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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Our Supreme Task”
In May 1946, Winston Churchill, the wartime prime minister of Great Britain, voted out of office a year earlier, delivered a speech at a relatively obscure Midwestern college that exploded across the world like a thunderclap. His subject was Soviet expansionism, which had imposed communist dictatorships over much of Eastern Europe.
Never a man to mince words, especially when he was correct, Churchill intoned, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” Thus, for the first time, a Western leader had the fortitude to say what was obvious to anyone who watched the Soviet Union under the iron rule of Joseph Stalin.
Churchill’s forum for the speech was Westminster College in out-of-the-way Fulton, Mo., which boasted an enrollment of about 300 students, all male. In Cold War history, the Westminster speech is cited frequently as a seminal moment in the skein of events that dominated the world for the next half-century. From time to time, I wondered, “Why Westminster? Was it simply because President Truman hailed from Missouri?”
The story is far more complex, and it is related entertainingly by Philip White in a first book that marks him as a historian to be watched. Mr. White’s central character is Franc Lewis “Bullet” McCluer, who had become president of the college in 1933, at age 37. (McCluer acquired his lifelong nickname after his Westminster team beat the University of Texas in a debating match. An awed Texan said of his vanquisher, “He shoots out words like bullets!”
The energetic McCluer cast about for a program that would bring recognition to the small school. He persuaded the widow of a prominent Canadian lawyer, John Findley Green, who had served as a trustee from 1906 to 1932, to establish a lecture series honoring her husband. She gave it an initial endowment of $20,000.
McCluer was not bashful about inviting big-name speakers to his campus. Early speakers included William Dodd, the returning ambassador to Germany, and Francis B. Sayre, former high commissioner to the Philippines. While visiting the World’s Fair in 1940, he met New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and invited him on the spot. As an admirer said of McCluer, “He is one of those go-get-‘em gentlemen who usually hook what they fish for.” Another speaker was FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
On a summer-vacation fishing trip to Minnesota in 1945, McCluer discussed possible orators with his wife. In a “daydreaming mood,” he blurted out, “How about Winston Churchill?” She urged him to go ahead - what could he lose? Cast out of office in 1945, Churchill was writing his history of the war (six hefty volumes) and casting a skeptical eye at Stalin, whom he had come to despise at the Yalta Conference.
As luck had it, he was planning a trip to the United States on publishing business and to help Britain secure a postwar loan of several billion dollars. He planned to meet Truman and his longtime friend, the New York financier Bernard Baruch.
When McCluer heard of Churchill’s plans, he immediately thought of his 1916 Westminster classmate, Maj. Gen. Harry H. Vaughan, who had befriended Truman during World War I and now was White House military aide. He went to Washington and asked Vaughan “if we could get [Churchill] to come to the college and make a talk.” Vaughan replied, “Well, why don’t you write to him?”
McCluer smiled and opened his briefcase, “I’ve got a letter right here,” he said. Vaughan hurried his friend into the Oval Office. After some pleasantries, McCluer handed the letter to Truman, who read it, smiled and jotted a personal note on the letter of invitation: “This is a wonderful school in my home state. Hope you can do it. I’ll introduce you. Best regards, Harry S. Truman.”
According to Mr. White’s account, Churchill realized that what he received “was not merely a letter from a president of some obscure college. … With Truman’s involvement and the full attention of the U.S. and British media, such an engagement would be the perfect opportunity to share his grave concerns about Communism and the potential solutions that had percolated since [his] election defeat.” His acceptance letter was sent “to Truman rather than McCluer to ensure maximum impact at the highest level.”
But rather than delivering the four lectures common to other speakers in the series, Churchill opted for a single address. “Hardly surprising,” Mr. White writes, “given that Churchill gave his most potent orations as single-salvos - most famously his ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears speech’ to Commons in May 1941.”
Truman would later claim to reporters that Churchill spoke for himself, that he had not read the speech in advance. Mr. White comments, “That was, of course, a fabrication - he had not only perused the final draft … but had wholeheartedly endorsed its contents.” It also was praised by such administration figures as James Forrestal, secretary of the Navy.
Thus, the United States was able to fire a major opening salvo in the Cold War, even if by proxy. Churchill would later declare that Westminster was “the most important speech of my career.”
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