This week (July 21) in 1949, the U.S. Senate authorized creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the most successful multi-national military alliance in history. Sixty-two years later it is still in existence, and although increasingly its raison d’être is being questioned—the likelihood of a Soviet invasion of Europe is practically nil—we should never forget its original purpose or its historic importance.
Travel back to Europe right after World War II. England is bankrupt, France and the Low Countries are prostrate, Italy is defeated, Germany is destroyed and cut in half (later becoming East and West Germany), and Eastern Europe is enveloped in an “Iron Curtain” of military control by the Soviet Union. Most American and European leaders believe the Soviets will soon seek to control Western Europe as well.
Which they can do in one of two ways — internally, by supporting newly formed Communist parties, whose path to power will be paved by the poverty and breakdown of social order that exists in these post-war European nations. Or externally, by invading a defenseless Western Europe with the mighty Red Army.
To counter the internal threat, the Truman Administration developed the Marshall Plan — a plan to lend Western Europe billions of dollars to stabilize its economy and make it less susceptible to the (false) promises of Communism. But to counter the external threat, a military alliance was crucial — and one that must include the United States.
Which was controversial in both Europe and America. While the Europeans clearly desired the protection of American power, they worried about being part of an American “empire.” What’s more, one American condition for joining NATO was that West Germany—which had come under Allied control after the war—must also be allowed to join. Unsurprisingly, France and England had deep misgivings about allying themselves with the nation that had fought them bitterly in WW II.
For our part, there was controversy over NATO’s stipulation that “an attack on one NATO member country is considered an attack on all.” This implied that a Soviet invasion of Europe would automatically trigger American involvement. Yet the Constitution gives Congress — not an international treaty — authority to involve America in war.
Given these hurdles, and many others, it is a testament to the diplomatic skill of leaders on all sides that NATO was born. A joke at the time said NATO was designed to “keep the Americans in (Europe), keep the Soviets out, and keep the Germans down,” but it was true. America realized that its own security was inextricably linked with Western Europe’s, while France and Britain realized that a Germany tied to NATO was less of a danger than a Germany excluded from it.