulton, Missouri. He also serves as the Chair of the Political Science Department and the Director of the Security Studies Program.

He is the co-editor, with Kurt Jefferson, of the forthcoming Contextualizing Security: A Reader from the University of Georgia Press. His work has appeared in numerous outlets, including the National Security Law Journal, The Hill, and books, such as The Guide to the Study of Intelligence, Homeland Security: Foundations in Law and Policy (2nd edition), and the forthcoming Sustainable Planet: Compelling Issues and Solutions for our Environment’s Future.

The views expressed by guest authors also do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University.

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!


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