NATO Celebrate's 25th Anniversary
By Jim Garamone
[On April 4, 1974, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
celebrated its 25th anniversary. What follows is an article on the birth
of NATO in 1949.]
Harry Truman was in the White House. He had just staged arguably the
biggest election upset ever in presidential politics. Junior congressmen
and future presidents John Kennedy and Richard Nixon started their second
terms. Joe Stalin was still absolute ruler of the Soviet Union.
1949, the year the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was born, was
tumultuous. Nothing ruled American and Western foreign policy as much as
the oncoming freeze of the Cold War, and NATO was just one of the
outcomes. To understand NATO and what it has come to mean, it helps to
look at the world of 1949.
After building the world's most powerful war machine for World War II,
the United States dismantled its military when the shooting stopped. The
Soviets had 10 million men under arms in Europe. The U.S. Army had about
Winston Churchill said after the war that over half of Europe was
behind an "Iron Curtain," referring to the Eastern and Central
European nations under Soviet control. The continent was in ruins and
faced economic and political chaos.
To counter the Soviet presence and threat on their eastern flank, five
Western European nations penned a defense treaty in 1948.
Within 13 months, April 1949, representatives of the original five
members, the United States and six other nations gathered in Washington to
sign a pact creating an expanded, North Atlantic alliance.
Even as the treaty ink dried, Europe was celebrating the first
anniversary of the Marshall Plan, the aid program named after Secretary of
State George C. Marshall, wartime Army chief of staff and five-star
general. The United States had presented the plan in 1947.
Western Europe embraced the Marshall Plan and was using it to feed its
millions and to rebuild its shattered infrastructure. The plan gave
Western Europeans hope. Ernest Bevin, then British foreign minister, said
it had "saved Europe."
The Soviets and their satellites spurned America's helping hand. As a
result, some of their war-damaged infrastructure would be in rubble for
another 40 years.
At home, Americans feared communist influence at home. Congress was in
the midst of investigating allegations that Alger Hiss, a senior official
in the Roosevelt administration, was a Soviet spy. On April 2, 1949, New
York Gov. Thomas Dewey signed a bill to "eliminate from the public
school system teachers and other employees who are Communists or fellow
When the Russians' Berlin blockade ended on May 12, 1949, U.S., British
and French fliers were delivering 8,000 tons of supplies daily to the
beleaguered German city. The Western allies had started the airlift, an
unprecedented lifeline for 2.5 million people, soon after the Russians
sealed off the city on June 24, 1948.
Mao Zedong [Tse-tung]'s communist forces drove the Nationalists from
mainland China to the offshore island of Formosa -- Taiwan -- in 1949.
Israel, having survived a war with its Arab neighbors, became a member of
the United Nations. The Soviets detonated an atomic bomb in September.
West Germany and East Germany became nations.
Much of what is commonplace to Americans today did not exist in 1949 or
was just being developed.
There were few computers, and experts of the day thought only a few
industries, like insurance, would find them helpful. The computers of 1949
filled whole rooms and contained thousands of glass vacuum tubes. They
could solve math problems in the lightning speed of seconds and really
complex ones in perhaps a few minutes. Vacuum tube? Think of a transistor
or microchip the size of a small light bulb -- and putting out the heat to
Most Americans got their entertainment through radio or movies, but
more than 100,000 per week were buying their first televisions. The sets
consisted of large cabinets encasing tiny screens showing fuzzy black and
white pictures. Programming was limited.
"Refrigerated air conditioning" was just starting to reach
jets were still on the drawing boards. Rocketry was interesting to the
military and not many others. Man-made satellites were theoretical.
General of the Army Dwight Eisenhower would soon be named the NATO
supreme commander, and General of the Army Douglas MacArthur was still the
"viceroy" of Japan.
Few Americans had ever heard of Korea, and Vietnam was part of an
obscure French colony in Southeast Asia. Hawaii and Alaska were still
exotic, remote U.S. territories. The flags of only four independent
nations flew in Africa; Europeans still held sway over much it and Asia.
The United Nations met in Lake Success, N.Y.
In 1949, the National Military Establishment of the United States
became the Department of Defense. The Air Force B-50 bomber Lucky Lady II
circled the globe; it refueled four times. Army privates made $75. The
enlisted ranks stopped at E-7. Ensigns and second lieutenants made
On Broadway, Americans saw the premiere of Arthur Miller's "Death
of a Salesman," which would later win the Pulitzer Prize. Humphrey
Bogart and Bette Davis were the highest paid actors in Hollywood, making
kingly thousands of dollars per picture. "The Treasure of Sierra
Madre," "The Sands of Iwo Jima" and "All the King's
Men" filled movie screens. Norman Mailer published his war novel
"The Naked and the Dead."
There were no interstate highways or freeways. Cars cost around $2,500
and the lineup included many now-defunct brands such as DeSoto,
Studebaker, Nash and Hudson. Average Americans had never heard of Toyota,
Honda or Volkswagen; the idea of driving a Japanese or German car would
have been, at once, both ridiculous and unpatriotic.
A coat cost $40. A pound of chopped meat cost a quarter.
When the 12 charter nations inked the NATO Pact, they had hopes for
deterring aggression. An attack on one, they agreed, would be an attack on
all. This was something new in diplomacy: a defensive alliance with teeth.
Fifty years later, the alliance readies to admit three more members --
nations that were on the other ideological side during the Cold War. The
alliance strives to reinvent itself with the end of the conflict. But its
main purpose was fulfilled: Europe has enjoyed its longest period of peace
in modern times.
Note: This article ("As
the World Turns: NATO's Born 1949) appears courtesy of the American Forces
Press Service. It was written on occasion of the 50th Anniversary in 1999.