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NATO: a history in snapshots

Moments of humanity, spontaneity and beauty from every year of NATO’s history

NATO: a history in snapshots

For more than 75 years, NATO has been bringing together Allies from Europe and North America – not only in a military pact to defend each other against any threat, but also in an Alliance of shared values, friendly cooperation and transatlantic unity. Over the years, photographers across NATO have taken millions of pictures documenting this cooperation, from the glittering halls of landmark summits to the muddy trenches of military exercises. Many of these photos are formal and institutional, showing official handshakes and meetings. But every now and then, a photographer has captured a candid moment of humanity, spontaneity and even beauty.

The collection below shows one of these photos from every year of NATO’s history. These snapshots offer glimpses of fleeting moments: soldiers sharing a snack on the sidelines of a military exercise, civilians sunbathing next to armoured vehicles, Allies and friends working side by side. Taken together, they show a more informal, casual side of NATO – the little moments that have added up over seven decades to create a strong and united Alliance. 


Twelve countries sign the North Atlantic Treaty on 4 April 1949 in Washington, D. C. and bring the Alliance to life. Learn more about NATO’s founding treaty.


NATO’s first headquarters was established at 13 Belgrave Square in London in 1950. Learn more about NATO’s homes over the years.


General Dwight D. Eisenhower, NATO’s first Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), inspects the new flag for Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) on the outskirts of Paris in October 1951. The Latin motto on the flag, “Vigilia Pretium Libertatis”, translates to “vigilance is the price of liberty” in English. Learn more about General Eisenhower’s time as SACEUR and how SHAPE took shape.


The NATO caravan – a mobile exhibition that travelled across Europe – sits in Athens with the Parthenon in the distance. The NATO caravan visited Greece from 7 September to 2 November 1952. During 50 exhibition days, over 750,000 visitors from Athens and Thessaloniki viewed the exhibition. Learn more about NATO’s travelling exhibitions.


A soldier detaches himself from his parachute after landing in a field during a NATO military exercise in south-eastern Europe. NATO has been conducting military exercises since 1951. See more photos of Cold War NATO exercises.


At NATO Headquarters in Paris, Allies sign a document inviting West Germany to join the Alliance. The Eiffel Tower is visible in the background.


A soldier takes a moment to pet a deer during a military exercise in West Germany as a smiling farmer looks on.


A group of women officers from several Allied armed forces go for a stroll around Paris and visit the Eiffel Tower, which is just across the river from NATO Headquarters at the Palais de Chaillot.


A soldier stands next to a toy boat inside an auxiliary floating dry dock (i.e. a boat that other boats drive into) during a NATO exercise in Turkey.


Cooks carry a ‘NATO’ ice sculpture with sparklers into a formal dinner during the ministerial meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark in May 1958.


Fighter jets perform a vertical climb during a NATO air exhibition.


A streetcar passes by a military officer in Istanbul during a NATO ministers’ meeting in May 1960.


A sailor looks through a spyglass aboard the Calypso – the famous ship captained by oceanographer Jacques Cousteau – during a NATO Science Committee research expedition in the Straits of Gibraltar between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.


Planes fly in ‘NATO’ formation over the Acropolis in Athens, Greece during a ministerial meeting in May 1962.


A group of local women share a laugh in front of a stunning natural landscape during a NATO-organised tour for journalists to Greenland in July 1963.


A boat glides over a mirror-smooth lake during exercise Northern Express in Norway in June 1964.


A group of soldiers prepares to train their service dogs by running them through an obstacle course in August 1965.


Children chase pigeons in front of the NATO information bus, parked near the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, Italy. Learn more about NATO’s mobile information centre.


Civilians sunbathe next to an armoured vehicle near the border between East and West Berlin. Learn more about how Berlin was divided during the Cold War.


Sailors fence with each other on a ship anchored in the Gulf of Naples during exercise Silver Tower, a NATO naval exercise in September 1968.


Traditional Scottish Highland dancers perform during the 1969 NATO Tattoo in Brussels, Belgium. Fun fact: while many soldiers have ink tattoos, a ‘military tattoo’ refers to a display of musical, dance or other performance skills from armed forces.


NATO’s first communications satellite launches at Cape Canaveral, Florida in December 1970. Watch the video of the satellite’s launch


NATO civilian staff are caught up in a flurry of activity in a fancy room at the São Bento Palace during the 1971 NATO ministers’ meeting in Lisbon, Portugal.


Troops take part in dive tank training during exercise Strong Express in Norway in September 1972. This type of training helps sailors adapt to high water pressure situations that they could face while serving on submarines or ships.


A football player with a NATO logo on his jersey tries to get past his opponent during a friendly match at the opening of the NATO Staff Centre at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium in November 1973.


A soldier (look closer, you’ll spot him!) is caught taking a nap in a truck during artillery training in Belgium, May 1974.


A staff member operates the phones in the Situation Centre at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.


Soldiers in Fort Hood, Texas prepare for deployment to Europe during exercise REFORGER 76. The exercise, whose name stood for ‘REturn of FORces to GERmany’, was a long-standing rapid deployment exercise throughout the Cold War.


Soldiers share a snack and a laugh during the Canadian Army Trophy tank competition, a gunnery contest hosted by the Canadian Armed Forces in Germany during the Cold War.


Soldiers stand outside their tent during exercise Arctic Express in Norway in March 1978.


A tank, covered in branches and other camouflage, drives through the fields in West Germany during exercise REFORGER 79.


A soldier holds up a sign reading “This bridge has been blown up” during exercise Teamwork in Norway in September 1980. Exercises use simulated situations to train forces, so the comical sign actually provides valuable information to soldiers and commanders in the field.


Soldiers march through the forest during exercise Frozen Bulk in Belgium in February 1981.


Fighter jets fly over Neuschwanstein Castle – the fairy tale palace that inspired the legendary Disney castle – in Germany during exercise REFORGER 82. (Photo credit: MSgt. Richard M. Diaz, United States Air Force)


A soldier casts a rope to a sailor on a landing craft during exercise Atlantic Lion 83.


A photographer watches dozens of paratroopers drift down from the skies during exercise Display Determination in Turkey.


A soldier smiles while holding an umbrella and standing in the muddy tank ruts during exercise REFORGER 85 in Germany.


A soldier jumps over a wall while running through an obstacle course during physical training in Luxembourg.


Sailors pump iron on deck during exercise Open Gate in the sunny Mediterranean Sea.


One of NATO’s Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) planes flies above Allied territory. AWACS planes are equipped with long-range radar (hence their mushroom-like domes) that help provide surveillance and intelligence support to NATO operations and missions. See more photos of AWACS in action.


Berliners join hands atop the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate, celebrating the reunification of their city in November 1989. Learn more about how Berlin was reunited.


During the 1990 NATO Summit in London, a group of ‘Pearly Kings and Queens’ – East London residents who sew thousands of buttons into their clothes and raise money for charities – arrives to watch the proceedings.


Two soldiers grin at each other during the changing of the guard at Amalienborg Palace in Copenhagen, Denmark during a NATO ministerial meeting in June 1991.


Soldiers hold up flares to indicate a landing zone during a joint exercise between the United States and Russia after the end of the Cold War. Allied and Russian forces cooperated and trained together until Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.


The changing of the guard at the Greek Parliament during a North Atlantic Council meeting in Athens.


The sun sets behind Allied and partner troops during exercise Cooperative Spirit in the Netherlands. This was the first joint training exercise conducted on Allied territory under NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme. Learn more about NATO partnerships after the Cold War


A fighter jet prepares to take off from the deck of an aircraft carrier during a meeting of NATO defence ministers in Williamsburg, United States. 


A rainbow arcs above a surfaced submarine as two crew members emerge. The hook that they have brought is used to grab a package of mail from home that is lowered from a helicopter. (Photo credit: Photographer's Mate 3rd Class Chris Vickers, United States Navy)


A paratrooper descends during the RAMBO 97 special forces competition in Bulgaria, with a view of the moon above. (Photo © Reuters/Alexei Dityakin)


The sun sets behind ships off the coast of Spain and Portugal during exercise Strong Resolve in March 1998.


A sailor looks through an anti-aircraft targeting sight during a maritime exercise in the Black Sea, March 1999. (Photo © Reuters/STR New)


Jets perform in an air show for NATO generals and admirals in Kaynarca, Turkey. (Photo © Reuters/Reuters Photographer)


Soldiers take part in fire training during anti-riot exercise Joint Resolve, part of NATO’s Stabilisation Force (SFOR) in Bosnia and Herzegovina. (Photo © Reuters/Danilo Krstanovic)


A Viking statue stands beside a billowing Icelandic flag during a meeting of NATO defence ministers in Reykjavik in May 2002. 


Sailors heave on a rope during a visit of the North Atlantic Council to Alicante, Spain in June 2003.


Soldiers board a transport plane to Kosovo in March 2004. The soldiers are part of the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR), a peace-support operation that contributes to maintaining a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement for all communities living in Kosovo. (Photo © Reuters/Christian Charisius)


The NATO submission to the 2005 Belgian Horse parade – an art festival held in Brussels’ Parc du Cinquantenaire – stands on a plinth near a group of real horses. 


NATO Heads of State and Government attend a performance at an opera house during the 2006 NATO Summit in Riga, Latvia.


Soldiers keep a lookout at a remote hilltop outpost at Ma’sum Ghar base in southern Afghanistan. (Photo © Reuters/Finbarr O’Reilly


Soldiers camp under the stars in Uruzgan, Afghanistan. The platoon was on a three-day deployment as part of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission, conducting foot patrols through villages to meet the Afghan people and build friendly relations. (Photo credit: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class John Collins, United States Navy)


Sailors spell out ‘NATO-OTAN’ on the runway of the USS Eisenhower, an aircraft carrier named after NATO’s first Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR). Lots of people think that ‘OTAN’ is just a mirror image of ‘NATO’, but it’s actually the Alliance’s acronym in French: Organisation du traité de l’Atlantique nord. (Photo credit: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Rafael Figueroa Medina, United States Navy)


Soldiers wait for a helicopter to land during a dust storm at Forward Operating Base Kushamond, Afghanistan while preparing for an air assault mission. (Photo credit: United States Army)


A full moon shines above the hills outside Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, with a fighter jet in the foreground. (Photo credit: MSgt Joseph Harwood, Ohio Air National Guard)


Troops conduct a patrol through a poppy field in Marjah, Afghanistan in April 2012. (Photo credit: Lance Cpl. David A. Perez, United States Marine Corps)


A tank races forward during exercise Steadfast Jazz, a NATO Response Force training exercise held in the Baltic States and Poland in October 2013. (Photo credit: Cpl. Madis Veltman, Estonian Army)


Soldiers manoeuvre through the woods during the field training portion of exercise Saber Strike in Latvia, June 2014. (Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Brett Miller, United States Army National Guard.)


A bomber and four accompanying fighter jets fly over the Baltic Sea during exercise Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) 2015. (Photo credit: United States Air Force/Swedish Armed Forces.)


A soldier treks through the winter woods in a field training exercise during exercise Iron Sword 2016 at the Rukla Training Area in Lithuania. (Photo credit: Sgt. Kirstin Merrimarahajara, United States Marine Corps.)


Commandos turn their boat around during exercise Dynamic Monarch 2017, a submarine search-and-rescue exercise held off the coast of Marmaris in south-western Turkey. (Photo © Reuters/Murad Sezer)


An illumination round fired by troops from NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) lights up the forest during exercise Trident Juncture 18 in Norway. (Photo credit: Marco Dorow, Allied Joint Force Command Naples)


Fireworks erupt over Niagara Falls, which have been lit up in NATO blue to mark the Alliance’s 70th anniversary in 2019.


A soldier looks up in wonder at the northern lights during exercise Reindeer II in Norway. (Photo credit: Cpl. William Chockey, United States Marine Corps)


Three special forces operators (and their dog) huddle together at sunset during exercise Night Hawk 21 in Denmark.


British Army Pathfinders leap from 18,000 ft into North Macedonia as part of exercise Swift Response 22. (Photo credit: British Army Photographer Corporal Rob Kane)
For more memorable photos from 2022, take a look at the following photo story.


The British Army’s Royal Lancers (Queen Elizabeths’ Own) take part in Operation Cabrit, the UK operational deployment to Estonia, where UK troops are leading a NATO multinational battlegroup. Pictured here: the Royal Lancers get back to their cavalry heritage by conducting mounted armoured reconnaissance with the Polish Territorial Defence Force’s 2nd Lubelska (Lublin) Brigade. (Photo credit: The Royal Lancers, British Army)
For more memorable photos from 2023, take a look at the following photo story.