SINCE the Geneva "summit" conference, questions have been raised as to whether the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has outlived its usefulness. Is it outmoded in these days of possible thermonuclear war? Is it sufficiently flexible and viable to meet the new threats posed by the "atomic stalemate" between East and West? These and other similar questions have arisen in the minds of responsible men. They deserve forthright answers. This article will attempt to provide them.

First of all, it might be useful to refresh our memories as to how NATO came into being and what are its major objectives.

In June 1945, following the collapse of Nazi Germany, the war-weary nations of Europe turned to the newly-created United Nations with the hope that further wars might be avoided. This organization of 50 nations, backed by the weight of world opinion, seemed to make it unlikely that any nation would again try to dominate the world. But Communist Russia, using the techniques of Hitler, was already embarked on just such a threatening program. Europe, disarmed and exhausted, stood by helplessly during the years 1945-47 as the Soviets swallowed up or subjugated Poland, East Germany, Albania, Bulgaria, Rumania and Hungary. Finally the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia in February 1948 caused the United Kingdom and several of the dwindling number of free countries of Europe to sign at Brussels a mutual defense pact on March 17, 1948.

The Government and people of the United States had been following with growing concern the developments in Europe. We had already taken action through military and economic means to help save Greece and to bolster the defenses of Turkey. But being still leery of "entangling alliances" in peacetime, we had been loath to unite formally with the Brussels Pact Powers. However, the collapse of Czechoslovakia, dramatized by the deaths of Foreign Minister Masaryk and President Beneš, coupled with incipient threats to Norway and Denmark, finally galvanized us into action. On June 11, 1948, the Senate passed the Vandenberg Resolution which led to our participation in the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It is important to note that this Resolution was sponsored by the Republican leader of the Senate, under a Democratic administration, and that it was adopted by an overwhelming majority, 64 to 4. It represented the bipartisan determination of the United States to take coöperative action to halt the imperialistic encroachments of militant Communism before it was too late to avoid war.

After several months of preparatory work, the North Atlantic Treaty was signed on April 4, 1949, in Washington by the Foreign Ministers of Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States. Later Greece and Turkey were invited to participate and in 1955 West Germany joined also.

The objectives of NATO were twofold: first, to create a political organization of states which would establish an atmosphere of stability and mutual confidence and stiffen the resistance of the European countries to the subversive internal penetration of Communism; and, secondly, to create a military organization of sufficient strength to convince the Soviet Union that any further aggression in the North Atlantic area would lead to a general war and ultimate Soviet defeat.

Most of the countries which had been absorbed into the Soviet Union or subjugated as satellite colonies had not been taken over by the overt use of Soviet military force but through infiltration and exploitation by Communist minorities. However, the threat of overwhelming military power was always back of this Communist penetration. While the military forces of the West had been almost completely demobilized following World War II, the Soviets had retained on an active footing some 175 divisions and over 20,000 combat airplanes. Today, despite their recent talk of reducing the personnel strength of their forces they still maintain 175 divisions on an active war footing and have over 20,000 operational military aircraft. Moreover, 80 percent of their aircraft are now jets and they have strengthened their bomber forces materially. They have also embarked on the construction of fast modern cruisers and have approximately 400 submarines in contrast to the 75 which Hitler possessed when he launched World War II. These air, land and sea forces have been largely modernized and remain a military threat that can be balanced in Europe only by the combined efforts of all NATO members.

The NATO Powers recognized these facts. Hence, while Article 2 of the NATO Charter points out that the political, economic and cultural relations of the member countries should be strengthened, the real core of the Treaty, designed to meet the greatest immediate peril, resides in Article 5, which states:

The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them 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-defence recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force [italics added], to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area. . . .

Thus the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a defensive military alliance. It is the shield behind which its members can pursue economic, political and social progress.

For the United States to accede to such a military alliance in peacetime represented a radical change in its traditional policy, established by George Washington, of not engaging in "entangling alliances." The fact that the American people fully supported the NATO Pact is evidence that they had learned that in this modern age our fate is inseparably linked with that of free Europe. In two world wars we had waited to participate in the defense of Western Europe until the free countries of that region were almost overwhelmed. This time we were determined to give fair warning to a potential aggressor that in the event of attack against NATO Europe we would be in the fight from the very beginning.

We have subsequently reinforced our commitment on this score by stationing in Europe the equivalent of six American divisions, powerful Air Force units and the U.S. Sixth Fleet, which is based in the Mediterranean and earmarked for support of NATO. The United Kingdom later made an even firmer and equally unprecedented commitment when in 1954 it agreed to station indefinitely on the Continent, under NATO command, four Army divisions and the Second Tactical Air Force.

These political and military commitments of the United States and the United Kingdom, combined with the American economic and military aid programs, have been of vital importance to NATO. The physical evidence of support from the two major Powers outside continental Europe has provided the essential psychological stiffening which has assisted some of the smaller countries to resist the domestic inroads of imperialistic Communism.

It must be remembered, however, that as late as 1951 American and British troops were on the Continent simply as part of the Allied forces of occupation in Germany. NATO regional planning groups had been established to correlate national European defensive plans. But no unified command had been established, occupation troops were not disposed for defense and no provisions had been made for a supply system to support them in possible combat.

The world tensions engendered by Soviet belligerence came to a head with the Communist-inspired attack across the 38th Parallel in Korea on June 25, 1950. It was realized then that a tighter military organization would be required in NATO if similar Communist attacks were to be prevented in the NATO area. Negotiations to this end were begun at once, but it was not until December 1950 that General Dwight D. Eisenhower was appointed by the North Atlantic Council as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (SACEUR) with responsibility to develop an integrated command and joint defensive plans.

General Eisenhower and his staff proceeded at once to create the necessary field commands in northern, central and southern Europe; to lay out the essential military supply lines; to establish vital communications; and to integrate the defensive plans for employment of the growing army, navy and air forces committed to NATO by member countries.

This historical background[i] has been spelled out in some detail to emphasize: (1) that while NATO has important political, economic and cultural aims its initial development was in the form of a defensive military alliance; (2) that the form of this alliance was not something preconceived on the part of the people of the NATO area, but was forced on them by the relentless pressure of Communist imperialism; (3) that its military form was evolved slowly and steadily, albeit reluctantly, to meet a definite and growing Russian military threat.

NATO was born of dire necessity. It was not the creature of an idle, passing fancy. It was put together bit by bit after much soul searching and with much toil. The threat that led to its creation still exists, both in the form of the Comintern, with its tentacles of Communist subversion in every NATO country, and in the threatening might of great Soviet military force subject only to the autocratic will of a handful of men in the Kremlin. At least until this threat is genuinely dissipated, NATO will remain, on sound political and military grounds, essential to the maintenance of peace.

It goes without saying, of course, that the political, economic and cultural ties which link the nations of NATO should meanwhile be strengthened as intended by Article 2 of the NATO Charter. This is not only desirable in itself, but it is also required in the face of the steady Soviet economic development which has made possible the new Soviet economic offensive in the Middle East. A number of the NATO countries are members of the European Coal and Steel Community. All the European partners in NATO are also members of the Organization for European Economic Coöperation, along with such neutrals as Austria, Sweden and Switzerland. The United States and Canada, although not members of the O.E.E.C., participate in its work. There are many practical difficulties to the attainment of still further political and economic accord in NATO. The North Atlantic Council is actively engaged in studying them.


Let us now examine NATO's capacity to meet the changing conditions of the atomic era.

Even our very brief historical résumé has indicated that NATO has adjusted itself to difficult and varying political, economic and military conditions. The inclusion of Greece and Turkey three years after its formation greatly strengthened its south flank but was an extension of responsibility not easily accepted by all NATO countries, some of which were loath at the start to extend the zone which all members are committed to defend. The admission of Western Germany was accepted by France despite three German invasions within 70 years. The European member countries of NATO showed both courage and flexibility in creating the Organization of European Economic Coöperation to help solve the economic difficulties which resulted from World War II and which were greatly complicated by the military demands of NATO. Even more striking are the adjustments in American public opinion which has turned from traditional isolationism to acceptance of the NATO alliance with all that it entails in money, manpower and personal sacrifice. Such examples are only illustrations of how each of the member countries has from time to time subordinated its own national traditions and interests to the more far-reaching demands of NATO policy and well-being.

There is built into NATO, moreover, the political and military machinery to provide for necessary changes in constitution, procedures and commitments. The supreme authority in NATO, the North Atlantic Council, is in permanent session in Paris. The permanent representatives of the 15 nations, all experienced men of ambassadorial rank, meet regularly two or more times each week to consider current problems. The Foreign Ministers, usually accompanied by the Defense and Finance Ministers, meet with the Council normally twice a year to review basic policies, adjust them to meet new conditions and rechart the course of NATO as occasion demands.

So much for the political aspects of NATO. What about the flexibility of its military planning? Has this planning taken into account the effect of new weapons, supersonic aircraft and guided missiles on the conduct of war?

The answer is a firm and unequivocable yes. I do not mean that solutions have been found to all of the many problems which have arisen as a result of the advent of these new weapons, but that the problems have been and are under continuous study by a number of agencies. While he was Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, General Eisenhower initiated studies of the effect of the new and devastating weapons on warfare as we then knew it, and the Chiefs of all the U.S. Services have since intensified them. At that time, the United States was the only NATO nation with full nuclear information, and security regulations, based on our Atomic Energy Act of 1946, restricted somewhat (and continued to do so until recently) the availability of this information to other NATO planners. Therefore, of necessity, much of the work had to be done by American personnel. To assist in overcoming this difficulty, a number of brilliant young officers on the U.S. Army General Staff who were engaged in these studies were transferred to SHAPE in 1951. This selected group had originally been operating in Washington under the supervision of General Gruenther, who just prior to his appointment as General Eisenhower's Chief of Staff at SHAPE had been the U.S. Army's Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans. These officers formed within SHAPE the nucleus of a special study group, since strengthened and expanded by General Ridgway and General Gruenther. Both commanders kept this study group working continuously to devise new strategic and tactical concepts and techniques in order to meet the ever-changing pattern in new weapons.

The original strategic concept for the possible employment of NATO forces was relatively simple. If war came it would be initiated by the Soviets. The forces immediately available to SACEUR would have to make the maximum possible use of defensive obstacles and new weapons to delay and disrupt the Soviet advance, while additional reserve units were mobilized and a stand finally made behind such natural obstacles as the Rhine or other appropriate river or mountain barriers. While these actions were going on, the enemy was to be subjected to attack by the United States Strategic Air Command (S.A.C.), armed with the devastating power of atomic bombs.[ii] S.A.C. would not be under NATO command, but plans for its employment in support of NATO would be coordinated with SACEUR. The naval forces of the Supreme Allied Command in the Atlantic would support SACEUR through appropriate offensive operations and keep open the sea lanes between Europe and Canada and the United States, whence were to come the bulk of reinforcements in men and matériel which would insure victory.

NATO was thus to provide the shield which would prevent the rapid conquest of Europe while S.A.C. delivered its crippling blows not only against the Soviet forces but against their lines of communication, airfields, depots, factories and other war-making potential. If war came, both NATO's shield and S.A.C.'s counteroffensive power would be essential to victory. More important, to the extent that each could be strengthened, the Soviets might be convinced they could not possibly win a shooting war and thus might be dissuaded from launching it.

So far, well and good. But all this was before the Soviets developed their own atomic bombs. What of the day in the not too distant future when the Communists might have sufficient bombs and means of delivery to be able to launch a crippling blow against NATO Europe and America? Is the NATO organization sufficiently flexible to meet this new threat? Can it adequately adjust its defenses? The problem of adjusting our defensive concepts and techniques to possible atomic war has been under intensive study, as I have indicated above, for several years. All the answers have not been found, and probably never will be, but sound adaptations are possible.

In the event the Soviets ever should decide to attack Europe their only chance of success would be to overrun its vital areas rapidly. One would logically assume that they would attempt to seize the great productive capacity of Europe with the minimum of damage to plants and skilled manpower in order that both might be put to their own use. With continental Europe overrun, they would have picked up control of almost as much industrial capacity as they now possess and 200,000,000 of the most able people on earth.

If such an attack could be slowed down and checked by NATO land, sea and air forces, then the bombing forces available to the support of NATO could so pound the vitals of the Soviet Union and such colonial satellites as actively supported it that the attack would be brought to a halt before any key areas were lost. Then the tremendous matériel and productive resources of the West would insure victory.

Of course the Soviets might endeavor to destroy the West's counteroffensive potential by initiating the war with surprise atomic attacks against NATO's airfields in Europe, against S.A.C. and R.A.F. Bomber Command bases, atomic energy installations and selected industrial production and supply facilities of the United States, Canada and Europe.

To meet such a threat Canada and the United States are establishing an early warning and air defense system that will greatly improve our ability to meet and counter a potential surprise attack. This system is of direct benefit also to NATO Europe, since time and space factors are such that to have any chance of attaining surprise, with its attendant advantages to an aggressor, the Soviets would have to launch their planes against the American continent ahead of the initiation of any attack in Europe. Thus, the North American early warning and air defense system might provide the alert essential to Europe.

More importantly, if we can convince the Soviets that they cannot gain the surprise which is essential to any hope they might have of "knocking out" the United States, then they may be convinced that it would be folly to initiate a war which is bound to result in their own atomic destruction.

To add to this conviction, it is essential to complement the Canada-U.S. system by creating as effective an air defense system as possible within NATO Europe. This is in process of development, although touchy questions of sovereignty, national prestige, organization and finances must still be worked out.

The defensive air strength of NATO in Europe has improved tremendously since 1949. At that time the air forces available for the defense of Western Europe consisted of only a few hundred obsolescent Second World War propeller-driven aircraft, while today they number in the thousands and are largely jet fighters and bombers. The Soviets would unquestionably attempt to destroy by surprise attack as many as possible of these airplanes and the fields from which they operate. This would not be an easy task, since today, in contrast to the 15 fields available to NATO in 1949, there are now approximately 125 NATO airfields; and the number is being increased. To hit all of these fields simultaneously would be practically impossible. An air alert system is being developed which should insure, given a minimum of warning, that at least part of the NATO tactical aircraft stationed on these fields could get into the air.

But attacks on NATO airfields in Europe will not safeguard the Soviet Union from the devastating counter air offensive which would be launched at once from the widely scattered S.A.C. bases around its periphery. S.A.C. and its far-flung bases thus add greatly to the deterrent power of NATO by complementing the air forces immediately available for the defense of Europe.

But what about the chances of preventing Europe from being overrun on the ground when the Soviet Union and its colonies have such a tremendous preponderance of land and tactical air forces as well as a growing atomic weapons stockpile? In answer to this question I can, of course, give only my personal views.

First, I should like to repeat that we have every hope that the defensive strength of NATO in Europe, coupled with the retaliatory strength of S.A.C., will continue to prevent a war from taking place. The following is, then, a discussion based upon the possible misfortune that a war should take place.

I am convinced that, when applied tactically--that is, on the battlefield--atomic weapons will help the defender much more than the attacker. So far as I know, all analyses and atomic experiments to date indicate that human beings, for all their frailties, can sustain and survive an atomic explosion better than material things--provided the men are dug into the ground or placed under other adequate shelter. Soldiers thus dug in and dispersed provide poor atomic targets.

Since a defender has no intention of moving forward, except in counterattack, he can and should dig in, or otherwise shelter his forces, in dispersed groupings while awaiting the aggressor's attack. Even if the enemy precedes his attack with a preliminary bombardment, using atomic weapons, the bulk of the defending forces can survive.

The defender can greatly enhance his chances if he is deployed in depth back of such natural obstacles as rivers, mountain ranges or hill masses. Gaps in such positions can be strengthened by artificial obstacles, minefields, barbed wire, tank traps and the like. Dispersed to the rear of such obstacles, covered by a light screen of observers supplemented by a reasonably effective intelligence system, the defender could afford to "sit back" and await the attack.

The enemy may similarly disperse and dig in his forces, but to get ahead he must move. Furthermore, if he is to make any rapid progress through or over the defender's obstacles, he must concentrate. When he concentrates he at once presents a highly profitable target for the defender's tactical atomic weapons. Actually, the defender can pretty well figure ahead of time the areas in which the attacker will have to concentrate both men and equipment--the places where he must build bridges, defiles in the available routes of approach, and the like. The defender can then place his atomic weapons--artillery, rockets, guided missiles, or supporting aviation--in dispersed positions from which they can quickly bring devastating fire on the attacker's concentrations.

The aggressor can thus be placed between the horns of an atomic dilemma. He cannot break through the elastic defense unless he concentrates; but if he does concentrate he faces atomic destruction.

If the attacker does succeed in establishing a bridgehead, or an "airhead" by airborne attack, these will again present concentrated targets which should be hit by the defender's atomic weapons as quickly as discovered. Such strikes should be followed up by the defender's mobile counterattacking forces, which are held in dispersed positions until required for such purposes. Following a counterattack the defender should again disperse.

If the defender is prepared ahead of time to make an attack by air--when the attacker makes his first offensive move--on the aggressor's airfields, on the key points on his communications lines and on his supply and command installations, then the aggressor's hopes of a rapid breakthrough of the defender's deep zone of defense can be thwarted. Such an elastic defensive system, in which dispersed but highly-mobile infantry and armored forces are integrated with readily available and mobile means of delivering atomic fires, could not be cracked in a hurry by any attacker, no matter how powerful or numerous. Certainly the forces available to the Soviets in East Germany and their other European colonies could never do it successfully. The development by the United States of the atomic shell, bombs and missile warheads with various means of delivery has made possible the establishment of some such defensive system in Europe. The entry of Germany into NATO will provide the necessary additional depth and strength to the land and air forces of Central Europe.

At sea, fortunately, the fleets available to the support of NATO far outweigh the Russian Navy, though the latter has a large number of submarines and increasing cruiser strength. It might take some time to destroy or neutralize the Soviet submarines, but there is no doubt this could and would be done. The Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic, is responsible for planning for the employment of all NATO high seas fleets with the mission of securing the sea lines of communications between Europe and the North American continent. His forces are also charged with supporting SACEUR's defense of Europe.

It cannot be said that a modern integrated land, air and sea defensive system such as I have described above has been completely implemented in NATO. There are gaps, serious gaps, in the current system, but they are all susceptible of solution if the Western allies will stick together and work toward the common end. New equipment, installations and procedures are expensive and some of the NATO countries feel that they have about reached the financial limits of what they can expend for defense.

In the months and years that lie ahead it may be necessary to concentrate largely on meeting the requirements for survival in the opening phase of a possible future war. It would be unsafe to assume that strategic atomic bombing would not be used by both sides. The side that could better survive the relatively brief opening phase of intensive atomic exchange would be certain of ultimate victory--pyrrhic though that would be. NATO must, therefore, concentrate primarily on such deterrents as counteroffensive airpower, and the requisite minimum forces in being to provide the essential land, sea and air screen to protect NATO Europe, Canada and the United States.

Some who are skeptical of NATO's value argue that it is only a question of time before the Soviets acquire an atomic bomb stockpile of sufficient size, together with long-range means of delivery, to balance effectively the retaliatory power of S.A.C. and the U.K. Bomber Command. The result, it is held, would be an atomic stalemate. In fact, say some people, the "summit" conferees tacitly admitted at Geneva that neither East nor West would ever start an atomic war. If not an atomic war, then as a corollary it would follow that there would be no general war of a shooting kind. And if not, then why go to the expense and worry of maintaining any but nominal military forces and installations in NATO?

Perhaps we can best analyze this problem by the old technique of reductio ad absurdum. If the countries of Europe could count with certainty on the peaceful intentions of the Soviets, perhaps they could do away completely with their military forces and trust to the power of S.A.C. alone to prevent war. But without well-organized and disposed land and tactical air forces to oppose them, the Soviet Army might someday, while on their annual manœuvres, simply keep on going across their boundaries to the west and south. With nothing to oppose them, they could overrun Europe in a matter of days--without employing a single atomic bomb. We could then imagine their saying to the Americans: "Now come and get us." Would we in that case assume the awful responsibility of initiating atomic warfare in order to "liberate" Europe? Would we bomb Paris, Milan, the Saar, the Ruhr? For the United Kingdom and the Western Hemisphere the alternative would be economic and political isolation with almost inevitable world war. For Europe the alternatives would be continued occupation and subjection to Communist dictatorship or "liberation" by destruction. Needless to say, no one believes that NATO Europe would deliberately reduce itself to the absurdity of such dreadful alternatives.

Therefore a reasonably effective screen on land, sea and in the air must be built by NATO. Such a shield must be strong enough, in conjunction with the retaliatory power of S.A.C. and the growing power of the R.A.F. Bomber Command, to convince the Soviets that they cannot possibly achieve their objective of Communist world domination by war. Although NATO has made great progress in devising such a shield it would be fatuous to imply that it has solved all of its military problems or to indicate that there are not many areas in which improvement must be made.

Meanwhile NATO will continue to serve as a very vital element in the maintenance of peace. Indeed a true gauge of its effectiveness as a deterrent to Soviet aggression is provided by the Russians themselves through their constant endeavors to bring about a weakening or dissolution of the alliance. They well realize that any weakness in NATO means a corresponding strength for the U.S.S.R. and, therefore, Russian efforts to disrupt the solidarity of the Western alliance have multiplied in direct proportion as the strength of that alliance has increased.

The latest Soviet tactic to weaken NATO has been to try to drive a wedge between the United States and the European members of the alliance. This effort has consisted of shrewd attempts to convince the European partners that the struggle in the world today is an American-Soviet affair from which other nations can stand aloof. Atomic stalemate and peaceful coexistence are among the catch-phrases which Soviet propagandists have devised to scare or to lull the war-weary people of the world into accepting the Trojan horse of neutralism.

The struggle is not between the United States and the U.S.S.R. alone--it is between the people of the Free World, who are dedicated to the concept of the dignity of the individual and the liberty of all people, and the leaders of the Communist world determined to impose their imperialistic slavery on all mankind. For a country to accept neutralism is to invite disaster as long as the Kremlin adheres to the principles of eventual world domination as advanced by Marx and Lenin or as temporarily modified by Khrushchev and Bulganin. A country giving up the protection of NATO would soon be welcomed into the arms of the Russian bear which crushed Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and has embraced Poland, East Germany, Albania, Bulgaria, Rumania, Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

The unified strength of NATO has proven itself an effective deterrent to both overt and covert Communist aggression. It is still sufficiently flexible and adaptable to meet the new wiles of Soviet propaganda. It would be sheer folly for the members of NATO to weaken the ties which have bound them together and which thus far have insured peace. If freedom is to live, NATO must not die.

[i] For further details see "NATO--The First Five Years, 1949-1954," by Lord Ismay, Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

[ii] Throughout this article the word "atomic" will be taken to include both atomic and thermonuclear weapons.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now