Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Churchill Identifies Key Issues

Not only did Winston Churchill popularize the phrase “Iron Curtain” in a 1946 speech to describe the geopolitical situation which shaped global politics from 1946 to 1990, he also used a 1949 speech as the occasion to articulate one of the defining characteristics of that situation.

If most, but not all, of the world’s nations were placed into one of two camps, two camps divided by that Iron Curtain, then one of the contentions between those two was the ability to gather intelligence about the other’s military secrets. One historian, William F. Buckley Jr., writes:

On the 31st of March, in 1949, Mr. Winston Churchill (he was then ungartered) was to address the Mid-Century Convocation of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he had advertised his forthcoming remarks as “not unimportant.”

The United States held a decisive edge from 1945 until August 1949, when the Soviet Union succeeded in constructing its first working atomic bomb. The Soviets gained valuable intelligence from a variety of spies which it had placed within the United States, including physicist Klaus Fuchs, and couriers Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

Churchill’s speech at M.I.T., then, came at a time when the United States still held a monopoly on nuclear weapons. He did not know, but perhaps suspected, that the Soviets would eventually break that monopoly. Many observers at the time were surprised, not that the communists eventually developed its own atomic bomb, but that they did it as soon as they did. This speed was made possible by the spy network which had infiltrated the State Department and other agencies within the United States government.

But the four or five years during which the United States had the nuclear advantage over the communists were enough to allow western Europe to be solidified. That time, purchased by the atomic monopoly, meant that the westward expansion of the Soviet Union, which had already swallowed up Poland and Czechoslovakia and other regions, would be halted at the Iron Curtain. Buckley writes:

After it was delivered, the press services had a hard time deciding what aspect of Churchill’s address was most newsworthy. They settled, finally, on this: “It is certain that Europe would have been communized like Czechoslovakia, and London under bombardment some time ago, but for the deterrent of the atomic bomb in the hands of the U.S.”

Had Fuchs and the Rosenbergs sold the military secrets about the atomic bomb to the Soviets earlier than they did, an emboldened communism might have pushed westward to consume Switzerland and France. Although America’s nuclear monopoly ended too soon, it had at least lasted long enough to preserve both millions of lives and the civil freedom which lent dignity to those lives.