Fulton, Missouri: the most unusual birthplace of the “Iron Curtin”

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How this small Midwestern town drew one of the most influential people on earth to visit and his speech that changed the world.  It was October of 1945. The Second World War had finally ended a couple of months prior. The people of Great Britain wanting to leave the painful memories of the war behind them voted the Conservative Party and Prime Minister Winston Churchill out of power. Churchill’s formidable personality and indomitable will kept the British strong during the darkest days of the London Blitz. But now, he was forcibly retired. 

 

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In many ways, Churchill was the face of the British people during the trying days of the Second World War. A stubborn bulldog ready to fight. But post-war Britain wanted to change, and the bulldog was put out to pasture.

It was at this time that the president of Westminster College F. L. McCluer came up with a seemingly impossible idea: to invite Winston Churchill to come to the college in Fulton, Missouri and give an address. Many thought the idea would never work. Why would a former British Prime minister come to a tiny college in rural Missouri when he could speak anywhere in the world. But the college had two things in their favor: for one they had an alumnus who was an advisor to then-President Harry Truman. Secondly, since Truman was a native Missourian, he may be amenable to lending his clout. So the college wrote the advisor who forwarded the letter on to Truman. The president then passed the note on to Churchill with a handwritten note stating “This is a wonderful school in my home state. Hope you can do it. I’ll introduce you.  BestRegards,  Harry Truman”

 

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President Harry Truman and Sir Winston Churchill in Fulton, Missouri March 5, 1946.

Winston Churchill had several reasons to seriously consider the offer. The very heart of the United States seemed like a right place for Churchill to reclaim his relevance in a post-war society and to establish his vision for the world.  He wanted to return to the Prime Minister position, And he knew a great speech in an unexpected location might secure this.

He also had very little interaction with Truman who had been Vice President before the death of Franklin Roosevelt. The only time they had met prior was the Potsdam Conference the year before where post-war plans were being made, During the meeting, Churchill had found Truman to be a bit aloof, and he wanted to have this chance to try to get to know him better. A foundation he could use when he regained power.

Truman met up with Churchill in Washington D.C., and the two rode by train from Washington to the Missouri state capital of Jefferson City near Fulton where the two bonded playing poker. (Churchill lost, but Truman had been playing his whole life)

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The President and the former Prime Minister were given Honorary Degrees, This is Churchill’s gown worn by him during the ceremony and his address following.

Churchill’s address was called “The Sinews of Peace” and introduced two terms that are still part of the vernacular today. “Special relationship” to describe the unique bond between the U.S. and the U.K. and “The Iron Curtain” a metaphor which described the Soviet encroachment and establishing Client states in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. Each of these countries had under the direct influence of the Soviets, enacted a communist government. Two other counties, Albania and Yugoslavia, were also communist but not under the direct control of the Russian government.

This speech is considered the opening shot in the Cold War. A period of conflict that would last until the end of the 1980’s. Churchill’s ominous warning of Soviet aggression was taken seriously would shape the foreign policy of the United States and much of Europe for decades.

In the 1960’s the college established a museum to commemorate Churchill’s visit and the importance of his speech. The museum is housed in the basement of the church of St. Mary the Virgin Aldermanbury. The church was originally built in England in 1181 but was destroyed in the London Fire of 1666. Famed English architect Sir Christopher Wren rebuilt the Church in Portland Stone. The Church remained intact until it fell victim to bombs during the Nazi bombings where only the stone walls remained. The stones were shipped to Fulton, and the church was painstakingly restored to its former glory.

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The college had already done the impossible by getting Winston Churchill to speak here, so why not try again? The idea of moving a Church of the grounds it had consecrated for nearly 800 years seemed beyond daring. But four years of effort and at the cost of over  2 million dollars (10 million dollars in today’s money) made it happen. Like a Phoniex, the church rose from the ashes of the great fire, and the London Blitz and now resides in rural Missouri.

 

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The marble still shows burn marks from the firebombing of WW2

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Churchill’s statue stands next to the restored transplanted Church. His speech was actually in the college gymnasium. Over 28,000 people attended his address (almost five times the population of the town) most couldn’t get in the gym and had to listen to PA systems outside.

 

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The complex includes the museum, the restored church and a segment of the original Berlin Wall outside.

 

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Most people may not realize Churchill was 66 years old when he took office. Many people retire at that age. Instead, he had to take on one of the most challenging jobs in history.

 

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“Criticism is easy. Achievement is difficult” Churchill is flashing the “V for victory sign” In the 1960’s the sign would be co-opted by the peace movement to mean the opposite.

 

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A masterful orator, Churchill was almost Shakespearean in his command of the English language. A skill that would serve him well during the dark days of the battle of Britain.

 

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Even Churchills physical presence conveyed his determination. Short, stout and pugnacious like an English bulldog. He was formidable even before he began to speak.

Upstairs, is the interior of the restored St. Mary’s Aldermanbury Church. There are services here each Sunday and the location is very popular for weddings.

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The altar centerpiece
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Every effort has been made to restore the interior to how it looked prior to being struck by the bombs.
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The organ loft
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St. Mary’s has been called “The Church of the Phoenix” given its resurgence. and survival.
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The museum also contains a segment of the Berlin Wall. This is the largest section of the wall outside of Europe. Given the college’s place in the history of the cold war, many other prominent speakers have made their way to Fulton such as Margaret Thatcher, Presidents Reagan, and H.W.Bush and Polish president Lech Walesa. Not bad for a rural college with less than a thousand students in a town of less than five thousand.

With the end of the Cold War 28 years gone, it seems almost like ancient history.  World War Two is even further behind us.  Forgetting the past especially if it is painful or difficult is human nature. But you should come to Fulton, Missouri, and remember the struggle and appreciate the fruits of those toiled. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 Replies to “Fulton, Missouri: the most unusual birthplace of the “Iron Curtin””

    1. Hey there amoralegria. Fulton is in central Missouri about thirty minutes east of Columbia. You have to get off of I-70 and go south about 10 miles but it’s clearly marked. Anyone who is a fan of Churchill or an anglophile ,in general will love it. Plus you get to see a slice of the berlin wall.

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