NATO’s history – the bare bones

Photo: The NATO emblem, adopted on 14 October 1953

1000 words / 5 minute read


January 20, Truman’s inauguration:

“The actions resulting from the Communist philosophy are a threat to the efforts of free nations to bring about world recovery and lasting peace.”  Within three months, the North Atlantic Treaty was signed in Washington, establishing the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).  Twelve nations subscribed to the treaty:  the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Portugal, Denmark, Iceland and Norway.  Their aim was mutual military assistance in the event of aggression.  The potential aggressor was no longer Germany but the Soviet Union.  

Western Germany was not party to the North Atlantic Treaty, but her post-war regeneration was in accordance with the Western democratic ideals which underpinned the NATO concept.  On May 23 the Federal Republic of Germany – also known as West Germany – came into existence, with its capital in Bonn, on the Rhine.  On September 12, following openly contested elections, Theodor Heuss was elected President and Konrad Adenauer Chancellor.  Neither had been members of the Nazi Party.  Both had opposed the excesses of the Hitler regime.  Adenauer had been dismissed as Chairman of the Prussian State Council because of his opposition to Nazism, and was twice imprisoned – in 1934 and 1944.

The Soviet Union could do nothing to impede the emergence of democracy in West Germany.  Within three weeks of the elections Stalin called off the Berlin blockade.  East Germany and the Soviet sector of Berlin remained under tight Communist control.


The triumph of the Communists in China, and the knowledge that the Soviet Union not only possessed the atom bomb but was manufacturing it, led on 27 January 1950 to each NATO country signing a defence agreement with the United States.  Four days later, in strictest secrecy, President Truman gave orders for work to begin on a bomb that could cause far more devastation than the atom bomb – the Hydrogen bomb.  On February 14 the thirty-year Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance negotiated by Mao Tse Tung and Stalin was signed in Moscow.  The Cold War had acquired a new axis.


On October 3 a Nine-Power conference in London agreed that West Germany should become a member of NATO.  On October 23, Britain, France and the Soviet Union agreed to end the occupation of Germany.  That same day the Western European Union was established, to which both Italy and Germany were invited.  Three days later, France and Germany signed an economic and cultural agreement.


On September 23, at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Krushchev made a strong attack on the Western World.  There was a moment of humour, caught by the television cameras, when Krushchev took off one of his shoes and began banging it on the desk in front of him.  Macmillan intervened to ask the President of the Assembly:  “Mr President, perhaps could we have a translation, I could not quite follow.”

The confrontation was based on more than public posturing.  Five days later NATO announced a unified system of air defence command.  On November 1, Britain agreed to provide the United States with a base and facilities for American submarines armed with Polaris nuclear missiles.  An atomic-powered aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise, had been launched five weeks earlier at Newport News, Virginia, with the capacity to sail for several years without refuelling.


In south-east Europe, NATO had begun to give economic aid to both Greece and Turkey.  NATO’s opposite number, the Warsaw Treaty Organisation, held its spring manoeuvres in Hungary, when Soviet, Romanian and Hungarian forces, under the watchful eye of the Soviet Defence Minister, participated in “a simulated attack with tactical atomic weapons”.  Autumn manoeuvres were held in East Germany, with Soviet, East German and Czechoslovak forces taking part.  In October there were yet more manoeuvres along the border between Poland and East Germany, in which East German, Polish and again Soviet forces participated.  During these manoeuvres it was made clear to the West that the armed forces of East Germany were as much an integral part of the Warsaw Pact’s military preparations as West Germany’s forces were within NATO.  The military forces of each multi-Power grouping were commanded by a Soviet and an American general respectively.


The two Super Powers were edging ever closer to agreement with regard to their nuclear armaments.  In March 1977 the American Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, went to Moscow with new proposals for the second Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT II).  Two months later, after many difficulties and disagreements, a “new framework for negotiations” was announced and the talks edged towards agreement.  There were no longer flashpoints of potential conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union.  In July, observers from NATO were invited to witness Soviet ground/air exercises inside Russia.  Details of troop concentrations in both the Warsaw Pact and Russian Baltic Sea manoeuvres were reported to NATO as a matter of course.  Both East Germany and Poland were in negotiations with West Germany.  The future of Berlin – although the Berlin Wall still divided the city – was no longer an issue threatening blockades.


In foreign policy, Clinton persevered with the defensive elements being put in place following the end of the Cold War.  On March 20 he attended a summit in Helsinki with President Yeltsin.  One result was the signing two months later of the Russia-NATO Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Co-operation and Security, whereby Russia and its former adversary would become partners, sharing knowledge, weaponry and Intelligence information.  The signing took place in Paris.  Yeltsin was so enthusiastic that, without prior discussion or warning, he told the NATO signatories that he would, as a gesture of goodwill, remove the warheads from all Russian nuclear weapons that were pointing at their countries.

 “In the twilight of the twentieth century,” Clinton told the Paris conference, “ we look forward toward a new century with a new Russia and a new NATO, working together in a new Europe with unlimited possibility.”


The former Warsaw Pact powers of Eastern Europe, once a bastion of Soviet power, were being drawn into the NATO orbit.  On May 1 the United States Senate ratified what was known as NATO “enlargement”, to include Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.  The expansion of NATO, said Clinton, would reduce the prospect of Americans ever being called again “to fight in the battlefields of Europe.”

 Excerpts from The History of the Twentieth Century, concise edition

 Read:  The History of the Twentieth Century, concise edition

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