Creating the Entangling Alliance

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Few would disagree that the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty on April 4, 1949, and the subsequent creation of the implementing Organization constituted a revolution in American foreign policy. United States involvement in a permanent military alliance during peacetime broke faith with two venerable American traditions: George Washington’s warning against such involvement, and the Monroe Doctrine. Yet, for all of NATO’s precedent-shattering significance, the precise meaning of the new relationship that it established between the United States and Western Europe was far from clear.

Timothy P. Ireland contends that most writers on the origins of NATO have emphasized too strongly its Cold War context. The Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and NATO are generally seen as progressive steps designed to check Soviet expansionism in Europe. While admitting that the Cold War did provide a general framework for NATO, Ireland suggests that the desire of the United States to reestablish a viable balance of power in Europe constituted a separate powerful motive for American participation in a Western alliance. Thus the ultimate objective of United States policy was not only to provide a counterweight to Soviet imperialism but also to integrate a revitalized western Germany into the mainstream of Western Europe, thereby reducing NATO’s dependence upon the United States.

By 1947 it was evident that, for the time being, the reunification of Germany was a dead letter. From that point on, Britain and the United States worked to combine their zones of German occupation, much to the distress of the French government. The transformation of the western German zones of occupation into Bizonia, or Trizonia if the French could be persuaded to cooperate with the Anglo-American unification effort, was central to American calculations. It would stimulate the economic recovery of western Germany, which would in turn both relieve Britain and the United States of a support burden that was approaching one billion dollars a year and promote economic recovery elsewhere in Western Europe. At the same time, a strong western Germany would constitute an important deterrent to Soviet expansionism. A revived western Germany thus held the key to transforming Western Europe into an American defensive shield.

French fear of German revanchism notwithstanding, Paris was not absolutely unapproachable on the question of a unified western Germany. This was especially true after February, 1948, when a Communist coup transformed Czechoslovakia into a Soviet satellite. A growing apprehension concerning Soviet expansionism then helped to balance French fear of German aggression. A weak western Germany would only play into the hands of Russia. In these circumstances it became increasingly apparent to the French government that formal involvement by the United States in the defense of Western Europe provided the only realistic escape from what constituted a true dilemma. This objective, however, ran directly counter to the American hope that a revived western Germany would permit the United States safely to reduce its military commitment to the defense of free Europe. France and the United States needed each other, and both governments recognized that fact, but they needed each other for different reasons. In 1948 and 1949 the cautious movements both countries made in the direction of a military alliance reflected that fact.

The first important accommodation between France and the United States on the issue of Western European defense was reached in the Brussels Treaty of March, 1948. With the collapse of the Four-Power discussions on the reunification of Germany in the summer of 1947, efforts were renewed to provide France with protection against possible German aggression. It was evident, however, that any defensive alliance composed only of Western European powers would be relatively ineffective. The United States was more concerned about threats of Soviet expansionism than it was of German aggression. Thus a compromise was reached. Secretary of State George Marshall provided the assurance that United States occupational troops would remain in western Germany into the foreseeable future, thereby assuaging French fear of German aggression. In return Britain, France, and the BENELUX countries agreed to generalize the guarantees provided by their proposed defensive pact. An attack from any quarter would be regarded as an attack upon all of the signatories. Finally, Secretary of State Marshall gave the assurance that such an arrangement would be viewed by the United States as a “prerequisite to any wider arrangement in which other countries including the United States might play a part.” A peacetime United States commitment to the defense of Western Europe, however tentative, had at last been made.

There is no question that the dynamics of Franco-American diplomacy to which Ireland devotes so much attention help to explain the mechanical process which eventually led to the negotiation of NATO. His major thesis, however, that the reestablishment of the balance of power in Europe was, from the American point of view, a distinctive goal of American foreign policy is questionable. Throughout the circuitous route that led to NATO, the basic Cold War orientation of American policy seems clear. From the start of the Cold War, Washington’s concern for the defense of Western Europe was consistently viewed from the perspective of Russian expansionism. A strong western Germany was seen as crucial to the security of free Europe, which in turn mandated accommodation with France. Eventual American participation in NATO first and foremost represented the price that Washington was willing to pay in order to insure that Western Europe would become the strongest possible bulwark against Communist expansion. In Creating the Entangling Alliance Ireland tends to confuse means and ends. There is not much evidence to suggest that the United States ever considered the reestablishment of the balance of power in Europe as an important goal in itself.

The differing expectations as to the nature of a Western military alliance that would include the United States, which Ireland describes in splendid detail, are well represented in the ambiguity of the North Atlantic Treaty, an ambiguity that was essential to the acceptability of the arrangement to all parties. Whereas the Western Europeans desired access to American material aid during peacetime...

(The entire section is 2644 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Choice. XVIII, June, 1981, p. 1464.

Current History. LXXX, May, 1981, p. 222.

History: Reviews of New Books. IX, September, 1981, p. 230.

Journal of American History. LXVIII, December, 1981, p. 734.

Library Journal. CVI, June 1, 1981, p. 1228.