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World War II left Europe in ruins. Over 36 million Europeans had been killed and millions more made refugees; cities, towns, infrastructures, and economies had been left in tatters. And at war’s end, looming over this shattered Europe was the specter of the massive Red Army. “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent,” Winston Churchill warned in 1946. In the very center of it all stood Communist East Germany.

After the war the United States had largely demobilized its armed forces, but the Soviet Union had not, leaving Western Europe extremely vulnerable to Soviet attack. While the Marshall Plan funneled significant American money and resources to the region, European political leaders believed that only when they had the security to resist Soviet intimidation and aggression would they be able to revive their economies. That kind of security could only come with the participation of the United States in a security alliance. Talks in that direction began in earnest in 1948, and on April 4, 1949, after much negotiating, the 14-article North Atlantic Treaty was signed in Washington, D.C., by representatives of 12 countries—the United States, Britain, Canada, Belgium, Denmark, France, Norway, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Portugal. According to the treaty’s preamble, NATO’s member countries were “determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples” by uniting “their efforts for collective defence and for the preservation of peace and security.”

In July 1949 the U.S. Senate ratified the treaty by a vote of 82 to 13, but it had not been easy to get to that point, owing to Article 5. Arguably the most important part of the treaty, it stipulated that “an armed attack against one or more of [the organization’s members] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” In practical terms, this meant the United States would respond with military force in the event of Soviet aggression. This defense provision was of paramount importance to the Europeans, but it was difficult to reconcile with the U.S. Constitution, which holds that only Congress has the power to declare war. The impasse was broken by American diplomat George Kennan, who modified the clause to read that each member nation could answer an attack with “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force,” thereby freeing members from a de rigueur military obligation.

WHILE THE NORTH ATLANTIC TREATY made allies out of the signatory nations, it did not create a command structure that could direct their militaries. The need for better organization was thrown into stark relief by the Soviet Union’s successful testing of an atomic bomb in 1949 and the beginning of the Korean War the following year. In 1950 NATO forces were placed under a single headquarters command outside Paris, and General Dwight D. Eisenhower was named Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. Since that time, the post has always been filled by an American general or admiral.

NATO has never maintained a standing army of its own or paid soldiers directly; that is left to the individual member states whose soldiers serve in their own national armed forces. Nor does NATO buy weaponry—with the exception of a squadron of AWACS surveillance aircraft purchased in the 1980s and deployed ever since.

During the Cold War the land forces at NATO’s disposal came under the direction of Allied headquarters, which was further divided into regional commands for northern, central, and southern Europe. Maritime defense was entrusted to the Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic, headquartered at Norfolk, Virginia. NATO’s naval mission in the Atlantic was to keep open the vital ocean supply lines to Europe in the face of an anticipated onslaught of Soviet subs, surface ships, and warplanes.

Though the treaty has not been altered in its six decades, the strategic stance of NATO has evolved with the times. In the 1950s the doctrine of “massive retaliation”—in which the United States would respond with large-scale use of nuclear weapons in response to even a conventional Soviet attack—dominated. In the 1960s the United States and NATO moved to the doctrine of Flexible Response, in which the alliance could choose from a wider range of responses to aggression, including nonmilitary ones. From 1969 to 1993, the American military participated in a series of annual NATO exercises known as “Reforger,” designed to ensure that additional forces could be deployed quickly to West Germany in the event of a full-scale Soviet attack.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union and its own communist-bloc Warsaw Pact alliance in the late 1980s and early ’90s, the original reason for NATO’s existence disappeared, even as new challenges arose. The crumbling of communist regimes in Eastern Europe allowed suppressed ethnic hatreds to resurface, especially in the former Yugoslavia, where NATO intervened against Serbia to prevent ethnic cleansing in the breakaway region of Kosovo. The critical Article 5 of the treaty has been triggered only once: In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., NATO dispatched AWACS aircraft to patrol the east coast of the United States.

Today 28 nations, including some from the former Warsaw Pact, are members of NATO, and the organization’s focus has shifted far from its 1950s, nation-state, total-war approach. Violent extremism and the instability engendered by failed or rapidly changing states—such as Libya—has led NATO to reach beyond its member nations to undertake joint operations with provisional partners like the Arab League. But in every case its decisions are “the expression of the collective will of all 28 member countries since all decisions are taken by consensus.”

In the past decade NATO has faced its own internal battles. The 2008 recession hit European nations especially hard, making them ever more reluctant to devote scarce public funds to defense. NATO seemed destined to fade into strategic irrelevance. Yet its very existence has aggravated a newly assertive Russia under Vladimir Putin. Ukraine’s desire for closer links with Europe and the overthrow of the pro-Russian regime in Kiev in early 2014 caused Putin to move militarily against Ukraine, seizing Crimea and supporting pro-separatist rebels. Putin’s aggression has revived the fears that led to NATO’s founding. “This is the first time since the end of World War II that one European country has tried to grab another’s territory by force,” declared NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in September 2014. “Europe must not turn away from the rule of law to the rule of the strongest.”

Attorney Marc G. DeSantis is a frequent contributor to MHQ’s War List and Laws of War.