Written by Todd DePastino
NATO 1949-1959 United States postage stamp

Up to the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) on April 4, 1949, the United States largely abided George Washington’s warning, “steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world.”

Thomas Jefferson, who agreed with Washington on little, wholeheartedly concurred. “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none,” he wrote in his inaugural address.

It took a World War and a new global threat—the Soviet Union—to change all that.

The formation of NATO was a landmark in geopolitics and American history. It placed the US as the leader of a large military alliance that has grown enormously over time. A full list of military pacts involved the US includes about a third of the world’s nations and 25% of its population.

And it all began with Harry Truman declaring in 1947 the US commitment to containing the spread of communism.

Containment involved not only military defense, but economic outreach, such as the Marshall Plan aimed to rebuild war-torn Europe.

World War II had left Europe in ruins, both physically and emotionally. The staggering loss of life, destruction of infrastructure, and displacement of millions of people scarred a generation. A sense of despair permeated the continent.

NATO emerged not only as a military alliance but also as a beacon of hope for people reeling from the ravages of war. NATO provided reassurance and stability to European nations, enabling them to rebuild their economies and hold out some kind of hope for daylight.

It was the Soviet blockade of West Berlin in 1948 that really gave NATO its kickstart. In response to the blockade, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg signed the Treaty of Brussels establishing the Western Union Defense Organization.

Truman wanted to expand the Brussels pact to counter Soviet aggression. But he faced headwinds in Congress, which remained skeptical of “entangling alliances.” There was special concern about what would become the “Article 5” commitment which commits signatories to assist any ally when their attacked. Many in Congress wanted to retain the power to declare war rather than having it automatically triggered by an attack on a NATO member.

When secret negotiations over NATO began in the basement of the Pentagon, US negotiators asked for a watered down Article 5, which guaranteed each member’s armed invention on behalf of a besieged ally.

The spring and summer of 1949 saw extensive hearings and debates in the Senate regarding the NATO treaty, which now included 12 countries. These discussions focused on the implications of the treaty for American sovereignty, security commitments to European allies, and the balance of power in Europe.

On July 21, 1949, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to ratify the NATO treaty with a bipartisan majority. The final vote count was 82-13 in favor.

The ratification of the NATO treaty cemented the United States’ role as a leading member of the Western alliance and solidified its commitment to defending Europe against potential aggression from the Soviet bloc.

NATO would go on to become a cornerstone of US foreign policy and a bulwark against the spread of communism during the Cold War.

Today, in the post-Cold War world, NATO has 32 members in Europe and North America, including recently-added Finland and Sweden. Its future and purpose are much less clear than they were when the Soviet Union existed.

Back in 2013, Dr. Jamie Shea, Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, gave an excellent lecture on the origins of NATO, demonstrating its creation was far from inevitable.