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What’s the Context? 4 April 1949: the signature of the North Atlantic Treaty

How the West was won

65 years ago today the North Atlantic Treaty was signed in the State Department auditorium in Washington. An organisation was born—NATO—that remains a cornerstone of Western defence up to the present day. In 1949 there were twelve members: now there are 28. The rationale, scope and cost of NATO provoked some controversy in 1949, and indeed continue to do so. Although the Cold War that provided the original context came to an end nearly 15 years ago, NATO remains very much alive. Only last week, the Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, referred to the Alliance as the ‘bedrock of security’ America and Europe, and stated that ‘our commitment to the defence of our Allies is unbreakable’.

At the signing ceremony, President Truman is seen sign the North Atlantic Treaty
The signing of the North Atlantic Treaty

On 4 April 1949, at the signing ceremony, the United States Marine Band Orchestra played a medley from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Though ‘I got plenty of nothing’ and ‘It ain’t necessarily so’ might not seem quite the appropriate choice, there is no doubt that in 1949 the Treaty was seen as heralding a new era of security. In his speech at the signing ceremony President Truman said he believed that if NATO had been in existence in 1914 or 1939 it would have prevented the acts of aggression that precipitated two world wars. Analysts might challenge this: but there is no getting away from the fact that there has been no global armed conflict since then.

Under the Treaty an armed attack against one or more of its signatories in Europe or North America counted as an attack against them all; they were, the Preamble stated,

determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.

Whatever the rhetoric, NATO was aimed squarely at the Soviet Union, a product of the escalating East-West tension since the end of the Second World War. British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin—prime mover of the creation of NATO, as a forthcoming volume of Documents on British Policy Overseas shows—insisted that the Treaty was a protection against any future aggressor: if the Russians thought it was aimed at them, well, it was a clear case of ‘if the cap fits . . .’

‘We now know’, to use John Lewis Gaddis’s phrase, how the Cold War ended: with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany. NATO did its job in protecting the West and deterring the East, and the West was won. But hindsight can be misleading: was it really that straightforward in 1949? A closer look at the context, both European and global, reveals a complex picture.

The Empire strikes back

Since the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union appeared to the West to have evolved from wartime ally to a major threat to democracy and freedom: desiring global domination through the spread of communism, pursuing an ideological imperialism inimical to Western values. The Prague coup of February 1948, show trials in Hungary and bullying in Scandinavia, not to mention the blockading of the Western zones of Berlin in June 1948 that led to the Airlift; all these seemed to prove the West’s case. These factors  also led President Truman to approve contingency plans for the use of the atomic bomb.

But Soviet leader Josef Stalin had a case to put forward, too. He denounced what he claimed was an equally insidious western imperialism, both political and economic, manifested through such initiatives as the Truman Doctrine and the European Recovery Programme (Marshall Plan), in the stationing of British and US troops across the globe and in suppression of nationalist movements in colonial territories. The East, Stalin claimed, needed solidarity and mutual assistance just as much as the West: the North Atlantic Treaty, he claimed, proved his point. The successful testing of a Soviet atomic bomb in August 1949 underlined it.

The War of the Worlds

By the beginning of 1949, both West and East had serious problems in Europe. For the West, apart from the perceived Soviet threat, there were economic difficulties yet to be alleviated by the European Recovery Programme, exacerbated by the Berlin crisis and the challenges posed by decisions on the future of a divided Germany; a Fascist regime in Spain, civil strife in Greece and political turbulence in Italy added to the mix. The United States had emerged from the war an economic and military superpower, but anxiety about the spread of communism and the threat to peace posed by European weakness made it clear that only America could guarantee Western security.

1949 started badly for the East, too. The success of the Allied Airlift in supplying the blockaded Western zones of Berlin meant the crisis was about to end in failure as an exercise in Soviet power. While Stalin tried to cement his grip on Eastern Europe, a defiant Yugoslavia, after splitting from Moscow in 1948, undermined Soviet control and weakened Eastern solidarity. Communist parties in Western European countries, far from taking political control, were often ineffective and divided. And the East, like the West, needed time and stability for economic recovery.

The Cold War was centred on Europe, but uncertainty, unrest and ideological struggle had a global dimension. At the beginning of 1949, Mao Zedong was on the brink of overcoming Nationalist resistance and the People’s Republic of China was about to be born, much to the dismay of the United States. In the Middle East, the newly formed state of Israel, having inflicted a series of defeats on Arab countries in 1948, was consolidating its territorial and political power, and 1949 saw the beginning of a long-running Arab-Israeli war of attrition and an equally enduring Palestine refugee problem. Throughout the Middle, Near and Far East political unrest, fuelled by economic desperation as well as ideology and nationalism, threatened to destabilise a fragile global peace. The situation presented both opportunities and threats to East and West alike. The West sought security through NATO: the East sought it too; neither approved the other’s methods, but each felt they were the only way to secure the peace that would enable them to capitalise on the opportunities.

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