“The condition upon which God has given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.” – John Curran
Sixty-three years ago the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was created when 12 Western democracies joined together in a military alliance whose purpose was mostly defensive. World War II was a fresh memory, but the greatest threat to peace in 1949 was the Soviet Union, which had dropped an “Iron Curtain” — in Churchill’s memorable phrase — around the nations of Eastern Europe, strangling their freedoms and rigidly controlling their economic, cultural and political institutions. The Western European democracies feared greatly that the Soviet army, the largest in the world, would someday invade their territories and do the same to them.
So did America, which joined NATO to help defend its members. U.S. troops were stationed in Europe both as a defensive force in case of a Soviet attack and as a “tripwire,” meaning that should any American blood be shed there was the real possibility that any American retaliation would involve nuclear weapons. The intent was to make crystal clear to the Soviets that, as Article 5 of the NATO charter stated, an attack on one NATO member was considered an attack on all, including America.
It worked. Not once in NATO’s history did the Soviet army enter NATO territory, meaning that not once was Article 5 ever invoked, and with the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 and the release of its Eastern European satellites from its grip, NATO was considered history’s most successful military alliance.
And then on September 11, 2001, the world changed forever and so did NATO. On September 12, 2001, after five hours of deliberation among NATO members, NATO’s secretary general, Lord George Robertson, not only invoked Article 5 of the NATO charter for the first time in history, but did so with an expanded definition of NATO’s mission. No longer would NATO exist solely to protect members from threatening states, but also from threatening entities such as terrorist organizations. Upon proof that the September 11 attacks came from a foreign origin — and a month later it was confirmed that al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were behind them — then this attack on America would be considered an attack on all NATO members.
And so, for all of our disagreements, past and present, with our NATO allies over how best to meet the menace of terrorism, we should not forget on the anniversary of the terrible tragedy of September 11 that our allies stood with us when it counted. Indeed, the irony is that after 50-plus years of thinking America would one day have to come to the aid of its NATO allies, it was the NATO allies who came to the aid of America.