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April 2009

Signs of the Times: When NATO Was Born in 1949

Harry Truman was in the White House. He had just staged arguably the biggest election upset ever in presidential politics. Junior congressmen and future presidents John Kennedy and Richard Nixon started their second terms. Joe Stalin was still absolute ruler of the Soviet Union.

1949, the year the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was born, was tumultuous. Nothing ruled American and Western foreign policy as much as the oncoming freeze of the Cold War, and NATO was just one of the outcomes. To understand NATO and what it has come to mean, it helps to look at the world of 1949.

Creating a Soviet Counterbalance

After building the world's most powerful war machine for World War II, the United States dismantled its military when the shooting stopped. The Soviets had 10 million men under arms in Europe. The U.S. Army had about two-and-a- half divisions.

Winston Churchill said after the war that over half of Europe was behind an "Iron Curtain," referring to the Eastern and Central European nations under Soviet control. The continent was in ruins and faced economic and political chaos.

To counter the Soviet presence and threat on their eastern flank, five Western European nations penned a defense treaty in 1948. Within 13 months, April 1949, representatives of the original five members, the United States and six other nations gathered in Washington to sign a pact creating an expanded, North Atlantic alliance.

Even as the treaty ink dried, Europe was celebrating the first anniversary of the Marshall Plan, the aid program named after Secretary of State George C. Marshall, wartime Army chief of staff and five-star general. The United States had presented the plan in 1947.

Western Europe embraced the Marshall Plan and was using it to feed its millions and to rebuild its shattered infrastructure. The plan gave Western Europeans hope. Ernest Bevin, then British foreign minister, said it had "saved Europe."

Ideological Battle Lines Drawn

The Soviets and their satellites spurned America's helping hand. As a result, some of their war-damaged infrastructure would be in rubble for another 40 years.

At home, Americans feared communist influence. Congress was in the midst of investigating allegations that Alger Hiss, a senior official in the Roosevelt administration, was a Soviet spy. On April 2, 1949, New York Gov. Thomas Dewey signed a bill to "eliminate from the public school system teachers and other employees who are Communists or fellow travelers."

When the Russians' Berlin blockade ended on May 12, 1949, U.S., British and French fliers were delivering 8,000 tons of supplies daily to the beleaguered German city. The Western allies had started the airlift, an unprecedented lifeline for 2.5 million people, soon after the Russians sealed off the city on June 24, 1948.

Mao Zedong [Tse-tung]'s communist forces drove the Nationalists from mainland China to the offshore island of Formosa -- Taiwan -- in 1949. Israel, having survived a war with its Arab neighbors, became a member of the United Nations. The Soviets detonated an atomic bomb in September. West Germany and East Germany became nations.

Signs of the Times

Much of what is commonplace to Americans today -- including a robust political and military alliance with European allies -- did not exist in 1949 or was just being developed.

Most Americans got their entertainment through radio or movies, but more than 100,000 per week were buying their first televisions. The sets consisted of large cabinets encasing tiny screens showing fuzzy black and white pictures. Programming was limited.

General of the Army Dwight Eisenhower would soon be named the NATO supreme commander, and General of the Army Douglas MacArthur was still the "viceroy" of Japan.

To many Americans, Korea was unfamiliar territory and Vietnam was part of an obscure French colony in Southeast Asia. Hawaii and Alaska were still an exotic, remote U.S. locale. The flags of only four independent nations flew in Africa; Europeans still held sway over much it and Asia. The United Nations met in Lake Success, N.Y.

In 1949, the National Military Establishment of the United States became the Department of Defense. The Air Force B-50 bomber Lucky Lady II circled the globe; it refueled four times. Army privates made $75. The enlisted ranks stopped at E-7. Ensigns and second lieutenants made $213.75.

There were no interstate highways or freeways. Cars cost around $2,500 and the lineup included many now-defunct brands such as DeSoto, Studebaker, Nash and Hudson. Average Americans had never heard of Toyota, Honda or Volkswagen; the idea of driving a Japanese or German car would have been, at once, both ridiculous and unpatriotic.

A coat cost $40. A pound of chopped meat cost a quarter.

"Refrigerated air conditioning" was just starting to reach homes. Passenger jets were still on the drawing boards. Rocketry was interesting to the military and not many others. Man-made satellites were theoretical.

Likewise, the concept of a trans-Atlantic collective security arrangement with European allies was novel. But the reality would soon sink in when General of the Army Dwight Eisenhower was named the NATO supreme commander.

When the 12 charter nations inked the NATO Pact, they had hopes for deterring aggression. An attack on one, they agreed, would be an attack on all. This was something new in diplomacy: a defensive alliance with teeth.