The establishment of NATO in April 1949 rested upon a European and in particular a British initiative. As John Lewis Gaddis has written, it was "as explicit an invitation as has ever been extended from smaller powers to a great power to construct an empire and include them within it." However, in the circumstances of the times, considerations about American empire building and American dominance played a rather minor role. The Europeans were looking for military protection and economic and military aid to ensure their survival as democratic states. Some American observers have therefore concluded that the western Europeans deviously "entrapped" the United States. This is unjustified. The American political establishment of the time—both the Democratic administration and, until the election of 1948, the Republican leadership of Congress—realized very well that putting a stop to Soviet expansionist encroachments and maintaining democratic states with a liberal economic order on the European continent were very much in the national interest of the United States.
Yet, admittedly, without strenuous European attempts to persuade the Truman administration to come to the rescue of the European nation-states, American involvement might never have come about. What proved to be decisive for American support in both the economic and military sphere was evidence of European willingness to help themselves. This was Washington's condition for providing financial aid under the Marshall Plan and joining the European nations in talks about setting up a North Atlantic defensive alliance.
In the immediate aftermath of World War II, American policymakers, and in particular Secretary of State James Byrnes, were hopeful that some kind of modus vivendi could be found with Stalin's Soviet Union. Yet, this soon proved to be impossible. In March 1946, in Fulton, Missouri, Winston Churchill spoke of the iron curtain that was descending "from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic." A month before this well-publicized event, the U.S. diplomat George Kennan had already sent his influential Long Telegram from the Moscow embassy to Washington warning about Soviet expansionist intentions. As a result of these efforts, in the course of 1946 the foreign policy elite in Washington and American public opinion were becoming rather critical of Stalin's activities. It was a slow process, however, and the turning point only came in 1947. The tightening of Moscow's grip on the states of Eastern Europe, frequent difficulties with Moscow's ambitions in Turkey, Greece, and elsewhere, and increasingly tense East-West relations in occupied Germany made many contemporaries slowly aware of the apparently irreconcilable nature of Soviet and Western political aims. Of great importance was the ever more apparent economic weakness of Britain and the unsustainable nature of the country's long-standing imperial role. Crucially significant also was the state of near starvation and the considerable political and economic instability of much of western Europe. This propelled the United States into action.
In the Truman Doctrine of 12 March 1947, the United States declared that it would respond to the British request to assume responsibility for the support of the anticommunist forces in Greece and Turkey. Moreover, much less to Britain's liking, Truman also promised American support for the worldwide fight against international communism. Three months later, Secretary of State George Marshall, Acheson's predecessor, announced the European Recovery Program (ERP) in his speech at Harvard University on 5 June. The Marshall Plan was meant to provide economic assistance to the states of western Europe to enable them to withstand the onslaught of communist fifth columns. Otherwise communism's ideological temptations might well have held a tremendous attraction for the peoples of Europe who lacked food, housing, and heating fuel.
It was Washington's intention to stabilize and reconstruct the continent with the help of generous economic and financial aid. American policymakers recognized that only a united western Europe at peace with itself would be able to create a common front against the military and ideological threat from the Soviet Union. Only such a Europe would ensure the reconciliation of Germany with the countries of the Western world while avoiding tendencies toward neutralism and defeatism. Underlying America's postwar vision was the assumption that only a fully integrated, stable, and economically viable Europe would develop into a peaceful and democratic continent. The lessons from America's own past as well as the country's federalist structure were to serve as the model to achieve a single European market. This would prevent economic nationalism, lead to European prosperity, and form a truly free and multilateral transatlantic economic system.
It also was expected that in due course this strategy would have the advantage of making unnecessary the continuation of American economic aid to western Europe. Active American governmental support and interference were always regarded as temporary. It was hoped that European reconstruction would close the dollar gap, permit the convertibility of European currencies, allow the Europeans to export to the United States, and, not least, create a huge market for U.S. exporters. The latter would be important in avoiding the predicted domestic American recession. Washington therefore stipulated that most of the goods purchased with Marshall Plan aid had to be bought in the United States.
In his speech at Harvard, Marshall had spelled out that while the United States would give generous economic aid, the initiative for proposals on how best to make use of this aid for reconstruction and economic revival had to come from the Europeans themselves. British foreign secretary Ernest Bevin realized this; he regarded Marshall's offer as "a life-line to sinking men" to avert "the looming shadow of catastrophe" over western Europe. Together with his French counterpart Georges Bidault, he organized an international conference in Paris in June and July 1947. The conference led to the formation of the Committee of European Economic Cooperation and to the acceptance of decisive American economic and political involvement in the internal affairs of the countries of western Europe. Eventually, in April 1948, the European Recovery Program was set up and a new European Payments Union and the Organization for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC) were established. The latter was the organ responsible for the distribution of Marshall Plan aid to sixteen European nations and the western zones of Germany. Due to European disagreements and contrary to its original intention, Washington decided to become a direct participant in the running of the OEEC.
The Soviet Union, however, declined to accept the liberal-capitalist economic conditions Washington imposed as a precondition for participation in the ERP. Moreover, Moscow prevented Eastern European states like Poland and Czechoslovakia from accepting U.S. aid. According to some historians, the Soviet Union's self-exclusion may well have been a result secretly hoped for in Washington, as the United States had no interest in using American taxpayers' money to support the economic reconstruction of the communist world. Be this as it may, the nonparticipation of Eastern Europe meant that the Marshall Plan and the OEEC contributed to the widening of the economic, ideological, and political gulf in postwar Europe.
Although Marshall's speech was received with a great deal of hope in Europe, throughout 1947 and most of 1948 fear of a military invasion from the East stalked the western part of the continent. The spirit of the times was characterized by despondency and fatalism. Not only were Greece, France, and Italy, with their large communist parties, on the brink of civil war, but East-West relations in Germany, with the eastern zone firmly controlled by Stalin's lieutenants, were becoming ever icier. Questions such as reparations, four-power control of Germany's industrial heartland (the Ruhr Valley), and the desirability of the reestablishment of a central and united state were among the most contested.
It was the collapse of the London foreign ministers conference in December 1947 over disagreements regarding the future of Germany and the February 1948 communist coup and subsequent purges in Czechoslovakia that were decisive. These moved the United States toward participation in an Atlantic defense organization. In early 1948 both Ernest Bevin and Georges Bidault impressed on American leaders the urgency of the situation. Ever since he had become British foreign secretary in July 1945, it had been Bevin's primary aim to persuade the United States to remain committed to the security and well-being of the European continent. But in the absence of a lasting U.S. commitment to Europe, Bevin, in response to a French initiative, had signed the Treaty of Dunkirk on 4 March 1947. It established an Anglo-French bilateral military alliance with an anticipated duration of fifty years; the formal aim of the treaty was the prevention of renewed German militarism. Yet for both Britain and France the Dunkirk treaty represented merely a second-best solution as it did not involve the United States.
Shortly after the collapse of the foreign ministers conference, Bevin explained his idea of a Western union to Marshall and Bidault, who both heartily endorsed a new political and defensive agreement among Britain, France, and the Benelux countries. Bevin insisted, however, on the need for American assistance and participation in a loose and flexible "spiritual federation of the West." He told Marshall that the "salvation of the West depends on the formation of some form of union, formal or informal in character, in Western Europe, backed by the United States and the [British] Dominions." During an impressive speech in the House of Commons on 22 January 1948, Bevin officially proposed the establishment of a western European union; he did not hesitate to spell out that such a treaty would be directed against the threat posed to western Europe by the Soviet Union. The impact of the communist coup in Czechoslovakia in February and increasing Soviet intransigence over Berlin, which by June had led to the Berlin blockade crisis, confirmed the importance of Bevin's pronouncements.
On 17 March 1948 a treaty for European economic, political, cultural, and military cooperation with a duration of fifty years was signed in Brussels. Participants of this multilateral treaty, the anti-German tone of which was much milder than that of the Dunkirk treaty, were Britain, France, and the three Benelux countries. Unlike the Dunkirk treaty arrangements, the Brussels Treaty Organization (BTO) could be enlarged to include other members. The values of self-help and cooperation were emphasized in the treaty to impress the United States and, indeed, President Truman warmly welcomed the new organization. Nevertheless, the United States still needed to be persuaded to accept a European security commitment. Truman's enthusiastic welcome of the BTO and his unusual decision to maintain conscription in time of peace were hopeful signs.
Almost immediately after the Brussels treaty was concluded, top-secret Pentagon talks between Britain and the United States and Canada about the setting up of a North Atlantic defense organization took place. It is unlikely that these talks would have taken place without the prior formation of the BTO. However, the establishment of transatlantic military cooperation was still viewed in terms of cooperation between the BTO and the United States; neither American membership in the BTO nor the creation of a new treaty organization was yet envisaged.
Shortly after the Pentagon talks, from July 1948 to March 1949 the BTO and the United States and Canada entered into drawn-out negotiations for the establishment of some sort of Atlantic security organization. The aim of the talks was the achievement of a unanimous decision rather than merely a majority vote. Still, the Truman administration remained cautious. As Lawrence Kaplan has explained, opposition to the establishment of a joint American-European military alliance came from three major camps in the United States.
First, there was the still formidable opposition from isolationists who suspected that America was being asked to pull the European chestnuts out of the fire. These largely emotional and psychological pressures were difficult to satisfy. The administration, and in particular Secretary Acheson, embarked on a major effort of persuasion to win over as many isolationists in Congress as possible by, for example, emphasizing the harmony of interests between the UN Charter and the NATO treaty. But due to congressional pressure, and much to the dislike of the Europeans, Article 5 of the North Atlantic charter, in which an attack on one member was regarded as an attack on all and would lead to a joint war effort, had to be expressed much more vaguely than originally anticipated. Thus, not the Soviet Union or any other potential enemy but the U.S. Congress would in fact decide whether or not the United States would become involved in a war. Essentially, this was the result of the Vandenberg Resolution passed by the Senate in early June 1948. On the whole, however, the compromise achieved by Arthur Vandenberg, the influential Republican senator and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, only slightly diluted the North Atlantic Treaty. However, when article 5 was invoked for the very first time after the terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001, it occurred in an entirely unforeseen way and for a totally unexpected reason. During the Cold War it had always been expected that the United States would have to come to the aid of European countries to defend them against a Soviet invasion. But in September 2001, article 5 was invoked by NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson and the North Atlantic Council on the request of the U.S. administration to obtain NATO's political and military support in the fight against international terrorism.
Secondly, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the U.S. military in general were more than doubtful whether the country had the resources to build up a transatlantic military alliance. Indeed, the Joint Chiefs feared that the resources Congress would be able to make available to the American military services would be greatly reduced if Washington decided to rearm the Europeans. Whether or not European rearmament went ahead, in view of Stalin's conventional superiority, the West would be helpless if faced with a Soviet invasion of Europe. Eventually, however, the Joint Chiefs realized that the proposed Mutual Defense Assistance Program would actually enable them to enlarge and modernize the equipment available to the army, navy, and air force. Moreover, the administration's willingness to listen to the military and to agree to rule out the right of any of the future NATO members to automatic military assistance greatly pleased the Joint Chiefs. Instead, bilateral agreements with each member were made the precondition for offering U.S. military aid to western Europe.
Thirdly, supporters of the United Nations and Roosevelt's "one world" concept feared that an "entangling alliance" would revive the despised and dangerous balance-of-power concept of pre–World War II days. Although they recognized that the Soviet Union's veto in the Security Council made any use of the United Nations for Western defense purposes difficult, if not impossible, the envisaged alliance appeared to ignore the United Nations altogether. This was a poor precedent that might well threaten to undermine the United Nations fatally. The Truman administration therefore invoked the UN Charter as much as possible in the articles of the North Atlantic Treaty, although they realized, as Kaplan writes, "that there was a basic incompatibility between the treaty and the charter." During the strenuous efforts to sell the North Atlantic Treaty to the country, the administration pretended that NATO was a regional organization of the United Nations (chapter 8, article 53). Wisely, however, no reference to this effect was included in the text of the treaty. After all, regional organizations were obliged to report to the UN Security Council, which would have given Moscow an unacceptable element of influence on NATO.
During the many months of negotiations between the Brussels Treaty Organization and the United States and Canada many other issues became controversial. For example, the question of whether the new organization should be only a strategic or also a political alliance was contentious. In the end, and largely on the insistence of Canada, the envisaged organization was also given a political and ideological role rather than a mere military function. Thus, article 2 emphasized the necessity of economic and social cooperation between the member states, and article 8 stated that no member state should enter into any obligations that conflicted with NATO—in other words, no member state was allowed to go communist. Also, the role of Germany, and how to restrain and integrate Germany into the Western world, was extensively and successfully discussed. At the London conference in the spring of 1948, the three Western allies were therefore able to agree on the radical step of setting up a separate West German state.
Of particular importance were questions of NATO membership, coverage, and duration. Eventually it was decided that there should be no different categories of membership; countries were either participants or not. For strategic and political reasons it was decided to interpret the term "North Atlantic" loosely. For example, the Algerian departments of France were accepted as being covered by NATO, and countries such as Italy and Portugal (and later Greece and Turkey) were of such strategic importance that they needed to become involved. This meant for example that Antonio Salazar's Portugal, which was hardly a democratic country, was allowed to join. Yet, Spain only became a member in 1982, after the death of fascist dictator Francisco Franco. For largely strategic reasons, Portugal (including the Portuguese Azores) and Italy as well as Norway, Denmark (including Danish Greenland), and Iceland were allowed to accede to NATO in April 1949. They had not participated in the negotiations between the BTO, the United States, and Canada.
By September–October 1948 it had become clear that a new unified alliance would be created rather than a defensive agreement between the Brussels Treaty Organization and a North American organization, as had been envisaged in the Pentagon talks. Most importantly, at around the same time it became obvious that the United States would be a definite member of the new North Atlantic alliance. While the Europeans expected above all to benefit from NATO by means of American protection and military aid, Washington hoped that the existence of NATO would convince the Soviet Union to restrain its expansionist ambitions. Not least the United States expected that due to American participation, the North Atlantic alliance would help to overcome the outdated balance-of-power concept that had dominated European politics for centuries. NATO was therefore meant to contribute decisively to the establishment of a peaceful, stable, and prosperous continent.