Flurries of light fluttered in through the windows of the Westminster College gymnasium. Near the entrance, dignitaries such as Missouri Gov. Phil Donnelly stood in anticipation. Helen Danuser, 32, had been seated in bleachers adjacent the speaking platform for nearly one hour.
It was March 5, 1946, and Winston Churchill was about to give an address called “Sinews of Peace.”
“President (Harry) Truman was the first to appear, followed by a short, stooped gentleman with a bit of a scowl on his face,” recalled Danuser, who is now 91. “It took me a little while to realize that it was Churchill.”
Danuser recalls Truman introducing Churchill tersely: “Mr. Churchill and I believe in freedom of speech. ... I understand Mr. Churchill might have something important to say.”
Indeed, Churchill’s speech foreshadowed the nearly half-century Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1969, to signify the speech’s mark on history, the Winston Churchill Memorial and Library opened on the Westminster College campus, not far from the gymnasium where Helen Danuser and hundreds of others sat transfixed while the former British prime minister warned that the world was about to change.
To celebrate the 60th anniversary of Churchill’s appearance at Westminster, scheduled for next spring, the memorial — the only one dedicated to Churchill in the United States — is undergoing a $4 million face-lift to its museum.
The new museum will include interactive exhibits, imaginative multimedia and genuine artifacts to create a vibrant and appealing portrayal of one of the 20th century’s most important figures.
“My biggest objective with the renovation is to reach out to youths and reveal to them that Churchill is not just some dead white guy who was kind of important at one time but someone who had incredible leadership abilities and was a true visionary,” said Rob Havers, executive director of the Churchill Memorial. “It’s crucial that younger generations realize that many historical legacies have Churchill’s imprint in them and his influence is still very much alive and well.”
Shortly after being cast out of office as prime minister by British voters, Churchill received a letter printed on White House stationery. It was an invitation to speak at a small college in Fulton, Mo., with a name that intrigued Churchill: Westminster College.
The idea to invite Churchill came from Truman’s military aid, Major General Harry Vaughan, an alumnus of Westminster College. In order to secure a speedy reply from Churchill, Vaughan asked Truman to affix a note to the bottom of the invitation. Truman wrote: “It’s a fine college in my home state. Come and I’ll introduce you.”
Churchill didn’t have much knowledge of Westminster or its whereabouts, but the invitation from the U.S. president was an opportunity to engage a global audience on a pressing issue. Even before accepting Truman’s proposal, Churchill began to grind out an address, the title of which was a play on the Roman statesman Cicero’s phrase “sinews of war.”
The speech would undergo multiple revisions. It was not until the evening of March 4, while Churchill was in the college president’s suite at Westminster, that he added the now-celebrated “iron curtain” portion of the address.
Danuser recalled that Churchill tottered onto the speaker’s platform in a scarlet Oxford robe. Squinting over his eyeglasses at the hushed assembly, Churchill began, in his customary stuttering fashion, with a good-natured greeting: “I am glad to come to Westminster College.... The name Westminster is somehow familiar to me. I seem to have heard it before. Indeed it was at Westminster that I received a very large part of my education.”
But, almost suddenly, Danuser said, Churchill’s tone and demeanor changed.
“Suddenly his cheeks became very red,” she recalled, “like that of a fire engine.”
Churchill then ventured into diplomatic no man’s land, while emphasizing his detachment from British official policy by saying, “Now, I only speak for myself.” The utmost challenge for the world was the avoidance of another global conflict, he said. Lifting his forefinger twice, he cited two entities that must function as peacekeepers, the United Nations and the lasting “special relationship between Britain and America.”
It was about that time, Danuser remembers, that the sun became overtaken by cloud cover, as Churchill spoke the words that foresaw the Soviet hegemony that ultimately seized Eastern and Central Europe.
“A shadow has fallen upon the scenes so lately lighted by the Allied victory,” he said. “From Stettin in the Baltic, to Trieste in the Atlantic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”
Danuser recalls that Churchill’s tensed fists trembled in frightful alarm as he spoke. Then, one at a time, he recounted the cities that, since the end of World War II, had become part of the Soviet sphere.
“Behind that line lie 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 some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow.”
Danuser was marveled by Churchill’s oratorical skills.
“Boy, did he know how to put words together,” she said. “By saying that an ‘iron curtain’ was descending across Central and Eastern Europe, Churchill proved that not only was he a tremendous leader, military mind and so on, but that he was able to peer into the looking glass and tell the world what it probably didn’t want to know but needed to know.”
The Churchill Museum and Library is housed within the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury, a 12th century chapel, that was moved to Fulton from the corner of Aldermanbury and Love Lane in London in the mid-1960s. The church had been redesigned by Sir Christopher Wren in 1677 following the Great Fire of London. An incendiary bomb blast during World War II destroyed all but the exterior walls.
Set for demolition, the church was acquired by Westminster College with the intention of memorializing Churchill’s visit. Seven hundred tons of Portland limestone were dismantled and transported to Fulton, where the building was reconstructed in what the London Times called “perhaps the biggest jigsaw puzzle in the history of architecture.”
“London was more than happy to give it to us,” Danuser said. “It turned out to be a monumental undertaking and a wonderful remembrance of Churchill.”
Churchill himself was fascinated by the notion of a refurbished Wren church in America. He once wrote: “It may symbolize in the eyes of the English-speaking peoples the ideals of Anglo-American association on which rest, now as before, so many of our hopes for peace and the future of mankind.”
Today, the church resonates with antiquity. Sunlight, filtering through the large arched windows, drenches the rickety pews and the sprawling organ. On occasion, the bellow of the bell tower summons the ambience of old-time London.
“Three of my children were married at the church,” Danuser said.
The renovation of the museum, located in the basement or undercroft of the church, is being handled by Design Craftsmen, a Midland, Mich.-based museum design firm that was chosen after a competitive bidding process. Among the company’s achievements are the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
Before the museum was closed for renovation, Havers says it attracted 12,000 to 16,000 visitors annually, although that figure has been in decline. Havers hopes that the new exhibits will “jump start” renewed interest in Churchill.
“Our goal is to make the museum more user-friendly while at the same time maintain the antiquated quality that attracted a lot of older visitors,” Havers said. “We’re not attempting to replace the typical type of museum; we’re just adding another dimension.”
In addition to exhibits chronicling the Fulton visit, a new exhibit, “Gathering Storm,” will focus on Churchill’s unease about Adolf Hitler and the mounting threat posed by the Nazis.
“Many falsely assumed in the early 1930s, as we all know, that Hitler was harmless; a reasonable, democratic man at peace,” Havers said. “Churchill saw him for what he was, a ranting lunatic with destructive aims. He saw the duality of the man.”
Danuser says that she had always “fancied” Churchill as a great man. She happened to hear his speech because her husband, a businessman, was asked to lead the small motorcade that brought Churchill and Truman to the campus — a fact that allowed her to witness what many now consider one of the most profound addresses in world history.
“Had it not been for he and my father, who taught chemistry at the college,” she said, “I might not have been present at the speech.”