Editor’s Note: NATO celebrates its 70th anniversary April 4. On that day in 1949, 12 nations signed the North Atlantic Treaty, establishing NATO and securing the sovereignty of European nations.
The United States has been a staunch ally in NATO since its formation. At the height of the Cold War, there were more than a million American service members in Europe helping ensure the peace, according to the U.S. Defense Department. From the very beginnings of NATO, American Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines and their civilian counterparts have contributed to peacekeeping efforts in Europe.
A Short History of NATO
On May 8, 1945, the guns in Europe fell silent. Nazi Germany unconditionally surrendered to the victorious allies — the United Kingdom, France, the United States and the Soviet Union.
For the moment, there was peace. World War II caused millions of deaths in Europe — military and civilian. This included Nazi Germany’s systematic effort to effect the Final Solution and kill Jews and others they considered inferior.
The war was over in Europe, but it continued in the Pacific, and the U.S. Army — the largest and best-equipped force in the world at the time — was sending combat divisions to the war on Japan.
A New Worry
The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki meant the end of World War II, but it also signaled the start of a new era and a new worry for the world.
In Europe, the Soviets and the Americans confronted each other from their occupation zones. Germany was divided into four zones, as was Berlin, the German capital that was squarely in the Soviet zone.
The Soviets wanted Germany to be the communist centerpiece of Europe. With Germany a Soviet satellite, dictator Josef Stalin could see western Europe falling under the domination of the USSR.
Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was among the first to warn of the Soviet danger. On March 5, 1946, in Fulton, Missouri, Churchill sounded the warning. “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent,” he said. “Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow.”
Some dismissed the British statesman. Others heeded him. The Soviet Union’s own actions left little doubt of their intentions. The Soviet Union launched a coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948, placed a communist government in power in Poland and extended its sway to every Eastern European country it occupied since 1945.
In June 1948, the Soviet imposed a land blockade of Berlin in hopes of starving the Western allies out of Berlin.
A Search for Peace
In response, the allies launched the Berlin Airlift — a nonviolent strike back at an aggressor. No country had ever tried to resupply a city by air before, but the Western allies — the U.S., the U.K and France — succeeded.
This was the backdrop as talks proceeded on the North Atlantic Treaty in early 1949. The clear Soviet provocations created the urgency for collective defense of Western Europe.
The European nations were still clawing their way out of the destruction of WWII, and to be credible, any collective defense agreement had to include the U.S. and Canada. Belgium, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and the U.K. joined their transatlantic allies in signing the treaty, April 4, 1949, in Washington.
From the beginning, the treaty was a defensive alliance. "By this treaty, we are not only seeking to establish freedom from aggression and from the use of force in the North Atlantic community, but we are also actively striving to promote and preserve peace throughout the world," U.S. President Harry S. Truman said about the North Atlantic Treaty.
The goal was to defend the North Atlantic region. The nations sought to block Soviet expansion into Western Europe. The key to the treaty was — and is — Article 5. That article states “The parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.”
The treaty put teeth in deterrence in Europe. An attack on West Germany or France would be met by an alliance backed with the tremendous power of the United States military. This served the nations in good stead. The only time the alliance invoked Article 5 was in response to the terror attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
The headquarters for the alliance was in France, and the first secretary general was Britain’s Lord Ismay. General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower was NATO’s first supreme commander in Europe.
The Soviet Union gathered its subject states in Central and Eastern Europe and formed the Warsaw Pact in response to NATO.
Public support for the alliance has ebbed and flowed throughout its history, but internally, the nations were as one in their decisions. In 1952, Greece and Turkey joined the alliance. In 1955, West Germany joined. In 1982, Spain formally joined the alliance.
Testing the Alliance
The Soviets tested NATO in a number of ways. In 1956, the Soviets brutally put down the Hungarian revolution. Thousands of people escaped to the West as Soviet tanks confronted demonstrators in Budapest.
East Germany was bleeding people throughout the 1950s as there was no hard border in the occupied city of Berlin. East Germans could simply walk into West Berlin and freedom. In 1961, the Soviet-backed East German government built the Berlin Wall. It was a time of rising tensions between the superpowers, and Berlin could have been a flashpoint. The wall stopped most of the exodus, but never really sealed off the West from those wishing to escape communist rule.
The Prague Spring of 1968 in Czechoslovakia looked promising. The communist government of the nation looked to give people basic human rights. The Soviets rolled into the city and crushed the nascent renaissance.
In the 1980s, Polish workers looked for more rights and freedoms and those in Gdansk demonstrated against Soviet control.
Through all this, the alliance remained strong. It was more than a military pact; it became a symbol of freedom to the people of Europe and the cornerstone of America’s commitment to freedom on the Continent.
Looking for Freedom
And it worked. On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan gave a speech at the Berlin Wall. He called on Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” The economic foundations of the Soviet Union and the military ties among the Warsaw Pact nations were already crumbling when Reagan made the speech, and a little more than two years later, the Berlin Wall did come down — breached by joyous Germans both East and West. It was followed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Many people assumed that, with the fall of the Soviet Union, that the NATO alliance would itself dissolve.
But the alliance adapted. Leaders on the continent saw the need of the organization to maintain peace and to act collectively.
The first case was in the Balkans. When Yugoslavia broke apart, NATO peacekeepers stepped in to maintain peace in an unstable part of the world. Russia provided troops to the NATO effort and worked alongside American forces to keep the peace. There are still NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo today.
And nations that were once under the Soviet boot now sought to join NATO. In March 1999, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary joined NATO — the first former Warsaw Pact nations to do so. They were followed in 2004 by Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.
In 2009, Albania and Croatia joined, and then Montenegro in 2017. North Macedonia is well on its way to completing the accession process and should join later this year.
Invoking Article 5
In 2001, NATO invoked Article 5 of its founding treaty for the first time. Member nations responded together to the 9/11 attacks in the United States.
The alliance reached out to North African and Middle East nations to strengthen their institutions and help them build conditions where young men would not be driven to extremism.
Today, the NATO nations work together in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The lessons the forces have learned in 70 years of the alliance also serve when nations work together individually in other areas of the world.
In August 2008, Russia invaded Georgia and occupied two provinces in the small country. NATO protested the illegal occupation.
In 2014, Russia illegally annexed Crimea from Ukraine and continues to provide fighters in Eastern Ukraine, and NATO has met Russian aggression with resolve.
The alliance members still dream of a Europe “whole and free” as President George H.W. Bush said in 1989.