WHEN HE SPOKE 40 years ago of the "Iron Curtain" that had descended from "Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic," Winston Churchill was acknowledging and announcing a truth that so many in the West were so unwilling to admit -- the onset of the Cold War. So powerful was the phrase and so pronounced was the turning point marked by this speech that leaders have been returning to it ever since to validate their own policies.
On that day in Fulton, Mo., Churchill was looking toward a system of collective security; he was anticipating NATO by three years, each year marked by recurrent and escalating crisis with the Soviet Union. So he asked the Western powers "to stand together" -- and he concluded: "There is nothing (the Russians) admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than weakness, especially military weakness."
It is at this point, for the most part, that the reading, citation, and interpretation of the Fulton speech all stop. Probably that is because it was Churchill's sounding of the alarm about Soviet misdeeds that drew the most attention and the most controversy at the time. In New York a few days after the speech, hostile demonstrators paraded outside the Waldorf-Astoria, where he was staying.
There are three other points Winston Churchill made at Fulton which apply with equal force today -- but which do not seem to be as heeded.
First, the address was a plea for peace, not conflict. It contained the reminder that "our supreme task and duty is to guard the homes of the common people from the horrors and miseries of another war." He spoke of future world conflict, "as incomparably more rigorous than what the world had just been through. The Dark Ages may return, the Stone Age may now return on the gleaming wings of science, and what might shower immeasurable material blessings upon mankind may even bring about its total destruction."
Forty years ago, when the West held a nuclear monopoly, Churchill was not talking of "winnable" nuclear wars; he was worried about nuclear war in which the only winner would be death. And to him, even then, the issue was urgent: "Beware, I say; time may be short. Do not let us take the course of allowing events to drift along until it is too late."
Second, the former and future prime minister insisted that there was a basis on which to deal with the Soviets. He had stated it before, shortly after the outbreak of the war in 1939, in another famous phrase which is also usually only half-quoted: "Russia . . . is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. The key is Russian national interest."
The part about national interest is invariably the part of his view that is left out. Power and doctrine -- Winston Churchill had read history and he knew that ideology was not simply or solely the reason for Soviet aggression and subversion; it was, in sinister combination, the rationalization of conquests coveted long before the 1917 revolution. The Soviet commissars were fulfilling, on a grander scale, the expansionist ambitions of the czars.
But while the Soviets might want expansion, which the West had to resist, Churchill, said, they did not want war. The inevitable truth of that view, in the atomic age, still eludes foolish and dangerous people on both sides of the Iron Curtain, who assume that on the other side a first strike is being planned, a nuclear exchange is being actively considered -- and therefore, arms control is an impossible dream or an undesirable snare.
Instead, Churchill insisted that "What we have to consider . . . is the permanent prevention of war." This, he believed, was in the Russian interest as surely as our own.
Third, Winston Churchill was convinced that the West should actively pursue what he called "a good understanding with the Russians. . . . There is the solution which I would offer to you. . . ."
He was to expand on this theme again and again. At the Conservative Party Conference in North Wales in 1949, during the most frigid days of the Cold War, he called on the West to take the initiative in opening talks with the Soviets. This time, it was the hawks who assailed him. They and their ideological descendants prefer to edit Fulton to forget the party conference, and to neglect the sweeping proposal of Churchill's second prime ministership for an East-West summit in 1953.
Across four decades, Winston Churchill's voice and his advice still speak to us and they come down to this: yes, you can deal with the Russians -- but only if you have both strength and suppleness, a willingness to stand your essential ground, and yet to see a great common interest that transcends inevitable rivalries, regional conflicts, and petty quarrels.
Just after the Fulton speech, Churchill and Averell Harriman met in Washington for a long, private talk. Harriman shared Churchill's conclusion, as he reported it in his notes -- that he was "very gloomy about coming to any accommodation with Russia unless and until it became clear to the Russians that they would be met by force if they continued their expansion . . . ." Seventeen years later, after the Soviet installation of missiles in Cuba had been met and repulsed, it was Harriman who initialed, for the United States, the first great formal accommodation of the post-war era, the Limited Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty of 1963.
Most of the time, however, we appear to have followed only half the lesson of this history -- to stand fast -- and not the other half -- that the stand should not be a stopping place but a departure point toward making the world safer for human survival. Each tough stand, once taken, should be another step in the thousand-mile journey toward peace.
We cannot have Churchill's counsel about the Soviets without his counsel about ourselves: The two parts are of a single piece, shaped by a single, subtle mind, the product of a complex and realistic world view.