In 1949, Harry Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson convinced Congress that the United States should join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Here was a treaty ostensibly designed to counter Soviet aggression. Paul Henri Spaak, premier of Belgium, a founding NATO member, argued, “[The] new pact is purely defensive; it is directed against no one.” However, this treaty made America a party to almost any dispute in a large part of the industrialized world. It also set the precedent for America to assume the role the British Empire had had in the 19th century.
Article 5 of the NATO treaty ended any pretense of continuing the noninterventionist tradition of George Washington. It specified that
an armed attack against any one or more of [the members] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually or in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.
But NATO was more than a defensive alliance. It would actually expand the Truman Doctrine policy of meddling in other countries. It began with a dozen countries and has been recently expanded to include nations at Russia’s doorstep. It marked a signal change in American foreign policy.
Unending and unneeded
Once NATO’s alliance system was established, it could seemingly never be ended. It could only be expanded. That system matched the development of the modern income tax, which one libertarian journalist, writing in the book The Income Tax: Root of All Evil, argued was essential to big government: the modern warfare/welfare state could never have been built without the huge amount of money the income tax raised and the fear it created.
By the early 1960s writer Edmund Wilson, in The Cold War and the Income Tax: A Protest, would complain that Americans, in the grip of Cold War policies and financing, were losing their freedoms. “The truth is the people of the United States are at the present time dominated and driven by two kinds of officially propagated fear: fear of the Soviet Union and fear of the income tax.”
The federal government was driven to collect more and more taxes to support the alliance system that began in 1949. Once NATO set the precedent for an imperial American foreign policy, there was no going back. There was never any serious discussion of the system — whether or not it was realistic or moral for the United States to have military alliances throughout the world. America just kept adding more imperial commitments as Americans paid more and more in taxes.
Indeed, by 2011 freshman U.S. Sen. Rand Paul would note that “today America has troops in over 100 countries and 750 bases around the globe.”
NATO’s founding was a legal coup de grâce administered to what remained of America’s anti-militarist/isolationist tradition. That was a tradition respected and followed by many of Truman’s distant predecessors. But it was spurned by all of his successors.
“The epoch of isolationism and occasional interventionism is ended. It is now being replaced by an epoch of American responsibility,” Acheson said, as quoted in David S. McLellan’s Dean Acheson: The State Department Years.
Yet American presidents from Washington to Jefferson to John Quincy Adams and after had traditionally avoided military alliances. They feared that alliances would lead to needless wars. America, in an alliance, would have to prop up and support various allied nations, critics warned. If she entered into a permanent alliance, she would be a party to European disputes that had nothing to do with her, George Washington had argued in his Farewell Address.
The irony of NATO was that it came just as Europeans were making their own security arrangements. Of course many of them still liked the idea of getting the United States involved. But getting America deeply involved in the problems of Europe and elsewhere was one of the results of NATO. Indeed, some Europeans publicly hoped for it.
The goal of NATO, said Lord Ismay, NATO’s first secretary general, was “to the keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Many European nations then and now also liked having their defense bills paid by Americans.
Today many NATO members have let their armed forces run down. They are secure in the belief that young Americans will always be ready to shed blood in their behalf.
As I was finishing this series the United States and its NATO allies were debating their commitments in the Libyan war. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, in a recent speech quoted in the Wall Street Journal, complained, “While every alliance member voted for the Libyan mission, less than half have participated, and fewer than a third have been willing to participate.”
Gates, contending that the problem is that most NATO members aren’t living up to their treaty obligations, noted America was paying 75 percent of the costs of the Libyan operation. But in the 1940s European nations such as Britain, France, and Belgium had been prepared for America to return to its traditional no-alliance policy. They had been ready to pay their own defense bills.
For instance, the Treaty of Dunkirk, a mutual-assistance treaty between France and the United Kingdom, was signed in 1947. A year later the Treaty of Brussels added Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg to the alliance. Postwar Europe was addressing its own security problem.
Those treaties were signed, in part, to counter potential German as well as Soviet threats. But the year after, in 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany was created. One can assume that the Germans eventually could have also joined a European alliance system without the need for an American alliance.
That is one reason that George Kennan argued that NATO was not needed. He also believed that if the Americans added their military power to that of the Europeans as part of a formal alliance, the Soviets and their Eastern European allies would do the same.
The Soviets did so in the Warsaw Pact of 1955, a military alliance of eight communist states. Europe, Kennan feared, would become an armed camp. Indeed, the Soviets’ reaction to NATO was to call it a “weapon of an aggressive Anglo-America bloc in Europe,” according to D.F. Fleming’s Cold War and Its Origins, 1917–1950.
But the NATO alliance system also had domestic implications. The United States, as the most powerful nation to emerge from World War II, would transform itself as it became a part of a new alliance system. It was wedded to an imperial system that made Congress all but irrelevant in matters of war and peace. (This “imperial presidency” issue will be explored in the next segment.)
The new system required permanently high defense budgets. But the danger was more than a lot of new debt that might eventually bankrupt the United States, as it had nearly done to the British by 1945. The effect of a military-industrial complex would transform American culture and society. It would change the way American politicians viewed each other and the world in the McCarthy period of the early 1950s.
NATO was a breakthrough alliance that spawned countless others. It also led the United States to build up a system of bases around the world, often in places where American military personnel were not wanted. It was a kind of empire, Chalmers Johnson noted in The Sorrows of Empire, one in which the stereotypical “ugly American” made enemies in countries he was supposed to be protecting. And the business of protecting other nations, Johnson noted, became expensive.
A permanent warfare state
Once NATO was approved, there was also no end of military assistance programs for various NATO members. Isolationists such as Robert Taft, one of 13 senators to vote against NATO, warned that the alliance could draw Americans into the wars of NATO members. For example, the French expected that NATO would include parts of the French Empire.
And indeed, as we have previously seen in this series, the United States became deeply involved in the French Empire. The United States paid a large part of the bills in France’s futile efforts in the 1940s and 1950s to hold on to its colonies in Indo-China. But NATO would go beyond that. Indeed, Article 6 of the treaty NATO includes “the Algerian Departments of France.”
NATO critics warned that the treaty would also mean the American taxpayer was on the hook for countless military-assistance programs to help U.S. allies. And they were.
The inclusion of Article 3 of the NATO treaty also demonstrated that the United States would be more than an ally; it would help pay for the armed forces of all NATO members:
“In order more effectively to achieve the objectives of this Treaty, the Parties, separately and jointly, by means of continuous and effective self-help and mutual aid, will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack,” according to Article 3.
This, says a Taft biographer, was too much for the senator, who had grappled with the issue before voting no. He complained bitterly after the adoption of NATO that there would be no end of aid and interference in other countries, friend or foe.
“Today we have quietly adopted a tendency to interfere in the affairs of other nations, to assume that we are a kind of demigod and Santa Claus to solve the problems of the world,” he said, according to James T. Patterson’s Mr. Republican: A Biography of Robert Taft.
“It is easy,” Taft also warned, “to slip into an attitude of imperialism where war becomes an instrument of national policy rather than its last resort.” He also warned that the alliance was open-ended. “It obligates us to go to war if at any time during the next twenty years anyone makes an armed attack on any of the twelve nations.”
NATO and other implied presidential powers would also allow the president to take the country to war without the consent of Congress, Taft predicted. That was a brilliant insight that would become a reality one year later with the outbreak of the Korean War. Ignoring or minimizing Congress is precisely what Truman would do in Korea and what other presidents would do in countless other wars.
Taft, along with Kennan, also questioned whether the Soviet Union was a worldwide threat. NATO, he warned, might lead the Soviets to become paranoid as the United States and its alliance members surrounded her.
Thus, “instead of being a deterrent to war, [the alliance] might become an incitement to war, and make it more probable instead of less,” Taft cautioned.
NATO did more than change the way America viewed the world. It also dramatically changed how Americans viewed presidents and how they interacted under the Constitution with Congress. NATO was one of the key factors in helping America mutate from a republic into an empire, one that would be headed by an imperial president.
This article originally appeared in the January 2012 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of The Future of Freedom Foundatin’s monthly journal, Future of Freedom (previously called Freedom Daily).