NATO Treaty Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

On April 4, 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty was signed in Washington, DC, by foreign ministers from Canada, the United States, and ten European nations—Belgium, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, and Portugal. Secretary of State Dean Acheson signed the treaty for the United States. The North Atlantic Treaty was a key agreement for the United States, and its fifth article was a mutual defense pact against aggression toward any of the signers, in support of which the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was established. In the context of a rising Soviet threat, the treaty served to establish a bulwark against any Soviet maneuvers in Europe.

Summary Overview

On April 4, 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty was signed in Washington, DC, by foreign ministers from Canada, the United States, and ten European nations—Belgium, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, and Portugal. Secretary of State Dean Acheson signed the treaty for the United States. The North Atlantic Treaty was a key agreement for the United States, and its fifth article was a mutual defense pact against aggression toward any of the signers, in support of which the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was established. In the context of a rising Soviet threat, the treaty served to establish a bulwark against any Soviet maneuvers in Europe.

Defining Moment

The North Atlantic Treaty was preceded by European agreements that sought to counter a perceived growing threat from the Soviet Union. In the years following the end of World War II, the Soviet Union set up Communist governments in many central and Eastern European states, and tensions were high between the Soviet Union and its erstwhile World War II allies in Western Europe. Though the Soviet Union was a member of the United Nations, the rest of Europe had reason to fear its expansionist goals. In March 1948, France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg signed the Treaty of Brussels. Under this treaty, the Western Union Defence Organization was created in September 1948. The United States and Canada were not included in either of these, however, and a broader alliance between Western Europe and North America was soon underway. The North Atlantic Treaty drew on the Treaty of Brussels and the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, known as the Rio Treaty, for much of its language. (Signed in 1947, the Rio Treaty was an example of a regional agreement among the nations of the Americas.)

Members of the North Atlantic Treaty agreed to mutual defense—an armed attack against any of them would be considered an attack against all. The United Nations allowed for self-defense, and if an attack were to happen, each member nation would be obligated to assist, though there was discretion as to what type of assistance could be offered. The United Nations remained the primary means of dealing with an international crisis; however, the North Atlantic Treaty allowed for self-defense in light of an attack. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which established mutual defense, has been invoked only once, by the United States, following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The treaty also allows its members to consult on military affairs without invoking an armed response. This provision, stated in article 4, has been invoked several times in NATO history to seek a resolution to a dispute or to determine a response to a military act. Turkey has invoked the article in conflicts with Syria, and Poland did so in 2014 to determine how to respond to Russian aggression in Crimea. NATO is headquartered in Brussels, Belgium, and its membership has grown from twelve to twenty-eight countries. In addition to military security and cooperation, NATO promotes democratic values and international cooperation.

Author Biography

John Dewey Hickerson was the US diplomat responsible for much of the North Atlantic Treaty's language. He was born in Crawford, Texas, in 1898, graduated from the University of Texas, and joined the Foreign Service soon after. Hickerson served in a variety of posts in Latin American and Canada until 1928, when he became the assistant chief of the US State Department's Division of West European Affairs in Washington, DC. He held this position for twelve years, also serving on the State Department's Board of Appeals and Review from 1934 until 1941. Hickerson became the secretary of the American section of the Permanent Joint Board on Defense in 1940 and held this position through the war. He was chief of the State Department's Division of British Commonwealth Affairs and deputy director of the Office of European Affairs from 1944 to 1947, and he was deeply involved in the establishment of the United Nations. He was promoted to director of the Office of European Affairs in 1947, and in this capacity, he led the team that drafted the North Atlantic Treaty. Hickerson was the assistant secretary of state from 1949 to 1953 and then served as US ambassador to Finland and the Philippines. Hickerson retired to Washington, DC, and died in Bethesda, Maryland, in 1989.

Historical Document

The Parties to this Treaty reaffirm their faith in the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and their desire to live in peace with all peoples and all governments.

They are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.

They seek to promote stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area.

They are resolved to unite their efforts for collective defence and for the preservation of peace and security.

They therefore agree to this North Atlantic Treaty:

ARTICLE 1

The Parties undertake, as set forth in the Charter of the United Nations, to settle any international dispute in which they may be involved by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security and justice are not endangered, and to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.

ARTICLE 2

The Parties will contribute toward the further development of peaceful and friendly international relations by strengthening their free institutions, by bringing about a better understanding of the principles upon which these institutions are founded, and by promoting conditions of stability and well-being. They will seek to eliminate conflict in their international economic policies and will encourage economic collaboration between any or all of them.

ARTICLE 3

In order more effectively to achieve the objectives of this Treaty, the Parties, separately and jointly, by means of continuous and effective self-help and mutual aid, will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.

ARTICLE 4

The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.

ARTICLE 5

The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all, and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually, and in concert with the 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.

Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall immediately be reported to the Security Council. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.

ARTICLE 6

For the purpose of Article 5, an armed attack on one or more of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack:

on the territory of any of the Parties in Europe or North America, on the Algerian Departments of France, on the territory of Turkey or on the islands under the jurisdiction of any of the Parties in the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer;

on the forces, vessels, or aircraft of any of the Parties, when in or over these territories or any area in Europe in which occupation forces of any of the Parties were stationed on the date when the Treaty entered into force or the Mediterranean Sea or the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer.

ARTICLE 7

The Treaty does not effect, and shall not be interpreted as affecting, in any way the rights and obligations under the Charter of the Parties which are members of the United Nations, or the primary responsibility of the Security Council for the maintenance of international peace and security.

ARTICLE 8

Each Party declares that none of the international engagements now in force between it and any other of the Parties or any third State is in conflict with the provisions of this Treaty, and undertakes not to enter into any international engagement in conflict with this Treaty.

ARTICLE 9

The Parties hereby establish a Council, on which each of them shall be represented to consider matters concerning the implementation of this Treaty. The Council shall be so organised as to be able to meet promptly at any time. The Council shall set up such subsidiary bodies as may be necessary; in particular it shall establish immediately a defence committee which shall recommend measures for the implementation of Articles 3 and 5.

ARTICLE 10

The Parties may, by unanimous agreement, invite any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area to accede to this Treaty. Any State so invited may become a party to the Treaty by depositing its instrument of accession with the Government of the United States of America. The Government of the United States of America will inform each of the Parties of the deposit of each such instrument of accession.

ARTICLE 11

This Treaty shall be ratified and its provisions carried out by the Parties in accordance with their respective constitutional processes. The instruments of ratification shall be deposited as soon as possible with the Government of the United States of America, which will notify all the other signatories of each deposit. The Treaty shall enter into force between the States which have ratified it as soon as the ratification of the majority of the signatories, including the ratifications of Belgium, Canada, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States, have been deposited and shall come into effect with respect to other States on the date of the deposit of their ratifications.

ARTICLE 12

After the Treaty has been in force for ten years, or at any time thereafter, the Parties shall, if any of them so requests, consult together for the purpose of reviewing the Treaty, having regard for the factors then affecting peace and security in the North Atlantic area including the development of universal as well as regional arrangements under the Charter of the United Nations for the maintenance of international peace and security.

ARTICLE 13

After the Treaty has been in force for twenty years, any Party may cease to be a Party one year after its notice of denunciation has been given to the Government of the United States of America, which will inform the Governments of the other Parties of the deposit of each notice of denunciation.

ARTICLE 14

This Treaty, of which the English and French texts are equally authentic, shall be deposited in the archives of the Government of the United States of America. Duly certified copies will be transmitted by that government to the governments of the other signatories.

Document Analysis

The North Atlantic Treaty begins with both a reaffirmation of the principals of the Charter of the United Nations and confirmation that this agreement is not a replacement for it. The introduction makes plain that the treaty's role is as an anti-Communist political alliance. The nations who signed it are protecting “democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.” The treaty protects the “peace and security” of its adherents, who also resolve to settle disputes peacefully, in agreement with the founding principles of the United Nations. Signers pledge to refrain “from the threat or use of force” in their dealings with other nations. In addition, the signers will promote democracy around the world by “strengthening their free institutions” and encouraging economic cooperation. These countries will be prepared to meet an attack through vigorous self-defense and pledge to consult when “territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.”

Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty goes to the heart of the alliance. The treaty is one of mutual defense, and, as such, an attack against any one country in the alliance will be considered an attack against all of them. The treaty stops short of requiring that assistance be rendered through armed force and leaves it to the determination of the nations involved to decide how they will respond. If the right of self-defense is invoked, the United Nations Security Council will be immediately informed and will devise a proper response. An armed NATO response is designed to provide temporary defense, while the United Nations remains the ultimate governing body. Article 6 expands the range of the territory covered under this treaty to include areas not in the North Atlantic, but under the control of member states.

Article 9 establishes the organization that is to administer the treaty and provides for a way for nations to easily consult with one another. It also calls for the immediate establishment of a “defense committee,” and invites “any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty” to join NATO. The treaty can be reviewed after ten years, signers can leave after twenty, and the signed treaty is to be deposited in Washington, DC.

Essential Themes

The North Atlantic Treaty went into effect on August 24, 1949, when President Harry S. Truman accepted the ratification of the other nations. The primary goal of the treaty was to provide for the defense of Western Europe and North America against the mounting threat from the Soviet Union. Though the United Nations held ultimate responsibility for international peacekeeping, the Soviet Union and other Communist countries were members; therefore, the United Nations could not be relied upon to deter potential Soviet aggression. After World War II, Western European nations sought a strong alliance that would discourage Soviet expansion. With the addition of the United States and Canada, the North Atlantic Treaty became a powerful bulwark against Communism and a political organization for the promotion of democracy.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Gaddis, John Lewis. The Cold War: A New History. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print.
  • Kaplan, Lawrence S. NATO 1948: The Birth of the Transatlantic Alliance. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007. Print.
  • “The North Atlantic Treaty.” National Archives Featured Documents. US National Archives and Records Administration, n.d. Web. 12 Jan. 2015.
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