The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, known simply as NATO, was established after World War II (WW II) due to continued concerns about the security of European nations. What is NATO? What is its purpose and who are its members? How has it changed over the decades since its inception?
What is NATO
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a political and military alliance of governments. The purpose in creating the organization was threefold:
- To deter Soviet expansionism
- To forbid a revival of nationalist military operations in Europe by having a strong North American presence on the European continent
- To encourage political integration in Europe
Politically, the goal of the organization is to promote democratic values and encourage governments to cooperate and consult on matters of security and defense to help prevent further wars. Should diplomatic efforts fail to resolve a conflict between countries, NATO has the military capacity to carryout crisis management actions. The organization is able to do so under article five of the Washington Treaty and/or may do so under the mandate of the United Nations (UN). Article five of the North Atlantic Treaty states:
“an armed attack against one or more of them… shall be considered an attack against them all.”
The Birth of NATO
After WW II much of Europe was devastated and the Soviet Union was helping communists threaten elected governments across the continent. In 1948 the elected democratic government of Czechoslovakia was overthrown by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia which was covertly back by the Soviet Union. In addition, the Soviet Union blockaded Allied controlled West Berlin in reaction to its democratic consolidation.
Credit: photo courtesy of the US Federal Government Photographer: SGT Brian Gavin, Source: Wikimedia CommonsThough the United States provided aid to help stabilize the economy, the nations of Europe needed confidence in their security before they began trading and cooperating with each other. Therefore, any economic and political progress would have to have a parallel development of security provided by military cooperation.
While some countries came together and formed various unions such as the Western Union, later called the Western European Union; it was determined the only solution to deter Soviet aggression and preventing the revival of European militarism was the formation of a transatlantic security agreement. This would also aid in progressing political integration of nations.
On April 4, 1949 the North Atlantic Treaty was signed. Later that year the Soviet denoted an atomic bomb and in 1950 the Korean War began. These two incidents made the allies of the treaty realize they needed a military structure to effectively coordinate any actions they might take. Thus, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) was born. SHAPE was based in Rocquencourt, a Parisian suburb near Versailles and United States General Dwight D. Eisenhower was appointed the first commander. Shortly thereafter, a permanent civilian secretariat was established and General Lord Ismay from the United Kingdom was appointed as the first Secretary General.
In response to NATO and the integration of West Germany into the treaty, the Soviet Union Credit: Photo courtesy of United States Navy U.S. Navy Photographer: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Vincent J. Street, Source: Wikimedia Commonsestablished the Warsaw Pact with Communist countries, Bulgaria, Hungary, East Germany, Poland, Romania, and Cezechoslovakia. NATO adopted the strategy if the Soviet Union attacked, NATO forces would respond with nuclear weapons. The intent was to deter either side from any risk-taking operations and thus allow the Alliance to focus on economic issues.
In addition to military concerns, the Soviet Union was instrumental in bringing awareness of the need for cooperation in scientific fields between the Allies of the treaty. When the Soviets launched the Sputnik in 1956, the Foreign Ministers of Norway, Italy and Canada sent a report to NATO recommending greater cooperation in the sharing of scientific research between the member countries. This led to the establishment of the NATO Science Program.
In the 1960s tensions of the Cold War were refueled by the Cuban Missile Crisis and the escalation of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. During that time, NATO was instrumental in what is called détente or a relaxation of the tensions between the Western and Eastern blocs. Also during the 60s, France made known her intention to withdraw from NATO’s integrated military command structure and requested the Allied headquarters be relocated outside French territory. SHAPE moved to Casteau, Belgium in March 1967 and NATO moved its headquarters to Brussels in October of 1967. Although withdrawing from the military command structure, France remained a member of the Alliance.
The détente period ended when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and deployed SS-20 Saber ballistic missiles in Europe in 1979. The Allies responded by deploying nuclear-capable Pershing II missiles and ground-launch cruise missiles in Western Europe. The deployment had a delayed schedule until 1983 in hopes the Allies could reach an arms control agreement with the Soviet Union. This did not happen, but in 1985 the Soviet Union and the United States reached an agreement to eliminate all nuclear and ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with intermediate range.
By the late 1980s the Cold War was coming to an end. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989Credit: photo courtesy of SSGT F. LEE CORKRAN & the US Federal Government, Source: Wikimedia Commons there was a question as whether or not NATO was needed any longer. Though the Soviet Union was no longer the same concern, there were still the other two factions of the original purpose of NATO and therefore it continued its existence. In 1991 the Warsaw Pact was dissolved and in that same year, the Allies formed a council to bring together the Allies with Central and Eastern European, as well as Central Asian neighbors. These countries were called Partners and the purpose of the council was to establish joint consultation to aid in stability for the countries.
Currently (2012) there are 28 member countries of NATO. In 1949 when the organization began there were twelve countries: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Italy, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Iceland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Greece and Turkey became members in 1952 and in 1955 West Germany was added. 
It was almost 30 years for the next member to be added to NATO. In 1982 Spain joined and it was another 17 years before Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic joined. This brought the total membership to 19. In 2004, Romania, Latvia, Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Slovenia, and Slovakia joined the alliance. The newest members of the alliance, Albania and Croatia, joined in 2009 to bring the current (2012) total membership in NATO to 28.
Credit: Photo Courtesy of the United States Navy Photographer: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Mark O'Donald, Source: Wikimedia CommonsActivities of NATO in the Last Two Decades
With the end of the Cold War, threat of nuclear retaliation was no longer the strategy and the Alliance developed a new strategy concerning their purpose and priorities. Issued in 1999, the new Concept, outlined the view the world now faced “complex new risks to Euro- Atlantic peace and security, including oppression, ethnic conflict, economic distress, the collapse of political order, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”
NATO activities have evolved over the years since its inception. The first decade the Alliance was a defensive organization. In the 1960s, it was a political tool for détente. By the 1990s, the Alliance took on the role of being a tool for stabilizing Eastern Europe and Central Asia by incorporating new allies and Partners. Most recently, NATO worked with partners and contributing non-members in operations in Afghanistan and Libya. The Alliance continues to work to keep terrorist activity at bay as well as addressing cyber-attack issues.
The copyright of the article The History of NATO is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.
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