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US-NATO Relations

Summary and Keywords

On April 4, 1949, twelve nations signed the North Atlantic Treaty: the United States, Canada, Iceland, the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Portugal, Italy, Norway, and Denmark. For the United States, the North Atlantic Treaty signaled a major shift in foreign policy. Gone was the traditional aversion to “entangling alliances,” dating back to George Washington’s farewell address. The United States had entered into a collective security arrangement designed to preserve peace in Europe.

With the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the United States took on a clear leadership role on the European continent. Allied defense depended on US military power, most notably the nuclear umbrella. Reliance on the United States unsurprisingly created problems. Doubts about the strength of the transatlantic partnership and rumors of a NATO in shambles were (and are) commonplace, as were anxieties about the West’s strength in comparison to NATO’s Eastern counterpart, the Warsaw Pact. NATO, it turned out, was more than a Cold War institution. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Alliance remained vital to US foreign policy objectives. The only invocation of Article V, the North Atlantic Treaty’s collective defense clause, came in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Over the last seven decades, NATO has symbolized both US power and its challenges.

Keywords: alliances, collective security, mutual defense, NATO, transatlantic relations

Origins of the Atlantic Alliance

The division between East and West was apparent and growing by early 1946. Josef Stalin, in a February speech at the Bolshoi Theater, spoke of the inevitability that a conflict would break out between communism and capitalism. George Kennan dispatched his Long Telegram from Moscow that same month. Before an audience in Fulton, Missouri in March, Winston Churchill referred to an “iron curtain” dividing Europe “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic.”1 Soviet policies fueled growing skepticism among policymakers and publics. Across Eastern Europe, communists took over key government positions, such as the secret police. Civil society organizations were banned, dissidents arrested, and independent media crushed. The Soviet Union’s control of Eastern Europe, pressure on Iran, and near-constant disagreements regarding the joint occupation of Germany all contributed to a sense that Moscow posed a threat to the West.

By 1947 US officials were concerned about Europe’s recovery from the ravages of war. The earlier Potsdam Agreement to divide Germany into four zones of occupation had left major economic challenges unanswered. Quadripartite occupation of Germany responded to almost visceral security concerns: Germany could not be allowed to threaten the peace of Europe for a third time that century. But without German economic recovery, Europe’s recovery as a whole would likely remain out of reach. German coal and steel were vital, as was the country’s manufacturing sector.2 Many in Washington worried that Europe’s ongoing economic woes would breed social unrest and an atmosphere ripe for communist influence.

Two programs illustrated a shift in Washington’s thinking. With the Truman Doctrine of March 1947, the United States announced plans to support anticommunist forces in Greece and Turkey (taking over Britain’s earlier role in the region) along with a sweeping promise to fight communism. The European Recovery Program, announced by Secretary of State George C. Marshall on June 5, 1947, offered economic assistance to help rebuild war-torn European economies. Underlying the Marshall Plan was the belief that an integrated and economically prosperous Europe would prevent future conflict. Later, Marshall Plan assistance and the creation of NATO came to be seen by many “as the two halves of the same walnut.”3 But at the time, many in the Truman administration saw a military alliance with Western Europe as unnecessary. It would create problems with Congress, tapping into a centuries-old aversion to standing military commitments.

Most of the initiative for the North Atlantic Treaty came from Western Europe and, in particular, British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin. But the United Kingdom was far from alone in seeing the value of a Western security organization. Louis St. Laurent, Bevin’s Canadian counterpart, called for a regional security organization in a speech before the United Nations General Assembly on September 18, 1947. It was Bevin, however, who lobbied for an arrangement that would include the United States. At the December 1947 meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers, he emphasized to Marshall the need for defense cooperation between the United States and a group of Europeans, namely France, Britain, and the Benelux countries. Marshall largely shared Bevin’s view, and John Hickerson, the US State Department’s director of European Affairs, was promptly dispatched to meetings at the British Foreign Office. To Hickerson, Bevin’s proposal was described as two overlapping circles: one smaller, encompassing Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, and another, larger circle, including the United States and Canada.4

In Washington, the Truman administration’s response was lukewarm. Many, including Charles Bohlen, the special assistant to the secretary of state, and George Kennan, the director of the policy planning staff, regarded a military alliance as premature. Even those who supported a military alliance, like Hickerson, expressed reservations. Bevin planned to model any future agreements on the Treaty of Dunkirk, an Anglo-French defense treaty signed earlier in 1947 that was directed solely at the German threat. Congress would be unlikely to support any agreement based on reducing German power and, crucially, playing down the Soviet threat. Hickerson instead recommended a multilateral structure modeled on the Rio Treaty closer to home. Hickerson’s message to the British was clear: the Europeans needed to organize themselves first. Only then could the US role be revisited.

Bevin accordingly proposed the creation of a Western European union. Such a treaty would be designed to meet the Soviet threat to Western Europe. By this time, a holding pattern of sorts had emerged. The Truman administration remained largely unwilling to define its position on Bevin’s proposed Atlantic security arrangement until the Europeans had agreed upon arrangements of their own, not unlike the US approach used with the Marshall Plan. But the British insisted that real progress could not be made without the United States.

US policy shifted rapidly in early 1948, thanks to a string of perceived Soviet successes. In February, a communist coup in Czechoslovakia toppled the democratically elected government. Shortly thereafter, the Soviet Union proposed a defense agreement with Finland, followed by rumors of a similar agreement with Norway. General Lucius Clay warned of Soviet intentions in occupied Germany. Marshall wrote to Truman on March 12, calling for a sign to the Europeans “of our willingness to consult on means of stopping further extension of Communist dictatorship in Europe.”5 Five days later, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom signed the Brussels Pact, a mutual defense treaty committing to a collective self-defense arrangement for the next fifty years.

That spring, the Soviet Union began restricting access to Berlin. A final break came over the Western powers’ decision to introduce a new currency, the Deutschmark. The Soviets refused to circulate the currency within Berlin, proposing an alternate currency instead. When the West refused to accept the Soviet alternative, they responded by severing communications lines and access routes connecting Berlin to the Western occupation zones.

Already, the coup in Czechoslovakia had deepened Western skepticism about Soviet intentions. The Berlin Blockade offered yet further evidence. It contributed to a hardening of anti-Soviet attitudes and spurred talks on collective security. The Berlin Blockade helped to remove some opposition to alliances in the US Congress. In June 1948, the US Senate passed a resolution calling for “regional and other collective agreements” deemed necessary to defend US national security. The Vandenberg Resolution (named for Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg) received bipartisan support, reflecting a growing foreign policy consensus in Washington.

The United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada entered into formal talks regarding a possible North Atlantic defense organization. Between July 1948 and March 1949, the United States, Canada, and the signatories of the Brussels Pact negotiated the creation of a regional security organization. Congressional concerns remained about entanglements in Europe. Isolationists objected almost viscerally to the idea that the United States would need to come to the Europeans’ rescue—again. In the end, the collective security guarantee reflected a delicate balancing act. Article 5 of the treaty agreed that “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all,” a much vaguer formulation (without the explicit obligation to retaliate) than the Europeans had originally desired, but one palatable to Congress.6

Negotiations between the United States, Canada, and the members of the Brussels Pact raised questions of what kind of organization might be created. Should the alliance be purely strategic or should it include political and economic functions? Canadian representatives pushed for economic and social cooperation. Article 2, the so-called Canadian article, called for such ties. And who might join the alliance? In the end, what constituted the “North Atlantic” region was defined liberally. Italy and Portugal were invited to join (in Portugal’s case, despite an authoritarian government). France’s Algerian departments were to be covered by the treaty. Norway, Denmark (including Greenland), and Iceland were also allowed to join.

The Treaty of Washington was signed on April 4, 1949. To sell the treaty to Congress and to the American people, many of whom worried that the North Atlantic Treaty could undermine the nascent United Nations (UN), the Truman administration took great pains to invoke the UN Charter. Truman and his advisers gave the impression that NATO would be a regional organization of the UN (as outlined in chapter 8, article 53 of the UN Charter), though in reality, any such relationship would have defeated the purpose of NATO. Any regional organization would be required to report to the Security Council, thereby giving the Soviet Union direct influence. Ultimately, the Senate approved the treaty in July 1949. The “American Revolution of 1949,” as Lawrence Kaplan put it, was over.7

The Early Years

Dean Acheson, Truman’s secretary of state, had made the case for the Atlantic Alliance, arguing that the United States would not deploy substantial ground forces to Europe. This assurance proved short-lived. Washington’s atomic monopoly ended in August 1949 when the Soviet Union detonated its own atomic bomb. Then, on June 25, 1950, North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel, launching an invasion designed to oust the pro-Western government in the south.

The Korean War transformed NATO. Western officials worried that events in Asia might be the opening salvo in a larger communist plan. What if an attack on Europe was next? Would World War III break out? In June 1950 the defense of Western Europe was shaky at best. The North Atlantic Treaty had created an alliance but no structures to coordinate the allies. US defense plans in early 1950 amounted to a withdrawal to the Pyrenees in case of a Soviet attack, hardly the defense the Europeans had envisioned! After the outbreak of the Korean War, the United States adopted the doctrine laid out in the US Objectives and Programs for National Security (NSC 68), which called for a massive rearmament program and quadrupled the US military budget by 1953. As part of this rearmament, the Truman administration sent four divisions to Europe. A total of 180,000 US troops were now stationed on the European continent.

At the North Atlantic Council’s February 1952 meeting in Lisbon, NATO established a military command structure and set up military headquarters in Rocquencourt, on the outskirts of Paris. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former commander of allied forces during World War II, became the first Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR). The Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) included four geographical commands: northern Europe, central Europe, southern Europe, and the Mediterranean. Alongside these military structures, NATO established a permanent secretariat in Paris, including a civilian secretary general. NATO’s membership continued to grow as Greece and Turkey joined the Alliance in 1952. Overtures were even made to the communist government of Yugoslavia, now on the outs with the Soviet Union.

The Korean War also encouraged the United States to rearm West Germany as part of the Alliance’s forward defense on the continent. In September 1950, at the Western heads of government conference in Washington, the Truman administration pushed for German rearmament over strong French objections. Under Truman and his successor, former SACEUR Eisenhower, US officials viewed German rearmament as central to European defense. But rearming West Germany unsurprisingly raised a host of concerns. Europeans balked at the prospect of rearming their former enemy, none more so than France. The proposed European Defense Community (EDC) looked to address these concerns, rearming Germany as part of an integrated and multinational army. German forces would serve alongside other national forces in European divisions. These divisions, crucially, would be under the control of non-German members of the EDC. In exchange, West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was promised West German sovereignty. From Washington’s perspective, the EDC seemed the best possible way to rearm West Germany without exacerbating European fears of German militarism. The EDC treaty was signed in May 1952, but it required ratification by each of the signatories’ governments.

Enthusiasm for the scheme waned quickly. British officials had agreed to cooperate with the EDC, but refused to join. Without Britain, the French increasingly worried about possible German domination. Critics in the French national assembly worried about the possible erosion of sovereignty due to the EDC’s multinational construction. John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s secretary of state, threatened an “agonizing reappraisal” of US policy if the EDC were rejected. Dulles’s threats did little; the French national assembly rejected the EDC in August 1954.

With the EDC now dead, the allies quickly moved toward another solution. The Churchill government proposed an expansion of the Brussels Treaty to include Italy and West Germany, thereby creating the Western European Union (WEU). British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, on a whirlwind tour of Europe, talked the allies into supporting West German accession to NATO. The London Agreements, a compromise drawn up by the British, kept some of the earlier EDC framework to secure German rearmament under the auspices of NATO. With West Germany as a member of the WEU, France (and other member states) could exercise control over German rearmament and procurement. The Federal Republic of Germany became NATO’s fifteenth member in May 1955. Mere days later, Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and the Soviet Union formed the Warsaw Pact. West German accession to NATO contributed to a sense of bipolar status quo within Europe. Germany’s division had been accepted, at least for the time being. The continent, too, was divided into two camps: NATO and the Warsaw Pact. NATO also served as a model for a series of anti-Soviet security arrangements across the globe. The Eisenhower administration’s “pactomania” also resulted in the creation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization in 1954 and the Baghdad Pact in 1955.

During the Eisenhower years, NATO moved toward a strategy of massive retaliation. The logic was simple: if the Soviet Union attacked the West at all, NATO would respond with a devastating nuclear attack. NATO’s reliance on nuclear weapons fit squarely within the Eisenhower administration’s attempts to reduce defense expenditures, known as the “New Look.” By relying on nuclear weapons for the defense of the West, the Allies did not need to invest heavily in large conventional armies to deter the Soviets. From the outset, there were clear problems with massive retaliation. A defense based on massive retaliation meant that NATO had no range of options available should the Soviet Union attack; the response would be nuclear or nothing. Moreover, massive retaliation assumed that the Soviet Union would not have the means to respond in turn. Rapid developments in Soviet nuclear capabilities challenged the doctrine’s use.

By the mid-1950s, there was hope of a possible détente between East and West. After Stalin’s death in 1953, the collective leadership in Moscow began calling for “peaceful coexistence.” The signing of the Austrian State Treaty in 1955—an agreement on the neutralization of Austria between the four occupying powers––was evidence that the superpowers could reach an agreement. Later that year, the four former allies met for a summit in Geneva. For NATO members, the prospect of peaceful coexistence raised serious concerns. Could they maintain public support for the Alliance if Cold War tensions diminished?

NATO’s members looked for ways to strengthen the organization’s political and economic purposes, building on Articles 2 and 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty, to maintain support. But the wisdom of greater cooperation was quickly called into question. A major transatlantic rift occurred in the fall of 1956, after the United Kingdom, France, and Israel launched an attack on Egypt following the nationalization of the Suez Canal. Neither Britain nor France gave any advanced warning to the other NATO allies. Eisenhower, concerned about a possible increase in Soviet influence in the Middle East, pushed for Britain, France, and Israel to accept a ceasefire. For London and Paris, the Suez Crisis underscored their decline and their dependence on US support. In both capitals, the experience at Suez encouraged officials to pursue more autonomous policies. French officials, in particular, began speaking of the need for Europe as a “third force” and invested in an independent nuclear program, the force de frappe. In 1957, six of NATO’s members––Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany––signed the Treaty of Rome, establishing the European Economic Community.

Crisis after Crisis: Berlin, Cuba, the MLF, and de Gaulle

In October 1957, the Soviet Union launched a satellite into space. Sputnik came as a surprise, contributing to a broader sense of pessimism and vulnerability across the Alliance. France continued work on an independent nuclear deterrent. France, Italy, and Germany also concluded a trilateral agreement on nuclear cooperation in November 1957, though French President Charles de Gaulle abandoned the scheme when he returned to power in 1958. In Washington, Sputnik encouraged US efforts to reassure the Europeans of its security guarantee. To that end, the United States negotiated with Britain, Italy, and Turkey to station US missiles in their territory.

Nikita Khrushchev sparked another crisis over Berlin in the fall of 1958. Alarmed by the thousands heading west through the city, Khrushchev issued an ultimatum calling for Berlin to become a free city. If the United States, United Kingdom, and France refused to conclude an agreement within six months, the Soviet general secretary threatened to conclude a separate peace treaty with East Germany. Doing so would terminate the four-power agreements of World War II; Western access to West Berlin would instead be determined by the East German government, which had no such obligations. The Western powers were not willing to bow to Soviet pressure. Berlin became a test case of the Western allies’ resolve.

The issue remained unresolved by the time John F. Kennedy entered office, and Berlin dominated the new president’s June 1961 summit with Khrushchev in Vienna. On August 13, 1961, the East German government (with Soviet approval) sealed off the border between East and West Berlin in the hopes of stemming the tide of Germans heading west. US, British, and French reactions to the Berlin Wall were muted. Building the wall reduced pressures on East Germany and avoided a major crisis breaking out in Berlin. It also convinced West Germans, including the mayor of West Berlin, Willy Brandt, that the wall would only be overcome with East-West dialogue.

Another major crisis came in 1962 over Cuba. On its surface, the Cuban Missile Crisis was a success for the West. Kennedy made clear that the United States could not accept the Soviets’ nuclear build-up in the western hemisphere. Khrushchev complied, withdrawing the missiles in exchange for the removal of US missiles in Turkey and a public commitment by the White House not to invade Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis, however, drew attention to long-simmering problems within the Alliance where it confirmed existing fears inside the Alliance. Kennedy had handled the Cuba issue with little consultation. Washington’s partners had been informed but enjoyed no real input. It seemed clear that, in times of crisis, the United States would make a decision and then inform the allies. The Cuban Missile Crisis underscored the sense that US officials felt differently about threats to the United States than they did about the regular threats to Europe.

Kennedy had come to power envisioning a new “grand design” for the West based on a more equitable transatlantic partnership. After entering the White House in 1961, the Kennedy administration quickly revisited the idea of “massive retaliation.” In its place, they proposed the idea of “flexible response”: a policy designed to offer alternatives short of nuclear war. What this meant in real terms was a greater emphasis on conventional force capabilities in Europe. To pay for it, the Kennedy administration pushed the importance of burden-sharing among the allies.

Debates over US control of NATO’s nuclear force, long a source of tension within NATO, came to the fore again during the Kennedy years. To meet European concerns, the United States envisioned an integrated nuclear force (including British and French forces). The multilateral force (MLF), as the proposal was known, consisted of nuclear-armed ships under NATO control. Though the scheme would improve allied efficiency and cooperation, its primary purpose was to create a nuclear role for West Germany. By 1965, the Johnson administration had abandoned the proposal in favor of a nuclear planning group.

Charles de Gaulle presented a sustained challenge to Washington’s vision. In January 1963, he openly questioned existing US policy and Washington’s idea of the transatlantic partnership. He rejected British efforts to join the European Economic Community, seeing it as a Trojan horse for Washington, and concluded the Elysée Treaty with Germany. The Franco-German agreement seemed a direct challenge to the US project in Europe. In response, Kennedy considered and abandoned the prospect of a fundamental shift in US foreign policy. De Gaulle’s challenges kept coming. He recognized the People’s Republic of China and floated proposals for the neutralization of Vietnam as the United States ramped up its military activities in Southeast Asia. He traveled to Moscow in the summer of 1966. Congress chafed at the lack of allied support for US foreign policy objectives, particularly in Vietnam, and in August 1966 forty-four Senators supported major cuts in US forces stationed in Europe.

De Gaulle’s greatest challenge to NATO came in March 1966 when he announced that France would withdraw from NATO’s integrated military command, itself housed in France. NATO’s headquarters and personnel were given a year to leave French territory. It was far from a surprise. Under de Gaulle, France had already withdrawn from the NATO Atlantic and Mediterranean fleets. De Gaulle’s March 1966 announcement, however, was still met with frustration and anger. Some worried that the French move might lead to the complete collapse of NATO. After all, the North Atlantic Treaty included a provision for signatories to leave after twenty years, in 1969.

The Johnson administration responded calmly. “When a man asks you to leave his house,” Johnson concluded, “you don’t argue; you get your hat and go.”8 SHAPE relocated to Casteau, Belgium, and the secretariat relocated to Brussels. France remained in the Alliance. De Gaulle’s partial withdrawal actually made it easier for the remaining fourteen allies to reshape policy without him. They finally agreed to adopt the policy of flexible response and, in December 1967, the North Atlantic Council identified a role for itself in East-West détente.

Broadly, the Gaullist challenge reflected changes to the balance of power in place since the end of World War II. Western Europe was no longer war-ravaged and broke. Washington, by comparison, faced serious economic problems after the immense spending of the 1960s. A trade deficit, balance of payments deficit, inflation, growing unemployment, and flatlining wages all plagued the US economy. In 1971 Johnson’s successor Richard Nixon abandoned the Bretton Woods system, ending the convertibility of dollars to gold, and also announced a 10 percent tariff on imported goods.

Détente’s Ups and Downs

US-Soviet relations began to improve after the near-miss of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy and Khrushchev set up a hotline connecting Washington and Moscow. In 1963 the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty. Johnson insisted on the importance of “building bridges” across the Iron Curtain. As Cold War tensions diminished, some wondered whether NATO was still necessary. The Report on the Future Tasks of the Alliance, or the Harmel Report, named after it chief architect Belgian foreign minister Pierre Harmel, answered with a resounding yes; NATO could and should have a role in détente. At the North Atlantic Council’s ministerial in June 1968, members called for negotiations with the East to reduce conventional force deployments in Europe. Even after Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in August 1968, the Western allies continued to push for East-West negotiations. Throughout the early 1970s, NATO pursued initiatives designed to develop a more multilateral détente: the Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction talks on conventional forces in Europe and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE).

Détente also strained relations among the Western allies. Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik stoked traditional fears of German-Soviet rapprochement; some worried about the possibility of another Treaty of Rapallo or Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Nixon and his foreign policy aide, Henry Kissinger, in particular, worried that Brandt might take Ostpolitik too far. They could not publicly oppose Brandt’s achievements because they were nominally supported by the United States. But the White House had little enthusiasm for Brandt’s major breakthroughs (jealousy undoubtedly colored their views). Later, parallel improvements in US-Soviet relations in the early 1970s left many across the Alliance worried once more about the prospect of a “superpower condominium.”9

Détente’s successes, especially those achieved by Bonn and Washington, left many concerned about the Alliance’s future. As East-West relations improved, would Western citizens still support NATO? Would they accept the need to invest in Western defense? Western policymakers worried about “the successor generation,” in particular. Young people no longer seemed to understand, let alone appreciate, the logic behind NATO. Whereas previous generations remembered World War II, the Marshall Plan, and the Berlin Blockade, this generation’s views were shaped by the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.

Nixon and Kissinger became increasingly worried about the state of transatlantic relations, declaring 1973 to be the “Year of Europe.” Kissinger, in a speech on April 23, 1973, called for the Western allies to develop a new Atlantic Charter. Well-intentioned, the initiative nevertheless chafed. Kissinger’s speech referred to “global” US interests and “regional” European ones, seen as pure condescension on the part of Washington.10 US and European responses to the Arab-Israeli War in October 1973 only underscored the sense that the allies were not all on the same page. The October War triggered a crisis within NATO. Washington requested use of NATO bases to assist the Israelis and the Europeans flatly refused. For Western Europe, the war threatened access to much-needed oil from the Middle East. The situation worsened after Washington put US nuclear forces in Europe on high alert without consulting any of the allies in advance.

Despite détente’s achievements, the Warsaw Pact’s capabilities continued to improve both quantitatively and qualitatively. The administrations of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter alike pushed for improvements to NATO’s conventional and nuclear defenses. Recent Soviet deployments in Europe, including SS-20 intermediate-range ballistic missiles and the Backfire bomber, were cause for particular concern. West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt warned that Western Europe’s security might be decoupled from that of the United States. Schmidt’s fears stemmed in part from the ongoing Strategic Arms Limitation Talks between the superpowers. If Moscow and Washington reached a strategic-level agreement, Schmidt worried what it would mean for European security. Carter and Schmidt’s acrimonious relationship did little to help matters; Schmidt had little confidence that Carter could be trusted with transatlantic strategy, fears undoubtedly made worse when Carter pulled the plug on the neutron bomb’s development in the spring of 1978.

Carter and his advisers, however, did appreciate European concerns. Carter’s Presidential Review Memorandum 38 echoed Europe’s call for a two-track approach of missile deployments and arms control. Above all, this scheme was designed to meet possible public opposition and preserve NATO’s image as a defensive alliance. In December 1979, the NATO allies announced two “parallel and complementary” tracks: the United States would deploy 572 new missiles (464 ground-launched cruise missiles and 108 Pershing IIs) to Western Europe by 1983 and would pursue arms control talks with the Soviet Union to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) from Europe.

Before 1979 was through, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Moscow’s intervention led to a sharp response from the Carter administration and exacerbated fears raised by the Iran Hostage Crisis. Carter dubbed the invasion “the greatest threat to peace since the Second World War.”11 The administration introduced a series of sanctions against the Soviet Union, including a grain embargo and a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. Few within NATO shared Washington’s view, and the sanctions themselves caused considerable transatlantic turmoil. Though high-ranking members of the administration (including Carter) continued to affirm its commitment to détente, many concluded that the president had become a traditional Cold Warrior. Fears of a more confrontational superpower relationship only deepened after Ronald Reagan became president in 1981. Reagan’s anti-Soviet rhetoric caused alarm, as did the administration’s increased defense spending. When martial law was introduced in Poland in December 1981, the administration responded with sanctions against the Soviet Union. As with Afghanistan, sanctions frustrated and alienated many of Washington’s transatlantic partners. The administration’s measures, especially those that threatened to derail a contracted pipeline to bring Siberian natural gas reserves to Western European consumers, seemed to ignore earlier consultations and the allies’ wishes.

As far as NATO was concerned, the implementation of the Dual-Track Decision remained the most contentious and pressing issue of the early 1980s. To many allied leaders, it was nothing short of an existential test. The Dual-Track Decision had called for the deployment of missiles by 1983, and the success of these deployments (assuming negotiations bore no fruit) would be a vital test for the Alliance. But the deployments aroused considerable public opposition, as antinuclear activists took to the streets in record numbers across Western Europe and North America. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets with placards denouncing the Reagan administration’s militarism and cavalier attitude toward nuclear war. NATO worked to maintain the consensus, as individual citizens and member governments (such as Greece) challenged the logic of its Dual-Track Decision. US missile deployments to the Federal Republic of Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom began as 1983 came to a close. The Soviet Union responded by walking out of the INF talks.

The End of the Cold War and the “New Europe”

NATO celebrated its 40th anniversary in 1989, but the institution’s future was far from certain. Cold War tensions diminished rapidly after Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary in March 1985. Reagan and Gorbachev met in Geneva in 1985 (the first superpower summit in six years), and again in Reykjavik the next year. There, the two nearly agreed to abolish all nuclear weapons by the year 2000—a proposal that ruffled feathers within NATO, terrifying Margaret Thatcher most of all. In 1987, Moscow and Washington signed the INF treaty and Reagan at last traveled to Moscow in 1988. By the time Reagan had left office in January 1989, the Cold War seemed all but over.

During the late 1980s, many in the West feared that “Gorbymania” was nothing more than an updated (and far more successful) move out of the Soviet Union’s trusty Cold War playbook: a propaganda effort designed to undercut public support for the Atlantic Alliance and separate Western Europe from the United States. Gorbachev’s groundbreaking initiatives all put NATO on the defensive—glasnost and perestroika at home, his willingness to conclude arms control negotiations with the United States, and his talk of a “common European home.” Public pressure for disarmament, for instance, remained a potent force and the modernization of NATO’s short-range nuclear forces threatened a transatlantic rift in 1989.

Events in Eastern Europe quickly transformed the international landscape. In February 1989 the Polish leadership agreed to roundtable talks with the trade union, Solidarność. Elections in June saw Solidarność win 160 out of 161 seats and, in August, one of Solidarność’s candidates became prime minister. In Hungary, free elections were announced for 1990. Then, on November 9, 1989, a routine press conference brought down the Berlin Wall. Günter Schabowski announced new travel rules in East Germany. His jumbled remarks omitted key restrictions still in force and East Germans watching the press conference on television headed to the Wall, believing it to be open. The barriers were opened that night as border guards chose to allow it rather than shooting their fellow citizens. The Berlin Wall had at last come down.

NATO’s raison d’être, it seemed, had evaporated by the end of 1989. There was no Cold War and the Soviet empire was falling apart at the seams. President George H. W. Bush and his foreign policy team insisted otherwise. NATO remained crucial to European security, now more than ever. At the London Summit in May 1990 and the Rome Summit in 1991, NATO worked to develop a role for itself in the new, post–Cold War world. Crucially, this new NATO would involve a now-unified Germany.

The Western allies created the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC) in December 1991, setting up a consultation forum with Central and Eastern European countries and newly established post-Soviet states. Building on the NACC, the NATO allies established the Partnership for Peace program in 1994. Non-NATO countries (known as “partners”) were encouraged to modernize their militaries and participate in information sharing with NATO’s members. Former Warsaw Pact members (including Russia) along with Austria, Finland, Ireland, Sweden, and Switzerland became partners. Possible membership in NATO remained open to them, though it was not a foregone conclusion. At the Washington Summit in May 1999, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary became the first former Warsaw Pact countries to join NATO, the first expansion since Spain’s accession in 1982. NATO’s eastward expansion continued apace: Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia joined in 2004; Albania and Croatia in 2009; and Montenegro in 2017. Seen from Moscow, NATO’s eastward expansion to encompass former Warsaw Pact states and portions of the Soviet Union was humiliating.

With the Cold War over, Europe redoubled its efforts to develop and strengthen a common foreign policy. France and newly unified Germany created a Franco-German corps, a scheme met with trepidation in Washington. Would the Europeans challenge Washington’s place in Europe? Confidence that Europe might be able to take care of its own house, however, quickly eroded. European attempts to manage the Yugoslav federation’s disintegration failed one after another. NATO ultimately took on a greater role, including a nine-day air campaign against Serb forces in September 1995. After the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement later that year, NATO provided a multinational force to support the accords, which remained in Bosnia until 2004. Bosnia reaffirmed for many the conclusions of preceding decades: if a military response was needed, so was US leadership. Again, in 1999, NATO conducted a large-scale bombing campaign to stop Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. For ten weeks, NATO aircraft flew some 38,000 sorties against Serb targets in Kosovo and Serbia. After the war, a NATO-led peacekeeping force entered Kosovo, known as the Kosovo Force.

Events in the 1990s, particularly in the former Yugoslavia, underscored the continued importance of US leadership in European security. European and Canadian contributions mattered, but the bulk of the Western intervention was decided and paid for by the United States. Without support from the Clinton administration, NATO would not have intervened.

Afghanistan and Beyond

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Article 5 was invoked for the first time in NATO’s history. In Afghanistan, however, NATO played a limited role. In August 2003 NATO took control of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), a multilateral force designed to stabilize the country and secure the area around the Afghan capital. By this point, however, the Bush administration had invaded Iraq. Afghanistan was left on the back burner. NATO’s ongoing involvement in Afghanistan through ISAF, however, demonstrated a clear willingness to engage in so-called out-of-area problems, traditionally a source of tension within the Alliance. Not all were impressed with NATO’s performance. The political scientist Eliot Cohen, for instance, described Afghanistan as “a conflict for which [NATO] was neither designed nor competent.”12

Transatlantic relations were strained considerably by the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Major allies refused to support the invasion; French objections were singled out for particular criticism in comical, but widespread, calls that French fries be renamed “freedom fries.” These storms eventually passed. European leaders critical of the decision to invade, like German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, soon left office.

In 2010 NATO unveiled a new strategic concept. It called for a greater allied role in conflict management, a continued emphasis on arms control and disarmament issues, and deeper partnerships, such as the Russia-NATO relationship. The 2010 Strategic Concept, at least implicitly, accepted that NATO would continue to play a major role in “out-of-area” questions. Just months later, NATO played a part in bombing Libya. The Libyan campaign raised traditional questions about burden-sharing and the costs of collective defense, since only eight of NATO’s twenty-eight members took part in the campaign. Germany, for instance, stayed on the sidelines. As in the past, Washington footed almost the entire bill. But Libya was different in some respects. The Europeans did assume greater responsibility in the crisis and were instrumental in pushing for an international response.

Questions of US leadership, burden-sharing within the Alliance, and NATO’s role in both European and global security continue to be major political issues, particularly after shifts in American foreign policy following the election of Donald J. Trump in 2016.

Discussion of the Literature

There is no shortage of literature on NATO or the US role in the Alliance. Historians, political scientists, journalists, and policymakers have produced thousands of works on the Alliance over the past seven decades. Few, however, have tackled a comprehensive overview of the United States and NATO. Lawrence Kaplan’s NATO and the United States, published in 1988 with an updated version released in 1994, still remains the standard survey. Its limits are clear to a contemporary audience: Kaplan opines about possible eastward expansion and what NATO’s role might be in the collapsing Yugoslav federation.13 More recent surveys have tended to focus on US–Western European relations more broadly.14

On the creation of the Atlantic Alliance, Escott Reid’s Time of Fear and Hope should be the starting point for a participant’s perspective.15 Lawrence Kaplan, the dean of NATO historians, has authored two works dedicated to the Alliance’s creation, The United States and NATO: The Formative Years and NATO 1948.16 Marc Trachtenberg’s A Constructed Peace remains the best overview of NATO’s early years, covering the period from 1945 to 1963.17 Melvyn Leffler’s A Preponderance of Power is also valuable on the creation and early years of the Alliance during Truman’s presidency.18

Ample literature is available on the 1960s and early 1970s, covering the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. Thomas Schwartz’s Lyndon Johnson and Europe and Luke Nichter’s Richard Nixon and Europe offer exceptional treatments of US policy toward Western Europe, including those relating to NATO.19 Stephan Kieninger, in Dynamic Détente, covers much of the same period as Schwartz and Nichter with a specific focus on US détente policy. NATO’s multilateral force has received considerable attention, as has the Gaullist challenge.20 Mathias Schulz and Thomas Schwartz’s edited volume The Strained Alliance is a solid starting point for many of the major NATO issues of the 1970s.21 Works by Sarah Snyder and Michael Morgan are indispensable for anything pertaining to the United States, NATO, and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.22

Scholarship on the late Cold War is much slimmer by comparison. NATO’s major challenges during the late 1970s and early 1980s—the Dual-Track Decision and the Euromissiles Crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the declaration of martial law in Poland—have received attention, though largely from the European perspective.23 There is far less literature devoted to Washington’s policies during this period and there are no detailed treatments of the Carter, Reagan, or Bush administrations’ approaches to NATO. These topics have received greater attention in recent years, with articles like Stephanie Freeman’s “The Making of an Accidental Crisis,” on the Carter administration’s thinking in the lead-up to the Dual-Track Decision, or Andrea Chiampan’s “Those European Chicken Littles” on US and allied responses to martial law in Poland.24 Undoubtedly, the continued release of archival materials in the United States and elsewhere will encourage historians to tackle this period in the near future.

Questions of access and classification—along with a general aversion to topics deemed too recent—mean that few historians have tackled NATO’s life after the Cold War. Recent years, however, have seen a lively debate on NATO expansion and the promises (made or not) to Gorbachev and Yeltsin.25 Jeffrey Engel’s When the World Seemed New highlights the Bush administration’s views of NATO and its continued importance to US policy at the Cold War’s end.26 On NATO’s expansion eastward, James Goldgeier’s Not Whether But When is the best resource.27

Primary Sources

For anyone interested in US-NATO relations, there are two natural places to begin. The first is the NATO archives. Ample material, such as final communiques and strategy reports from NATO’s first two decades, is digitized and available online. As with so many topics on US foreign relations, the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series is also an invaluable resource. Most of the material pertaining to NATO will be included in the volumes on Western Europe, though relevant records might also be found in a number of other geographic or issue-based volumes, depending on the researcher’s focus. Scholars might also consult archival holdings at the presidential libraries and from the National Archives and Records Administration’s Archives II facility, though coverage is rarely centrally located around NATO. More often than not, documents are organized by individual country or issue.

Alongside US and NATO records, researchers might also consult collections from the NATO allies (language skills permitting). Other NATO countries publish document collections similar to FRUS, such as Documents on British Policy Overseas, Akten zur Auswärtigen Politik der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, and Documents on Canadian External Relations. Beyond these published volumes, online repositories like the Digital National Security Archive and the Wilson Center’s Digital Archive have excellent material on NATO. The Wilson Center’s collection is particularly valuable for Warsaw Pact states’ perspectives of the institution during the Cold War, given the wealth of Eastern European and Soviet documents available in translation.

NATO also produced considerable documentation from its various branches and committees. Some, of course, remains classified depending on age or perceived value to national security. For those interested in the public face of the Alliance, materials like the NATO Letter and its successor, the NATO Review, are often-overlooked but valuable resources. These regular magazines feature articles written by scholars, military officials, and politicians on contemporary issues facing the Alliance.

Access to Archival Databases. This portal offers access to a number of US archival collections.

Central Intelligence Agency Electronic Reading Room. Digital copies of memoranda and assessments produced by the Central Intelligence Agency.

Department of State Virtual Reading Room. A searchable database, the collection includes Department of State memoranda and cables, as well as material from other US government agencies.

Foreign Relations of the United States. Compiled by the Office of the Historian at the Department of State, these published volumes offer rich materials on US foreign relations and can assist researchers in identifying valuable files and archival collections at the National Archives and the relevant presidential libraries.

National Security Archive. The National Security Archive has acquired a wide range of archival documents, primarily through Freedom of Information Act requests. It is a particularly valuable resource for issues relating to NATO’s nuclear debates.

NATO Archives. NATO’s portal includes digitized materials, covering a wide array of topics from the organization’s history.

Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States. This collection includes digitized versions of the Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States volumes and are text-searchable.

Wilson Center Digital Archive. The Wilson Center’s digital repository includes archival materials from across the globe with a strong emphasis on the Cold War.

Further Reading

Goldgeier, James M. Not Whether But When: The U.S. Decision to Enlarge NATO. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1999.Find this resource:

    Haftendorn, Helga. NATO and the Nuclear Revolution: A Crisis of Credibility, 1966–1967. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

      Heiss, Mary Ann, and S. Victor Papascoma, eds. NATO and the Warsaw Pact: Intra-Bloc Conflicts. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

        Kaplan, Lawrence S. NATO and the United States: The Enduring Alliance. Updated edition. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.Find this resource:

          Lundestad, Geir. The United States and Western Europe Since 1945: From “Empire” by Invitation to Transatlantic Drift. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

            Nichter, Luke A. Richard Nixon and Europe: The Reshaping of the Postwar Atlantic World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

              Sayle, Timothy Andrews. Enduring Alliance: A History of NATO and the Postwar Global Order. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019.Find this resource:

                Schmidt, Gustav, ed. A History of NATO: The First Fifty Years. 3 vols. Houndmills, U.K.: Palgrave, 2001.Find this resource:

                  Schwartz, Thomas Alan. Lyndon Johnson and Europe: In the Shadow of Vietnam. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

                    Stromseth, Jane E. The Origins of Flexible Response: NATO’s Debate over Strategy in the 1960s. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.Find this resource:

                      Trachtenberg, Marc. A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement, 1945–1963. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

                        Wampler, Robert. “Ambiguous Legacy: The United States, Great Britain, and the Foundation of NATO Strategy, 1948–1957.” PhD diss., Harvard University, 1991.Find this resource:


                          (1.) Winston Churchill, Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri, March 5, 1946. Available at

                          (2.) William I. Hitchcock, “The Marshall Plan and the Creation of the West,” in The Cambridge History of the Cold War, ed. Odd Arne Westad and Melvyn P. Leffler (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 1:155–156.

                          (3.) Anne Deighton, “Britain and the Cold War, 1945–1955,” in The Cambridge History of the Cold War, ed. Odd Arne Westad and Melvyn P. Leffler (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 1:122.

                          (4.) John Baylis, “Britain, the Brussels Pact and the Continental Commitment,” International Affairs 60, no. 4 (Autumn 1984): 619–621.

                          (5.) Marshall to Truman, “French and British Requests for Consultation on Measures to Check Extension of Communism,” March 12, 1948, Foreign Relations of the United States 1948 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1974), 3:49.

                          (6.) Since the US Constitution delegates the power to declare war to Congress, a binding article was considered unacceptable as it would impinge on congressional powers. North Atlantic Treaty, April 4, 1949.

                          (8.) Lyndon B. Johnson, The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963–1969 (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1971), 305.

                          (9.) Matthias Schulz and Thomas A. Schwartz, “The Superpower and the Union in the Making,” in The Strained Alliance: U.S.–European Relations from Nixon to Carter, ed. Thomas A. Schwartz and Matthias Schulz (Washington, DC: German Historical Institute, 2010), 360.

                          (10.) Henry Kissinger, “Text of Kissinger’s Speech at A. P. Meeting Here on U.S. Relations With Europe,” New York Times, April 24, 1973.

                          (11.) Jimmy Carter, “Situation in Iran and Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, January 8, 1980,” Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Jimmy Carter 1980–1981 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1981), 1:40.

                          (12.) Eliot A. Cohen, The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force (New York: Basic Books, 2016), 55.

                          (13.) Kaplan, NATO and the United States.

                          (15.) Escott Reid, Time of Fear and Hope: The Making of the North Atlantic Treaty, 1947–1949 (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1977).

                          (16.) Lawrence S. Kaplan, The United States and NATO: The Formative Years (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1984); and Kaplan, NATO 1948: The Birth of the Transatlantic Alliance (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007).

                          (18.) Melvyn P. Leffler, A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992).

                          (20.) On the MLF, see Andrew Priest, Kennedy, Johnson and NATO: Britain, America and the Dynamics of Alliance, 1962–68 (London: Routledge, 2012); John D. Steinbruner, The Cybernetic Theory of Decision: New Dimensions of Political Analysis (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974). On Charles de Gaulle, see, for starters, Frédéric Bozo, “Détente versus Alliance: France, the United States and the Politics of the Harmel Report (1964–1968),” Contemporary European History 7, no. 3 (1998): 343–360; James Ellison, The United States, Britain and the Transatlantic Crisis: Rising to the Gaullist Challenge, 1963–68 (Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007); and Christian Nuenlist, “Dealing with the Devil: NATO and Gaullist France, 1958–1966,” Journal of Transatlantic Studies 9, no. 3 (2011): 220–231.

                          (21.) Thomas A. Schwartz and Mathias Schulz, eds., The Strained Alliance: U.S.–European Relations from Nixon to Carter (Washington, DC: German Historical Institute, 2010).

                          (22.) Sarah B. Snyder, “The CSCE and the Atlantic Alliance: Forging a New Consensus in Madrid,” Journal of Transatlantic Studies 8, no. 1 (March 2010): 56–68; Sarah B. Snyder, “The United States, Western Europe, and the CSCE, 1972–1975,” in Schwartz and Schulz, The Strained Alliance, 257–275; Sarah B. Snyder, Human Rights Activism and the End of the Cold War: A Transnational History of the Helsinki Network (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); and Michael Cotey Morgan, “North America, Atlanticism, and the Making of the Helsinki Final Act,” in Origins of the European Security System: The Helsinki Process Revisited, 1965–75, ed. Andreas Wenger, Vojtech Mastny, and Christian Nuenlist (London: Routledge, 2008), 25–45.

                          (23.) See, for example, Leopoldo Nuti et al., eds., The Euromissile Crisis and the End of the Cold War (Washington: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2015); Leopoldo Nuti, ed., The Crisis of Détente in Europe: From Helsinki to Gorbachev, 1975–1985 (London: Routledge, 2009); and Poul Villaume and Odd Arne Westad, eds., Perforating the Iron Curtain: European Détente, Transatlantic Relations, and the Cold War, 1965–1985 (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2010).

                          (24.) Stephanie Freeman, “The Making of an Accidental Crisis: The United States and the NATO Dual-Track Decision of 1979,” Diplomacy and Statecraft 25, no. 2 (April 2014): 331–355; and Andrea Chiampan, “‘Those European Chicken Littles’: Reagan, NATO, and the Polish Crisis, 1981–2,” The International History Review 37, no. 4 (2015): 682–699.

                          (25.) Mark Kramer, “The Myth of a No-NATO-Enlargement Pledge to Russia,” Washington Quarterly (April 2009): 39–61; Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson, “Deal or No Deal? The End of the Cold War and the U.S. Offer to Limit NATO Expansion,” International Security 40, no. 4 (Spring 2016): 7–44; James Goldgeier, “Promises Made, Promises Broken? What Yeltsin was Told about NATO in 1993 and Why It Matters,”, July 12, 2016. For a critique of NATO’s decision to expand eastward, see Michael Mandelbaum, Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

                          (26.) Jeffrey A. Engel, When the World Seemed New: George H. W. Bush and the End of the Cold War (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017).

                          (27.) James M. Goldgeier, Not Whether But When: The U.S. Decision to Enlarge NATO (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1999).