Reflections on 75 years of NATO

U.S. Department of State photo of NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium on July 12, 2018, via Wikimedia Commons

Rick Morain is the former publisher and owner of the Jefferson Herald, for which he writes a regular column.

Two events within a few months of each other 75 years ago forever altered the political and military landscape of the world. Their combined effects play an an important role in today’s diplomatic chess game.

On April 4, 1949, twelve Western nations signed the North Atlantic Treaty in Washington, DC to create the Organization by that name, abbreviated to NATO. The signatories were the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, Portugal, Italy, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland.

Over the next 75 years NATO’s membership expanded eastward through Europe to include today’s 32 nations, with Sweden’s signature affixed earlier this month.

While a mutual desire to mitigate against the resurgence of aggressive militarism within European powers served as one driver of NATO’s birth, the major factor was the West’s determination to counter Soviet expansionist dreams.

The USSR had provided the impetus in 1948 by helping to engineer the Communist seizure of power in Czechoslovakia. That same year, the Soviets also blockaded West Berlin in an attempt to consolidate power throughout East Germany.

The need for a powerful Western response was evident. Creating NATO in 1949 provided what was necessary, in order to prevent further Soviet aggression. Although the USSR hadn’t yet undertaken military or political action against any of the twelve NATO members, the treaty’s Article 5 left no doubt what would happen in that eventuality:

“An armed attack against one or more of them . . . shall be considered an attack against them all.” The message was clear: the Soviet Union, or any other aggressor, would risk facing the combined military strength of all the NATO nations if it chose to move against any of them.

The second key event of 1949 occurred a few months after NATO’s creation. The importance of solidarity among Western nations suddenly sharpened, when the Soviet Union successfully detonated an atomic bomb in a test in Kazakhstan on August 29. The West no longer held a monopoly on nuclear weaponry.

The Soviet test galvanized NATO into creating an active and fully staffed military headquarters in France (later moved to Belgium), with the development of contingency plans in case the Soviets decided to flex their muscles against a NATO member.

For more than 50 years, no entity—the Soviet Union or anyone else—tried to do so. NATO took action in several non-member theaters, like Bosnia and Kosovo, but NATO nations themselves remained free from attack. NATO and the Soviet Union—with its own NATO-like alliance, the Warsaw Pact—gradually worked out methodologies to avoid mutual destruction.

After the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s, NATO continued to strengthen its alliance with the addition of more signatories to the agreement and further cooperation in non-military arrangements among its member nations.

NATO invoked Article 5 for the first time in 2001, following what could not have been predicted in 1949: the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City in the September 11 attack by Al-Qaeda. The United States had become the first NATO nation to suffer a direct attack since the founding of the alliance.

NATO immediately responded. Military troops from a coalition of NATO nations converged on Afghanistan, where Al-Qaeda’s leaders made their headquarters, deposed the Afghan Taliban government that allowed Al-Qaeda to operate there, and empowered a government favorable to the West. NATO continued its degradation of Al-Qaeda’s capacity thereafter.

NATO has continued to respond to threats and action in non-NATO countries in the 21st century, where NATO has determined that aggression there constitutes a potential threat to stability and safety among its members.

In the last few years, however, isolationist movements in some NATO nations, including the United States, have questioned the reasons for NATO’s existence. Those sentiments target particularly the advisability of guaranteeing the security of NATO members that share a border with Russia.

Leaders with a longer memory, or a clearer understanding of 20th century history, recall what happened in Europe in the 1930s, when fascist authoritarians set out to conquer their democratic neighbors. Western democracies, including the United States, stood by, or even worse, signed agreements with the aggressors in the hope that they would be satisfied with smaller chunks of conquest.

That didn’t happen, of course, and the aggressors systematically gobbled up most of Europe before military resistance, mostly from the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union, was able at great cost to push back Nazi Germany and finally achieve total victory.

After the war NATO’s founder nations, all too aware of the results of inaction and appeasement, were determined not to let that happen again. When Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago, they provided billions of dollars’ worth of armaments to help Ukraine defend itself and begin to roll back the Russian armies.

But over the past two years that commitment has come to be tested, especially in the United States, where some political leaders claim it’s not our business what happens to Ukraine, and that our domestic challenges preclude continuing our military assistance to that nation.

Our NATO allies are rightly concerned. Ending our commitment to Ukraine could end the assurance that NATO will come to our aid in an emergency, the way they did after September 11. More likely, NATO’s European members will go their own way on mutual defense issues, leaving us to fend for ourselves around the world.

The planet is no longer a place where we can pull all the strings. We need allies these days. It’s shortsighted to alienate those on whom we’ve counted for 75 years.

About the Author(s)

Rick Morain

  • 75 is a good time to retire.

    “The planet is no longer a place where we can pull all the strings. We need allies these days. It’s shortsighted to alienate those on whom we’ve counted for 75 years.”

    Some allies supported our Afghanistan adventure, then they let us down before it turned into a shameful debacle. USSR is no longer, the EU is being built, and US National debt is shooting up.

    About “pulling strings”, at some point the Germans will find out who sabotaged their natural gas pipelines.

  • Morain has great mind. . . . .

    . . . . .defined as someone who agrees with me!