North Atlantic Treaty Organization

Klaus Larres

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was founded on 4 April 1949 in Washington, D.C. On behalf of the United States, the North Atlantic Treaty was signed by Dean Acheson, secretary of state throughout President Harry S. Truman's second term. The founding members of the Atlantic alliance consisted of the United States, United Kingdom, France, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Portugal, and Italy. The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty on 21 July 1949 by a vote of 82 to 13; it entered into force on 14 August 1949. By joining the North Atlantic pact, the Truman administration turned its back on the many voices in the American political establishment and the country at large that favored a return to the political isolationism of the interwar years. After all, isolationists were able to go as far back as George Washington's Farewell Address, in which he admonished his fellow Americans to beware of the Europeans and "to have with them as little political connection as possible." But U.S. membership in the United Nations in 1945 had indicated that the country intended to stay involved in international political affairs. Subsequently, the 1947–1948 Marshall Plan made clear that the United States felt it was in its national interest to use its massive economic and financial resources to help in the reconstruction of Europe. This, it was hoped, would stabilize the old continent, prevent it from becoming once again a hotbed of nationalist fervor and civil war and, not least, make it immune to the forces of international communism. But even after the European Recovery Program (ERP) had been announced, it was still a major step to enter into a close military association. By committing the United States to NATO and thus to a formal and long-lasting entangling military alliance in peacetime, the North Atlantic Treaty of April 1949 marked, as Lawrence Kaplan put it, a "radical transformation in American foreign policy."

It is unlikely that this almost revolutionary development in U.S. political thinking would have come about without the Cold War and the global ideological and political power struggle with the Soviet Union. With the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty the United States indicated its willingness—after much prodding by the United Kingdom and other leading European nations—to accede to the role of protector of western Europe. The Truman administration clearly hoped that with the help of both the Marshall Plan and NATO, U.S. influence, and indeed its example, would help the countries of the old continent to integrate their political and above all economic and military systems in a peaceful and stabilizing way. It was expected that eventually a united and federally organized Europe would evolve in a manner similar to the development of the United States 150 years previously.

One should not credit the leading U.S. politicians of the day and organs like the State Department's Policy Planning Staff too much with a visionary long-term strategy: much came about by default and by means of ad hoc reactions to unexpected developments. Still, quite a few elements of a coherent and well-considered strategy can be detected in American foreign policy after World War II. Much thought was for example dedicated to the perennial German question. It was hoped that the unification of the European continent would defuse the German problem by incorporating this large and potentially still powerful and economically important country into a peaceful and fully integrated European system.

In view of the perceived military threat from the Soviet Union and the weakness of the Western world in terms of conventional warfare capabilities, America's unrivaled nuclear security umbrella was initially gladly accepted by all members. In fact, possession of the atomic bomb and Washington's apparent willingness to use this weapon if necessary in response to an attack on any NATO member was the basis for Washington's hegemonic position in the Atlantic alliance. NATO allowed the United States to carve out a clear sphere of interest for itself. Washington's overwhelming military and also economic and political strength as well as its supremacy within NATO and the Western alliance enabled the United States to form what in the 1960s came to be called bluntly "the American Empire." In the 1970s and 1980s, when Europe's important role in the early Cold War and the creation of NATO was belatedly recognized, many historians began to refer to Washington's dominance somewhat more benevolently as an "empire by invitation." Yet the existence of American hegemony was disputed by very few European observers. Americans, however, often tended to regard their country's superiority in the Western alliance as the realization of Thomas Jefferson's well-meaning "empire of liberty." While to some extent Washington's role as a benign but still vastly powerful and at times quite autocratic leader rested on its economic strength and its political influence, primarily it was American dominance of NATO that furnished it with formidable global importance.

This explains why both the Bush and the Clinton administrations strongly objected to any thoughts of abandoning NATO after the end of the Cold War in 1989–1991. The largely unchallenged American dominance of NATO was the most important and most powerful tool at the disposal of the United States to maintain its influence in Europe and beyond. More than a decade later this was still the case. In view of the increasingly frequent economic and trade as well as political and strategic disagreements in transatlantic relations in the early twenty-first century, Washington's efforts to bolster NATO and turn it into one of its main pillars of influence in the contemporary world was hardly surprising. NATO still provided the United States with a crucial instrument of global leadership. Moreover, in the aftermath of the entirely unexpected terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., in September 2001, NATO would also serve as the instrument that was able to provide the United States with crucial military and logistic help and indeed much needed political and moral support in the war against international terrorism.


Barnett, Richard J. The Alliance: America, Europe, Japan, Makers of the Postwar World. New York, 1983.

Baylis, John. The Diplomacy of Pragmatism: Britain and the Formation of NATO, 1942–1949. Basingstoke, U.K., 1992.

Calleo, David. The Atlantic Fantasy: The U.S., NATO, and Europe. Baltimore, 1970.

Cornish, Paul. Partnership in Crisis: The U.S., Europe, and the Fall and Rise of NATO. London, 1997.

Di Nolfo, Ennio, ed. The Atlantic Pact Forty Years Later: A Historical Appraisal. Berlin, 1991. Essays published on the occasion of NATO's fortieth anniversary in 1989.

Duffield, John S. Power Rules: The Evolution of NATO's Conventional Force Posture. Stanford, Calif., 1995. See for the development of NATO's conventional and nuclear strategies.

Gregory, Shaun. Nuclear Command and Control in NATO: Nuclear Weapons Operations and the Strategy of Flexible Response. Basingstoke, U.K., 1996.

Heller, Francis H., and John R. Gillingham, eds. NATO: The Founding of the Atlantic Alliance and the Integration of Europe. New York, 1992.

Heuser, Beatrice. NATO, Britain, France, and the FRG: Nuclear Strategies and Forces for Europe, 1949–2000. Basingstoke, U.K., 1997.

Ireland, Timothy P. Creating the Entangling Alliance: The Origins of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. London, 1981.

Kaplan, Lawrence S. The United States and NATO: The Formative Years. Lexington, Ky., 1984.

——. NATO and the United States: The Enduring Alliance. Updated ed. New York and Toronto, 1994.

——. The Long Entanglement: NATO's First Fifty Years. Westport, Conn., 1999. A useful collection of the author's journal articles on NATO.

Kaplan, Lawrence S., ed. American Historians and the Atlantic Alliance. Kent, Ohio, 1991. The very different views of American historians on NATO.

Martin, Pierre, and Mark R. Brundy, eds. Alliance Politics: Kosovo and NATO's War: Allied Force or Forced Allies? Basingstoke, U.K., 2001.

Mattox, Gale A., and Arthur R. Rachwald, eds. Enlarging NATO: The National Debates. Boulder, Colo., 2001.

Menon, Anand. France, NATO, and the Limits of Independence, 1981–1997: The Politics of Ambivalence. Basingstoke, U.K., and New York, 2000. Covers France's ambiguous attitude toward U.S. domination of NATO.

Norton, Augustus R., comp. NATO: A Bibliography and Resource Guide. New York and London, 1985.

Osgood, Robert E. NATO: The Entangling Alliance. Chicago, 1962. One of the first and a still useful scholarly books dealing with the creation of NATO.

Sandler, Todd M., and Keith Hartely. The Political Economy of NATO: Past, Present and Into the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge and New York, 1999.

Schmidt, Gustav, ed. A History of NATO. New York, 2001. One of the best overviews of the history of NATO by a plethora of experts, based on conferences held on NATO's fiftieth anniversary in 1999.

Schwartz, David N. NATO's Nuclear Dilemmas. Washington, D.C., 1983. See for the development of NATO's conventional and nuclear strategies.

Smith, Mark. NATO Enlargement During the Cold War: Strategy and System in the Western Alliance. Basingstoke, U.K., 2000.

Thomas, Ian Q. R. The Promise of Alliance: NATO and the Political Imagination. Lanham, Md., 1997. A highly interest approach to the history of NATO with a focus on the organization's political culture and its political dimensions and goals.

Williams, Geoffrey Lee, and Barkley Jared Jones. NATO and the Transatlantic Alliance in the Twenty-First Century: The Twenty-Year Crisis. Basingstoke, U.K., 2001.

Yost, David S. NATO Transformed: The Alliance's New Role in International Security. Washington, D.C., 1998.

See also Alliances, Coalitions, and Ententes ; Balance of Power ; Cold War Origins ; Collective Security ; Containment ; International Organization ; Post–Cold War Policy ; Summit Conferences .

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