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NATO before the Korean War

April 1949-June 1950

Lawrence S. Kaplan

Publication Year: 2013

Conventional wisdom has the Korean War putting the “O” in NATO. Prior to that time, from the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty on April 4, 1949, to the North Korean invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950, the Treaty allies were just going through the motions of establishing an organization. Historian Lawrence Kaplan argues that this is a mistaken view, and he fills significant blanks in the record of 1949 and 1950, which NATO officials and analysts alike have largely ignored.

When the Treaty was signed, the United States hailed the end of its isolationist tradition, as it recognized the necessity of devising new means to cope with the menace of Soviet-led Communism. It was interested in creating a new order in the Old World that would open the way to a united Europe. Toward this end, the allies crafted a transatlantic bargain. In its simplest form, the bargain involved a U.S. commitment to rebuild, economically and militarily, a Western Europe devastated by World War II. In exchange for America’s abandonment of its customary abstention from Europe, the Western allies would take steps to end Europe’s traditional divisions and integrate its resources on every level. The sheer magnitude of the mutual obligations received widespread attention on both sides of the Atlantic as well as within the Communist bloc. The Korean War’s impact on the development of the organization marginalized the prewar history of NATO.

Kaplan asserts that the Korean War was not needed to convert the alliance into an organization, as it was already in place on June 25, 1950. The progress of NATO’s development was often improvised and untidy, and “the first crude tools of the organization,” as Dean Acheson noted, had been cast by the end of the London meeting of the North Atlantic Council in May 1950. The seeds of major changes took the form of the supreme allied commanders, and a civilian coordinating body could be found in negotiations conducted during the winter and spring of 1950. The origins of the “O” in NATO are found in the text of the North Atlantic Treaty, in Article 9, under whose auspices new responsibilities were justified.

Published by: The Kent State University Press

Title Page, Series Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. 8-9

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pp. ix-xi

Conventional wisdom has the Korean War putting the “O” in NATO. Prior to that time, from the signing of the treaty on April 4, 1949 to the North Korean invasion on June 25, 1950, the treaty allies were just going through the motions of establishing an organization. ...


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pp. xii-xiv

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1. Origins of the Alliance

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pp. 1-8

President Truman, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, and the foreign ministers of the eleven nations that signed the North Atlantic Treaty on April 4, 1949 were well aware of the significance of the occasion. For the United States it marked the termination of a tradition of non-entanglement with the political and military affairs of the Old World, ...

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2. Toward Ratification, April–July 1949

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pp. 9-31

Before the treaty could undergo scrutiny by the Senate, it had to meet a more immediate challenge in the UN General Assembly. By unhappy timing, the Assembly convened on April 5, the day after the treaty was signed where it could expect attack not only from the Soviet bloc but from U.S. friends worried about the treaty’s compatibility with the UN Charter. ...

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3. Mutual Defense Assistance Program, July 1949–January 1950

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pp. 32-57

The contentious congressional debate over the ratification of the treaty derailed the concerted effort on the part of the European allies to win an immediate U.S. response to their urgent requests for military aid. In fact, once the treaty had been signed, Article 3 superseded Article 5 as the priority for members of the Brussels Pact. ...

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4. The North Atlantic Council at Work, September 1949–January 1950

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pp. 58-85

While transatlantic attention in the late summer and fall of 1949 centered on Capitol Hill in Washington, where Congress was fashioning a military assistance program, NATO’s twelve foreign ministers met at the Interdepartmental Auditorium on Independence Avenue to constitute the North Atlantic Council (NAC). ...

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5. Winter Uncertainties, January–March 1950

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pp. 86-113

Acheson’s optimism over the completion of a NATO committee structure in a remarkable short time was surely understandable. Some of the new committees, such as the Defense Financial and Economic Committee and the Military Production and Supply Board, were borrowed, with only slight change of titles, directly from the Western Union Defense Organization. ...

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6. To London, April–May 1950

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pp. 114-140

The many holes in the foundations of a viable NATO defense program could not be filled in the Defense Committee sessions at the end of March, and there were no illusions among NATO planners—civilian or military—that they would be. It was expected that problems would be kicked up to the next level, the forthcoming NAC meeting in mid-May, when the foreign ministers would gather in London. ...

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7. The Shock of June 25, 1950

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pp. 141-149

NATO leaders did not anticipate the outbreak of the Korean War little more than five weeks after the London meeting adjourned, even though evidence of potential conflict could have been detected if they had been on NATO’s radar. Asian issues occasionally surfaced in NATO deliberations in early 1950, but they seemed only peripherally related to the European arena. ...

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8. Conclusion

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pp. 150-152

The sixtieth anniversary of the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty was an occasion for NATO officials, journalists, and scholars to reflect on the alliance’s past, present, and future. What resulted from pundits’ projections and conference deliberations in the weeks leading up to the anniversary was a judgment of the past that excluded NATO’s history before the Korean War. ...

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Historiographical Reflections

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pp. 153-155

In my study of the origins of NATO, NATO 1948: The Birth of the Transatlantic Alliance (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, Inc., 2007), I was able to provide a historiographical essay on the subject. No such essay is possible for NATO before the Korean War. Scholars have touched on the period, but only cursorily in monographs covering NATO’s sixty-year history. ...

Appendix A: The North Atlantic Treaty, Washington, D.C., April 4, 1949

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pp. 156-159

Appendix B: Texts of Final Communiques, 1949–1974

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pp. 160-179


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pp. 180-204

Select Bibliography

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pp. 205-208


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pp. 209-216

Back Cover

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p. 234-234

E-ISBN-13: 9781612777030
E-ISBN-10: 1612777031
Print-ISBN-13: 9781606351697

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: New Studies in U.S. Foreign Relations
Series Editor Byline: Mary Ann Heiss

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • North Atlantic Treaty Organization -- History -- 20th century.
  • World politics -- 1945-1989.
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