Wednesday, April 3, 2024

This Day in Military History (Western Democracies Pledge Mutual Security With North American Treaty)

April 4, 1949—The countries who put their signature to the North Atlantic Treaty in Washington, DC, looked just like the Allied coalition that had recently won World War II in Europe—but with one notable exception: the Soviet Union, whose postwar threats to elected governments had alarmed its former partners.

Since the formation of this defensive pact, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has increased from its original 12 to 32 members. Its recent growth derives from the same factor that brought it into existence: a septuagenarian dictator who, in his quest to annex neighbors and subvert republics, inspires other nations to band together in mutual support.

Back in 1949, that authoritarian ruler was Joseph Stalin, who saw the chaos and devastation in the wake of WWII as an opportunity to expand Soviet influence, including through:

*reneging on its Yalta Conference promise of free elections in Poland;

*exploiting its continued military presence in Hungary to pressure non-Communist parties into submission;

*covertly backing an overthrow of the democratically elected government of Czechoslovakia by the nation’s Communist party;

*blockading Allied-controlled West Berlin in an unsuccessful attempt to incorporate the whole city into its orbit.

In 2024, the dictator is Vladimir Putin, whose revanchist nostalgia for the return of Russian influence has led him to invade Ukraine—a move that, in turn, led to a prompt application to join NATO by Finland and Sweden.

The West’s attempts to begin new eras of cooperation with Stalin and Putin quickly foundered as perceptions grew that these dictators were intent not just on cracking down on internal dissent but on posing a threat to Eastern Europe.

American, Britain, and French leaders had hoped to include the Soviets in a postwar Council of Foreign Ministers, according to a Truman Library oral history interview with John D. Hickerson, the Assistant Secretary of State generally credited with writing the text for what became the North Atlantic Treaty.

But, after 1947 conferences in Moscow and London that went nowhere because of Soviet intransigence, the three transatlantic partners determined to go their own way.

The genesis for the new system of cooperation came from British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, but the indispensable forces were the two American Secretaries of State when the treaty was hammered out in 1948 and early 1949, George Marshall and Dean Acheson.

The most important element of the North American Treaty may be Article 5, in which the signatories agreed that "an armed attack against one or more of them… shall be considered an attack against them all" and that following such an attack, each Ally would take "such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force" in response.

The first time that mutual-aid pledge would be invoked came not in response to a move by the USSR, but after 9/11—and it did not involve the US coming to the aid of the organization’s European members, but them supporting us in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center.

Hickerson’s oral history interview gives a strong sense of the improvisational nature of the discussions shaping the North Atlantic Treaty. 

The diplomats, he explained, were talking about “what we would do in the event of an attack, without considering anything beyond the political commitment to do that. And frankly in the back of our minds was the hope that that commitment itself would be enough to restrain any aggression.” 

It would not be until the following year, with the outbreak of the Korean War, before the “machinery” of NATO would be set up.

This brief history is worth keeping in mind in the present US. Presidential cycle, with one all-but-certain party nominee saying he would encourage Putin to do “whatever the hell they want” to any NATO member that falls behind on its defense spending guidelines.

That Presidential candidate’s complaint about failing to meet these guidelines echoes the chief  American opponent of the pact back in 1949, Robert Taft, who saw it as “arming Western Europe at American expense.”

But the deeply conservative, anti-communist Republican Senator from Ohio was under no illusions about Stalin’s intentions and never praised his “strength.”

Moreover, the national defense spending percentages on which today’s isolationists fixate are, as mentioned earlier, guidelines, not ironclad commitments.

The Cold War between the US and USSR was often conducted without nuance and sometimes risked catastrophe. But NATO created a defensive alliance based on collective security—an arrangement missing before WWII that would have eased the task of countering Nazi aggression.

That alliance resulted in 75 years of peace, encouraging international commerce—the kind of minimal-cost arrangement that one might have hoped a once and future businessman might have better appreciated.

(The photo accompanying this post shows President Harry Truman with the diplomats from the countries signing the North Atlantic Treaty.)

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