1949: NATO’S Anxious Birth

Video lecture by Dr. Jamie Shea, Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges

  • 05 Mar. 2009 -
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  • Last updated: 12 Dec. 2016 11:36

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, I’m very pleased to see you. I hope you volunteered for this and haven’t been either bribed or pressganged. History, as you know, is not everybody’s cup of tea although it’s certainly mine, a point which I hope to convey to you as we go through this series.

NATO is going to be marking next April its 60th birthday. There’s nothing particularly significant about being 60 in the sense that so many other organisations reach that ripe old age these days as so many people do as well. But it does make NATO by far the longest-standing alliance in history. We’ve well overtaken the Athenian League against Sparta in the 4th century before Christ. And the 60th anniversary of course is normally the time when people think not about the past but “Quo vadis NATO?”; “What is the future going to be?” And as somebody who is involved in policy planning, of course my job really consists of not trying to understand the past but predicting the future, and believe me, predicting the future is much easier than trying to understand the past.

So when Chris Scheurweghs, a colleague of mine at NATO, proposed to me a few months ago that I should endeavour to take on a new venture with him, which is to prepare a series of six lectures on NATO’s history, I hesitated because, as I said, trying to mark the six exact turning points in NATO’s history and explain what happened and why what happened mattered, why it was significant, I thought this would be a big challenge, but I couldn’t say no to such a friendly person and of course, if you are generally interested, which I hope you are, so I thank you for being here today, that’s all the more the reason for doing this. Understanding the past of course is also important for understanding the present. The great German 19th century philosopher Friedrich von Schlegel once said that the historian is a prophet looking backwards. I shall try to do the same in these six lectures, which is to say that I will try not only to describe what happened but also try to give you some sort of indications as to how what happened very much determines NATO’s present. And indeed I think, as we go through, you will find that, as Albert Camus once said, man has very few original ideas, there’s nothing new under the sun and much of NATO’s history is the Nietzschean kind of eternal cycle, the same old arguments, the same debates, the same dilemmas keep coming back again and again and again. 1948 which we’re going to be talking about today is not so different in reality from 2008. NATO’s future and many of its predicaments were already evident in the negotiations that led to the birth of the Washington Treaty in the 1948 – 1949 time frame.

Of course what I’m going to also try to do is to give you the perspective of what it was like at the time. There is always a sense when you look at history that everything was inevitable, that there were no other outcomes, that what happened had to happen. But we should always remember that what is today for us in the past for a previous generation was once in the future. There was nothing inevitable about the birth of NATO. What I hope to tell you, as we go through, is that it was very, very much a touch and go operation. The outcomes could have been different. NATO may not be controversial today but it was controversial at the time. There was even a riot in Iceland in 1949 when that rather sober country agreed to adhere to the Washington Treaty. In fact one of the reasons why the negotiations took so long was precisely because there were always on both sides of the Atlantic hesitations and doubts.

But I think the first thing to say is that we cannot understand NATO if we can’t understand the circumstances in which Europe found itself in the immediate time frame after World War Two. We Europeans, North Americans – presume that you’re mainly from North America and Europe – wars for us today are mainly sort of in far-flung places like Afghanistan. Our own experience with war is really limited to the TV screen or the newspapers or reading books. But the years 1945 to 1947, albeit not as bad of course as the years 1930 to 1945 were nonetheless, particularly for the generation that had to live through those years, absolutely cataclysmic. The only comparison I can think of as a historian is the aftermath of the Black Death in the 1380s when Europe lost anything between 25 and 35 % of its total population. Or the aftermath of the 30 Years War at the time of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 when again a country like Germany, which was very much in the middle, lost one third of its population. Indeed Germans back in 1944-1945 had a black joke; they used to say “better to enjoy the war, the peace will be terrible.” And right they were. World War Two left behind a terrible legacy which even today it takes a great deal of imagination as well as historical knowledge to fully comprehend.

Let me just give you some statistics. In World War Two 36.5 million Europeans were killed. That is the equivalent of the total population of France in 1939. Nineteen million of those were civilians. It doesn’t also of course incorporate all of those who died from natural causes or all of the babies that were not born. The death toll created an enormous imbalance between men and women. In the Soviet Union in 1945, there were 20 million more women than men. In 1946, in the German suburb of Triptal, there were only left 181 adult men between the ages of 19 and 21, but there were 1105 women. A whole generation of Germans including for example Gerhardt Schroeder, the former German Chancellor, were brought up by their moms. There were no dads around. They were either incarcerated in the Soviet Union or had died in the war. There were many orphans. In Berlin in 1945 there were 53,000 lost children wandering the streets, 49,000 orphans in Czechoslovakia, 80,000 in the Netherlands and as many as 200,000 in Poland. Those who did survive were underfed. The calorie intake in Vienna was only about 800 calories a day in 1945. The infant mortality in Austria four times the 1938 rate. In the British zone of Berlin, in December 1945, the death rate of children equalled one in four. The calorie intake in Germany was about 2,500 calories in 1941. It had gone down to around 1000 calories in 1946 and as everybody knows rationing was a very big feature of the post-war years.

The other issue is displaced people. I mean we’ve heard a lot about ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, ethnic cleansing after World War Two was infinitely worse. Stalin and Hitler between them managed to uproot 80 million people in Europe between 1939 and 1945. Thirteen million Germans were expelled from Central and Eastern Europe after the war. In 1947, the United Nations’ recently created Relief and Rehabilitation Administration was caring for 6,795,000 displaced Europeans in 762 camps. Yes, we had refugee camps in Europe in 1945. And the US alone – and this is before the Marshall Plan, before NATO – was spending $10 billion dollars a year on that, on caring for those refugees.

Another issue, the damage to infrastructure. Twenty-five million homeless people in the Soviet Union, 20 million homeless people in Germany, Hamburg alone had half a million homeless people in 1945. If you look at the level of destruction, again even today these figures still strike me as incredible. 70,000 villages, 1700 towns, 32,000 factors, 40,000 miles of railway track destroyed in the Soviet Union alone. France, which suffered of course far less physical damage than the Soviet Union, still lost half a million homes. I could carry on talking about the wastage of agricultural land or even a country like Norway, again which suffered little war damage, still lost 14 % of its industrial capital. These awesome statistics of course could be repeated almost ad infinitum when you talk about World War Two.

Sometimes indeed it’s better to give you just a sort of a quotation from an observer at the time that sums up the situation. Here is Hamilton Fish – lovely name Hamilton Fish – who was the editor of the US Foreign Affairs magazine. He described his impressions of Europe in July 1947. “There is too little of everything. Too few trains, trams, buses and automobiles to transport people to work on time, let alone to take them on holiday. Too little flour to make bread without adulterants, and even so, not enough bread to provide energies for hard labour. Too little paper for newspapers to report more than a fraction of the world’s news. Too little seed for planting and too little fertiliser to nourish it. Too few houses to live in and not enough glass to supply them with window panes. Too little leather for shoes, wool for sweaters, gas for cooking, cotton for diapers, sugar for jam, fats for frying, milk for babies, soap for washing.”

Why am I telling you this? Because very often the images conveyed that the reason for NATO was simply fear of hostility to the Soviet Union, that it was a response to an exclusively military threat. This is not true. One of the major driving forces for NATO was simply the sense of hopelessness and despair. I suppose sort of the equivalent of what we are experiencing today as the financial meltdown, the collapse of everything that we consider to be the stable underpinnings of society or our economy but on a vastly greater scale. What the British Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Labour Governments after 1945 once summed up as “never bright confident mourning again.” This mood of black despair and of hopelessness, which Winston Churchill once famously said had made Europe into a rubble heap, I quote, “a charnel house, a breeding ground for pestilence and hate.” NATO was first and foremost, even before it was a counter balance to the Soviet Union, an attempt by Europeans to seek some kind of reassurance, some kind of underpinning both in the economic as well as in the military field, which would simply give the Europeans the confidence to start trading each other again, to talk to each other, to move towards their own political union.

What I want to do in this first lecture today is emphasise very much this side of the equation which of course doesn’t feature so much in the popular image of NATO but which was still present at the time. Of course, the problem was that as Europe coming out of World War Two felt this total sense of hopelessness and break down, the United States was retreating back into isolationism. NATO, when it did come about in 1949, was only the second alliance that the United States had concluded in its entire history. The first one in fact was directed against my country, the UK, after the war of, or at the time of the War of Independence. It was a Franco-American alliance, rather ironic when you think of the history of NATO, the first alliance was a Franco-American alliance concluded in 1778. Most of America’s foreign police like the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 had been designed to keep the Europeans out of the American hemisphere. And indeed even when the United States entered World War One after the Zimmerman telegram incident of 1917, Congress would not allow the US to call itself an ally of the British and French against the Germans in World War One. The US had to be designated as an associated power only to preserve therefore its freedom of manoeuvre from what George Washington famously warned his countrymen against “beware of entangling alliances.”

After the Second World War, notwithstanding the situation in Europe, the Americans pulled back. Lend Lease was abruptly cancelled to the great despair of the British. Lend Lease ships were turned around by Harry Truman in the middle of the Atlantic and sent back to the United States. The joint military command that had brought the British and the French and the Americans together at the end of World War Two was abrogated, no treaty, no arrangement was put in its place. The Americans rapidly wanted to bring the boys home and melt down their troop levels in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Much again to the despair of the British, Congress passed the famous McMahon Act in 1946, which stopped Anglo-American nuclear cooperation. We felt that was a great slight given that we had been very much involved in inventing the nuclear weapon at the beginning of the Second World War. Also the Truman Administration, although today it’s well-known for founding NATO, the Marshall Plan, the Bretton Woods Framework, it’s famous for its internationalism but it began in 1945 – 1946 in the immediate post-war period in a sense of drift.

First of all Truman, like Roosevelt, believed that he could reach some kind of accommodation with Uncle Joe, Joseph Stalin as he was known, in the series of Foreign Ministers meetings which were met in Moscow, in London after the war to decide the fate of Germany. That the Cold War really could be prevented by an American charm offensive. When the idea of NATO first came along, many Americans were sceptical because they thought it would undermine the United Nations. Like the League of Nations, the United States as we know, was instrumental in creating the UN, the San Francisco Conference in May 1945, and the Americans really did put their faith initially in a sense of collective security, particularly with the invention of the Security Council and a regional alliance like NATO was seen as undercutting the authority of the United Nations and of course also of being a bad signal to the Soviets that the Americans were not willing to work with the Soviets in what Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, once called the four policemen. You remember the concept of the four policemen who after the Second World War would continue the war time alliance to preserve a stability and security. But gradually the mood changed, essentially as 1946 went passed. When Churchill went to Fulton, Missouri and gave his famous iron curtain speech, initially it was very badly received in America. Churchill was seen as being the old British imperialist, a Cold Warrior who was trying to keep a sense of confrontation going and who was needlessly provoking the Soviet Union. But a year later the mood in Washington had swung round to being much more ‘Churchillian’ in its view of the Soviet Union. What had happened?

Well, all of you have heard of George Kennan, a very famous American diplomat who was attached to the American Embassy in Moscow after the war and who in 1947 penned his long telegram, famous long telegram. As a policy planner I am very jealous of Kennan because I’ve penned many telegrams, most of which have ended up unread in the waste paper basket of somebody’s office, and so the idea that a fellow policy planner should have changed the course of world history through a single dispatch is still remarkable. But the long telegram had an enormous impact in Washington. By 1947 the Americans were trying to grope their way toward some kind of understanding of what was the nature of Soviet power and whether an understanding with Stalin was at all possible. And here came Kennan who provided for the first time an ideological underpinning for what a lot of people were beginning to feel, that here was a power which because of its ideology had no choice but to expand. Contraction, status quo meant dissolution. But, said Kennan, there is an answer, it became known as containment which if we can apply it long enough – Kennan believed only ten years would be required – at various pressure points where the Soviet Union is weak, will eventually force the system to turn in upon itself and collapse. Of course one can say that Kennan was ultimately vindicated although it took much longer than the ten years that he originally thought of. And then a year later, in 1948, Kennan followed this up with his very famous ‘Mr X’ pseudonym article in Foreign Affairs called “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” which publicised outside administration circles his thinking.

By that time the British had realised that they were unable to hang on as an imperial power in the Eastern Mediterranean, notwithstanding the assistance that we gave to Greece during the Greek Civil War, and the British Government had turned to the United States saying “we can’t hold on, you have to take over our role.” That of course then led the way to the Truman Doctrine of March 1947 when Harry Truman said that “free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by all majorities or by outside powers would be able to count on the support of the United States.” Of course this was not only addressed at the time to countries which were experiencing pressure on the outside from the Soviet Union in the immediate post-war arrangements. One of the things that was very much on the mind of American planners was the fact that Western European countries like France and Italy in particular had very, very powerful communist movements which were organising in the 46 – 47 period strikes and which looked as if they could either take over or destabilise governments from within, even without any armed assistance from the Soviet Union.

The Truman Doctrine was obviously one of the key moments when the American attitude crystallised between a sense that cooperation with the Soviet Union was still possible to a time when United States believed that this was not possible and therefore what counted was consolidating one’s own block, forming one’s own if you like western block structure, particularly when it came to accepting a division of Germany and pushing ahead in Germany with the so-called Bizonia, the forging of the American and the British zones at the end of 1947. And then in 1948 Trizonia when France reluctantly, because the French wanted nothing less than a resurrected Germany after World War Two, but when France reluctantly accepted to put its zone also into the American-British zone forming Trizonia which of course ultimately became West Germany and was succeeded by the introduction of the Deutschmark and the creation obviously of the German Constitution.

That of course had an impact. The consolidation of West Germany immediately provoked the Berlin Blockade at the end of 1947 and going into also throughout much of 1948. Stalin responded to what he considered to be the breaking off of the four power talks on the future of Germany and a decision to create the Deutschmark and therefore to push for an independent West German state. Stalin thought that that was a hostile act, responded by cutting off the Allies’ access to Berlin, being absolutely certain that they would be incapable of resupplying Berlin from the air and that ultimately Berlin would be surrendered. It would no longer be what Khrushchev later referred to it some years afterwards as a “carbuncle on the skin of the Warsaw Pact”, a constant sore, a western enclave in the very, very heart of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe. But of course the Berlin airlift together with another event which I will describe immediately, seemed also to confirm what Kennan had been saying about the Soviet Union needing to push against the weak points of the western system. This was the Czech coup d’état in February 1948. If there is one single thing that directly changed the American mentality towards an acceptance to begin talks with their European partners, it was the coup d’état against the democratically elected Czech government, particularly when Tom Masaryk, the son of the founder of Czechoslovakia in mysterious circumstances was defenestrated and died, pushed, suicide, we still don’t know. But the President, Benes, was obliged to also resign and Czechoslovakia joined the other countries in Eastern Europe as a communist state.

Why Czechoslovakia? Not only because it was the last one to go but essentially because Czechoslovakia of course was what caused World War Two. And many Americans, like Europeans, felt a sense of guilt that for the second time in the space of ten years, Czechoslovakia had been abandoned by its fellow democrats elsewhere.

That precipitated in the United States a whole series of actions. The first one which is not the subject of my lecture today of course is the Marshall Plan, what Churchill called the most unsordid act in world history, whereby the United States donated $13 billion dollars to the so-called European Recovery Program and therefore allowed countries to access dollars which were very rare after the war to buy American goods, to restart their economies without having to repay each other in dollars but in their own currencies. What was significant about the Marshall Plan, like NATO as I will describe, is that the Americans didn’t only give the money without conditions but insisted that the Europeans had to get together and pool their requirements and have a consolidated economic plan before they could get the money from the United States. So in fact the father of European economic integration is perhaps more General Marshall or as much George Marshall as Robert Shuman or Jean Monet. But the significance of the Czech coup like the Berlin airlift was that at the time Marshall Aid was stuck in Congress, it wasn’t really moving. Marshall’s plan was the equivalent of, at the time, of 0.7 % of American Gross Domestic Product – by the way that is today the UN level for foreign aid.
But at the time it struck Americans that this was an exercise in state socialism. This was sort of pouring money into a Europe which was not going to be capable of using it. Robert Taft, the great American isolationist Senator tried to reduce the programme to one year and reduce the amount significantly. Fortunately for these plans, the impact of the Berlin Blockade and the Czech coup was to blow these isolationism sentiments in the US Congress aside, so that the funds came forward. But the problem was that the Europeans were convinced that unless the Europeans themselves felt secure, unless they were willing to open up to each other, if they were forced to devote massive amounts of their budgets to military expenditures, prosperity would not return. And therefore and again this is an irony, in October 1947, the French Foreign Minister George Bidault went to Washington, saw Marshall and for the first time suggested the Atlantic Pact, an Atlantic security guarantee from the United States to Europe. Many people of course have claimed the credit, Ernie Bevin, Foreign Minister of the UK, Dean Atchison who actually went on to describe the birth of NATO in his memoirs as present at the creation, as if it was the sort of the foreign policy equivalent of God’s creation of the universe. But Bidault was the first person, at least according to my research, who actually came up with the idea.

The French at the time were essentially worried about Germany, not the Soviet Union. The first post-war pact, the Treaty of Dunkirk between the UK and France in 1947 was in fact not directed against the Soviet Union at all but directed against Germany and the French were very eager, similar to what they did after World War One, to ensure that they had economic domination of the Ruhr so that they could control German economic recovery and prevent the emergence of a very strong armed Germany in the future.

The Americans at the time were uncertain how to respond to those French overtures. Some like George Kennan believed that the essential way of implementing containment was through economic and social pressures rather than through military pressures. He later made a career, he lived until just a few years ago, out of proclaiming that his containment doctrine had been misunderstood. In fact he sort of denied his own theory to a large degree. Others for example like Henry Wallace, the old Roosevelt’s former Vice President, who formed a progressive party in the United States, believed that essentially the Soviet Union after the immediate post-war period had stopped being an expansionist power, had become a rather conservative power, that the Soviets were really more worried about the resurrection of the West than the United States’ nuclear weapon. They were defensive than they were concerned to provoke the United States and that therefore a security pact would be needlessly provocative vis-à-vis the Soviet Union and would only cement the division of Europe. One could argue that perhaps he might have been wrong in his analysis but he was certainly right about some of the consequences when NATO was created.

The other thing in the United States is that when the Europeans suggested it the American view was that, well do we really need to form an organisation in which we actually are full members? Why don’t we just give a kind of over the horizon security sort of guarantee to what the Europeans are doing already? But most importantly of all, based on the success of the Marshall Plan the response of the State Department was that Congress would never go along with an American security alliance with the Europeans unless the Europeans had shown first or foremost that they were willing to take the situation into their own hands.

And so in 1948 the Western Union was formed. I find the Western Union, which later on in 1954 became the WEU, the Western European Union, which still survives today, as one of the most fascinating sort of lost opportunities in European history. Here was not simply a military agreement between the UK, France and the Benelux powers, which Germany and Italy joined later in the 50s, but here was the genesis, ten years before the European Economic Community, seven years before the Treaty of Messina in 1955, here was the genesis of a true European Union and the French wanted it to be a true European Union. It was my country unfortunately, the British, who sort of kept it as a military alliance only and took out all of the clauses on economic and social cooperation. Had the Labour government accepted to make Winston Churchill the British negotiator at a time when Churchill was going around Europe preaching European unity, maybe the UK would have been more involved in this from the early stages.

But the United States essentially said to the Europeans you have to come up first and foremost with your own self help, do as much as you can together despite your circumstances, come forward to us with a consolidated plan and then we can enter negotiations but Congress will not accept to put in military equipment and manpower for what is an inability or an unwillingness of the Europeans to help themselves first and foremost.

This is interesting because the Western Union was almost like a NATO in genesis. When it was created in 1948, it had a SACEUR, it had a Supreme Commander, General Montgomery, Bernard Montgomery the great British General of World War Two, who was at Fontainebleau at SHAPE with a French General who was his land commander. It started an infrastructure programme to pull European infrastructure together. It started the first ever coordinated defence planning system. NATO didn’t create these things, we always claim the credit of course for having an integrated military structure and a SACEUR and an integrated command structure but we didn’t. We actually took these from the good old Western European Union, the WUDO as it’s called, the WUDO, the Western Union Defence Organization. It was only when the WUDO had been set up and had started to formulate its demands to the United States for military help that the United States ultimately agreed to start talks on NATO. Secret talks that were held in a basement in the Pentagon with no windows whatever and where the United States initially was quite non-committal, wanting to see first what the Europeans would do.

What was the problem? The problem of course for the American negotiators was the US Congress, which had been left in the dark. Congress, as I mentioned, was full of pro-UN supporters who saw a regional alliance as potentially undercutting the UN. Congress was full of people who were extremely wary of an Article 5 commitment – of course NATO is based on Article 5, you know this. But why be wary of an Article 5 commitment? Because Congress wanted to keep the constitutional prerogative to declare war. They did not want it to be something which was automatic and of course the Europeans wanted precisely the strongest possible guarantee that they could get out of the United States. The model was the Western Union again which had an Article 4 guarantee which obligated military assistance in the event of an attack. Congress, once the negotiations began, watered down that quite significantly by taking out a direct reference to military assistance and leaving a response largely open to how an ally would wish to react. The great breakthrough was the so-called Vandenberg Resolution, 11th of June 1948. Senator Vandenberg, Arthur Vandenberg, was the Senator from Michigan, he was a difficult chap but he was a true internationalist. He pushed a resolution through the Senate which allowed for the first time constitutionally the United States to associate itself with a regional alliance framework. That cleared the way. The negotiations went on in an Ambassadors Committee, to and fro, for the best part of July to September 1948. There were some really difficult issues that they had to deal with in what an American journalist Dan Cook has called a ‘Viennese minuet.’

What were the issues?  Well first of all was this issue of how much European self-help should there be first and foremost. The American military were not in favour of NATO, again the myth may be that the Pentagon would be all for it. No, it was a creation of the State Department, not the military. The military basically was trying to rearm itself after the Second World War. It was trying first and foremost to buy new aircraft, new equipment, new rifles for itself and there was a great deal of reluctance about giving the stuff away virtually free to a number of European allies. So how much self-help first.

Secondly would the pact be built around the Western Union to which the United States would simply associate itself but without formally joining? Would it therefore be an essentially European solution? Or would it be something new? George Kennan in particular was the first to come up with the idea of a dumbbell concept, that it would be an essentially European organisation with an American sort of Canadian strategic planning board meeting in Washington to provide assistance in worst-case scenarios. That of course at the time when the European Union is developing its own defence identity is potentially an arrangement that could have been achieved already back in 1948 – 1949. We didn’t have to wait until the 21st century for that to happen. Ultimately, the American State Department negotiators decided that it would be better to create something new. Why? This brings us to the third issue.

The Western Union countries essentially did not want to expand their organisation. They wanted of course the bulk of the American help. They didn’t want to share it with Sweden, Norway, Portugal, Italy or others. The Americans, however, were interested basically in an Atlantic arrangement. That’s why we call it the North Atlantic Alliance. They, first of all, believed that the whole concept of defending Europe would not work without stepping zones. They wanted the Azores as a military base and therefore the fact that Portugal, the owner of the Azores as at that time a dictatorship under Salazar, which means that it didn’t mean the democratic criteria, was overlooked. In US Congress they drew a distinction which sounds familiar even today between totalitarian countries that couldn’t change and authoritarian countries which may not be very pleasant but which could still be useful and which could change over time. The United States was interested in Italy because they wanted to keep Italy out of the hands of communists by including it in an Atlantic pact. The Americans also felt that they had to have Iceland, which they’d left in 1944, again as a strategic stepping stone across the Atlantic. The United States was interested in Norway and interested in Denmark. There was even a push from the Congress to include Franco’s Spain, but eventually Ernie Bevin vetoed that on behalf of the United Kingdom, although despite the fact that Spain had been neutral in World War Two.

So the American desire was to have a wider grouping but essentially of Atlantic countries. The European desire was to have a smaller grouping but essentially committed to defending in Germany against the Soviet Union. To some degree the fear of the Europeans was if this Atlantic concept prevailed what it actually meant was the sort of equivalent of World War Two all over again. A French Prime Minister famously said that the United States would more or less come back when Europe was already a corpse and civilisation was already doomed. In other words that the Soviet Union would overrun Europe and only then would the United States sort of come back and liberate Europe and push the Soviet Union back out. The Europeans were much more interested in having American forces right there on the central borderline to have forward defence, as far forward as possible, so that the battle could be won without Europe suffering devastation. So that was a tricky issue as well. Who would be in?

Then there was the question: should it be just a military alliance or should it be something more? The French, the British were essentially interested in a military alliance only. It was the Canadians who pushed very strongly for the inclusion of Article 2 on economic and scientific cooperation, even though it has to be said in all fairness that NATO has not really done very much with that over the six decades of its history because the Canadians believed that vis-à-vis their public opinion something that was  temporary military alliance and not really a new sort of  community of democracies with Europe would not sell so well and again would seem to be incompatible with the United Nations. So Canada ultimately got its Article 2.

Next issue was to include the European colonies or not? The Dutch wanted to have Indonesia covered. So we would have had the global NATO in 1949, we wouldn’t have had to wait for 2009 for a more global NATO. The French wanted all of their African colonies to be covered as well. The Belgians asked if the Congo could be within the NATO perimeter. The Portuguese Mozambique and Angola. The Americans were terrified about this because they could see that vis-à-vis their public opinion, the idea of NATO, not as the defender of democracy but a kind of an American guarantee for the Europeans to keep going with their discredited colonialism after World War Two that would have sunk the Treaty. It would have been dead on arrival in the US Senate. But the French insisted on Algeria, that was really a deal breaker and eventually Ted Achilles, one of the State Department negotiators, decided that the best thing was simply to draw the line at the Tropic of Cancer, which fortunately for the French covered Algeria, at least until 1962 and Algerian independence. The Dutch never got their Indonesia.    

Then the issue: how to define Article 5 which I mentioned already. This was an extremely protracted debate where, at the end of the day, Ernie Bevin took the view better to have an imperfect treaty with a weaker Article 5 than the Europeans wanted than no treaty at all. The key thing was to have American troops in Europe. A French Defence Minister in the 1950s, René Pleven was once asked “how many American troops do we need to ensure the defence of Europe?” Pleven said “one”; they said “What only one? Yeah, he gets killed first.” That was the beginning of a view that the weaker the treaty guarantee on paper the more you needed American infrastructure and hardware forward deployed in Europe to show that the Americans would be entangled and could not escape their obligations whether they wished to or not. Again, if one looks at missile defence today, there are certain echoes of that debate even now, a paper treaty is good, an American base on your territory is even better.

Finally the length of the Treaty. Georges Bonnet, the American – sorry how could he be American – Georges Bonnet, the French Ambassador who was the French negotiator wanted 99 years. The Europeans would have settled for 50 years, which was the duration of the Western Union. The Americans wanted ten years because they believed that NATO would be a temporary arrangement, it wasn’t meant to last, it was a kind of temporary sort of plaster cast allowing the European arm to mend and afterwards the Americans would be able to Europeanise western defence and retreat into isolationism. Eventually, they settled at 20 years with a review clause after ten years allowing anybody who wanted to leave. So far nobody has left.

Ladies and gentlemen, as I terminate it, was all over by September 1948. The Treaty was more or less done and dusted. Okay, I know what you’re going to ask me why is it then that it was not signed until April 4th 1949? Good question. The reason is the American elections. The State Department did not want to submit the Treaty to a lame duck Congress and everybody assumed that Harry Truman was going to lose. Thomas Dewey, the Governor of New York who was the Republican challenger did not even bother to campaign. Every opinion poll, every editorial predicted that he was going to be the comfortable winner. There was even a newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, which was printed early, you recall, very famous in American politics, saying Dewey wins by landslide. And Truman of course on the morning of his great victory in 1948 loved to hold up the Chicago Tribune just to show that everybody had got it wrong. Truman with his whistle stop tour across the United States and his criticisms of the ‘do nothing’ Republican Congress was a formidable campaigner and won against all of the odds.

But you may ask well wait again Jamie, Harry Truman won, Harry Truman was pro NATO so why did it take such a long time? The reason is paradoxically because the Republicans lost the Congress. The Democrats won control and the problem is that therefore people like Vandenberg who was one of the fathers of the Treaty lost his position as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a whole new squad came in who basically, as always in politics, said ‘if our predecessors did it and if it was the other party, we don’t want to have anything to do with it’. And therefore the State Department had to begin the whole process again with a completely different set of figures in Congress to persuade them nonetheless. For example, the new Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Connolly, Senator Connolly of Texas, actually said that the United States was behaving as a kind of Sir Galahad, that was his expression, Sir Galahad in promising security to unreliable European allies. Finally however in April, on April 4th the Treaty was signed in Washington, which is strange because the British suggested Barbados, the Portuguese suggested to sign it in the Azores, symbolically midway in the Atlantic, so we could talk about the Treaty of the Azores. The Americans insisted on Washington, of course showing who was the senior ally to some degree from the beginning of the organisation. The Treaty, simplicity itself 14 articles, much shorter than the Treaty of Rome. Ted Achilles, the negotiator from the State Department, said that it had the simplicity of language that even an Omaha milkman would be able to read it and understand it. The band, however, struck a sour note. The band that was brought to the ceremony in 1949, obviously without any coordination, played two tunes from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess: “I’ve got Plenty of Nothing” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So”. So NATO perhaps did not get off to the most auspicious beginning but it was done.

Looking back, what did it signify at the time? First of all of course, that the United States had renounced isolationism and become a European power. Not realising itself at the time just how long-standing that commitment to Europe would actually be. France temporarily turned its back on the French idea of a third force. That was the idea of a Europe between the Soviet Union and between the United States representing a different pole in international security. Because France realised that it was too weak to implement that, Germans were not yet partners, they were still the hated adversary. The British, as I have said, were reluctant.

But of course as we’ll see in the next lecture, by the 50s the French had recovered their spirits, had started to form a partnership with Germany, had given up on the British and were once again pushing within the alliance for a greater European role. I think for my country, the experience was particularly decisive. Britain, after the Second World War, had been prepared reluctantly to accept the need for European unity, and in the Western Union, the first experiment, the British were in the lead. It was a British idea to set up the Council of Europe and the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly. But once NATO was signed, the British had the United States, the special relationship, the security with Washington, and we started, fatally in my view, fatally to turn our back on the European experiment for several, several years. But the real winners were the defeated powers. Germany and Italy were potentially even more the victors of NATO than the French, the U.S. or the British because NATO was the vehicle, given that they were not allowed into the Western Union, whereby they could be incorporated into Euro-Atlantic structures and recover their respectability. Italy was invited to join right from the start with American insistence. Germany, of course, in 1955.

Finally, was it really necessary? Historians, even today, ladies and gentlemen, continue to fiercely debate the point of whether NATO was really necessary. As I've said, George Kennan in particular felt that it was an over-militarization of East-West relations. Henry Wallace, as I've said, believed that it had overestimated the threat that the Soviet Union really posed. It accepted, if you like, as permanent a division of Europe, which at the time was still very much in flux. The Warsaw Pact, in fact, was not created before NATO, it was created in 1955 following NATO and as a reaction to it. But again, if you take the view of the statesmen at the time, we did not know what Soviet intentions were. Churchill famously said that the Soviet Union is a mystery wrapped inside an enigma surrounded by a puzzle, or words to that effect. And indeed, even if the Soviet Union was a pacific power, its refusal to cooperate, particularly over Germany, its general surliness, its whole demeanour, didn't sort of create confidence at the time among the Europeans. So if one looks at the circumstances at the time, then perhaps NATO, if not inevitable, was all the more likely because the Soviet Union certainly did not try to do anything constructive to stop it from taking place.

But was that then the beginning of sunshine and light? Obviously not. The beginning of the alliance was not the end of differences between the Americans and the European over security policy. One can argue that to some degree it was the beginning of differences between the Americans and the Europeans over how to conduct security policy. It simply provided a framework in which those debates could finally, truly be engaged. And we'll see next time how that was the case once the Korean War came along and the French decided they wanted a European army. But anyway, that's for next time. For now, thank you very much.

Questions, if there are any?

Questions and answers

Q: You've talked about missed opportunities in history such as the WUDO. Now on NATO's 60th anniversary, what do you think are some missed opportunities within NATO currently?

Dr. Jamie Shea: Well, I still find we've had right throughout our history, and we see it right in the 40s, in the beginning, this sort of issue that the Americans would be much more supportive of a federal Europe and a common European defence policy, with common European military assets than they are often credited for. The perception often has been that the United States has seen a European defence effort as antagonistic to NATO, it's been either/or, either you're a good European or you're a good Atlanticist, but you can't be both. If one goes back to the history, one will find that for a long time, many American figures like Senator Fulbright really believed that the late 40s was an opportunity for Europeans to come together in a real union, which had been lacking, of course, in the 1920s and 30s. And Fulbright was an opponent of NATO at the beginning, not because he wanted Europe to fall under Soviet hegemony, but precisely because Fulbright thought that this would slow down, as it did to some degree, the push for European unity, which could best be done in circumstances of need, of deprivation than in circumstances of prosperity, that prosperity would bring back national egotisms, nationalisms, and the whole momentum would be lost. So, if one looks at the origins, one could see that this idea that the Americans were looking for a twin-pillar alliance, with a strong capable European pillar here, with its own forces, was there. And indeed, next week, in my second lecture, I'm going to talk about the missed opportunities after Stalin's death in the 1950s, when it was the Americans again who – wanting troops in Europe as they had to deploy troops to Asia to fight the Korean War – it was the Americans with the French who came out with this idea of the EDC, the European Defence Community, which almost brought about a European army, something that nobody is talking about today, despite the enormous progress in European defence. So, looking at the history, one could see that there is, as I say, much more prospect for the Europeans to look after their own security or be it with a kind of an Atlantic envelope in the wider sense, much more prospect than the subsequent history of NATO we tend to assume. I think that's one thing.

The second problem, though, right from the very beginning, is guns versus butter. Throughout the history of NATO, right there at the beginning, there's always been this question about whether security policy, prosperity is best handled by spending large sums on armaments, or whether it's better handled by investing in the economy, in civil society and education, and so on. The Americans were rather alarmed at the cost to themselves of having to build up the European military forces after the Second World War, and again, there were people in Washington who worried about NATO, particularly George Kennan, because he precisely believed that the emphasis would be put on so-called non-productive investments such as in the military field, and not in the economic recovery of Europe, which he believed in the long run would better defeat communism, Europe as an example of success, than a hostile armed Europe, which would only perpetuate an arms race. Now, I'm not saying that the decision to create NATO was wrong, of course not, nor the need for Europe to have adequate defences, but right at the very beginning, on both sides of the Atlantic, there of course has been this argument over the burden-sharing. How much is done by the Americans? How much is done by the Europeans? What is a fair burden share? And again you see that there's nothing new under the sun. We've carried that debate all the way forward, with the Americans putting a lot of pressure on the Europeans to take the burden off them, off their shoulders, by increasing European defence budgets and a great European reluctance to put economic prosperity at risk by investing in American-style levels of defence spending.

Q: Talking about this famous note by Stalin sent over to the Western allies offering a reunification of Germany, how do you think did that affect NATO or the Western alliance?

Dr. Jamie Shea: This, of course, did not happen in 1948 – 49, this came along in the 50s, in 1952, shortly before Stalin died. Stalin at the time ultimately saw the success of West Germany and was worried, of course, that the next push would be the remilitarization of West Germany. The Korean War, in the meantime, had broken out. The United States had virtually no army to fight in Korea. At the beginning, they were in terrible straits because they only had some extremely badly equipped, badly trained divisions in the Pacific to actually send to South Korea, and initially, as you know, the Americans were almost defeated before General MacArthur was given the job of reorganising the American forces and then did a brilliant manoeuvre, landing at Inchon and then pushed the North Koreans and eventually the Chinese back. Ultimately we all know that then the Chinese came back again and it ended in a stalemate in 1953. But the problem was for the United States that they saw very clearly at a time when they believed the main threats were in Asia, that the Americans would not have sufficient forces to defend Germany, and therefore who better to defend Germany than the Germans themselves. But of course, this worried the Russians enormously, as it worried the French, the creation of a Bundeswehr, a German army once again. And this is why, one of the reasons why Stalin launched this plan in an effort to sort of stave off German remilitarization by suggesting a different approach whereby Germany could be neutralised would stay out of security arrangements because, of course, a remilitarized Germany had to mean a Germany in NATO, a Germany under control, a Germany on a multilateral structure. Stalin saw this very well, so he tried to nip it in the bud by suggesting, not for the first time by the way in Soviet foreign policy, that Germany could be reunited and live in peace as a democracy, but as a neutral country. In fact, this idea came up again briefly under Gorbachev in 1989, 1990, 1991, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, when it in fact was rejected not just by the United States, but of course by Chancellor Kohl and the Germans themselves. I think at the time, to answer your question, back in the 1950s, because, again, communist forces were very strong, particularly in East Germany, the Allies did not believe that a neutral Germany would really be a democratic Germany at the time, that it would inevitably be a satellite country of the Soviet Union, hence the rejection.

Right. Well, ladies and gentlemen, I hope that's wetted your appetite. The proof of the pudding will be in eating when you have to come back next time. I hope you do.

Next time, I want to carry on where we left off there, talking about the 1950s, the death of Stalin, the beginning of the détente process, NATO having to become NATO, because when the Treaty was signed in 1949, there was no Secretary General of NATO, there was no building here, there was no infrastructure, no armed forces. How did therefore NATO truly become NATO? And we begin the debates in the 1950s which go on and on even through today about what is the right military strategy for NATO to have. Thank you.