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On April 4, 1949, representatives of 11 North American and European countries assembled in Washington DC to sign a treaty of mutual defense.
That treaty, and the organization which it spawned, has served as the basis for defense policy for Western Europe and North America for almost 75 years.
Over that time, the membership in the organization has grown and its original purpose has changed.
Learn more about NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
At the end of World War II, many policymakers in the United States and Europe assumed that their problems were over. Hitler and Mussolini had been defeated and the allies had won.
However, it soon became obvious that the alliance that was created for the purpose of defeating Nazi Germany had severed its purpose and was an alliance no more.
The Soviets never pulled out of the Eastern European countries they occupied. They installed communist governments and backed a military coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948.
The Soviet’s intentions became crystal clear when they began a blockade of West Berlin in the summer of 1948 with the intent of pushing out the western powers that occupied the western part of the city.
A year before, in 1947, France and the United Kingdom had signed the Treaty of Dunkirk which was a self-defense pact. Oddly enough, the intent of the treaty wasn’t protection from the Soviet Union so much as protection from a potential resurgent Germany.
The next year, just a few months before the West Berlin Blockade, several more European countries joined this defense pact. In March 1948, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Luxembourg, and the United Kingdom signed The Treaty of Brussels.
The Treaty of Brussels, unlike the Treaty of Dunkirk, also specifically took into consideration defense against the Soviets, as well as a potential resurgent Germany.
In addition to defense, the Treaty of Brussels also had economic aspects and it served as the starting point for what would become the Europen Union.
From a defense standpoint, the Treaty of Brussels was lacking. Many other countries in Europe were not signatories of the treaty, and most importantly, the Europeans needed the United States in their corner if they were to have any hope of defending themselves against the Soviets.
Talks began in earnest with high-ranking officials in the United States to join the alliance, and expand it to other European states.
The culminated in the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty on April 4, 1949, in Washington DC.
In addition to the five signatories of the Treaty of Brussels, it was also signed by the United States, Canada, Portugal, Italy, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland.
The organization which was created by the treaty is known as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO.
The purpose of NATO, according to its first General Secretary, the British General Lord Ismay, was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”.
There are several articles to the treaty, but the core of the treaty is Article 5 which stipulates that an attack against one country is to be considered an attack against all members.
There are a few things about the treaty which are often misunderstood.
For starters, the treaty does not specify that any country has to provide military support to any other country. If one member is attacked, there is nothing that says that any other country has to provide military assistance.
In fact, the exact wording in Article 5 only says each member must provide ??”such action as [the member state] deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”
This is of course really opened ended. A country might just deem that pleasant words of support might be all they need to do, and there is nothing in the treaty that would require them to do anything else.
In practice, this probably wouldn’t happen, but there is also nothing stopping it from happening.
Article 5 has only been invoked once in the history of the treaty, and that was after September 11, 2001.
The other thing that the treaty delineates is Article 6. That specifies that only attacks in North America or Europe are attacks that can invoke Article 5.
So, for this reason, the UK couldn’t invoke Article 5 when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. The Falkland Islands are not part of the North Atlantic.
Likewise, if the Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla, which are on the African continent, were to be invaded by Morocco, it couldn’t invoke Article 5.
Also, attacks on integral parts of countries like French Guyana or even Hawaii, also couldn’t invoke Article 5.
The main reason for Article 6 was that at the time the treaty was signed, many of the countries had colonies, and no one want to get involved in wars to defend colonies.
Article 4 allows for a military consultation. This has been invoked seven times in history, most recently in February of 2022. This usually happens when something happens in a neighboring country to one of the members.
The organization of NATO has two components: a civilian body that governs the organization and provides oversight and a military command.
The civilian wing is the North Atlantic Council. This is a representative body that consists of all the member states. Each country appoints an ambassador to NATO who sits on the council. The Secretary-General of NATO, who is the chair of the council, is traditionally always a European.
There is nothing, in theory, preventing an American or Canadian from serving in this position, but it just hasn’t been done.
On the military side, at the top is the NATO Military Committee. The Military Committee consists of the highest-ranking military officer in each country. For example, the American representative on the committee is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The job of the Military Committee is to advise the civilian North Atlantic Council.
Under the Military Committee is the actual military commanders. There are two Supreme Allied Commanders in NATO, and both positions are always held by Americans.
There is the Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic and the Supreme Allied Commander Europe.
The Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic is a naval position and is headquartered in Norfolk, Virginia.
The Supreme Allied Commander Europe is an army position, and it is headquartered in Brussels, along with the rest of the NATO command structure.
Just as the commanders are always American, the deputy commanders are always British.
All of the member nations retain their sovereignty and control over their militaries, so the Supreme Commanders have limited power. In the event of a war, the organizational structure would probably become much more unified.
After NATO was created in 1949, the organization continued to evolve.
The first countries to join after ratification were Greece and Turkey, who both joined in 1952.
By 1955, the concern of a resurgent Germany had gone away, and the role of Germany in a new Europe had been totally reconsidered. This reconsideration led to West Germany joining the alliance on May 9, 1955.
The entry of West Germany into NATO was the immediate cause of the creation of the Warsaw Pact, which was created just one week later.
Also in 1955, the allied occupation of Austria ended. As part of their removal, Austria signed the Moscow Memorandum, which established Austria as a neutral country. This prevents Austria from joining any military alliance, taking part in any war, or hosting military bases for any foreign country.
That is why, to this day, Austria has never joined NATO.
A big blow to NATO came in 1958 when Charles De Gaulle took French forces out of the NATO command structure. France didn’t technically leave NATO, but all US forces were removed from France.
There were secret talks between the United States and France detailing how French forces would be quickly integrated back into NATO in the event of a war.
France did rejoin the NATO command structure again in 2009.
Greece removed its forces from the command structure in 1974 after the Turkish invasion of Northern Cyprus and rejoined in 1980.
The first new member to NATO is almost 30 years joined in 1982 when Spain signed the treaty.
The fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Iron Curtain lead to the largest change in the history of the organization. When East and West Germany unified in 1990, it meant East Germany would leave the Warsaw Pact and join NATO.
The agreement with the Soviet Union was that no NATO troops would be stations in the former East Germany.
In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and the Warsaw Pact was dissolved.
This challenged the entire raison d’etre for the existence of NATO.
In the 90s, many of the former Warsaw Pact countries wanted stronger ties with Europe, and having been occupied for almost 50 years, wanted protection that NATO provided.
In 1999, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were invited into NATO and they enthusiastically accepted.
Five years later in 2004, NATO saw the largest increase in membership since the treaty was first signed. Bulgaria, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and Slovenia all became members.
Albania and Croatia joined in 2009, Montenegro joined in 2017, and North Macedonia joined in 2020.
As of the time of recording this episode, Sweden and Finland have applied for NATO membership, but their applications haven’t been formally accepted yet.
Other countries which have been considered for membership include Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Georgia, and Ukraine.
Membership for Ukraine, as I’m sure many of you following the news know, has been a huge point of contention in the recent Russian-Ukraine conflict.
In addition to formal membership, there are also bilateral agreements that NATO has with other countries. These agreements mostly have to do with planning and cooperation. Countries which have worked with NATO include Colombia and Japan.
While NATO isn’t as centrally controlled as most people think, there is still a large amount of coordination.
NATO countries have standardized on most military equipment and techniques. There is a standard NATO round of ammunition, so any soldeir from any army could use the same ammunition. There are equivalent military ranks, standard doctrines, ways to build airfieds, and battlefield tactics.
There are always exercise and manuvers which are held so different armies know how to work with each other.
NATO was founded and still remaines a US dominated organization. In addition to the supreme commanders always being American, the US spends twice the amount of money on defense than all other NATO countries combined.
NATO is unquestionable the most important military alliance in the world today. In fact, it might be the most important alliance in history. It has certain been the most powerful and one of the most stable.
Even though the original mission for NATO has long since passed, it will still probably remain relevant for decades to come.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The executive producer is Darcy Adams.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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