Review: NATO and the United States: An Enduring Alliance


Kaplan, Lawrence. NATO and the United States: The Enduring Alliance (Boston: Twaine Publishers, 1988), 237 pages.

The only thing better suited to sell a book than talent is timing. For Lawrence Kaplan, of the Lyman L. Lemnitzer Center for NATO Studies at Kent State University, these two conditions collided in a perfectly-placed accretion of historical experience and perspective in 1988. His examination of The Enduring Alliance in no way anticipated the climactic fall of the Soviet Union, but was in fact the freshest and most authoritative account of NATO history in print when it collapsed. Did Kaplan have it wrong? Did he miss something? And how does the organization which emerged compare (or contrast) with the NATO Kaplan knew, let alone the one he envisioned? Better reasons than these to read his book include his very detailed narrative fluidity, which transports the reader into the sinews of decades of intricate diplomatic exchange whose causal nuances can not be translated into summary form; his staggering subject mastery of those different eras; and last but not least, his merciful brevity. It is for these reasons and many others that Kaplan’s work is to be reliably discovered in the bibliographic indices of all credible authors who followed in the discipline, to include House, Peterson, and Sloan.



Kaplan begins with the European movement in 1949 which advocated, among other things, a Europe that was federated, limited, and integrated. In exposition, he traces the efforts of the various nations to coax the isolationist US into the second world war, but in the NATO initiative, he describes a readily available latency of support within the American political landscape, which he terms “ a new foreign policy elite” defined by such branding as “Ivy League,” “Wall Street,: and “Woodrow Wilson,” marked by “Anglophilia,” and “Republican Bias.” (p. 11) Once established, debated, ratified, and organized, however, NATO needed a conceptual strategy to accomplish the historic mission it had taken on. The first strategic concept revolved around containment of the Soviet Union, and it is through this lens which the Korean war must be understood. However, as Kaplan observes, military aid depends on economic infrastructure. So the political track conceived and inspired by George Kennan was underwritten by the economic track administered by George Marshall. Officially termed the Truman Doctrine, it would be carried on by Dwight Eisenhower, who was briefly anointed the Supreme Allied Commander of Europe before winning the election of 1952, eight years prior to famously warning against the dangers of the military industrial complex in a farewell speech which Kaplan does not reference. He does concede in the retrospect that “how much of Soviet militancy stemmed from fears of the west’s stoking German revanchism is still not measurable a generation later.” (p. 17)

For better or worse, the first generation of leaders in NATO’s history were offered plenty of causes for alarmism. Kaplan traces the path of crisis through a coup in Prague, a successful leftist movement in Italy, and some illicit arm twisting in Norway, to a heated contest for ratification resulting in NSC-9 and the subordination of NATO to the United Nation’s Charter by the efforts of Dean Acheson, upon senatorial consultation secured by Arthur Vandenburg. Ironically, the first thing that really went wrong after that was in Yugoslavia, as would be the case four decades later. But Kaplan retains the conventional history that Korea was the impetus for the first major organizational effort. The Western European Union members composed the planning group. (p. 38) Each ally would “assume the obligations it was best qualified for.” (p. 39) But after Korea, Paul Nitze observed that the US budget was unrealistic, and there was great concern that the organization wasn’t ready for a similar threat as close to home as Germany. Kaplan notes that the war also “affirmed the US position against Communism,” which helped to unify European support in the interim. (p. 44) Subsequent initiatives based on this position drew the ire of Joe Kennedy and Herbert Hoover. (p. 48) The command structure had four centers: Northern, Central, and Southern European, and the Mediterranean, the latter becoming especially critical upon entry of Italy, Turkey, and Greece. (p. 49-51)

By the end of the decade, Kaplan observes that the problems of Germany, the European Defense Community, atomic warfare, and the “will” to aggressively pursue their defense development obligations, all remained unsolved. If Mccarthyism slowed and muddied the functions of expansion, the appearance of Sputnik galvanized a generation around a heady mix of science, technology and paranoia. One major theme in Kaplan’s treatment of NATO history (which persists to present day) is the nuisance question of out-of-area issues. The Suez had damaged the relationship between the US and the French and British, while improving the relationship between Nasser and the Soviets. Hungary and Poland fell behind the Iron curtain. Neither NATO nor the west could affect these changes in the capacity of a nuclear umbrella alone, so the policy of containment had to be expanded (under the influence of Foster Dulles) to include Liberation. But nevertheless, according to Kaplan’s reading it is apparent that these efforts amounted to little more than “holding the line” (p. 55) Meanwhile, uncertainty remained about procedural questions which transcended entire philosophical movements, such as the Brecker objection to criminal jurisdiction of host nations over US troops which (in the view of many) compromised American sovereignty.

Gains soon materialized in the form of an European Economic Committee, which was the product of the Treaty of Rome, but in a crass parting maneuver, the French vetoed British entry into that group just prior to evicting troops and “disassociating” itself with the NATO military ediface, though not the alliance in name, of course. What was good for the goose was good for the gander, and gains in the USSR were evident. Kaplan observes a decade-end GNP which was 50% higher than the United States. An observed (though later debunked) ICBM missile gap induced fear and derision, and time and complacency had eroded the urgency of the German question to the point of normalcy. This was the geopolitical backdrop against which General Norstad decided to reject the deceptive utopian platitudes of Nikita Khrushchev and proceed with certain forward missile installations. The new thinking was that a credible response would enable negotiation in ways that passivity would not. It is with these premises in play that Kaplan is able to make the claim that by 1962 the Soviet Union “had essentially normalized,” and that “Nevertheless, headlines from 1960 to 1962 were still filled with threat.” (p. 83) Egypt and Algeria were disturbances to the NATO fabric, but in this time, the Soviets “were less successful in Latin America,” in Kaplan’s judgement. But to be fair to Khrushchev, the Cuban Missile Crisis was not a zero-sum standoff. Though historians scoff, the removal of Jupiter missiles from Turkey by threat of nuclear force in the western hemisphere was not nothing. And finally, Kaplan observes that the “cost of the Pax Americana” was the “shrinking of liberty at home.” (p. 88)

France appears to be the only nation among the first fifteen to view these outcomes as unfavorable evidence against the enanglement. Kaplan enumerates several key factors which led De Gaulle to go his own way, but most of them can be filed under a single heading, that in NATO, France simply was not grande. In this telling, the French equated the Americans and Soviets as brutish and impetuous, and resented the German resurgence enough to pursue an independent agreement with that country in 1963. (p. 95) In spite of the major organizational changes De Gaulle's exodus would precipitate, General Norstad once again intervened with a new plan, this time to make NATO an independent nuclear power, but this proposal met with much criticism. Among these changes were the Defense Planning Committee, the Nuclear Planning Group, and the International Military Staff, but all of these failed to mobilize a tangible response to the suppression of a liberal regime in Czechoslovakia by the Soviets. (p. 122, 123) Detente, the newest strategic concept, would have worked if not for the antagonisms of the Brezhnev doctrine, but once again, Kaplan invokes a sense of normalization through the 1970’s characterized by “bloc to bloc” respectability which culminated in the Helsinki “Final Agreement” in 1975. (p. 124, 125) This was effectively a concession to the principle of coexistence, though by then western culture had fully adapted to a ‘Mutually-Assured-Destruction’ mindset. The Helsinki Agreement followed the AntiBallistic Missile Treaty and the Mutual Balance of Force Reductions agreements of 1972 and 1973. In fact, Kaplan notes, “outside the Six-Day War in 1967, the Warsaw Pact did little to take advantage of America’s problems in Asia by initiating crises in Europe.” (p. 128)

The next major strategic conceptualization evolved from the decomposure of Kissinger’s Detente. In 1983, Helmut Sonnenfeldt entered the new concept of balance between superpowers. (p. 139) This was perhaps the only remaining strategy of preserving the sense, if not the reality, of American invulnerability. The familiar lessons of Cyprus and of the Salazar regime in Portugal were perhaps new to the second generation, and the question of committing to the Neutron bomb as the cornerstone of the next era only horrified everyone who considered it, because it accompanied the deluded sense that nuclear war could actually be winnable if not for the radiation and fallout. The message in 1977, spelled out by 464 Ground Launched Missiles, and 108 new Pershing II missiles, seems to have accomplished nothing at all in light of the Afghanistan invasion two years later, but it was better than nothing, and so Carter’s decision to supplement those strategies with an increased focus on Arms Control in 1979 was neither containment, nor liberation, nor detente. Installation of 572 missiles “on the territory of five NATO nations” was a Rooseveltian projection of strength that couldn’t protect the outside world, but historians are not wrong to point to the fact that the NATO countries themselves have enjoyed many years of peace apart from the wars and conflicts they themselves initiated. After all, the Big Stick can’t just be left to sit still and gather dust! The Soviets walked away from Geneva in protest, but that’s all they did. (p. 142)

Ronald Reagan initiated a “massive defense buildup,” an investment package estimated at 7% of Gross Domestic Product. (p. 159) But his policy decisions only created more problems. Kaplan’s list is more comprehensive, but in short: efforts in Taiwan would anger China; support for the Israelis would hinder relations with Lebanon; support for the Salvadoran Right would be at the expense of the Nicaraguan Left; the invasion of Grenada would anger the whole Warsaw bloc; protests against a Siberian pipeline would cause tension within NATO; embargoes would fluster the hawks, while weapons deals would outrage the doves. (p. 160) Beyond these trivialities, however, Kaplan says that “Soviet intimidation” would have the ultimate effect of unifying the allies. (p. 161) But he also questions the seriousness of those partners to meet their obligations in the future.

In the final chapter, Kaplan organizes the history of NATO policy into three categories: Out of Area Issues, Implications of Nuclear Warfare, and the relationship between the US and Europe. (p. 167) He reflects on the transition from anti colonialist isolationism on the part of the US to globalist superpower, and notes the concurrent transition of the UN from US mouthpiece to “anti-West forum...overnight.” (p. 168) He makes a casual reference to the 80’s optimism about the notorious “Star Wars” program hypothecated by President Reagan, which would “make nuclear weapons obsolete,” through the use of lasers, of course. (p. 173) While he acknowledges that unity in Europe will continue to be the most critical question in NATO’s future, he points to a “Europe [which] has emerged in the 1980’s that did not exist a generation ago, with a population and resources larger than those of either the Soviet Union or the United States. (p. 178) While such a status quo must have seemed appealing to westerners in the 1980’s, Kaplan points to other trends which he says will continue to produce conflict. Among these are Canada’s aversion to nuclear weapons on its soil, the poor relationship between Greece and Turkey, Italy’s preoccupation with security in Yugoslavia, Germany’s Ostpolitik, and the Icelandic Cod-fish wars. (p. 178)

While some of these seem silly to even mention in retrospect, (what is a cod fish?) others hit very close to home. Yugoslavia fell apart almost immediately after the Soviet Union collapsed, and reports estimate more than three million casualties between the Serbian and Bosnian genocides. Turmoil in Greece and Turkey have also produced colorful news stories over the decades. Canada still rides the bench. Islam, however, was nowhere on Kaplan’s radar, because of course the Mujahadeen had not yet asserted themselves, and at first few would even notice once they did. Nor, as has been mentioned, did Kaplan anticipate the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union.

This last item is easily the most fascinating and the most informative aspect of Kaplan’s cornerstone history. Of all the strategies of aggression, nothing worked. None of the conceivable methods had any real impact. Containment failed outright. Liberation required a degree of brinkmanship which found no credible leader crazy enough to take the risks. Detente wasn’t actually even a real strategy, just hot air and procrastination. The Dual Track decision in 1979 reflected the first inklings of enlightenment, of thinking outside of the box, and of understanding the problem from a quantitative level. It acknowledged its own impotence, while asserting a refusal to simply give up. But ultimately, the most effective strategy against the Soviet Union was, ironically, passivism. The ideology didn’t work. The practise didn’t work. The authority could not be wielded. The load could not be managed. What broke the Soviet Union, in the end, was its own weight. This is a description which is often speciously applied to Napoleon’s empire by amateur historians. The truth is quite different. Napoleon was defeated by intensely focused military effort, through direct confrontation.. Furthermore, his methods of social organization covered a continent and outlived his command. The same can not be said of the Soviet Union. Many of its satellites have already abandoned the entire ideological complex for stable, successful western capitalism and the warmth and comfort of NATO kinship. In this, Kaplan was as right as he was wrong. His last line in the book says that what would be required would be “evolution toward unity and in a Joint NATO-Warsaw bloc movement toward balanced arms reductions.” (p. 184) Both the US and Russia are presently wandering backwards down the path of reduction, but through the two decades following the decline of communism, NATO has made great strides toward regaining and rebuilding relationships with Warsaw nations, such as Poland, for instance. So while the former outcome would probably greatly disappoint Kaplan, the latter development would likely reassure him that even if some of the old wounds never heal, the trend of history appears to favor the western way of life. Whether a sudden nuclear holocaust will respect such preferentiality remains doubtful. But Kaplan’s NATO, “the enduring alliance” persists.

Our history has a distinctly cyclical quality to it, however. The role of antagonist which kept the alliance alive for so long, as played by the Soviet Union, is preserved in present-day Moscow. At the time of this writing, Vladimir Putin has taken Crimea without contest; he has taken the Ukraine in spite of contest; he is in firm political control of Syria, which itself has been destroyed; he has presided over one of the most prolific economic recoveries in the history of currency exchange; and he is now placing missiles in Kaliningrad, as usual, in stated response to NATO aggression.

In certain ways, this history doesn’t make any sense, except through the most cynical of lenses. The Soviets contributed nearly half of the total casualties in the fight against Hitler, just to be locked out of the Mediterranean at Yalta and cold-shouldered for the same kinds of Mccarthyism and interment practises practised by the US, while global leadership was retained by the two bankrupted imperialist powers who couldn’t stand to share it with each other. More than three times as many Soviets were killed in action than Jews, but the Jews got the world’s sympathy and their own state, where they would evolve their own brand of Nazi-esque torment for the Arabs who had once worked shoulder to shoulder with them to build the new society. The soviets got enmity. The Jews got an interminable pledge of support. Meanwhile, the Germans and Italians were permitted to join NATO within six years of its charter. Similarly, the Bosnians who met the Serbs on the field to butcher three million muslims were NATO members within a decade. On the other hand, NATO cherrypicks its missions based on the economic interests of its members, but cowers behind bureaucratic inertia in the face of real humanitarian threats.

For instance, NATO has been in Afghanistan for a decade and a half, maintaining a small mission with little press and little gain. They are conspicuously absent in the fight in Mosul, and in Syria, but have no qualms against skimming the Soviet border in such hotbeds of violence and disorder as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. They let the invasion of Georgia go by with little more than a soft reproach. The same with Ukraine and Crimea. From one point of view, the defense agreement only protects members; but from the other point of view, NATO has made expansion a priority since the mid-1990’s, and has routinely concerned itself with out-of-area situations which might be justifiably described as germane to the international order. However, there is a limit to the distance NATO seems prepared to go in defense of its principles. NATO stood by and watched Hungary and Czechoslovakia fall to the enemy. It had no interest in supporting the war in Korea or in Vietnam. It would not intervene in Afghanistan the first time around. It sat back and watched the Arab world attack Israel. History books will protrude with missions NATO wouldn’t take. And all the while, it was like pulling teeth for the US trying to get the other members to pull their own weight.

All rational arguments against NATO fall on the deaf ears of proponents. NATO’s worth is consistently reinforced by its success. None of the member nations have experienced an armed attack by a state-actor. This much is true, but it is also a senseless and hypocritical truth. Russia has also not experienced an armed attack since WWII. The logic is circular. Every defensive decision on one side results in a rash and alarmist posture on the other, into perpetuity. In order for history to change. One party must simply stop the cycle of alarmism. But since the elites in the military industrial complex have hijacked the political discourse in both nations, it is not likely that anything will change. The recent successes of the ultra-conservative movement in the US do not amount to optimism for a multilateral world. One hopes that the Kaplans of the world are still paying close attention. Their scrutiny will be more important than ever in the coming days.