On April 4, 1949, foreign ministers from 12 nations signed the
North Atlantic Treaty in the blue-and-gold splendor of the US
Departmental Auditorium on Constitution Avenue in Washington. The
goatskin-clad text promised mutual defense against armed attack. The
Marine Band program for the occasion included - inappropriately,
thought - the songs "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "I Got Plenty Of
Thus NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, was born.
Arguments began immediately. Who was going to pay for this thing?
What kind of strategy would it have? Should new members be allowed
in? Where would armed forces come from?
Fifty years on, the arguments continue. As dignitaries return to
Washington for this week's celebration of NATO's 50th anniversary,
critics are raising hard questions about the alliance's purpose in
today's post-cold-war world. The Kosovo crisis could yet split
But it may be worth remembering that NATO has had hard times
before. And somehow, something that began as a hollow shell did not
turn out too badly.
"The Alliance faced challenges and met them, however imperfectly,"
writes National Defense University Prof. Richard Kugler in a recent
NATO history. "Its ... actions and strength in times of turmoil are
a key reason the West won the Cold War. If the past is prologue, it
can rise to the occasion again."
One thing NATO has not been is particularly fast-moving. Its 1949
creation was fully two years after the beginning of the long stand-
off with the Soviet Union.
Its initial geopolitical goals, to paraphrase its founding
secretary-general, Lord Ismay, were to keep the Americans in, the
Germans down, and the Russians out. Each of these goals, in turn,
handed NATO leaders challenges that were precursors of the problems
In the years immediately after World War II, it was not clear the
Americans would stay in - would remain engaged in Europe. At NATO's
founding, Truman administration officials promised Congress the move
would not lead to permanent stationing of US troops on European
Then the Korean War, which raised fears of communist expansion,
and the explosion of the Soviet Union's first atomic weapon changed
the equation. President Truman raised the military budget and sent
five Army divisions to Europe. NATO formed an integrated command,
and a long accretion of armed forces began.
Keeping the Germans down - making sure they remained a committed
European partner - has similarly not always seemed foreordained. …