The Theory of Containment & the Birth of NATO

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  • 0:01 Containment
  • 2:19 Creation of NATO
  • 3:54 Actions & Responses
  • 7:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the foreign policy of the U.S. and Western Europe directly after WWII. We will look at its theory of containment regarding communism, and the birth of NATO.

Containment and NATO

Have you ever tried to corral a bunch of marbles on the floor? They roll around every which way, and just when you think you have them all gathered together, a few more squirt out from your grasp and go skating away. Surely, your job is much easier if you have a few friends to help cage in those marbles.

Though your own travails gathering marbles may seem trivial, the United States' greatest fear in the second half of the 20th century was hemming in a different slippery character: the spread of worldwide communism. For this, the United States gathered its own friends in Western Europe to help stop communism from taking root elsewhere in the world.

After World War II (WWII) ended, the Soviet Union took control of most of Eastern Europe, creating client states in countries such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany. The communist Soviet Union and the capitalist West stood toe-to-toe with each other in Germany, especially in the capital, Berlin, where the two worlds were literally separated from each other by the Berlin Wall. The United States feared the spread of Soviet-style, totalitarian communism could threaten Western Europe's capitalist states. Furthermore, if more and more states became communist and integrated into the Soviet Union's command economy, the U.S. could lose important trade and economic partners around the world.

To combat the spread of communism, U.S. foreign policy functioned on the idea of Containment immediately after the war and through the Truman administration. According to the policy, the United States would do everything it could to stop the spread of communism anywhere in the world, be it through diplomacy or military intervention. This policy also inherently intended to avoid open conflict with the Soviet Union, as any military confrontation with the Soviets could possibly lead to World War III.

A complimentary and contemporary theory that helped spur this policy was the Domino Theory. The Domino Theory stated many U.S. government analysts' greatest fears: that if countries in Southeast Asia were allowed to develop communist governments, as China had in 1949, one-by-one the neighboring countries would also become communist, eventually shutting the U.S. out of the region and threatening the U.S. presence.

Creation of NATO

In order to safeguard against further countries in Europe becoming communist, the United States resolved to develop a strong alliance with its partners in Western Europe. Fortunately, the groundwork for the United States' intended treaty organization was already laid. In 1948, with the spread of communism in Eastern Europe in mind, the United Kingdom, France, and the Benelux countries formed the Western Union Defense Organization for mutual military protection against future invasion.

Almost immediately, the United States began negotiating with the Western Union and other countries in Europe and North America in the hope of creating a lasting, larger alliance opposed to the spread of communism. After a year of negotiations, the Western Union countries joined the United States, Canada, Iceland, Italy, Norway, Denmark, and Portugal in signing the North Atlantic Treaty, creating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, in April 1949.

The participating countries famously agreed that an attack on any country within the organization would be considered an attack upon them all, with a strong military response from the coalition immediately following. Within a few short years, the organization's military brass began to integrate command structures more seamlessly, breaking up the area covered by NATO into five regions. They further created region-specific plans in case of Soviet invasion and developed military installations to meet any threat, discreetly placing its headquarters in a small suburb of Paris.

Actions and Responses

The military stability aided Western Europe in its post-WWII recovery. With knowledge that invasion by the Soviet Union would be met with the full force of the Western world, economies across the region began to recover, in large part due to the significant financial stimulus provided by the United States through the Marshall Plan. The successes of NATO and NATO countries fostered its growth; both Greece and Turkey successfully joined the treaty organization in 1952, and West Germany officially joined in 1955.

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