Updated: 06-Dec-2001 NATO the first five years 1949-1954

Part 1
Chapter 1

by Lord Ismay

Secretary General



Origins of the North Atlantic Treaty

The morrow of victory

On the 26th June, 1945, shortly after the collapse of Nazi Germany and a few weeks before the capitulation of Japan, the representatives of fifty nations signed the Charter of the United Nations in San Francisco. People the world over dared to hope that after one of the most devastating wars in history an era of peace had at last dawned. True, they remembered that the League of Nations had attempted to build up a system of collective security and had failed. But this time things were different. All the surviving Great Powers were founder members of the new international organization. Practically all the remaining strength and wealth of the world were at its service.

The Charter was founded on two assumptions. First, that the five Powers holding permanent seats in the Security Council - China, France, the United Kingdom, the United States and the Soviet Union - would be able to reach lasting agreement on major matters. Secondly, that apart from Russia's known claims on Japan, none of these Powers sought any territorial aggrandizement. Unfortunately, neither of these assumptions proved correct. When we look back over the events of the past nine years, we can see that no sooner had Hitler's empire crumbled than the Western countries - some of them hardly liberated from enemy occupation - were again faced by another peril, coming this time from Communist Russia. The defeat of the two great military and industrial countries, Germany and Japan, had left a vast vacuum of strength to the west and to the east of the Soviet Union. The history of the immediate post-war period is largely that of how the Kremlin, aided by exceptionally favourable circumstances, used the combined strength of the Red Army and world Communism to carry forward expansionist policies, and of how the rest of the world reacted.

Even in 1945 the most confirmed optimist could not claim that the international sky was clear: and Prime Minister Churchill was not alone in the anxieties which he expressed in his telegram (1) of 12th May to President Truman.

'I am profoundly concerned about the European situation', he cabled. 'I learn that half the American Air Force in Europe has already begun to move to the Pacific theatre. The newspapers are full of the great movements of American armies out of Europe. Our armies also are, under previous arrangements, likely to undergo a marked reduction. The Canadian Army will certainly leave. The French are weak... In a short space of time our armed power on the Continent will have vanished, except for moderate forces to hold down Germany.

'Meanwhile what is to happen about Russia?... I feel deep anxiety because of their misinterpretation of the Yalta decisions, their attitude towards Poland, their overwhelming influence in the Balkans, excepting Greece, the difficulties they make about Vienna, the combination of Russian power and the territories under their control or occupied, coupled with the Communist technique in so many other countries, and above all their power to maintain very large armies in the field. What will be the position in a year or two when the British and American Armies have melted and the French have not yet been formed on any major scale... and when Russia may choose to keep 200-300 divisions on active service?

An iron curtain is drawn down upon their front. We do not know what is going on behind... A broad band of many hundreds of miles will isolate us from Poland.

Meanwhile, the attention of our peoples will be occupied in inflicting severities upon Germany, which is ruined and prostrate, and it would be open to the Russians in a very short time to advance, if they chose, to the waters of the North Sea and the Atlantic...

The west disarms

Notwithstanding all these uncertainties the Western democracies were for a long time reluctant to face the implications of Soviet policy. True to wartime pledges and to popular demand America and Britain quickly withdrew the bulk of their armies from the Continent. Except for occupation forces and for units committed in other parts of the world, they demobilised most of their troops. The soldiers wanted to get home; the peoples were war weary and wanted to forget; and the formidable task of reconstruction was absorbing the energy of the European nations.

On the day that Germany surrendered, the American armed strength in Europe amounted to 3,100,000 men: within one year it had melted to 391,000. On VE Day the British armed strength in Europe was 1,321,000: one year later there were only 488,000 left. On VE Day Canada had 299,000 men in Europe: within a year they had all gone home. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union continued to maintain their forces on a war footing and to keep their armament production going at full blast. How futile the good faith of the Western Powers and their sincere efforts to co-operate with Soviet Russia were to prove, will be shown by a brief summary of the governing events of the next four years.

Conciliation fails

The Western Powers, remembering the splendid fighting qualities of the Red Army and the sufferings of the Soviet people at the hands of the Nazi invaders, went to the very limit of conciliation in their efforts to reach an accommodation with the Soviet Government, and to make the United Nations an effective instrument for the preservation of world peace. They met with nothing but obstruction.

At San Francisco in 1945, Poland had no seat at the conference table because Russia and the Western Powers had been unable to agree on the composition of the Polish provisional Government. At the London Conference of Foreign Ministers in September, barely three months after the signature of the United Nations Charter, Mr. Molotov blocked any discussion of Mr. Ernest Bevin's proposals for an independent enquiry into conditions in Rumania and Bulgaria. It was only after making concessions about the Far East that the Western Ministers were able, two months later, to secure Russian agreement on a procedure for framing peace treaties with Italy, Finland and with Germany's former satellites in the Balkans. The Peace Conference opened in Paris on the 29th July, 1946, and on the 10th February, 1947, treaties of peace were signed with Italy, Finland, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania.

In March, 1947, the Foreign Ministers met in Moscow to discuss the drafting of peace treaties for Germany and Austria. They were unable to agree on what Germany's fate should be; and when the Western Ministers left Moscow at the end of April, with the problem no nearer solution, the schism in the alliance which had defeated the Axis Powers appeared irreparable. Yet another Conference of Foreign Ministers was held in London in November, 1947. It only confirmed the stalemate. Shortly afterwards, the Soviet Representatives walked out of the Allied Control Council in Berlin.

It is true that the Foreign Ministers met once again in Paris in May, 1949, to discuss German and Austrian problems, and that their deputies spent 109 days at the ill-fated Conference at the Palais Rose in Paris in 1951, preoccupied with the single task of attempting to draw up an agenda for another meeting at ministerial level. But for all practical purposes the Moscow Conference of 1947 marked the end of post-war co-operation between Russia and the democratic countries.

Soviet Expansion

Meanwhile, Soviet expansion, which had in fact started during the war with the outright annexation of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and areas in Finland, Poland, Rumania, North Eastern Germany and Eastern Czechoslovakia - representing a haul of 200,632 square miles and almost 25 million people - continued inexorably after the surrender of Germany. The presence of the victorious Red Armies in the heart of Europe, coupled with Soviet political technique, compelled Albania, Bulgaria, Rumania, Eastern Germany, Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia to fall under Soviet domination. These countries, covering approximately 392,439 square miles with a population of about 87 million non-Russian people and national incomes equivalent to about half that of the USSR, were incorporated into the Soviet empire by a process of 'conquest without war'. Soon the satellite countries were being firmly bound to Moscow and to each other by a network of political, economic and military agreements: 23 such treaties were signed in Eastern Europe between 1943 and 1949 (2).

M. Paul-Henri Spaak, the Belgian Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign affairs, summed up the story of Soviet expansion in striking language. He told the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948: 'There is but one Great Power that emerged from the war having conquered other territories, and that Power is the USSR.

Mention may also be made here of the pressure, direct and indirect, which was exercised by the Soviet in various parts of the world: in Northern Persia, where the Russians sought in vain, after the war, to maintain their troops; in Turkey, where both the government and the people resisted all Russian attempts at intimidation; in Greece, where the guerrilla warfare which had started in 1944 developed by 1946 into a very serious conflict, the rebels being supported from bases in neighbouring Communist states. In Asia, the Soviet Union greatly expanded its influence by the occupation in 1945 of most of Manchuria and of North Korea. With the climax of the civil war in China came an intensification of Communist agitation throughout South-East Asia where the French and their associates in Indo-China had been waging for some time important operations against a Communist-led rebellion. Likewise, large British forces were tied down by Communist guerrillas in Malaya.

Support from America

The situation all over the world was going from bad to worse. It was proving impossible to reach agreement with the Soviets on any international issue. At Lake Success repeated attempts of the free countries to negotiate a general scheme of disarmament and to devise a method of controlling the production and the use of atomic energy, had failed entirely. From behind the Iron Curtain came nothing but slander and bullying. But 1947 was to witness helping hands stretched out to suffering Europe from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
In March of that year, the issue of the struggle in Greece hung in the balance. It seemed certain that without the continuance of the substantial military and financial aid which Britain had given but could no longer afford, Greece would succumb to the Communists and be dragged behind the Iron Curtain. Turkey and the Middle East would then be left to the mercy of the Soviet Union.

American reaction was prompt and decisive. 'It must be the policy of the United States of America", President Truman told Congress on the 12th March, 1947, 'to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities, or by outside pressure'. Following that statement, which became known as the 'Truman Doctrine', the Congress of the United States authorised the appropriation of $ 400 million for aid to Greece and Turkey up to June, 1948, and the despatch to those countries of American civilian and military missions.

The 'Truman Doctrine' was designed to deal with the specific threat to Greece and Turkey. But the situation throughout Western Europe was no less alarming. Up to the present, the free countries of Europe had approached the tasks of post-war reconstruction as a number of individual national problems. In spite of emergency aid received by each of them from the United States to relieve the most pressing shortages, the mechanism of European economy remained badly jammed. Western Europe would shortly be on the brink of economic ruin.

It was in this critical situation that General of the Army George C. Marshall (then United States Secretary of State) made the speech at Harvard on the 5th June, 1947, which initiated the European Recovery Programme. 'The truth of the matter', he said, 'is that Europe's requirements for the next three or four years of foreign goods and other essential products - principally from America - are so much greater than her ability to pay that she must have substantial additional help, or face economic, social and political deterioration of a very grave character.

General Marshall believed that it was logical for the United States to help. He suggested that the European countries should agree on their requirements and that the programme to be prepared by their governments should be 'a joint one, agreed by a number, if not all, of the European Nations.

At the same time, he made it abundantly clear that American policy was 'directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos': indeed the Soviet Union itself and the other countries behind the Iron Curtain were included in the offer of economic assistance. But Stalin refused American aid for Russia and, despite initial interest on the part of Czechoslovakia and Poland, forced these governments to do likewise. His answer was to set up the Cominform. Its membership included Communist parties from nine countries on the continent; and its aim was to fight the Marshall Plan as 'an instrument of American imperialism.

But the danger to the Western democracies was not only economic. Russia had paralysed the work of the United Nations Security Council by the abuse of her power of veto. She had armed forces amounting to some 4 ½ million men on a war footing and equipped, for the most part, with the latest weapons. In addition, she was engaged on organizing the armies of her satellites on Soviet lines, despite the fact that to rearm. Rumania, Bulgaria and Hungary was a direct violation of the Peace Treaties signed with those three countries in 1947. Finally, the Soviet armament industries were working at high pressure.

In the face of this threat, the armed forces of the West were weak, uncoordinated, and drastically short of modem equipment. There was, in fact, nothing - except America's possession of the atomic bomb - to deter the Soviet from overrunning Western Europe. The only hope of even beginning to restore the balance of power lay in the free European countries combining together, not only for the sake of economic recovery, but also for the defence of their hearths and homes. Let us see how they met this challenge.

The Brussels Treaty

The idea of a defensive alliance between like-minded nations, within the framework of the United Nations, had already been mooted by Mr. Churchill in a speech at Fulton, Missouri, in March, 1946. Although cold-shouldered at the time, the idea was not forgotten, and over a year later it was taken up and amplified by Mr. Louis S. St. Laurent, then Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs. Addressing the United Nations General Assembly in September, 1947, Mr. St. Laurent expressed the concern of the peace-loving nations at the inability of the Security Council to ensure their protection. 'If forced', he said, 'these nations may seek greater safety in an association of democratic and peace-loving states willing to accept more specific international obligations in return for a greater measure of national security". Events soon confirmed his opinion.

On the 22nd January, 1948 the proposal for a form of western union, consisting of a network of bilateral agreements, was put forward by Mr. Bevin in the House of Commons. He quoted the Dunkirk Treaty of March, 1947, which had laid a firm basis for collaboration between France and Britain, and spoke of the need to conclude similar arrangements with Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands; thus making 'an important nucleus in Western Europe'. He went on to say: "We shall have to consider the question of associating other historic members of European civilisation, including the new Italy, in this great concept... We are thinking of Western Europe as a unit".

Mr. Bevin had already advised the United States Secretary of State of his desire to launch 'some form of union in Western Europe, backed by the Americans and the Dominions'. His idea was warmly welcomed by General Marshall. It was felt in Washington, however, that as the Dunkirk Treaty had been aimed expressly against a renewed German aggression, a more suitable model might be the Rio Treaty between the United States and the Latin American countries, a collective defence arrangement aimed against any aggression. The three Benelux governments also informed London and Paris that they considered arrangements of the Dunkirk type inadequate.

While these problems were under discussion the Communist coup d'état in Prague on the 22nd February, 1948, came as a sharp reminder that time was running short. Stalin was proving proficient in Hitler's technique of devouring his victims one by one.

On the 4th March, 1948, representatives of Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom met in Brussels to discuss a treaty of mutual assistance. On that same day, the French Foreign Minister, M. Georges Bidault sent an eloquent message to Secretary of State Marshall:
'The moment has come', he wrote, 'to strengthen on the political level and, as soon as possible, on the military level, the collaboration of the old and of the new world, both so closely united in their attachment to the only civilisation which counts'. M. Bidault declared that France, with Great Britain, was determined to do everything in her power to organize the common defence of the democratic countries of Europe. He expressed great gratitude for the economic assistance given by the United States but stressed, as Mr. Bevin had done in previous messages, that the resolve of the European countries to resist aggression could be effective only with American help. He proposed political consultations and the examination of technical problems 'concerned with common defence against a peril which can be immediate'.

A few days later, Mr. Bevin warned Washington of the possibility of a Soviet demand on Norway to negotiate a mutual defence agreement (a similar demand had been presented to Finland one year before) and asked for early discussion concerning the security of the North Atlantic area. In his reply to M. Bidault, General Marshall repeated what had already been told Mr. Bevin, that although the United States Government fully shared French preoccupations, the countries of Western Europe must show what they were prepared to do for themselves and for each other before asking for further American assistance.

On the 17th March, 1948, the Treaty of Brussels was signed by Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. It pledged them to set up a joint defensive system as well as to strengthen their economic and cultural ties. The supreme body of the Brussels Treaty Organization was to be the Consultative Council, consisting of the five Foreign Ministers. Under it was to be a Western Defence Committee consisting of the Defence Ministers. Article IV of the Treaty stated that should any of the Parties be the object of an 'armed attack in Europe', the others would afford the attacked Party 'all the military and other aid and assistance in their power'. The duration of the Treaty was fifty years (3).

On the day the Treaty was signed, President Truman told the American Congress: 'I am sure that the determination of the free countries of Europe to protect themselves will be matched by an equal determination on our part to help them'. This was an important statement. The Brussels Powers certainly trusted that American planning would go beyond a promise of help after attack, and after Soviet occupation, which, in the words of the French Prime Minister, M. Henri Queuille, might amount to no more than attempting to 'liberate a corpse.

The ink was scarcely dry on the signatures of the Brussels Treaty when the Soviet started their blockade of West Berlin; this was to last for 323 days and to be defeated by the prodigious feat of the airlift. It was against this background of defiance and tension that plans for the defence of the West and negotiations for a North Atlantic treaty were pressed forward.

On the 30th April, 1948, the Defence Ministers and the Chiefs-of-Staff of the five Brussels Treaty countries met in London to study their military equipment needs, with a view to determining how much they could meet from their own production and how much supplementary aid should be requested from the United States. It is to be particularly noted that from July, 1948, onwards, American and Canadian experts attended these meetings with a 'non-member status'. Here was a foretaste of things to come.

In September, it was decided to create a military agency under the name of Western Union Defence Organization. Field Marshal Montgomery (UK) was appointed permanent Chairman of the Land, Naval and Air Commanders-in-Committee, with headquarters in Fontainebleau, France. Commanders-in-Chief were nominated: General de Lattre de Tassigny (France) for the Army, Air Chief Marshal Sir James Robb (UK) for the Air, and Vice-Admiral Jaujard (France) for the Navy.

Western Union was destined to make a most important contribution to the defence of the free world. Its existence in peacetime was a proof that the member countries were determined to combine to resist aggression. Apart from that, as will be seen later in this survey, it laid foundations which were to prove invaluable to NATO in the civilian as well as in the military fields.

The Vandenberg resolution

The greatest step forward was still to be taken. On the 11th April, 1948, Secretary of State Marshall and Under-Secretary Robert M. Lovett began exploratory talks with Senators Arthur H. Vandenberg and Tom Connally on the security problems of the North Atlantic area. On the 28th April, 1948, the idea of a single mutual defence system, including and superseding the Brussels Treaty system, was publicly put forward by Mr. St. Laurent in the Canadian House of Commons. It was welcomed a week later in Westminster by Mr. Bevin. At about the same time Senator Vandenberg prepared, in consultation with the State Department, a resolution which recommended in part 'the association of the United States by constitutional process, with such regional and other collective arrangements as are based on continuous and effective self-help and mutual aid, and as affect its national security', and the United States... contributing to the maintenance of peace by making clear its determination to exercise the right of individual or collective self-defence under Article 51 (of the United Nations Charter) should any armed attack occur affecting its national security' (4).

On the 11th June, 1948, Resolution 239 - better known as the Vandenberg Resolution - was passed by the United States Senate by 64 votes to 4. This marked a striking evolution in American foreign and defence policies in time of peace, and it made it possible for the United States to enter an Atlantic Alliance.

Negotiating the Atlantic Treaty

On the 6th July, 1948, the preliminary talks which led to the North Atlantic Treaty began in Washington between the State Department and the Ambassadors of Canada and of the Brussels Treaty Powers. It was agreed from the start that any treaty for common defence, linking countries from both sides of the Atlantic, should be within the framework of the United Nations' Charter. These talks ended on the 9th September, 1948, with a report to governments recommending inter alia that the proposed treaty should:

  • promote peace and security;
  • express determination of the Parties to resist aggression;
  • define the area in which it should be operative;
  • be based on self-help and mutual aid;
  • be more than military: that is, promote the stability and well being of the North Atlantic peoples;
  • provide machinery for implementation.

The report was duly considered by governments, and at the end of October the Consultative Council of the Brussels Treaty was able to announce 'complete agreement on the principle of a defensive pact for the North Atlantic and on the next steps to be taken in this direction'. The 'next steps' were the actual drafting of the North Atlantic Treaty which started in Washington on the 10th December, 1948, between representatives of the seven Powers.

It had become clear during the summer that the original idea of an association between the United States and the Brussels Treaty Powers would be superseded by a larger grouping of countries. On the 13th October, 1948, the Canadian Government had announced their willingness to join such a group. There were also other countries which the negotiators wished to bring in, e.g., the Irish Republic and Sweden (neither of which joined), Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Portugal and Italy - the inclusion of Italy being particularly urged by France. At the same time, the French obtained agreement to the inclusion of the three Algerian Departments of France in the area to be covered by the Treaty.

The position of Denmark and Norway in relation to the Treaty had been uncertain. The separate Scandinavian Pact, which they had been engaged in negotiating, had fallen through because the Swedish policy of full neutrality could not be reconciled with Norway's insistence that any Scandinavian defence association would have to co-operate with the Western Powers. On the 5th February, the Norwegian Foreign Minister, Mr. Harvard Lange, started for Washington to enquire about the Atlantic Treaty. A few hours before leaving Oslo he was handed a note from the Soviet Union inviting Norway to conclude a non-aggression pact. Norway made her choice. It was a brave one. She declined the Russian offer, and on the 3rd March decided to join the Atlantic Alliance, while making it clear that she would not allow armed forces of foreign Powers to be stationed on Norwegian territory as long as the country had not been attacked, or threatened with attack. Norway then took part in the latter stages of the negotiations. Portugal also decided to join the other Atlantic Powers, once it was ascertained that her close co-operation with Spain would not be prejudiced by the Treaty and that foreign troops would not be stationed in the Azores in peacetime.

On the 15th March, 1949, the Brussels Treaty Powers, Canada and the United States, formally invited Denmark, Iceland, Italy, Norway and Portugal to adhere to the Treaty. On the 18th March, two weeks before its signature, the text of the Treaty was made public.

Throughout these negotiations the Soviet Government did their best to prevent the conclusion of the Treaty. On the 29th January, 1949, they inveighed against the Brussels Pact and warned all Europeans that a North Atlantic Alliance was simply an instrument for furthering the imperialist aims of the Anglo-Saxon Powers. On the 31st March, they presented a memorandum to the twelve prospective signatories claiming that the Treaty was contrary to the United Nations Charter and to the decisions of the Council of Foreign Ministers. The twelve countries replied in a joint note delivered to Russia two days later. It stated quite simply, in a mere 21 lines, that the text of the Treaty was the best answer to Soviet allegations, since it showed beyond a shadow of doubt that the Alliance was not aimed against any nation or group of nations, but only against armed aggression.

The climax came on the 4th April, 1949. On that date, the North Atlantic Treaty was signed in Washington by the Foreign Ministers of Belgium (M. Paul-Henri Spaak), Canada (Mr. Lester B. Pearson), Denmark (Mr. Gustav Rasmussen), France (M. Robert Schuman), Iceland (Mr. Bjarni Benediktsson), Italy (Count Carlo Sforza), Luxembourg (M. Joseph Bech), the Netherlands (Dr. D. U. Stikker), Norway (Mr. Halvard M. Lange), Portugal (Dr. Jose Caerio da Matta), the United Kingdom (Mr. Ernest Bevin), the United States (Mr. Dean Acheson). It was ratified by the parliaments of the member countries within five months. Later, Greece and Turkey were invited to join the Alliance, to which they formally acceded on the 18th February, 1952.


  1. Quoted in 'Triumph and Tragedy', by Sir 'Winston Churchill.
  2. By 31st March, 1949, the USSR had treaties of mutual assistance with the following states in Central and Eastern Europe: Czechoslovakia (12 Dec. 1943); Yugoslavia (11 April 1945); Poland (21 April 1945);
    Rumania (4 Feb. 1948); Hungary (18 Feb. 1948); Bulgaria (18 March 1948).
    The European 'people's democracies' were linked by similar treaties: Poland-Yugoslavia(18 March 1946);
    Czechoslovakia-Yugoslavia (9 May 1946); Albania-Yugoslavia (9 July 1946); Czechoslovakia-Poland (10 March 1947); Bulgaria-Yugoslavia (27 Nov. 1947); Hungary-Yugoslavia (8 Dec. 1947); Albania-Bulgaria (16 Dec. 1947); Rumania-Yugoslavia (19 Dec. 1947); Bulgaria-Rumania (16 Jan. 1948); Hungary-Rumania (24 Jan. 1948); Czechoslovakia-Bulgaria (23 April 1948); Bulgaria-Poland (29 May 1948); Poland-Hungary (18 June 1948); Hungary-Bulgaria (16 July 1948); Czechoslovakia-Rumania (21 July 1948); Poland-Rumania (26 Jan. 1949). Counting the agreement of 16 April 1949, between Czechoslovakia and Hungary, and eliminating the seven treaties with Yugoslavia which were unilaterally denounced by the Soviet bloc later in 1949, there remain sixteen treaties covering Eastern Europe. The treaties with ex-enemy states were concluded only after the entry into force of the Peace Treaties with Hungary, Bulgaria, Rumania and Finland.
  3. For extracts of the Brussels Treaty see Appendix II, page 168.
  4. For the full text of the Vandenberg Resolution see Appendix III, page 171.
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