By Dr. Brian Blodgett
Faculty Member, Homeland Security, American Military University
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) turned 70 years old on Saturday, April 4. To mark the anniversary, NATO foreign ministers gathered in Washington, D.C.’s Mellon Auditorium, the same room where the defense alliance was founded in 1949.
“NATO is evolving and NATO is adapting. And NATO looks a little bit different than it did on April 4th of 1949,” Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeler told her colleagues.
She also reiterated NATO’s support for the sanctions levied against Russia for its “seizure of Crimea in 2014 and the destabilization of the Donbass.”
Those actions have made the NATO alliance, especially the “allies up against Russian borders, very, very aware of the necessity of strong deterrence and [our] defense mission,” Gottemoeler added.
Backdrop to the Postwar Formation of NATO
In the aftermath of World War II, much of Europe lay devastated. The exact number of casualties is unknown due in large measure to the impossibility of knowing precisely how many Soviet citizens were killed or permanently displaced; estimates are over 23 million dead or missing, with about half of them civilians. Altogether, an estimated 36 million Europeans died during the conflict.
The European countries that were to form NATO experienced especially great population losses during the war. Altogether, seven of the 10 founding European countries suffered more civilian deaths than military casualties. The Netherlands, for example, lost more than 3.45 percent of its 1939 population, 94 percent of them civilians.
In March 1947, Britain and France signed the Treaty of Dunkirk, formally known as the Treaty of Alliance and Mutual Assistance. The treaty laid the foundation for a multinational organization should Germany attack either of them again. One year later, in March 1948, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg joined Britain and France in the Treaty of Brussels, forming the Western Union also known as the Brussels Treaty Organization.
In April of 1948, the Soviet Union instituted the Berlin Blockade, preventing the Allies from transporting food and other essentials overland into the war-torn city, which was within Soviet-dominated East Germany.
President Truman Initiates the Berlin Airlift to Thwart the Soviet Blockade
In reaction to the USSR’s blockade, President Harry Truman organized the Berlin Airlift. During this airlift, which lasted nearly 11 months and ended in May 1949, the U.S. Air Force flew nearly 300,000 flights and transported more than 2.3 million tons of food, coal and medical supplies in round-the-clock flights to the residents of the city. On average, a plane landed in Berlin or took off every 30 seconds.
Secret meetings involving Britain, France, the Benelux countries, the United States and Canada resulted in a mutual defense organization to counter any further Soviet aggression. They realized that they needed to be more than a military alliance. The organization had to be one of political, economic and cultural bonds, which led to the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
These seven countries, however, also realized that they needed other nations to make NATO a success, but none of the remaining allied countries of the Western Union wanted to join. Due to their political, economic and strategic location — and a desire for stability in a changing world — one by one other Western countries slowly accepted the invitation to join NATO.
The Scandinavian Countries
Within months of the Prague coup in early 1948 — which overthrew the democratic government of Czechoslovakia and installed a communist dictatorship — Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden met to discuss a neutral Nordic Defense Union rather than join the newly forming NATO.
However, the United States recognized that the Nordic area was vital to controlling the Baltic Sea against any future hostile Soviet actions. In mid-January 1949, when the U.S. announced that only NATO member states would receive U.S. military support, Norway quickly realized that the proposed Scandinavian union was too weak to counter potential Soviet aggression and accepted the NATO invitation.
The United States viewed Denmark as a key strategic ally because its location in the Baltic Sea would help bottle up the Soviet Baltic Fleet. However, not all of the countries wanted Denmark as a partner, since it did not share any common borders with the Benelux countries and was thus viewed as a liability if Russia was to attack it.
But Denmark also controlled Greenland, a strategic island in the North Atlantic. With Norway’s decision to forgo the Nordic alliance for NATO and the United States wanting Denmark to join, Denmark was offered an invitation, which it accepted.
While Iceland did not have a military of its own, its strategic location along the vital northern sea shipping lanes made it important to the Allies to join NATO. The Americans and the British, in particular, were familiar with the famous quote by German political scientist Karl Houshofer, who stated: “Whoever controlled Iceland held a revolver constantly pointed at Great Britain, Canada, and the United States.” Iceland’s foreign minister, Bjarni Benediktsson, was able to convince the parliament to vote to accept the NATO invitation.
During the Cold War, Iceland allowed its NATO allies to station troops there and volunteered the Icelandic Coast Guard to assist NATO activities after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Southern European Counties
Italy’s position in the Mediterranean made it a valuable NATO partner to secure the organization’s southern flank. Italy, however, was unsure if it wanted to join the new organization and its political parties sent mixed messages about its intentions.
Since the United States did not want to lose Italy to the Soviets, which had a strong Communist Party, the war-torn country became a recipient of aid via the European Recovery Program, also known as the Marshall Plan. The Christian Democrats viewed integration into the Western European community as a major goal. When they won the Italian parliamentary elections in 1948, Italy accepted NATO’s invitation.
When NATO was formed, Britain’s Lord Hastings Lionel Ismay became its first Secretary General. He famously explained that NATO’s purpose was to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”
Seventy years later, NATO’s current Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, speaking at the Washington, D.C., gathering, hailed the treaty, saying, “Its reach is vast, and it has stood the test of time – because we have united around our core commitment to protect and defend one another.”
About the Author
Dr. Brian Blodgett is an alumnus of American Military University. He graduated in 2000 with a master’s of arts in military studies and a concentration in land warfare. He retired from the U.S. Army in 2006 as a Chief Warrant Officer after serving over 20 years, first as an infantryman and then as an intelligence analyst. He is a 2003 graduate of the Joint Military Intelligence College where he earned a master’s of science in strategic intelligence with a concentration in South Asia. He graduated from Northcentral University in 2008, earning a doctorate in philosophy in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He served with NATO twice, first from 1993 to 1996 and again in 1999 to 2002.
Dr. Blodgett has been a part-time faculty member, a full-time faculty member and a program director. He is currently a full-time faculty member in the School of Security and Global Studies and teaches homeland security and security management courses.