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The following article on what NATO does is an excerpt from Lee Edwards and Elizabeth Edwards Spalding’s book A Brief History of the Cold War It is available to order now at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

What does NATO do? This is a common question for those who’ve heard of the military alliance hundreds of times  but cannot describe its essential purpose. The answer to this question is that it was essentially formed as a military alliance against the Soviet Union.


In response to the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia and increased Soviet pressure on Berlin, six West European nations, meeting in Brussels, signed a fifty-year collective defensive treaty. Truman praised the treaty, saying that it deserved the “full support” of the United States On June 11, the Senate passed by a vote of sixtyfour to six the Vandenberg Resolution, advising the president to seek security for America and the free world through U.S. support of mutual defense regional arrangements, including in Western Europe.

One week later, the Soviets responded by stopping all surface traffic of the Western allies in and out of Berlin. They then cut off all electricity, coal, food, and other supplies to West Berlin from East German territory under their control. The Berlin blockade had begun. After briefly considering and rejecting military action, the United States launched one of the most daring and successful operations of the Cold War—a massive airlift to supply the 2.25 million inhabitants of Berlin with the necessities of life.

Truman saw Berlin as the heart of the struggle over Germany and, in a larger sense, over Europe. He understood that “Berlin had become a symbol of America’s— and the West’s—dedication to the cause of freedom.” He described the blockade as part of a Soviet plan to test the will and the capacity of the West to resist communist aggression. He did not want to start a war, but he refused to abandon the city.27 He compared the Kremlin maneuver to its earlier probes in Greece and Turkey and considered both moves to have originated from the same communist ideology.

A reluctant Stalin finally ended the blockade eleven months later, on May 12, 1949, although the airlift continued until September 30 to build up stocks to deter further threats. Delivering 2.325 million tons of supplies in 277,804 flights, the United States had demonstrated to the Kremlin its resolve to stand by West Berlin and by extension West Germany and Western Europe. This was the policy of containment in action. In Carole K. Fink’s words, in real as well as symbolic terms, the “‘Berlin syndrome’ wiped out the Munich nightmare that had haunted the West for a decade.”

In July 1948, shortly after the start of the Berlin crisis, Undersecretary of State Robert Lovett began discussions in Washington with the ambassadors of Great Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Canada on common security problems, discussions that would lead to the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in April 1949.


Another answer to the question of what does NATO do is act as a vehicle through which American foreign policy can be promulgated.

Truman regarded NATO not merely as a military alliance but as one more step in the creation of an American foreign policy, along with the UN charter, the Truman Doctrine, and the Marshall Plan, calculated to contain Soviet imperialism and protect global freedom and justice through free peoples and open, representative governments. The North Atlantic Treaty’s preamble declared that its signatories were “determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage, and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law.”

Some critics, such as George Kennan, thought that U.S. foreign policy had gone as far as it should with the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, but the president did not agree. Political and economic aid, he believed, was insufficient to meet the unprecedented demands of the Cold War; a strategic military component was needed as part of containment. As the communists continued to apply pressure to Western Europe in the mid-to-late 1940s, Truman saw a world made dangerous by the Soviet Union. He hoped that the Atlantic alliance would defend its members against Soviet belligerence and possible invasion. He had greater hopes for NATO’s overall contribution to containment.

In a confidential discussion with NATO foreign ministers in April 1949, Truman made it clear that in his mind, the North Atlantic Treaty embodied the West’s resolve to fight communist ideology with a strategic organization. Because NATO’s “best estimate is that we have several years in which we can count on a breathing spell” before the Soviets acquired atomic weapons, the president assumed that the Atlantic alliance could safely rely for the time on conventional forces for its defense. This assumption would change abruptly with the Soviet explosion of an atom bomb in September 1949. But in any case, NATO by itself was insufficient. Truman regarded the political, economic, and military pieces of containment as interdependent and the overall strategy as anything but passive. He told the foreign ministers, “We should appreciate that Soviet nationalism is dynamic; it must expand, and the only way to defeat it eventually is not merely to contain it but to carry the ideological war to the Soviet sphere itself.”

The Soviet Union made no further conquests in Western Europe or the Near East after its post-war military occupation of Eastern and Central Europe. But containment was not employed early enough in the Far East for several reasons.

Neither President Truman nor Secretary of State Acheson knew as much about Asia as he did about Europe. Because Marshall had spent time in the Philippines and China—most recently for a year as the president’s special ambassador to China—the president and his secretary of state deferred to the great wartime general. Following Marshall’s lead, Truman thought that Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist Chinese were little better than Mao Zedong and the Chinese communists. He was unwilling to do more in terms of military supplies or economic aid to “save” China, given its size and the failure of previous U.S. aid. China fell in the fall of 1949 to the communists, triggering the Republican charge that the Democrats had “lost” China.

This article is part of our larger collection of resources on the Cold War. For a comprehensive outline of the origins, key events, and conclusion of the Cold War, click here. 

This article on what does NATO do is from Lee Edwards and Elizabeth Edwards Spalding’s book A Brief History of the Cold War. It is available to order now at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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