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A Brief History of NATO

All you need to know: NATO

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By Mary Campbell Add to favorites email print this article Share on FaceBoook

"NATO is a subject that drives the dagger of boredom deep, deep into the heart." That’s Jack Beatty, writing about NATO in the Atlantic Monthly in June of 1989, when George Bush Sr. was in the White House, Mikhail Gorbachev was in the Kremlin, and discussions about the future of the alliance in a world with only one “superpower” were just beginning to be heard. Ten years later, the dagger is still pretty sharp, but it’s the eve of a NATO summit in Prague and you never know when you might be called upon to discuss defense-related issues with at least of semblance of understanding. That’s where we come in. What follows is everything you need for a semblance of understanding of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Origins Sometime between the end of World War II and the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949, the Soviet Union went from ally to arch enemy. Startled Westerners who’d fought in common cause with the Russians woke up one morning to find their view of Eastern Europe obscured by an Iron Curtain. The Western Allies (France, Britain and the United States) had rapidly reduced their arms at the end of the war, but not so the Soviet Union. The specter of an armed and dangerous Russian army suddenly loomed over Europe. It was a reality that forced the allies to reconsider their plans for aid to post-war Europe. The American historian John Gaddis (quoted in the Beatty article mentioned above) said, "The idea of a military alliance did not occur to the original containment people – Marshall, Kennan, and the others. They started out thinking that economic aid would be sufficient to do what they wanted to do – restore the balance of power in Europe in the wake of World War Two. It was the Europeans who asked for an explicit military alliance." The Marshall Plan, named for then U.S. Secretary of State, General G.C. Marshall, came into effect in 1948. Under its terms, the United States and Canada sent thousands of dollars in loans to the countries of Western and Southern Europe on the condition that they cooperate with each other to hasten economic recovery. That same year, the United Kingdom, France, and the Low Countries (the Netherlands and Belgium) signed the Brussels Treaty establishing a military alliance. It became very clear very quickly that the alliance would play David to the Soviet Union’s Goliath without the assistance of the United States. Within a month, the parties to the Brussels Treaty began negotiations with the United States and Canada and on April 4, 1949 (Truman was in the White House, Stalin in the Kremlin) the North Atlantic Treaty was signed. The North Atlantic Treaty To understand the essence of the North Atlantic Treaty (also called the Washington Treaty in honor of the city in which it was signed) you must read Article 5. The signatories of the treaty "agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all; and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area." Article 6 defined the geographic scope of the treaty as covering "an armed attack on the territory of any of the Parties in Europe or North America…” The original signatories of the treaty were Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The membership of Norway, Iceland, and Portugal, supported by the U.S., was initially opposed by some Europeans who argued the countries were too geographically and culturally distant from Europe to belong. Turkey and Greece signed in 1952, but their joining was not without controversy. Again, opponents raised the issues of geographical distance, but to this was added the argument that the two countries were not democracies (an argument that had also been used against Portugal). Negotiating West Germany’s membership was a delicate operation, but it was concluded as part of the Paris Agreements in October of 1954, and the Federal Republic of Germany joined NATO in 1955. It was at this point that the occupation of West Germany by the Western allies ended. Historical note: It was also at this point that the Soviet Union, in response to West Germany’s entry into NATO, established the Warsaw Treaty Organization, better known as the Warsaw Pact. The Warsaw Pact was made up of the USSR, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania. Spain was kept out of NATO for many years on the grounds that its government institutions were not democratic. Spain was finally permitted entry into the alliance in 1982. Military Presence With the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty, the United States’ military alliance with Europe became a reality, but according to Gaddis, even at this point the U.S. had no intention of stationing troops in Europe – its intention was to provide a security guarantee. That changed when North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950. Opinions conflict as to whether the North Korean attack was instigated by the Soviets. The belief at the time was that the action in Korea was to serve as a distraction while the Soviet Union made its move into Western Europe. Such a move never happened, but the United States acted quickly to demonstrate that it would tolerate no such Russian incursions. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the leader of the western Allied forces in World War II, was named Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) by the North Atlantic Council (NATO's governing body) in December 1950. He was followed by a succession of U.S. generals as supreme Allied commanders. Which brings us, oddly enough, to France.

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