by Kenneth L. Kieser | firstname.lastname@example.org
America’s Churchill Museum ties world history to Missouri
Westminster College in Fulton set the stage for an important moment in history as a warning of the approaching Cold War. Today the college has a museum dedicated to the life of Winston Churchill as well as the historic moment that alerted the world to events still unfolding today.
“The Winston Churchill Museum opened May 1969 here at Westminster College,” says Tim Riley, director and chief curator of America’s National Churchill Museum. “We have 10,000 objects from Mr. Churchill’s life including documents, letters and his paintings. The college started collecting items by working with his family and others across the world after Mr. Churchill stepped on campus. We consider this to be a presidential library for the British prime minister.”
The portly gentleman who famously favored his cigars and a snifter of scotch, had studied world history and became alarmed about the spread of communism. His worries were solidified when on Feb. 9, 1945, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin gave a speech in which he declared that war between the East and West was inevitable. On Feb. 22, the American ambassador to Moscow, George F. Kennan, sent the famous “Long Telegram” warning of the Soviet Union’s perpetual hostility toward the West.
Churchill must have been somewhat surprised about this time to receive a letter from Westminster College President Franc McCluer in Fulton inviting him to speak and receive an honorary degree. The letter included this handwritten note at the bottom of his invitation:
“This is a wonderful school in my home state. Hope you can do it. I’ll introduce you. Best regards, Harry Truman.”
Churchill accepted and traveled with his family to the United States. President Truman and Churchill warmly greeted each other in Washington, D.C. and were soon on a first-name basis. A long train ride gave them plenty of time to play poker, a game Churchill became fond of while serving as an officer in the British army during the Boer wars between 1899 and 1902. Truman was especially adept at poker, often playing at the Missouri River duck hunting camps prior to his presidency.
“Several sat in on the game and Mr. Churchill lost several hundred dollars,” says Tim. “The past British prime minister excused himself for a little while and President Truman suggested they play a less aggressive game with this dignitary and guest of the United States. Mr. Churchill started winning.”
The train finally arrived in Jefferson City and the world leaders traveled by motorcade to Westminster College. They were greeted by more than 25,000 applauding people lining the streets of Fulton.
On March 5, 1946, Churchill rode into town with Truman in an open-topped car, cigar lit while exhibiting his famous “V” for victory sign. He spoke in the school’s gymnasium — the college auditorium couldn’t accommodate the crowd — for those fortunate enough to secure an admittance ticket. There he delivered his famous “The Sinews of Peace” speech that alerted the world to the rise of communism. He introduced the term “Iron Curtain,” a reference showing that Eastern Europe was controlled by the Soviet Union.
His words rang out across the crowd: “From Stettin in the Baltic, to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”
Churchill’s speech was broadcast or published across the globe. Leaders of the free world warmly accepted his words, although Stalin was said to be angry, declaring Churchill a warmonger.
Churchill likely found 1945 to be a bittersweet year. World War II ended, partly from his heroic efforts against fascism, but his Conservative Party lost the July 1945 general election. This surprising loss forced him to step down as prime minister of the United Kingdom, although he would again hold the post from 1951 until his eventual resignation in 1955. During his second premiership and in the final decade of his life he remained involved in foreign affairs, continued his prolific career as an author (winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953) and followed his hobbies of bricklaying and painting. In June, the museum opened a new exhibit, “Winston Churchill: A Passion for Painting,” which details this lesser-known aspect of the world leader’s life.
Harkening to the “Iron Curtain” reference in his speech, the museum grounds host the largest continuous piece of the Berlin Wall on display in North America. The largest piece in the collection and arguably the most impressive, The Church of St. Mary, the Virgin, Aldermanbury, has little to do with Churchill himself but earned the “British Bulldog’s” approval nonetheless. The structure, which dates to the year 1200, was burned twice while located in England: once during the Great Fire of London in 1666 and again by the Nazis during the blitz of World War II, leaving a stone shell until the early 1960s.
“The idea of moving the church started in 1961 and took several years for our vision to come to fruition,” Tim says. “Each stone was taken apart from the foundation in England and numbered creating the biggest jigsaw puzzle in architectural history. In 1963, Churchill was 80 years old when he learned of the church being moved and very much approved of it. The interior is close to the original church like Christopher Wren would have built in 1700.”
Whether moved by Wren’s devotion to natural light or the life story of a man whose maxim “never give in” stirred the spirits of many during a time of global crisis, visitors to America’s National Churchill Museum will find plenty of inspiration.
For more information on America’s National Churchill Museum in Fulton, call 573-592-5369 or visit online at www.nationalchurchillmuseum.org.
Kieser is a freelance writer from Kansas City.