Not too far from where I live, in a small town in the middle of the Midwest, the National Churchill Museum celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year.
One would expect to find a national-level museum honoring the great British prime minister elsewhere, such as Washington or New York City. Rather, its location in Fulton, Missouri, is tied to the fact that the city’s Westminster College was the site of Churchill’s famous postwar speech about the threat of Communism, in which he observed that “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.”
About a hundred miles west of St. Louis, the museum is located at the only church in the United States built by the famous Sir Christopher Wren, arguably England’s greatest architect. The church dates to 1677, shortly after the Great Fire of London; a few centuries later it was left in ruins by the Blitz. In the 1960s, what remained was transported more than four thousand miles westward and rebuilt in Fulton, a fitting tribute to the Anglo-American alliance Churchill (whose mother was an American) valued so dearly.
As another fitting tribute at the museum, visitors find a 32-foot-long portion of the Berlin Wall, converted into a sculpture by Churchill granddaughter Edwina Sandys. Churchill warned of an iron curtain in 1946: a few decades later, a concrete wall was built across a small portion of Europe, powerfully symbolizing the divide between the free and captive worlds. November of this year will mark the 30th anniversary of its collapse; the wall itself has become (literally) a museum piece.
Churchill’s 1946 visit to this small Missouri college town came about to a large degree because the United States president at the time was from Missouri. Spurred by Churchill’s remarks and the gracious hospitality found in Fulton, other world leaders would in time make their way to this unexpected patch of Middle America: Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, and Lech Walesa, to name a few.
To be sure, Churchill’s presence in the news spotlight has waxed and waned over the years. It waxed a few years back with the movie Darkest Hour, and now it appears to be waxing again not simply with a new biography by Andrew Roberts but even more so with an attack by a young member of the Scottish Parliament, Ross Greer, who chose the anniversary of Churchill’s death to label him a white supremacist and mass murderer. Interest in Churchill will, undoubtedly, wane again, only to resurface when we need a reminder of what strong, intelligent rhetoric and leadership look and sound like.
For now, we’re stuck with social media replacing traditional news media—for good and ill; there are benefits and drawbacks—and I sometimes wonder what Churchill would have done with a Twitter account. He certainly could have pinned back the ears of the 24-year-old Greer, who, ironically as a member of the Scottish Greens, defended large Indian families from Churchill’s alleged complaint of their “breeding like rabbits.”
As one considers it, there is something rather fitting about the National Churchill Museum being here in far-flung Missouri, the “Show-Me” State, and also a “red” state as contemporary politics puts it, recognizing how the color has transformed almost 180 degrees from representing communism to conservatism. The walls of the museum include many Churchill quotes, and one in particular stands out, although not one of his most famous: “Some men change their party for the sake of their principles; others their principles for the sake of their party.” This is, of course, very reminiscent of a later quote attributed to Ronald Reagan: “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party; the party left me.”
It is easy to speak of America’s red and blue states as if they are simply Republican and Democrat. To do so is simplistic, because the parties themselves often go through evolution, revolution, and even devolution. The 2016 primary campaigns and final election reflected deep divisions in the two parties and, one could argue, reordered some of their priorities. Churchill and Reagan, and to an extent Trump, understood the value of principles over parties. Reagan and Trump each left the Democratic Party and both stood counter to the party establishment—until they took it over. Churchill switched parties twice. After election to Parliament as a Conservative in 1900, he switched to the Liberal Party in 1904, returning to the Tories a few decades later.
Missouri’s reputation as the “Show-Me” State came about, it is said, from the words of a turn-of-the-century politician, Rep. Willard Vandiver, who once said, “I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.”
Vandiver’s insistence in these remarks from 1899 shows why it’s only fitting that a museum for a politician famous not just for “frothy rhetoric” but also for putting that rhetoric into action—often against the conventional wisdom of the day—should be located here in Missouri.
(Photo credit: Wikicommons)