Iron Lady under shadow of Iron Curtain

RUPERT CORNWELL

Fulton, Missouri

Kilted bagpipers marched, choirs sang, and a motorcade of cars from the period rolled along the same route that Winston Churchill and Harry Truman took half a century ago. But since the year is 1996 not 1946, and since Margaret Thatcher was the guest of honour, the Irish Question also came to Fulton this weekend.

She was here, deep in the American mid-West, to give the lecture marking the 50th anniversary of Churchill's Iron Curtain speech. But an Irish- American contingent, including Matt Morrison, a former member of the IRA with 10 years in Long Kesh on his cv, was bent on something else: showing their feelings about a woman whom their nationalist cause loathes as few others. To be fair, they did not spoil the parade - they joined it.

The Rolls-Royce Phantom bearing Baroness Thatcher and her husband Denis were supposed to bring up the rear, but the Irish tagged along behind. "Britain out," they chanted, "Wanted for Murder," proclaimed their leaflets. "We're here to remind her of her past," said Mr Morrison, a resident of St Louis but still embroiled in extradition proceedings. But as an indifferent local populace showed, if Irish America was on the streets, it couldn't spoil the script. For Fulton lives for one thing; and that is not all- party talks on Ulster.

Never in the history of human learning, has so small a town owed so much to one speech. Missouri's Westminster College is tiny, just 600 students. But for decades now, the great of the planet have trooped here - Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, Edward Heath, George Bush, and in 1992 the just-deposed Mikhail Gorbachev among them - to receive honorary degrees and hold forth on the state of the universe.

All because, on 5 March 1946, Winston Churchill came to deliver an address at what President Truman told him was "a wonderful school in my home state", in which he warned of an "Iron Curtain" descending across Europe. Oddly, news reports the next day barely mentioned the phrase. Today it is history, and Fulton has built an industry upon it.

The Churchill scowl adorns billboards on the nearby interstate I-70. A Wren church gutted by a German bomb in the Blitz, was shipped from the City of London and now stands as the Churchill Memorial. A museum of Churchilliana occupies what would be the crypt.

And to this English corner of a foreign field came Lady Thatcher. Her speech was a mixture of the familiar (a tongue-lashing for the wicked bureaucrats in Brussels) and the modestly new, as she urged a "New Atlantic Initiative" based on a revived anti-missile defence system, and a North Atlantic free trade area that would complement a retooled Nato, all under explicit American leadership.

So much has changed, she pointed out; and yet so little. Then the threat was Stalin's Russia, now it was "rogue states" armed with chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, at a moment when the West had lost its resolve. But the mood is similar; "anxious and baffling times" according to Churchill in 1946, a "pervasive anxiety about the drift of events" for Lady Thatcher now. And her remedy remained the same: the might of America, faithfully supported by Britain. Once more the English-speaking peoples must lead the world back to Churchill's sunlit uplands.

The audience of 1,300, some paying $375 (pounds 245) apiece, listened intently. Far more than Britons, Americans still admire Margaret Thatcher - last of the great Atlanticists - as a Churchill reincarnation. But the passion is fading. Some 3,000 at most lined the streets. Gorbachev drew 20,000; Churchill himself double that.

Soon, though, Fulton's latest basking in vicarious glory was over. Even as Lady Thatcher was speaking, the vintage cars were on their way back to St Louis. The bunting had disappeared within the hour, as had Matt Morrison's uninvited Irish-American caucus - heading home to Chicago, Kansas City and points beyond.

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