Naval Historical Center home page Image of an anchorColloquium on Contemporary History Project
Flag banner

THE UNITED STATES AND THE ORIGINS OF NATO
AN OVERVIEW
by
Lawrence S. Kaplan
Lyman L. Lemnitzer Center
for NATO and European Community Studies

On the afternoon of December 31, 1947, John D. Hickerson, director of European Affairs at the State Department, was full of fishhouse punch, a New Year's courtesy of the Metropolitan Club in Washington. He went directly from the club to the desk of his associate, Theodore C. Achilles, and said, "I don't care if entangling alliances have been considered worse than original sin since George Washington's time. We've got to have a peacetime military alliance with Western Europe. And we've got to get it ratified. It's your baby now." Hickerson later corrected this account on the grounds that he only drank martinis. But Achilles stuck to his story, noting not only that the Metropolitan Club offered free drinks with lunch on New Year's eve but also that they had all been drinking martinis for years with no such radical outbursts.

What Hickerson had blurted out was an intention to reverse one of the most powerful traditions in the nation's history: namely, the doctrine of non-entanglement with Western Europe. In fact, the tradition antedated George Washington's presidency; it was built into the relationship between the colonies and the mother country. Part of it had a religious motif, as was inadvertently recognized in Hickerson's reference to "original sin." The "City upon a Hill" that John Winthrop called Boston was a biblical reproach to the sinful ways of the Old World, one of which was the immoral system of dynastic alliances.

Perhaps a larger part of the tradition had its roots in what has been called the "salutary" neglect of the British colonies in North America from 1607 to 1763. The century and a half of British colonial development permitted the growth of a concept that wars were products of alliances among despotic kings serving European interests. The passage of control of the colonies from the Crown to Parliament made little difference to colonial attitudes toward Europe's wars. Certainly, the experience in the French and Indian War illustrated this attitude. While New Englanders and Virginians were eager to have Britain remove France from North America, they were not interested in paying for the costs of the war, or for providing troops for its prosecution, except when special interests of Massachusetts Bay or Virginia were involved. Nor were they interested in suspending profitable trade with Canada or the West Indies while General Wolfe was fighting on the Plains of Abraham.

Colonial antipathy to alliances did not mean that they shunned help from Britain's enemies in the Revolutionary War. In fact, they expected European rivals of Britain to cut it down to size. As a reward for their giving money and manpower to its cause, the United States would transfer its trade from the former mother country to the benefactors. No alliance would be necessary. This was the message of Paine's Common Sense in 1776; it was also the message of John Adams's Model Treaty later that year, as he presented to the Continental Congress a means of winning European support without paying the price of an entangling alliance.

The Model Treaty was not adopted, to the vast disappointment of the leaders of the Revolution. France, the nation with the most to gain from the reduction of British power, was willing enough to encourage the Americans, but only up to a point. A French commitment to American victory without corresponding obligations was impossible to achieve. The alliance with France, a classic example of an offensive alliance, was made more reluctantly by the French than by the Americans. It was filled with dangerous entanglements, notably an agreement not to leave the war without the ally's permission, and even worse, an agreement to come to the aid of the ally in the event of a war in the future. The French entered the alliance in 1778 only after prospects of American victory had been brightened in the Battle of Saratoga and only after France had the Spanish fleet at its disposal. American eagerness derived from the rocky course of the war; the new nation needed French money, arms, and men to win independence, and understandably shoved aside their misgivings to achieve this goal. Conceivably, there would have been no independence without the alliance, or if this is too extravagant a statement, the boundaries of the new nation would have been more confined than they were in 1783.

Once independence had been won, the constraints of the entangling alliance were increasingly unacceptable. First, France failed to continue its role of sustainer of the United States; it was unwilling-and unable-to accommodate America's intention to substitute for membership in the British economic network with a French partner that would provide credits, markets, and manufacturers for Americans. A decade later, Thomas Jefferson, the supposed friend of France, shared with the Anglophile Alexander Hamilton a desperate wish to terminate the alliance. The outbreak of the wars of the French revolution reminded all Americans of the dangers of an entangling alliance, even as the Federalists blamed the Jeffersonians for wanting to enter the war on France's side. The charge was untrue, just as the accusation against the Hamiltonians that they wanted to join Britain against anarchic, atheistic France lacked validity. When the Treaty of Mortfontaine was signed in 1800, ending the alliance, all parties recognized the wisdom of the isolationism of the colonial forebears. The memory of the French alliance governed American behavior toward Europe in the nineteenth century.

Even after two world wars, the tradition of non-entanglement was still alive, and the United Nations was less a symbol of its abandonment than of its continued vitality. Converts from prewar isolationism embraced a UN with the understanding that it would end forever the balance-of-power system and the alliances it had spawned. The victors of World War II would serve as policemen of a new world order, with the United States as its chief. When the division between Soviet communism and Western democracy became clear, to the extent that the Soviet Union appeared as dangerous or even more so than the Axis enemy of the recent past, disillusion reminiscent of post-World War I trauma set in. Once again non-entanglement from a Europe that did not appreciate American idealism and from a Communist virus that could even bring down the American system was a familiar alternative.

If neo-isolationism did not win the day, it was partly because of the circumstances of America's status in a diminished world and partly because of an able leadership in Washington. As it seemed obvious that without the involvement of the United States, communism would win over Western Europe, the Truman administration adopted a policy of containment, inspired, even though later disavowed, by George Kennan, that required an acceptance of alliances to redress what was considered to be a new imbalance of power tilting away from the West. But its initial expression, in the Truman Doctrine applied to Greece, was unilateral intervention against an imminent Communist take-over. When a similar but less immediate threat from communism loomed in France and Italy, the administration recognized that the economic plight of the West, rather than Soviet armies, was a major cause of Communist influence. Then, it put forth the Marshall Plan, a further step toward entanglement with Europe. Its successful passage through the United States Congress rested on the principle of self-help and mutual aid among European beneficiaries as the price for massive economic aid. The ground was prepared for a military alliance anticipated in a speech by Canadian Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent in 1947. In the United States, the idea met with considerable resistance among opponents and considerable qualms among the policymakers. Early in 1948 the State Department, led by the aforementioned Achilles and Hickerson, gingerly pressed for an alliance with Western Europe. They were aided by shrewd actions on the part of such European leaders as Ernest Bevin, which pointed the way to new European cooperation through a Western military union. Its proposal in January 1948 underscored the weakness of economic assistance to politically insecure nations. The fear was Communist conquest through European governments. Events in the winter of 1948 intensified these fears; a Communist coup in Prague, pressure against Norway for a non-aggression pact, and a potential Communist victory at the polls in Italy. In March, Britain, France, and the Benelux countries signed a 50-year mutual defense treaty that promised an integration of their forces and a guarantee that an attack against one would be an attack against all. The text of the treaty was phrased in such a way that Americans would know that the principles of self-help and mutual aid animating the Marshall Plan applied to the new Western Union.

The only element lacking in Europe's preparations was American membership in the new Brussels Pact. It required a year of internal struggle within the United States to make a commitment that would become the first military alliance with any European country since the termination of the Franco-American treaty almost 150 years before. It was not that the State Department planners were unprepared for a new relationship. Immediately after the Brussels Pact was signed, conversations were held at the Pentagon with Canadian and British representatives that pointed toward a North Atlantic security pact. But this was still sotto voce; the Western Union was not involved. France was specifically excluded from these conversations for fear of Communist influence in Paris. Ironically, the key British figure at the Pentagon conversations was Donald Maclean, a Kremlin agent, who presumably informed his masters of everything that was discussed at those meetings. What deterred the administration from an immediate response to the Western Union's initiative was concern that the American public was not ready for such a drastic change of policy. Three strong interest groups stood in the way: 1) the traditional isolationists, led by Senator Robert A. Taft, who would never be convinced that Europeans were not seeking to take advantage once again of innocent Americans; 2) the Pentagon leadership concerned in part over a U.S. commitment in excess of its ability to fulfill. They were aware with Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery that all the Soviets needed to march to the English Channel was a sufficient supply of shoes. Moreover, they feared that an alliance with Europe would drain the limited military stocks, as allies would compete with Americans for the small military budget allowed by the Truman administration; and 3) the converts from isolationism to the United Nations, led by Senator Arthur Vandenberg, were concerned that an alliance would undermine the world organization and lead America into the balance-of-power system, and to war.

These groups posed formidable obstacles to the commitment Europeans wanted. The United States yielded slowly and reluctantly to their importunities, first by promising support unilaterally in the Vandenberg Resolution and then after months of negotiation through the pledge of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. The Berlin Blockade of 1948, combined with the European claim that without a sense of security the Marshall aid would be wasted, ultimately made the difference. But the form in which the alliance was fashioned was not quite what the Brussels powers had in mind. Their idea was to have the United States join their union, and provide the military assistance to give it credibility. The United States demurred; the alliance could not be seen as a European affair, or as an arrangement that undercut the United Nations. Consequently, the final text had references to the UN Charter in almost every article, making it appear to be what it was not; a regional organization in conformity with article 53 of the UN Charter. Had this been the case, the allies would have had to report to the Security Council in which the Soviets had a veto as well as a seat. Even more important, the alliance had to be perceived as something more than European and something less than a traditional military pact. American insistence on Portugal, Denmark, and Iceland joining the pact was only partly due to the need for bases they could provide in the Atlantic; the presence of Iceland and particularly Canada took the European curse off the relationship; and the Canadian pressure for Article 2, the promotion of an Atlantic community, helped to distinguish the treaty from the military alliances of the past. On April 4, 1949, the United States became entangled with eleven other nations, including France and Britain, the former bete noires of isolationism.

Once the treaty came into effect in July 1949, it developed into an organization that has endured for over 40 years. NATO in many ways has become more fixed in the American psyche than the more acceptable connections of the past with Latin America and Asia. SEATO and CENTO, artifacts of the Dulles' encirclement of the Soviet empire, never had the significance of NATO, and disappeared almost without a trace in the late 1970s. NATO by contrast may have recurrent crises, but until the end of the Cold War it occupied a central role in American foreign policy. Conceivably, the 1990s may witness the termination of the alliance, and the American commitment to Western Europe. The superpower and the ideology which brought the alliance into being has dissolved; the weak group of European states that needed American help has evolved into a powerful community, capable of defending itself. NATO could be irrelevant to the future. But the role of the United States in world affairs, particularly in European affairs, has not become irrelevant. The disarray in the countries of the former Warsaw bloc may give rise to chaos that could affect Western Europe and the United States; the difficulties that the Europeans are experiencing in their attempts to create a political and military entity still require an American presence. NATO continues to be the vehicle to legitimize the United States involvement in Europe. It is noteworthy that no member of the alliance has demanded the ejection of American forces or has denounced the alliance, as can be done through Article 13.

If the alliance should dissolve, the initiative might come from America, not from Europe, as North Americans decide that Europe can defend itself, or is not worth the investment that had been made in the past. Such an outcome is possible, particularly if economic conditions force the removal of U.S. troops from Europe. But the movement for total withdrawal or even dissolution, is far less visible than it was during the Vietnam War. In the recent presidential election campaign, as in those of the 1980s, the entangling alliance with Europe was not an issue. It has been assimilated into the core of America's foreign relations, as familiar in the late twentieth century as non-entanglement had been a century before.


22 September 2003