Canada and the birth of NATO

The first session of the North Atlantic Council was held on Sept. 17, 1949, in Washington, D.C.

The first session of the North Atlantic Council was held on Sept. 17, 1949, in Washington, D.C.

On April 4, 1949, Canada and 11 other countries signed the North Atlantic Treaty in Washington, D.C., to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), its mandate to “safeguard the freedom and security of member countries through political and military means.”
After the Second World War, Canada had a strong economy and new confidence. It had come out of the war resilient and strong and with some international influence, a middle, rather than a major, power.
The war and its devastation of Europe and the West’s fear of the Soviet Union persuaded Canada that it needed to have a voice internationally.
Additionally, the revelations by  Soviet spy Igor Gouzenko that a spy ring was operating in Canada and had penetrated the Department of External Affairs underscored Canada’s position between two large hostile neighbours.
Post-war U.S.S.R.

The alliance’s 28 member states are shown in green. Candidate members are shown in orange.

The alliance’s 28 member states are shown in green. Candidate members are shown in orange.

The pre-war tension between Soviet and Western powers had resurfaced, manifesting as disputes over peace agreements and reparations. The Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (U.S.S.R.) focused its post-war reconstruction on heavy industry rather than agriculture and consumer goods, with limited credits from Britain and Sweden, and machinery and raw materials from Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe. The Soviet people suffered the hardships of a devastated economy while Joseph Stalin expanded Soviet military power, tightening domestic control and citing the threat of war with the West as the rationale for the peoples’ repression. Stalin wanted to create a buffer zone of the eastern European countries that the Red Army had occupied during the war and worked to help local communist parties gain power. By 1948, seven eastern European countries were under Communist rule. Soviet power in Eastern Europe created concern that the ideology and authority of the U.S.S.R. could spread into western European countries such as France or Italy. However, the war had weakened the Soviet Union as well, and the Soviet threat may have been overestimated. Nonetheless, it impelled decisions among Western nations.

Then-external affairs minister Lester B. Pearson signs the NATO treaty for Canada.

Then-external affairs minister Lester B. Pearson signs the NATO treaty for Canada.

The wreckage in Western Europe, increasing American isolationism, and the perceived Soviet threat revived the doctrine of collective security that had been raised by the League of Nations. However, in September 1936 in Geneva, then-prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King had renounced the idea, asserting that the league should be devoted to conciliation and mediation, not punishment. Canada had been a founding member of the league, established at the end of the First World War with the goal of keeping peace internationally through arbitration. It failed to meet that goal and was replaced by the United Nations in 1945.
United Nations: Prelude to NATO
The UN Charter created five permanent member states on the Security Council with the “right to veto”: the U.S., the U.K., China, France and the U.S.S.R. (succeeded by the Russian Federation in 1990). This special status was granted because the permanent members had played key roles in establishing the UN and would continue to be important to its mandate. A veto right allows each permanent member to cast a negative vote in the Security Council, thereby blocking the adoption of substantive changes to council resolutions, regardless of international support. Tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union were escalating and as long as the Soviet Union could exercise its veto power, the UN, whose many members had their own ideologies and interests, could not be a vehicle for ensuring collective security.
Within the UN, Canada’s new feeling of independence was bruised by the assertion of Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet delegate, that Canada was only “the boring second fiddle in the American orchestra.” The remark stung, being so close to the truth. Canadian diplomats looked for ways to give Canada options in its own right.

Escott Reid called the NATO alliance a “providential solution.”

Escott Reid called the NATO alliance a “providential solution.”

Western governments had begun to demobilize in 1945, repatriating weary troops and reducing defence establishments. The U.S., which had emerged from the war as a superpower, was not interested in assuming the international burdens that Britain and France could no longer carry. it would agree to provide military support only for a united Europe able to demonstrate it could initiate its own defence. In March 1947, then-president Harry Truman, addressing Congress and clearly sending a message to the Soviets, committed the U.S. to supporting “free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure.”
The U.K., France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Belgium signed the Brussels Treaty in March 1948 to create the Western Union. The Brussels Treaty provided the evidence the U.S. wanted and became the foundation for the North Atlantic Treaty (also known as the Washington Treaty). Despite historically having refused to become entangled in such alliances, the U.S.  Senate adopted the Vandenberg Resolution, allowing the U.S. to participate constitutionally in a mutual defence system in times of peace.

A promising proposal
In August 1947, at the annual Couchiching Conference held by the Canadian Institute on Public Affairs, the possibility of a collective security alliance among North Atlantic democracies was raised by Escott Reid, chief aide to Lester B. Pearson, under-secretary of state for external affairs (now Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development). Reid saw such an alliance as “a providential solution” to many of Canada’s concerns. Prior to the Couchiching Conference, Reid had suggested in a memorandum to the top level of External Affairs that the North Atlantic countries should “band together, under the leadership of the United States, to form ‘a new regional security organization’ to deter Soviet expansion.”
Besides protecting Europe, this defensive alliance would involve the U.S. fully in world affairs and provided potential economic benefits for Canada by linking its trade partners.
Reid envisioned an organization that could be joined by “any state willing to accept the obligations of membership” in which “each member state could accept a binding obligation to pool the whole of its economic and military resources with those of the other members if any power should be found to have committed aggression against any one of the members” [Reid’s emphasis]. Reid’s presentation at Couchiching was hardly listened to and barely made the papers. On Pearson’s advice, the crucial details of the anticipated organization were left out of the hand-outs given to reporters, who apparently didn’t listen to Reid with much comprehension. The full speech was reprinted by External Affairs the following month, too late to be newsworthy.
Although Reid’s perspective was not widely accepted within External Affairs — in fact, many opposed it — Pearson and Louis St. Laurent, secretary of state for external affairs, promoted the idea. St. Laurent delivered Reid’s message to the UN General Assembly in September 1947, noting that the “veto privilege…may well destroy the United Nations because it will destroy confidence in the ability of the Security Council to act internationally, to act effectively, and to act in time.”
Collective security was soon discussed in London and Washington. In November, the U.S., Britain and Canada began informal and confidential discussions in Washington and New York about collective defence. In January 1948, then-British prime minister Clement Attlee sent a top secret telegram to Mackenzie King outlining the need to stop the Soviet advance into Europe. Reid later called the telegram “the opening gun of the successful British campaign” leading to the North Atlantic Treaty.

The North Atlantic Treaty
In January 1948, in the British House of Commons, British foreign secretary Ernest Bevin introduced the idea of a “treaty of alliance and mutual assistance” within the framework of the UN Charter. The talks that led to the North Atlantic Treaty were held among the U.S., Canada and the powers of the Brussels Treaty (Luxembourg was represented by Belgium). Representatives from Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. made up the core drafting team. Other countries contributed to the initial discussions, assisted by a working group. The Washington Paper, issued on Sept. 9, 1948, outlined the possible articles for the final treaty. Formal treaty negotiations began on Dec. 10, with participants agreeing that collective defence would be at the heart of the alliance. However, there were other issues, such as geographic scope, membership, and rights and responsibilities, to be resolved.
The treaty, among the shortest of such documents, includes only 14 articles. It gets its authority from Article 51 of the UN Charter, which allows that nothing in the charter will impede the “inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.” Under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, the collective defence article, an aggressor takes up a game of “you fight me, you fight my gang.” An attack on one NATO country is considered an attack on all.
Some members of the drafting group wanted more than military co-operation within the alliance. They envisioned social and economic co-operation, but could not reach a consensus on what that would look like. Canada was represented at the treaty negotiations by Hume Wrong, ambassador to the U.S., who had served in the League of Nations and who believed that Canada should be treated like a major power in areas in which its greatest resources — food, minerals and air power — were required. He believed, as did many, that the treaty’s mandate should be defence alone. But the Canadian government saw the potential for a broader scope, and Pearson and Reid pushed him to argue for a clause to eliminate economic conflicts among members.
Although he had misgivings, Wrong managed to secure Article 2, nicknamed the “Canadian article,” which called on alliance members to improve themselves and each other politically, socially and economically — to be nicer and better. The argument behind this niceness clause was the necessity of a North Atlantic community if the alliance were to endure and to find the higher ground necessary to create a safer world.

The Canadian Article
Article 2 is the foundation of NATO’s political and non-military work. It is reinforced by Article 4, which encourages consultation among NATO members when, “in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.”
The Canadian article was intended to balance NATO’s military aspects, despite there being no consensus on how NATO would operate outside its military mandate.
Signing the treaty did not signify the completion of Article 2, nor was it only a Canadian concern. As John Milloy concludes in The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 1948-1957: Community or Alliance?, other countries, including the U.S. and Britain, were interested as well. In the fall of 1949 and the following spring, the alliance examined its structure and sought to address international problems. West Germany had yet to be reintegrated into the West, Britain remained reluctant to deepen its ties to Europe and the Organization for European Economic Co-operation was proving ineffective. It seemed possible that an alliance linking North America and Western Europe economically and politically could create a stable structure for addressing the problems, and even possibly replace the OEEC.
Neither Canada nor the U.S. could visualize how to develop the treaty’s non-military side. Britain embraced the idea of an Atlantic union and advocated for Article 2, particularly its economic aspects, at NATO meetings in May 1950. However, France feared that West German involvement with the non-military parts of the treaty would lead to Germany’s rearmament. As an alternative, France successfully proposed giving the U.S. and Canada associate status in the OEEC. Britain could not be persuaded to accept this new twist as a good idea. The beginning of the Korean War in 1950 strengthened the British position.

Bid to add economics to defence
Involvement in the war diverted key resources, leading to shortages and straining budgets. The U.K. hoped that NATO would assume some of the work of the OEEC and pushed for NATO to assume a greater role in economic co-ordination. Others saw greater advantages in the two organizations co-operating, and although informal links were created in the fall of 1950, the matter remained unresolved through 1951.
Concurrently, many NATO members felt that the organization was too militarized and little more than a tool for the U.S. to advance its own needs; alliance members seemed in danger of becoming mere members of “America’s orchestra,” as Gromyko had charged. Fuelling this fire, the U.S. was pressuring the alliance to admit Greece and Turkey, using the non-military side of the alliance as justification. Washington urged that a Committee of Five foreign ministers be established to suggest how Article 2 could be implemented.
There being few ideas for how it should work, the committee focused on identifying areas where NATO activity was considered inappropriate because it interfered with, or overlapped, the work of other international organizations. Alliance members disagreed on where to maintain NATO headquarters, were unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary for collaboration in the areas of labour mobility and cultural programs, and could not reach a consensus on foreign policy consultation to develop the Atlantic community. Enthusiasm waned and the idea of an Atlantic economic community and the working groups dissolved.
Despite NATO’s continuing claim that the Canadian article forms the basis of collaboration in the interest of peace, little has come of it. At the treaty’s signing ceremony, Lester Pearson said that the treaty born of “fear and frustration” was “a pledge for peace and progress.” The abiding importance of Article 2 today is that pledge, the fact of its existence and its potential.

Laura Neilson Bonikowsky is an Alberta writer and lifetime student of history.

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Laura Neilson Bonikowsky is an Alberta writer.

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