On This Date: The North Atlantic Treaty Was Ratified by President Truman
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by Causes | 7.25.18
On July 25, 1949, President Harry S. Truman formally ratified the North Atlantic Treaty, which was approved by the Senate four days prior, marking the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Since its inception, the NATO alliance has provided for the collective defense of its members despite the internal and external challenges it has faced.
Why did it come up?
In the aftermath of World War II, the Western European democracies that fought alongside the U.S. were struggling to rebuild their countries that had been ravaged by years of war and in some cases Nazi occupation. The descent of the communist Soviet Union’s ‘iron curtain” ― as British wartime leader Winston Churchill called it ― across Eastern Europe posed a major military threat to Western Europe’s newfound freedom.
In 1948, the U.S., the United Kingdom, France, and several other nations began outlining the framework for a trans-Atlantic alliance that’d serve as the military equivalent of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe’s economies ― which went also went into effect that year. The Soviet blockade of Berlin that June and the ensuing allied airlift to break the siege only underscored the urgency of the situation. By April 1949, negotiators had agreed to a Treaty that President Truman sent to the Senate for ratification ― which requires the support of two-thirds of the senators present and the president's signature.
What did it do?
The preamble of the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949 affirms the desire of its signatories “to live in peace with all peoples and all governments”, and their intent to “unite their efforts for collective defence and for the preservation of peace and security.” It adds:
“They are 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.”
The portion of the Treaty which provides for the collective defense ― known as Article V ― holds that an armed attack on a member in Europe or North America should be considered an attack on all. Each member would be required to take whatever action it deems necessary, individually and in concert with other allies, to restore and preserve the security of the North Atlantic area. For this reason, Article V is sometimes known as the “Three Musketeers” clause of the Treaty because it’s “all for one and one for all.”
In response to constitutional concerns raised in hearings with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Dean Acheson explained that Article V wouldn’t automatically put the U.S. at war with an adversary that attacked a NATO member. Rather, he said the U.S. would only be obligated to “take promptly the action it deemed necessary to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”
Article III of the Treaty required NATO allies to “maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack” through “self-help and mutual aid”. The Truman administration was in the process of developing a separate Military Assistance Program to help rebuild the depleted militaries of Western Europe that’d ultimately fulfill this purpose. However, it raised concerns among senators who worried it’d effectively commit the U.S. to arming those nations at the expense of the American taxpayer.
The Senate voted on and defeated by wide margins three reservations raised by senators related to Article III and and Article V of the Treaty. It then voted to ratify the Treaty by an 82-13 margin on July 21, 1949 and President Truman formally ratified the Treaty on July 25. On August 24, the Treaty took effect and representatives of the other 11 founding members of NATO (Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and the United Kingdom) joined Truman in the Oval Office where he said:
“By this treaty we are not only seeking to establish freedom from aggression and from the use of force in the North Atlantic community, but we are also actively striving to promote and preserve peace throughout the world.”
What has its impact been?
In the first few years of its existence, NATO didn’t have well defined military structure and primarily served as a political alliance. But communist North Korea’s shock invasion of South Korea ― and the support it received from the communist regimes in China and the Soviet Union ― led to the development of NATO’s military command structure. It also led to more countries joining the NATO alliance, including West Germany, Greece, and Turkey during the 1950s as the Soviet Union created its rival Warsaw Pact alliance in 1955.
Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. maintained a large troop presence in West Germany as a deterrent to Soviet aggression against West Berlin or elsewhere in Europe. At any given time, roughly 250,000 American servicemembers were stationed in West Germany, France hosted up to 50,000 U.S. troops at various times while tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers were also stationed in the United Kingdom. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, troop levels decreased ― although about 35,000 Americans remain stationed in the reunified Germany.
NATO’s first joint military interventions came in Bosnia from 1992-1995 and during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in 1999. This period also saw the expansion of NATO, as former Warsaw Pact member nations joined their historical foes in the alliance, which has grown to 29 members at present.
Article V was invoked by NATO members for the first time in the alliance’s history after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S., and NATO members have fought alongside American troops in Afghanistan since then.
NATO also imposed a no-fly zone and carried out strikes against the military of former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, provided training assistance to the Iraqi security forces after dictator Saddam Hussein was removed from power, and carried out an anti-piracy campaign in the Gulf of Aden.
At a 2014 NATO summit, allies pledged to spend at least 2% of their nation’s GDP on defense to improve NATO’s interoperability by 2024, after some members struggled to sustain military operations in Afghanistan and Libya. At the time only the U.S., the United Kingdom, and Greece met that goal but they’ve since been joined by Poland, Estonia, Romania, Lithuania, and Latvia in exceeding the 2% threshold for 2018. Based on current projections, 23 of the 29 current NATO members are expected to hit the target by 2024.
It also appears probable that the alliance will continue grow in the future. Macedonia will likely be the next nation to join NATO, while there have been discussions about future membership with the governments of Ukraine and the Republic of Georgia ― two countries which experienced Russian aggression in the post-Soviet era firsthand ― plus Bosnia and Herzegovina. Other potential future members include Finland and Sweden, where public opinion has trended toward membership since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, despite their historic neutrality.
— Eric Revell
(Photo Credit: Abbie Rowe - NARA / Public Domain)
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