The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was created in 1949. NATO was seen as being a viable military deterrent against the military might of the Soviet Union. In response to NATO admitting the membership of West Germany, the Soviet Union was to gather all its client states in Eastern Europe into the Warsaw Pact in May 1955. The heart of NATO beat around the military and financial muscle of the United States. However, because the post-war Soviet threat was perceived to be against Western Europe, the headquarters of NATO was based in Brussels, Belgium.


The original members of NATO were USA, UK, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxemburg, France, Canada, Portugal, Italy, Norway, Denmark and Iceland. Greece and Turkey joined in 1952.


The principal part of NATO membership states:


“The parties of NATO agree that an armed attack against one of more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against all of them. Consequently, they agree that if such an armed attack occurs, each of them in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence will assist the party or parties being attacked, individually and in concert with other parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”


This agreement did not tie a member state down to a military response but a response as “deemed necessary” was expected.


In 1952 at the Lisbon Conference, member states discussed expanding NATO to 96 divisions – this was in response to the perceived threat of communism after the North Korean invasion of South Korea and the subsequent Korean War. However, in 1953, it was agreed to limit NATO to 35 divisions but with a greater reliability on nuclear weapons. 


For many years, only America provided the nuclear weaponry for NATO, though both the United Kingdom and France were eventually to produce their own nuclear capability.


France, angered by what they saw as the dominance of America in NATO, effectively withdrew in 1959 and developed her own independent nuclear force. Charles de Gaulle made it clear that only the French government would determine when and if such weaponry would be used. He ordered the withdrawal of the French Mediterranean Naval Fleet from NATO command and in the same year banned all foreign nuclear weapons from French soil. In 1966 all French military forces were withdrawn from NATO’s command. France remained a member of NATO but had its armed forces under the control of the French government. However, in secret talks, plans were made to put French forces back under NATO command in the event of an invasion of Western Europe by Warsaw Pact states. 


In the immediate aftermath of World War Two, Western Europe relied on American support and power to defend itself against the Soviet threat. However, as Western Europe found its feet after World War Two, a more independent streak was identified that deemed America to be too dominant in NATO and West European affairs – hence the move by France to make herself an independent nuclear state. In the UK something similar occurred – though the UK was less openly critical of America’s dominance of NATO – and an independent nuclear capability was developed based around the V Force (Vulcan, Victor and Valiant bombers) and the Blue Streak missile development. Both France and the UK developed an independent nuclear submarine capability as well – though the UK purchased US missiles, thus empathising America’s importance to Western Europe and NATO.


To defend the heart of Europe, NATO based a huge land and air force in West Germany. This was a clear response to the Soviet Army that dominated the Warsaw Pact. In 1979, in response to a build-up of Warsaw Pact military strength, NATO agreed to deploy American Cruise and Pershing II missiles in Western Europe. In 1983-84, when the Warsaw Pact deployed SS-20 missiles in Eastern Europe, NATO responded by deploying more modern Pershing missiles. Combined with her nuclear capability, NATO could also call on a formidable conventional force.  


In  1983, NATO claimed to have within Western Europe:


1,986,000 ground force troops


90 divisions


20,722 main battle tanks


2,080 anti-tank guided weapon launchers


182 submarines


385 anti-submarine submarines


314 capital ships (carriers, cruisers etc)


821 Other naval craft


4,338 fighter aircraft


6869 anti-aircraft guns and surface to air missiles.


With such a military capacity, NATO and Western governments were in a strong position to negotiate with Moscow an arms reduction. It was generally considered that the USSR had major financial troubles and could not compete with NATO in the modernisation of its weaponry. This dual approach – reducing weapons while at the same time maintaining a very strong military force – reaped dividends in the era of Gorbachev and Reagan and helped to end the Cold War.