Back To CourseAP European History: Exam Prep
28 chapters | 266 lessons | 22 flashcard sets
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Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.
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.
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.
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.
The development of a strong defense organization in the West prompted action by the Soviet Union. In 1955, the Soviet Union orchestrated the formation of the Warsaw Pact. Joined by Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, East Germany, Poland, and Albania (though Albania left the organization in 1962), the Soviet Union's Warsaw Pact essentially created a similar treaty organization for the communist East. This organization was less a treaty, like NATO, and more of an imposition, though all of these Eastern European nations had their own governments, they were single-party states in close contact with, and essentially controlled by, the central Soviet government in Moscow.
This was the culmination of a global political dichotomy that had grown in between World War I and WWII: Soviet-dominated, communist East against the capitalist West, led foremost by the United States and the UK. The solidification of this dichotomy in the two treaty organizations led to an uneasy standoff between the two on the front lines of the Cold War in Germany, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere in the world.
Throughout the Cold War, the two organizations acted as both an active threat to one another and as a conduit for dialogue between the two sides. In fact, it was through NATO that one of the first agreements between the two sides was ever struck. In the 1970s, when relations between the two began to cool, it was the Belgian Foreign Minister, Pierre Harmel, who negotiated to get all countries of NATO and the Warsaw Pact to sign the Helsinki Final Act, which bound all governments to respect the fundamental freedom of its citizens.
In 1985, more concrete measures were taken when both the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to remove all nuclear-capable weaponry from within intermediate range of each other's borders. Regardless, NATO remained first and foremost a military defense organization, a fact best exemplified by NATO actions during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. When the Soviets invaded in 1979 and occupied the country throughout the 1980s, NATO deployed nuclear-capable weapons in Western Europe within reach of most major Soviet cities.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union a few years later, in 1991, meant a change in focus for NATO. With its chief enemy no longer in existence, NATO continued to encourage democracy and national self-determination throughout Europe and elsewhere in the world. Additionally, NATO has continued to foster increased European integration in the hope of avoiding future regional conflict, even to the point of including former Warsaw Pact states in both the European Union and NATO.
However, despite the change in focus, NATO's military mission was not and is not over. Indeed, NATO forces played the dominant role in ending the ethnic warfare in the Balkans in the 1990s during the breakup of Yugoslavia and led the peacekeeping mission in the region. The integrated military command structure and military readiness of NATO endures to this day.
The creation of NATO in the aftermath of WWII is the direct result of the U.S.'s policy of Containment in the 1940s and 1950s. It was a policy that functioned on the Domino Theory, which feared the spread of communism in Europe, Asia and elsewhere. NATO intended to stem the growth of Soviet-encouraged communism in Europe, in part through military integration, and in part through encouraging political stability on the frontlines of the Cold War in Western Europe. The creation of its communist analog, the Warsaw Pact, solidified the Cold War battle lines and dictated the nature of European and global politics in the second half of the 20th century. The subsequent end of that figurative war did not spell the end of NATO, just merely different priorities.
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Back To CourseAP European History: Exam Prep
28 chapters | 266 lessons | 22 flashcard sets