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It was born of a slew of compromises—which may be the secret of its survival in a vastly changed world
October 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 6
Who could have guessed we’d ever plan joint maneuvers with Czech, Polish, and Hungarian colleagues?
On Capitol Hill Senator Vandenberg said it was important to act, but “why,” he asked, “should a Democratic President get all the kudos in an election year?” He introduced a resolution that urged the President to seek “progressive development of . . . collective [arrangements] for self-defense” plus the “association of the U.S. by constitutional process with such arrangements.” In a crisis atmosphere, only twelve days before the Russians shut off land access to Berlin, the Vandenberg Resolution was overwhelmingly adopted on June 11.
The resolution put the Senate at least provisionally on board and gave the State Department a yellow light to proceed—yellow until after the November elections, when Truman’s triumph turned it to green. In February 1949 there was a change of cast: a new and elegant Secretary of State, Dean Acheson (Marshall had retired), and a new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Texan Tom Connally, a loyal Democrat. Acheson and Undersecretary Robert Lovett began informal, shirtsleeved talks in Washington with ambassadors from the Brussels Pact nations and Canada. Their goal: a treaty written in such plain language, said one U.S. draftsman, that “a milkman in Omaha [could] understand it"—and presumably be willing to send his son to fight under its provisions.
But clarity and compromise are sometimes at odds, and here is where ambiguity about NATO’s essence began. Even in 1949 not all the nations invited to join were “Atlantic” or “free.” Italy, thought to be vulnerable to Communist penetration, was brought into the fold to tie it more tightly to the West, a move that disgruntled its left-out Mediterranean neighbors Greece and Turkey, which had a more urgent claim to protection. Portugal, under the authoritarian rule of Antonio Salazar, was invited, but not Franco’s anti-Communist and Atlantic-facing Spain. To be sure, Spain had given aid and comfort to the Axis, but Italy was actually a former enemy.
The Senate still posed problems. While the Europeans wanted language that unmistakably bound the United States to fight, senators were not ready to relinquish their war-making powers. So Article 5 of the treaty, as drafted, bound each member to assist any one of them attacked “by taking forthwith . . . such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force. . . .” Including did not mean “mandated.”
This wiggle room for the Senate was enlarged by broadening the exclusively military (and anti-Soviet) nature of the treaty. Article 2 said that the signatories would contribute to “peaceful and friendly international relations” and “encourage economic collaboration” among themselves. And Article 10 said that by unanimous agreement the members could invite in “any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty” and “contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area.”
These elastic provisions (like some in the U.S. Constitution) arguably leave a door ajar for many reinterpretations, but they may also account for the fact that NATO will soon celebrate a half-century birthday despite many changes in the world picture. Perhaps some foresighted senators who voted to ratify the treaty on July 21, 1949, could anticipate the admission of Greece and Turkey (1952), of a re-armed West Germany (1955), and even, finally, of Spain (1982). But who among them would have guessed that America’s next three wars would be in Asia and the Middle East and that none of them would be formally declared by Congress—much less that a day might come, as is now likely, when U.S. generals would sit down to plan joint maneuvers with Czech, Polish, and Hungarian colleagues? We are controlled by unanticipated events far more than we like to think. Dean Acheson himself, with a lively sense of the ironies of history, noted in his memoirs that on the April day of formally signing the treaty he had worked so hard for, President Truman expressed his conviction that had it existed in 1914 or 1939 it “would have prevented the acts . . . which led to two world wars.” Among the selections played by the Marine Band for the occasion, however, were two Gershwin numbers: “I’ve Got Plenty of Nothin’” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”