Twenty years ago today, the first major post–Cold War expansion of NATO took place in an unlikely locale: Independence, Missouri. The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland officially entered NATO in a ceremony at the Truman Library organized by the U.S. Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, herself a refugee from Czechoslovakia. She had arranged for the accession ceremony to take place at the Missouri site to honor the president on whose watch the alliance had formed fifty years earlier. The foreign ministers of the new member-states got a ride to Missouri on the secretary’s plane and, while in flight, the Polish foreign minister, Bronislaw Geremek, expressed his gratitude to Albright. He told her that NATO enlargement was “the most important event that has happened to Poland since the onset of Christianity.”
Today historians hotly contest the matter of when, exactly, the idea arose to include central and eastern Europe in NATO. The timing is of more than academic interest, because Moscow’s grievance about when the West decided to make allies out of the countries in the region remains a hot-button issue in U.S.-Russian relations to this day. Some scholars have dismissed the notion that the issue arose soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall at the end of 1989, saying it only came up much later, in the nineties. But evidence now available—including documents that I have gotten declassified from the George H. W. Bush Library and, most recently, the Clinton Presidential Library—shows that speculation about the role of the alliance in central Europe began early in the year 1990 among top policymakers. The evidence also shows that in the early to mid-nineties, the Czechs, the Hungarians, and above all the Poles campaigned vocally for accession, particularly after the Clinton team came into office.
Given that the debate over NATO expansion often focuses on U.S.-Russian relations, it’s worth pausing over the importance of these countries’ own actions and wishes over the full
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