Containment



The Truman Doctrine

The Truman Doctrine was an American foreign policy created to contain Soviet geopolitical spread during the Cold War, first announced to Congress by President Harry S. Truman on March 12, 1947.

Learning Objectives

Paraphrase the Truman Doctrine

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In February 1947, the British government announced that it could no longer afford to finance the Greek monarchical military regime in its civil war against communist-led insurgents.
  • The American government’s response to this announcement was the adoption of containment, a policy designed to stop the spread of communism from the Soviet Union, in this case to Greece.
  • In March 1947, Truman delivered a speech to Congress that called for the allocation of $400 million to intervene in the war and unveiled the Truman Doctrine, which framed the conflict as a contest between free peoples and totalitarian regimes.
  • Historians often use Truman’s speech to date the start of the Cold War.
  • The Truman Doctrine underpinned American Cold War policy in Europe and internationally and influenced many foreign policy decisions in the decades to come.

Key Terms

  • Truman Doctrine: An American foreign policy created to counter Soviet geopolitical spread during the Cold War, announced by Harry S. Truman to Congress in 1947.
  • containment: A military strategy to stop the expansion of an enemy, best known as the Cold War policy of the United States and its allies to prevent the spread of communism.
  • Greek Civil War: A war fought in Greece from 1946 to 1949 between the Greek government army (backed by the United Kingdom and the United States), and the Democratic Army of Greece (DSE, the military branch of the Greek Communist Party (KKE), backed by Yugoslavia and Albania as well as by Bulgaria.

Overview

The Truman Doctrine was an American foreign policy created to counter Soviet geopolitical spread during the Cold War. It was first announced to Congress by President Harry S. Truman on March 12, 1947, and further developed on July 12, 1948, when he pledged to contain Soviet threats to Greece and Turkey. American military force was usually not involved, but Congress appropriated free gifts of financial aid to support the economies and the military of Greece and Turkey. More generally, the Truman Doctrine implied American support for other nations threatened by Soviet communism. The Truman Doctrine became the foundation of American foreign policy, and led in 1949 to the formation of NATO, a military alliance that is still in effect. Historians often use Truman’s speech to date the start of the Cold War.

Truman told Congress that “it must be the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” Truman reasoned that because the totalitarian regimes coerced free peoples, they represented a threat to international peace and the national security of the United States. Truman made the plea amid the crisis of the Greek Civil War (1946–49). He argued that if Greece and Turkey did not receive the aid that they urgently needed, they would inevitably fall to communism with grave consequences throughout the region. Because Turkey and Greece were historic rivals, it was necessary to help both equally even though the threat to Greece was more immediate. Historian Eric Foner argues the Truman Doctrine “set a precedent for American assistance to anticommunist regimes throughout the world, no matter how undemocratic, and for the creation of a set of global military alliances directed against the Soviet Union.”

For years, Britain had supported Greece, but was now near bankruptcy and was forced to radically reduce its involvement. In February 1947, Britain formally requested for the United States to take over its role in supporting the Greeks and their government. The policy won the support of Republicans who controlled Congress and involved sending $400 million in American money but no military forces to the region. The effect was to end the communist threat, and in 1952, both Greece and Turkey joined NATO, a military alliance, to guarantee their protection.

The Truman Doctrine was informally extended to become the basis of American Cold War policy throughout Europe and around the world. It shifted American foreign policy toward the Soviet Union from détente (a relaxation of tension) to a policy of containment of Soviet expansion as advocated by diplomat George Kennan. It was distinguished from rollback by implicitly tolerating the previous Soviet takeovers in Eastern Europe.

Background: Greek Crisis

The Greek Civil War was fought in Greece from 1946 to 1949 between the Greek government army (backed by the United Kingdom and the United States), and the Democratic Army of Greece (DSE, the military branch of the Greek Communist Party (KKE), backed by Yugoslavia and Albania as well as by Bulgaria. The fighting resulted in the defeat of the Communist insurgents by the government forces.

In the second stage of the civil war in December 1944, the British helped prevent the seizure of Athens by the Greek Communist Party (KKE). In the third phase (1946–49), guerrilla forces controlled by the KKE fought against the internationally recognized Greek government which was formed after 1946 elections boycotted by the KKE. At this point, the British realized that the Greek leftists were being directly funded by Josip Broz Tito in neighboring Yugoslavia; the Greek communists received little help directly from the Soviet Union, while Yugoslavia provided support and sanctuary. By late 1946, Britain informed the United States that due to its own weakening economy, it could no longer continue to provide military and economic support to Greece.

In 1946–47, the United States and the Soviet Union moved from wartime allies to Cold War adversaries. Soviet imperialism in Eastern Europe, its delayed withdrawal from Iran, and the breakdown of Allied cooperation in Germany provided a backdrop of escalating tensions for the Truman Doctrine. To Harry S. Truman, the growing unrest in Greece began to look like a pincer movement against the oil-rich areas of the Middle East and the warm-water ports of the Mediterranean.

In February 1946, George Kennan, an American diplomat in Moscow, sent his famed “Long Telegram,” which predicted the Soviets would only respond to force and that the best way to handle them was through a long-term strategy of containment by stopping their geographical expansion. After the British warned that they could no longer help Greece and Prime Minister Konstantinos Tsaldaris’s visit to Washington in December 1946 to ask for American assistance, the U.S. State Department formulated a plan. Aid would be given to both Greece and Turkey to help cool the long-standing rivalry between them.

American policymakers recognized the instability of the region, fearing that if Greece was lost to communism, Turkey would not last long. If Turkey yielded to Soviet demands, the position of Greece would be endangered. Fear of this regional domino effect threat guided the American decision. Greece and Turkey were strategic allies for geographical reasons as well, as the fall of Greece would put the Soviets on a dangerous flank for the Turks and strengthen the Soviet Union’s ability to cut off allied supply lines in the event of war.

Long-Term Policy and Metaphor

The Truman Doctrine underpinned American Cold War policy in Europe and around the world. In the words of historian James T. Patterson, “The Truman Doctrine was a highly publicized commitment of a sort the administration had not previously undertaken. Its sweeping rhetoric, promising that the United States should aid all ‘free people’ being subjugated, set the stage for innumerable later ventures that led to globalistic commitments. It was in these ways a major step.”

The doctrine endured, historian Dennis Merill argues, because it addressed a broader cultural insecurity about modern life in a globalized world. It dealt with Washington’s concern over communism’s domino effect, it enabled a media-sensitive presentation of the doctrine that won bipartisan support, and it mobilized American economic power to modernize and stabilize unstable regions without direct military intervention. It brought nation-building activities and modernization programs to the forefront of foreign policy.

The Truman Doctrine became a metaphor for emergency aid to keep a nation from communist influence. Truman used disease imagery not only to communicate a sense of impending disaster in the spread of communism but also to create a “rhetorical vision” of containing it by extending a protective shield around non-communist countries throughout the world. It echoed the “quarantine the aggressor” policy Truman’s predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, sought to impose to contain German and Japanese expansion in 1937. The medical metaphor extended beyond the immediate aims of the Truman Doctrine in that the imagery combined with fire and flood imagery evocative of disaster provided the United States with an easy transition to direct military confrontation in later years with communist forces in Korea and Vietnam. By ideological differences in life or death terms, Truman was able to garner support for this communism-containing policy.

A photo of President Truman in front of several microphones giving a speech.

Truman Doctrine: On March 12, 1947, President Harry S. Truman appeared before a joint session of Congress and laid out his vision on containment which came to be known as the Truman Doctrine.

The Marshall Plan and Molotov Plan

In June 1947, in accordance with the Truman Doctrine, the United States enacted the Marshall Plan. This was a pledge of economic assistance for all European countries willing to participate, including the Soviet Union, who refused and created their own Molotov plan for the Eastern Bloc.

Learning Objectives

Distinguish between the Marshall Plan and the Molotov Plan

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In early 1947, Britain, France, and the United States unsuccessfully attempted to reach an agreement with the Soviet Union for a plan envisioning an economically self-sufficient Germany.
  • In June 1947, in accordance with the Truman Doctrine, the United States enacted the Marshall Plan, a pledge of economic assistance for all European countries willing to participate, including the Soviet Union.
  • The years 1948 to 1952 saw the fastest period of growth in European history; industrial production increased by 35%, some of which has been attributed to the Marshall Plan aid.
  • The Soviet Union refused the aid because Stalin believed that economic integration with the West would allow Eastern Bloc countries to escape Soviet control.
  • In response, the Soviet Union created the Molotov Plan, later expanded into the COMECON, a system of bilateral trade agreements and an economic alliance between socialist countries in the Eastern Bloc.

Key Terms

  • National Security Act of 1947: A bill that brought about a major restructuring of the United States government’s military and intelligence agencies following World War; it established the National Security Council, a central place of coordination for national security policy in the executive branch, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the U.S.’s first peacetime intelligence agency
  • Marshall Plan: An American initiative to aid Western Europe in which the United States gave more than $12 billion in economic support to help rebuild Western European economies after the end of World War II.
  • Molotov Plan: The system created by the Soviet Union in 1947 to provide aid to rebuild the countries in Eastern Europe that were politically and economically aligned to the Soviet Union.

Overview

In early 1947, Britain, France, and the United States unsuccessfully attempted to reach an agreement with the Soviet Union for an economically self-sufficient Germany, including a detailed accounting of the industrial plants, goods, and infrastructure already removed by the Soviets. In June 1947, in accordance with the Truman Doctrine, the United States enacted the Marshall Plan, a pledge of economic assistance for all European countries willing to participate, including the Soviet Union.

The plan’s aim was to rebuild the democratic and economic systems of Europe and counter perceived threats to Europe’s balance of power, such as communist parties seizing control through revolutions or elections. The plan also stated that European prosperity was contingent upon German economic recovery. One month later, Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947, creating a unified Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the National Security Council (NSC). These would become the main bureaucracies for U.S. policy in the Cold War.

Stalin believed that economic integration with the West would allow Eastern Bloc countries to escape Soviet control, and that the U.S. was trying to buy a pro-U.S. realignment of Europe. Stalin therefore prevented Eastern Bloc nations from receiving Marshall Plan aid. The Soviet Union’s alternative to the Marshall plan, purported to involve Soviet subsidies and trade with central and eastern Europe, became known as the Molotov Plan (later institutionalized in January 1949 as the COMECON). Stalin was also fearful of a reconstituted Germany; his vision of a post-war Germany did not include the ability to rearm or pose any kind of threat to the Soviet Union.

In early 1948, following reports of strengthening “reactionary elements”, Soviet operatives executed a coup d’état in Czechoslovakia, the only Eastern Bloc state that the Soviets had permitted to retain democratic structures. The public brutality of the coup shocked Western powers and set in a motion a brief scare that swept away the last vestiges of opposition to the Marshall Plan in the United States Congress.

The twin policies of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan led to billions in economic and military aid for Western Europe, Greece, and Turkey. With U.S. assistance, the Greek military won its civil war. Under the leadership of Alcide De Gasperi the Italian Christian Democrats defeated the powerful Communist-Socialist alliance in the elections of 1948. At the same time, there was increased intelligence and espionage activity, Eastern Bloc defections, and diplomatic expulsions.

Marshall Plan

The Marshall Plan (officially the European Recovery Program, ERP) was an American initiative to aid Western Europe, in which the United States gave over $12 billion (approximately $120 billion in value as of June 2016) in economic support to help rebuild Western European economies after the end of World War II. The plan was in operation for four years beginning April 8, 1948. The goals of the United States were to rebuild war-devastated regions, remove trade barriers, modernize industry, make Europe prosperous again, and prevent the spread of communism. The Marshall Plan required a lessening of interstate barriers, saw a decrease in regulations, and encouraged an increase in productivity, labor union membership, and the adoption of modern business procedures.

The Marshall Plan aid was divided among the participant states on a per capita basis. A larger amount was given to the major industrial powers, as the prevailing opinion was that their resuscitation was essential for general European revival. Somewhat more aid per capita was also directed towards the Allied nations, with less for those that had been part of the Axis or remained neutral. The largest recipient of Marshall Plan money was the United Kingdom (receiving about 26% of the total), followed by France (18%) and West Germany (11%). Some 18 European countries received Plan benefits. Although offered participation, the Soviet Union refused Plan benefits and blocked benefits to Eastern Bloc countries such as East Germany and Poland.

The years 1948 to 1952 saw the fastest period of growth in European history. Industrial production increased by 35%. Agricultural production substantially surpassed pre-war levels. The poverty and starvation of the immediate postwar years disappeared, and Western Europe embarked upon an unprecedented two decades of growth during which standards of living increased dramatically. There is some debate among historians over how much this should be credited to the Marshall Plan. Most reject the idea that it alone miraculously revived Europe, as evidence shows that a general recovery was already underway. Most believe that the Marshall Plan sped this recovery but did not initiate it. Many argue that the structural adjustments that it forced were of great importance.

The political effects of the Marshall Plan may have been just as important as the economic ones. Marshall Plan aid allowed the nations of Western Europe to relax austerity measures and rationing, reducing discontent and bringing political stability. The communist influence on Western Europe was greatly reduced, and throughout the region communist parties faded in popularity in the years after the Marshall Plan.

An image of a Cold War era poster in support of the Marshall Plan. It depicts a weather vane, each blade of which is a European nation's flag, with the American flag being the tail that orients the direction of the vane.

Marshall Plan: One of a number of posters created to promote the Marshall Plan in Europe. Note the pivotal position of the American flag.

Molotov Plan

The Molotov Plan was the system created by the Soviet Union in 1947 to provide aid to rebuild the countries in Eastern Europe that were politically and economically aligned with the Soviet Union. It can be seen as the USSR’s version of the Marshall Plan, which for political reasons the Eastern European countries would not be able to join without leaving the Soviet sphere of influence. Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov rejected the Marshall Plan (1947), proposing the Molotov Plan – the Soviet-sponsored economic grouping which was eventually expanded to become the COMECON. The Molotov plan was symbolic of the Soviet Union’s refusal to accept aid from the Marshall Plan or allow any of their satellite states to do so because of their belief that the Plan was an attempt to weaken Soviet interest in their satellite states through the conditions imposed and by making beneficiary countries economically dependent on the United States.

The plan was a system of bilateral trade agreements that established COMECON to create an economic alliance of socialist countries. This aid allowed countries in Europe to stop relying on American aid, and therefore allowed Molotov Plan states to reorganize their trade to the USSR instead. The plan was in some ways contradictory, however, because at the same time the Soviets were giving aid to Eastern bloc countries, they were demanding that countries who were members of the Axis powers pay reparations to the USSR.

The Berlin Blockade

In June 1948, Stalin instituted the Berlin Blockade, one of the first major crises of the Cold War, preventing food, materials, and supplies from arriving in West Berlin. The United States and several other countries responded with the massive “Berlin airlift,” supplying West Berlin with food and other provisions.

Learning Objectives

Review the reasons for the Berlin Blockade

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • As part of the economic rebuilding of Germany, in early 1948 representatives of a number of Western European governments and the United States announced an agreement for a merger of western German areas into a federal governmental system.
  • In addition, in accordance with the Marshall Plan, they began to reindustrialize and rebuild the German economy, including the introduction of a new Deutsche Mark currency to replace the old Reichsmark currency the Soviets had debased.
  • Shortly thereafter, Stalin instituted the Berlin Blockade (June 24, 1948 – May 12, 1949), one of the first major crises of the Cold War, preventing food, materials and supplies from arriving in West Berlin.
  • The United States, Britain, France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and several other countries began the massive ” Berlin airlift “, supplying West Berlin with food and other provisions.
  • By the end of August, after two months the Airlift was succeeding; daily operations flew more than 1,500 flights a day and delivered more than 4,500 tons of cargo, enough to keep West Berlin supplied.
  • In May 1949, Stalin backed down and lifted the blockade.

Key Terms

  • Potsdam Agreement: The 1945 agreement between three of the Allies of World War II, United Kingdom, United States, and USSR, for the military occupation and reconstruction of Germany. It included Germany’s demilitarization, reparations, and the prosecution of war criminals.
  • Berlin airlift: In response to the Berlin Blockade, the Western Allies organized this project to carry supplies to the people of West Berlin by air.

Overview

The Berlin Blockade (June 24, 1948 – May 12, 1949) was one of the first major international crises of the Cold War. During the multinational occupation of post–World War II Germany, the Soviet Union blocked the Western Allies’ railway, road, and canal access to the sectors of Berlin under Western control. The Soviets offered to drop the blockade if the Western Allies withdrew the newly introduced Deutsche mark from West Berlin.

In response, the Western Allies organized the Berlin airlift to carry supplies to the people of West Berlin, a difficult feat given the city’s population. Aircrews from the United States Air Force, the British Royal Air Force, the Royal Canadian Air Force, the Royal Australian Air Force, the Royal New Zealand Air Force, and the South African Air Force flew over 200,000 flights in one year, providing the West Berliners up to 8,893 tons of necessities each day, such as fuel and food. The Soviets did not disrupt the airlift for fear this might lead to open conflict.

By the spring of 1949, the airlift was clearly succeeding, and by April it was delivering more cargo than was previously transported into the city by rail. On May 12, 1949, the USSR lifted the blockade of West Berlin. The Berlin Blockade highlighted the competing ideological and economic visions for postwar Europe.

Background

From July 17 to August 2, 1945, the victorious Allied Powers reached the Potsdam Agreement on the fate of postwar Europe, calling for the division of defeated Germany into four temporary occupation zones (thus reaffirming principles laid out earlier by the Yalta Conference). These zones were located roughly around the then-current locations of the Allied armies. Also divided into occupation zones, Berlin was located 100 miles inside Soviet-controlled eastern Germany. The United States, United Kingdom, and France controlled western portions of the city, while Soviet troops controlled the eastern sector.

In a June 1945 meeting, Stalin informed German communist leaders that he expected to slowly undermine the British position within their occupation zone, that the United States would withdraw within a year or two, and that nothing would then stand in the way of a united Germany under communist control within the Soviet orbit. Stalin and other leaders told visiting Bulgarian and Yugoslavian delegations in early 1946 that Germany must be both Soviet and communist.

Creation of an economically stable western Germany required reform of the unstable Reichsmark German currency introduced after the 1920s German inflation. The Soviets had debased the Reichsmark by excessive printing, resulting in Germans using cigarettes as a de facto currency or for bartering. The Soviets opposed western plans for a reform. They interpreted this new currency as an unjustified, unilateral decision.

On June 18, the United States, Britain, and France announced that on June 21 the Deutsche Mark would be introduced, but the Soviets refused to permit its use as legal tender in Berlin. The Allies had already transported 2.5 million Deutsche Marks into the city and it quickly became the standard currency in all four sectors. Against the wishes of the Soviets, the new currency, along with the Marshall Plan that backed it, appeared to have the potential to revitalize Germany. Stalin looked to force the Western nations to abandon Berlin.

The Blockade

The day after the June 18, 1948 announcement of the new Deutsche Mark, Soviet guards halted all passenger trains and traffic on the autobahn to Berlin, delayed Western and German freight shipments, and required that all water transport secure special Soviet permission. On June 21, the day the Deutsche Mark was introduced, the Soviet military halted a United States military supply train to Berlin and sent it back to western Germany. On June 22, the Soviets announced that they would introduce a new currency in their zone.

On June 24, the Soviets severed land and water connections between the non-Soviet zones and Berlin. That same day, they halted all rail and barge traffic in and out of Berlin. On June 25, the Soviets stopped supplying food to the civilian population in the non-Soviet sectors of Berlin. Motor traffic from Berlin to the western zones was permitted, but this required a 14.3-mile detour to a ferry crossing because of alleged “repairs” to a bridge. They also cut off Berlin’s electricity using their control over the generating plants in the Soviet zone.

At the time, West Berlin had 36 days’ worth of food, and 45 days’ worth of coal. Militarily, the Americans and British were greatly outnumbered because of the postwar reduction in their armies. The United States, like other western countries, had disbanded most of its troops and was largely inferior in the European theater. The entire United States Army was reduced to 552,000 men by February 1948. Military forces in the western sectors of Berlin numbered only 8,973 Americans, 7,606 British, and 6,100 French. Soviet military forces in the Soviet sector that surrounded Berlin totaled 1.5 million. The two United States regiments in Berlin could have provided little resistance against a Soviet attack. Believing that Britain, France, and the United States had little option than to acquiesce, the Soviet Military Administration in Germany celebrated the beginning of the blockade.

Berlin Airlift

Although the ground routes were never negotiated, the same was not true of the air. On November 30, 1945, it was agreed in writing that there would be three 20-mile-wide air corridors providing free access to Berlin. Additionally, unlike a force of tanks and trucks, the Soviets could not claim that cargo aircraft were some sort of military threat. In the face of unarmed aircraft refusing to turn around, the only way to enforce the blockade would have been to shoot them down. An airlift would force the Soviet Union to either shoot down unarmed humanitarian aircraft, thus breaking their own agreements, or back down.

Enforcing this would require an airlift that really worked. If the supplies could not be flown in fast enough, Soviet help would eventually be needed to prevent starvation. The American military government, based on a minimum daily ration of 1,990 calories, set a total of daily supplies at 646 tons of flour and wheat, 125 tons of cereal, 64 tons of fat, 109 tons of meat and fish, 180 tons of dehydrated potatoes, 180 tons of sugar, 11 tons of coffee, 19 tons of powdered milk, 5 tons of whole milk for children, 3 tons of fresh yeast for baking, 144 tons of dehydrated vegetables, 38 tons of salt, and 10 tons of cheese. In all, 1,534 tons were required each day to sustain the more than two million people of Berlin. Additionally, for heat and power, 3,475 tons of coal and gasoline were also required daily.

During the first week, the airlift averaged only ninety tons a day, but by the second week it reached 1,000 tons. This likely would have sufficed had the effort lasted only a few weeks as originally believed. The Communist press in East Berlin ridiculed the project. It derisively referred to “the futile attempts of the Americans to save face and to maintain their untenable position in Berlin.”

But by the end of August, after two months, the Airlift was succeeding; daily operations flew more than 1,500 flights a day and delivered more than 4,500 tons of cargo, enough to keep West Berlin supplied.

As the tempo of the Airlift grew, it became apparent that the Western powers might be able to pull off the impossible: indefinitely supplying an entire city by air alone. In response, starting on August 1, the Soviets offered free food to anyone who crossed into East Berlin and registered their ration cards there, but West Berliners overwhelmingly rejected Soviet offers of food.

The Soviets had an advantage in conventional military forces, but were preoccupied with rebuilding their war-torn economy and society. The U.S. had a stronger navy and air force as well as nuclear weapons. Neither side wanted a war; the Soviets did not disrupt the airlift.

Photo of a group of people watching a plane land during the Berlin airlift.

Berlin Airlift: Berliners watch a Douglas C-54 Skymaster land at Tempelhof Airport, 1948

End of the Blockade

On April 15, 1949 the Russian news agency TASS reported a willingness by the Soviets to lift the blockade. The next day the U.S. State Department stated the “way appears clear” for the blockade to end. Soon afterwards, the four powers began serious negotiations, and a settlement was reached on Western terms. On May 4, 1949, the Allies announced an agreement to end the blockade in eight days’ time.

Berlin Airlift Monument in Berlin-Tempelhof displays the names of the 39 British and 31 American airmen who lost their lives during the operation. Similar monuments can be found at the military airfield of Wietzenbruch near the former RAF Celle and at Rhein-Main Air Base.

The Soviet blockade of Berlin was lifted at one minute after midnight on May 12,, 1949. A British convoy immediately drove through to Berlin, and the first train from West Germany reached Berlin at 5:32 a.m. Later that day an enormous crowd celebrated the end of the blockade. General Clay, whose retirement had been announced by US President Truman on May 3, was saluted by 11,000 US soldiers and dozens of aircraft. Once home, Clay received a ticker-tape parade in New York City, was invited to address the US Congress, and was honored with a medal from President Truman.

NATO and the Warsaw Pact

Britain, France, the United States, Canada, and eight other western European countries established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. In 1955, the Soviet Union responded by created the Warsaw Pact.

Learning Objectives

Compare the two networks established by NATO and the Warsaw Pact

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Treaty of Brussels was signed on March 17, 1948 between Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, as an expansion to the preceding year’s defense pledge, the Dunkirk Treaty signed between Britain and France; it is considered a precursor to NATO.
  • The North Atlantic Treaty was signed in Washington, D.C. on April 4, 1949, thereby establishing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a mutual defense treaty between 12 nations.
  • NATO was little more than a political association until the Korean War (1950-1953) galvanized the organization’s member states.
  • In 1954, the Soviet Union suggested it should join NATO to preserve peace in Europe, but the NATO countries, fearful that the Soviet Union’s motive was to weaken the alliance, ultimately rejected this proposal.
  • The Warsaw Pact was created in reaction to the integration of West Germany into NATO in 1955 and represented a Soviet counterweight to NATO, composed of the Soviet Union and seven other Soviet satellite states in Central and Eastern Europe.
  • For 36 years, NATO and the Warsaw Pact never directly waged war against each other in Europe; the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies implemented strategic policies aimed at the containment of each other in Europe while working and fighting for influence within the wider Cold War on the international stage.

Key Terms

  • Treaty of Brussels: A treaty signed on March 17, 1948, between Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom as an expansion to the preceding year’s defense pledge, the Dunkirk Treaty signed between Britain and France; a mutual defense treaty.
  • 1948 Czechoslovak coup d’état: An event in February 1948 in which the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, with Soviet backing, assumed undisputed control over the government of Czechoslovakia, marking the onset of four decades of Communist dictatorship in the country.
  • North Atlantic Treaty: A mutual defense treaty signed in Washington on April 4, 1949 that established NATO.

NATO

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is an intergovernmental military alliance based on the North Atlantic Treaty signed on April 4, 1949. The organization constitutes a system of collective defense whereby its member states agree to mutual defense in response to an attack by any external party.

NATO was little more than a political association until the Korean War galvanized the organization’s member states and an integrated military structure was built up under the direction of two U.S. supreme commanders. The course of the Cold War led to a rivalry with nations of the Warsaw Pact, which formed in 1955. Doubts over the strength of the relationship between the European states and the United States ebbed and flowed, along with doubts over the credibility of the NATO defense against a prospective Soviet invasion—doubts that led to the development of the independent French nuclear deterrent and the withdrawal of France from NATO’s military structure in 1966 for 30 years.

The Treaty of Brussels, signed on March 17, 1948 by Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, and the United Kingdom, is considered the precursor to the NATO agreement. The treaty and the Soviet Berlin Blockade led to the creation of the Western European Union’s Defense Organization in September 1948. However, participation of the United States was thought necessary both to counter the military power of the USSR and prevent the revival of nationalist militarism. In addition, the 1948 Czechoslovak coup d’état by the Communists had overthrown a democratic government and British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin reiterated that the best way to prevent another Czechoslovakia was to evolve a joint Western military strategy.

In 1948, European leaders met with U.S. defense, military, and diplomatic officials at the Pentagon under U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall’s orders, exploring a framework for a new and unprecedented association. Talks for a new military alliance resulted in the North Atlantic Treaty, signed in Washington, D.C. on April 4, 1949. It included the five Treaty of Brussels states plus the United States, Canada, Portugal, Italy, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland. The first NATO Secretary General, Lord Ismay, stated in 1949 that the organization’s goal was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”

The members agreed that an armed attack against any one of them in Europe or North America would be considered an attack against them all. Consequently, they agreed that if an armed attack occurred, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense, would assist the member being attacked, taking such action as it deemed necessary including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area. The treaty does not require members to respond with military action against an aggressor. Although obliged to respond, they maintain the freedom to choose the method by which they do so.

The outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 was crucial for NATO as it raised the apparent threat of all Communist countries working together and forced the alliance to develop concrete military plans. Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) was formed to direct forces in Europe and began work under Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower in January 1951. In September 1950, the NATO Military Committee called for an ambitious buildup of conventional forces to meet the Soviets, subsequently reaffirming this position at the February 1952 meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Lisbon.

In 1954, the Soviet Union suggested that it should join NATO to preserve peace in Europe. The NATO countries, fearing that the Soviet Union’s motive was to weaken the alliance, ultimately rejected this proposal.

The incorporation of West Germany into the organization on May 9, 1955 was described as “a decisive turning point in the history of our continent” by Halvard Lange, Foreign Affairs Minister of Norway at the time. A major reason for Germany’s entry into the alliance was that without German manpower, it would have been impossible to field enough conventional forces to resist a Soviet invasion. One of its immediate results was the creation of the Warsaw Pact, signed on May 14, 1955 by the Soviet Union, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, and East Germany as a formal response to this event, thereby delineating the two opposing sides of the Cold War.

Photo of U.S. President Harry S. Truman signing the North Atlantic Treaty seated at the desk in the Oval Office with eleven men standing behind him.

North Atlantic Treaty: The North Atlantic Treaty was signed in Washington, D.C., on April 4, 1949 and was ratified by the United States that August.

The Warsaw Pact

The Warsaw Pact, formally the Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation, and Mutual Assistance, was a collective defense treaty among the Soviet Union and seven other Soviet satellite states in Central and Eastern Europe during the Cold War. The Warsaw Pact was the military complement to the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CoMEcon), the regional economic organization for the communist states of Central and Eastern Europe. The Warsaw Pact was created in reaction to the integration of West Germany into NATO in 1955 per the Paris Pacts of 1954, but it is also considered to have been motivated by Soviet desires to maintain control over military forces in Central and Eastern Europe.

The Soviets wanted to keep their part of Europe and not let the Americans take it from them. Ideologically, the Soviet Union arrogated the right to define socialism and communism and act as the leader of the global socialist movement. A corollary to this idea was the necessity of intervention if a country appeared to be violating core socialist ideas and Communist Party functions, which was explicitly stated in the Brezhnev Doctrine. Geostrategic principles also drove the Soviet Union to prevent invasion of its territory by Western European powers.

The eight member countries of the Warsaw Pact pledged the mutual defense of any member who was attacked. Relations among the treaty signatories were based upon mutual non-intervention in the internal affairs of the member countries, respect for national sovereignty, and political independence. However, almost all governments of those member states were indirectly controlled by the Soviet Union.

While the Warsaw Pact was established as a balance of power or counterweight to NATO, there was no direct confrontation between them. Instead, the conflict was fought on an ideological basis. Both NATO and the Warsaw Pact led to the expansion of military forces and their integration into the respective blocs. Its largest military engagement was the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia (with the participation of all Pact nations except Romania).