NATO vs Russia: 75-year Standoff Transcript


Dwight Eisenhower, Founding of NATO, 1951 — Soundclip Courtesy NATO : This is an undertaking of 12 sovereign nations which have freely decided that free men can, in the face of danger, unite to the end, that both freedom and peace may be preserved.


Kate Jaimet: In 1949, the NATO military alliance of North American and Western European nations grew out of the rubble of the Second World War.


Dwight Eisenhower, Founding of NATO, 1951 — Soundclip Courtesy NATO: On the shoulder of every man in this headquarters is a patch which bears a message, as old is the language of free men. It said Vigilance is the price of liberty.


Kate Jaimet: On Europe's eastern flank, NATO troops face the Soviet Union across the Iron Curtain until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

In the detente that followed, some said the world no longer needed NATO. Yet the war in Ukraine has brought the military alliance once more into the spotlight.


Jens Stoltenberg — July 12, 2023 — Soundclip Courtesy NATO: When President Putin invaded Ukraine last year, he underestimated the bravery of the Ukrainian people. The courage of the Ukrainian forces. And the determination of the Ukrainian political leadership. But they also underestimated the unity and strength of the NATO alliance.


Kate Jaimet: How did NATO develop? Has it been a force for peace or for nuclear escalation? And what is its role in the world today? This is stories behind the history. Welcome to Stories Behind the History. I'm Kate Jaimet senior editor of Canada's History magazine. In this podcast, I speak with leading historians and witnesses to history to discover the people and events that shaped our nation.

Today, we bring you a special episode on the history of NATO with historian Timothy Sales. Timothy Sayles is Associate Professor of history at the University of Toronto and the author of Enduring Alliance A History of NATO and the Postwar Global Order. He spoke at a Canada's History Society event at Toronto's National Club, where this podcast was recorded.


Timothy Sayles: Thanks, everyone, for joining us here tonight to talk about NATO. I have to say it's a it's a real pleasure to be here and of course I'm happy to be here. But it is also one of those topics where if you have written about international security and people want to hear from you, things aren't so great in the world so NATO does matter again.

I've noticed just far more interest and awareness by Canadians. By Canadians students, just about what NATO is. And I want to use my time tonight to look back on the history of the alliance, try to bring it up to the present day to try and think about how this alliance that began with a treaty in 1949 really continues to shape our world today.

There's been so much discussion about what NATO could do or should do or shouldn't have done that. I think it's important to look at its history in this broader perspective. And I have to say that the future of NATO has always been in doubt. There have always been people who thought NATO was in crisis and about to end.

And indeed, Prime Minister and President time and again when they took office, they many of them asked, do we really need NATO? And so this question has been asked over and over again. And what's striking in the archives is that you see every presidency, every premiership ultimately conclude that NATO must remain in existence. And of course, that is why it remains with us today.

Now, I'm going to touch on three parts of the alliance's history just to get us started. I'm going to talk about why the alliance was created, why this treaty was signed in 1949. I want to talk about the challenges of maintaining an alliance, even when the world is nominally at peace. And I want to talk about why NATO survived the end of the Cold War and why it is with us today.

I'll start, though, with one major riddle, and I guess that is I think it's crucial to understand why the people that created NATO, why the men who created NATO and they were all men at the beginning, why they believe they needed to create it and why they believe it worked. The answer lies in the personal history of the men who started the alliance and their personal history.

Of course, we're talking about the late 1940s. Their personal history was war. Dwight Eisenhower, Field Marshal and Montgomery is going to play this major role in the land invasion of Europe. If we fast forward, though, less than ten years, Eisenhower is the supreme allied commander of NATO and Montgomery is his deputy. And there were many of their staff officers from the Second World War went to serve them in NATO.

And one of them wrote in his diary that watching Eisenhower and Montgomery working in Paris in the early fifties reminded them of the early 1940. So this is the military command structure. It's not only like the command structure of the Second World War, it is the same men, the same men who believe this is important and they believe it's important because of their experience.

These men had all seen war and and lived through war. And at the counsel tables of NATO. Underneath the suits, the musty worn by the men, there was real scar tissue. Real scar tissue gained during war. Things that had convinced these men that peace was not the natural condition of international affairs. That peace did not just happen, that it had to be achieved.


Dwight Eisenhower, Report to a joint session of Congress, June 18, 1945 – Soundclip courtesy US National Archives  (38.15) : When the Germans launched their blitzkrieg through Poland and the Low Countries and France, featuring tactical use of air power with the mechanized units on the ground, it seemed to a fearful world that at last there had been achieved the ultimate in destructive force that nothing could stand against the German army. When America entered the war arena, the Nazi machine was at the zenith of its power.

In 1940, it had overrun practically the whole of Western Europe and a year later in the East it had hammered back the Great Red Army into the far reaches of Russian territory.


Kate Jaimet: American General Dwight Eisenhower speaking to a joint session of Congress June 18th, 1945.


Timothy Sayles: And let me take this just one step further, just to show these historical connections. There's Erwin Rommel, German commander in charge of the defense of Normandy. He was actually away from the front on the night of June 5th, six before D-Day. And so his bespectacled chief of staff, Speidel, was in charge of the defenses. If we fast forward, though, Speidel is actually going to be the commander of allied troops in Western Europe.

Not only had these men, some of them fought together. Some of the men that made up NATO had actually fought against each other in the Second World War before coming together in this alliance. And it really does grow out of the devastation of the Second World War. Europe after 1945, was in many places simply rubble. It was a place of awful hardship, famine, disease and privation.

And that connected with the politics of the day. And the officials in London, in Ottawa and in Washington all worried that the people of Europe living in these conditions would do anything to avoid a return to war and war so that these people in this in these awful conditions would find local communist parties, and especially communist parties backed by the great promise of the Soviet Union as the best political future for Europe.

So there is real fear that the destruction of Europe is going to create political opportunity for the Soviet Union, in Western Europe.

The idea here in the 1940s isn't that the Soviet Union is going to invade Western Europe. That's not what anyone is worried about. What leaders are worried about is that the Soviet Union is going to use its muscle to convince the people of Western Europe to join their side of what will become the Cold War. And I want to give you some sort of practical explanations of what this looks like.

So three quick examples Finland, Norway and Czechoslovakia. At the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union basically made Finland an offer it couldn't refuse. It said that if the Soviet Union could direct the Finnish foreign and defense policy, Finland could remain its own state. And of course, Finnish leaders not about to return to war with the Soviet Union accepted this compromise.

And for the rest of the Cold War, we'd have this phrase Finlandization, which was the idea that the state would continue to exist. But it would be in thrall to Moscow. Now, in 1947, the Soviets began making similar sounds to Norway. Norway also had had a damaging war, and the Soviets were beginning to make suggestions of deals that Norway might strike with Moscow, mostly about access, sea access.

And the leaders of Norway were worried that their citizens would prefer that Norway concede to the Soviet Union rather than create a crisis or possibly a return to war. And we know this because the Norwegian leaders actually reached out to, again, London, Ottawa and Washington asking for these countries to stand with Norway so that Norway wouldn't have to stand by itself against the Soviet Union.

And it's actually this impending threat against Norway that's going to start a series of negotiations between the Americans, Brits and Canadians that are going to develop into the alliance. And then in 1948, in Czechoslovakia, there's just one more warning or example of what sort of the European world might look like without NATO. And that's this coup, uprising and coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948, when Czechoslovak Communists stage a coup and a revolt taking over Czechoslovakia.

So it wasn't an invasion by the Soviet Union, but the Soviets had troops nearby and they had indicated that they would intervene to support the coup plotters if they needed it. So that's the kind of worry that was facing Western European and North American leaders at the time. Not, again, that the Soviet Union was going to roll tanks west, but they could get whatever they wanted without firing a shot.

The solution then was to create an alliance, a system that's that signaled that no state in Western Europe would have to stand up to the Soviet Union itself or just concede to the Soviet demands. It would have been called salami tactics of the Soviets, just slowly slicing bits of Western Europe bit by bit. And this wasn't a terribly new idea.

The French had proposed something like this after the end of the First World War. It made sense to the British, to the Canadians. Canadian diplomats said at these meetings that if we had had some system like this in the 1930s, then maybe there would not have been a Second World War. The Americans took a little bit more convincing and we can get into that.

But ultimately, the United States did agree to signing an alliance with Canada and these Western European states. And so the alliance was created in 1949. That is what led to NATO this idea that these states being allied would give the countries freedom to pursue the foreign policies and domestic policies they wished and not to be isolated in Europe.


Dwight Eisenhower, Founding of NATO, 1951 – Soundclip Courtesy NATO : This is an undertaking of 12 sovereign nations which have freely decided that free men can, in the face of danger, unite to the end, that both freedom and peace may be preserved. The question that confronts us is whether we can achieve by individual and collective cooperation adequate defense of our way of life. It is for us to prove that we can of our own free will produce the unity and this steadfastness of purpose to match the fanaticism and the enforced unity of communistic dictatorship.


Kate Jaimet: American General Dwight Eisenhower, 1951.


Timothy Sayles: Over the 1950s. The alliance will continue and it will grow. It's as a result of the Korean War that Canada and the United States and these ground forces and air forces to Europe, and they're all there to demonstrate the solidarity of the allies to one another, to make sure, first of all, that the Soviets don't even think about threatening anyone, because if they did, they would have to face the whole alliance.

On on the one hand, I am saying to you that NATO was formed to maintain a balance of power in Europe. But I'm also saying something else, too, that international relations in this period had changed and that leaders had recognized that democracy and elections made international affairs in Europe more more volatile, more susceptible to shifts in public opinion.

NATO is not built because it is an alliance of democracies. In fact, it's better to think of it as a sort of democracy insurance alliance that is going to prevent any nervous or frightened public from urging its leadership to concede in times of crisis. In case the Soviet Union came knocking and made some sort of bullying threat.


NATO documentary “Borealis: Who Guarded the Northern Flank of NATO During the Cold War?” – Soundclip Courtesy NATO : The Ace Mobile Force is made up of specially trained units from NATO countries, including the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Italy and others. In the event of a crisis involving just one example, the North Cape area of Norway, the Ace Mobile Air Force, would be among the first NATO reinforcements to arrive on the scene.

The purpose of this multinational brigade sized force is to guarantee that war will not break out because of a miscalculation about the willingness of the United States or the other allies to come to the aid of any NATO member.


Timothy Sayles: The conditions that might have led to conflict a change in the balance of power did not lead to a Third World War. And already in the very early 1950s, there were people asking, has NATO put itself out of business, doesn't need to exist at all, or has it has it done its job right? The argument of the people who wanted to maintain NATO, the prime ministers and presidents who thought it was important, argued that simply by existing NATO was working.

And of course, you had this other opposite, opposite arguments that it was just the whistle that kept the tiger away. How could you know that it was working? And so leaders have always understood this paradox at the heart of NATO that its greatest success, its purpose of maintaining peace, is also going to give strength to those who argue it's unnecessary.

And this argument is going to be permanent. And it's been with the alliance from the 1950s almost all the way until today, although perhaps our current situation has sort of reminded people of this. This equation. So the alliance is built and there are these questions about it. But because war did not come, you have more and more people asking if it's necessary.

And in fact, more and more people in the countries arguing that it's not only unnecessary, but that it's dangerous. And so I'll just give you an example of this dynamic. When we think about the enormous anti-nuclear protests of the 1970s and 1980s, fundamental to a Cold War military alliance, or indeed a Cold War alliance today is nuclear weapons.

I mean, we don't talk about it very much. But at the heart of NATO's strength is a nuclear arsenal. And the nuclear weapons are integrated into NATO's plans. It is a part of the alliance. And yet you have this large number of citizens who are objecting to these weapons and especially to objecting to having these weapons in their country.

So the Germans, the Brits, but especially in Germany, these massive protests against the weapons. And I'm going to give you sort of three examples of how this plays out in the 1970s and eighties, this clash between public opinion and sort of the strategic necessity of of nukes. The first comes in the late seventies, when NATO is going to modernize its nuclear weapons in Europe.

And the Americans plan on introducing something called an enhanced radiation weapon that was really known in the press as the neutron bomb. And this really controversial weapon that instead of having a very big explosion, actually sort of irradiated the area around it. And the Soviets had a field day with this in their propaganda, because what better capitalist weapon than one that just kills people but leaves infrastructure intact?

So there was this major outpouring of protest against this one particular weapon. And it was so great that the United States ultimately didn't deploy it. They did not end up sending it to Europe, and they canceled their plans. Then a few years later, the United States again is trying to modernize its weapons and is going to introduce a new missile.

The intermediate nuclear forces that's been in the news recently because there is a treaty about them. And there were major protests, a major election in Germany about the deployment of these missiles, these protests were deeply related to it. The largest street protests in Europe before the Iraq war were over these these weapons. And they were deployed. They did go to Europe.

So so far, we're one for two if you're keeping track. And then in the late eighties, the United States wants to modernize its short range nuclear forces. And unfortunately, these are good for propaganda, too, because we had West in East Germany and the Soviets in East German propaganda said that the shorter the range, the better. The German. The idea that, you know, if you fire a short range nuclear weapon, it doesn't go very far.

If it's fired from West Germany, it might only go to East Germany. Major protests and the German government, the Federal Republic of Germany. West Germany asks the United States not to deploy this weapon that the United States thought was necessary for NADO. So at this point, NATO's one for three, right. And if you're playing for the Blue Jays, hitting 333 is fine.

But if you are a nuclear alliance that's dependent on nuclear weapons, you need to do better at modernizing your nuclear weapons. And so this this was continuing in the 1980s and really spelled trouble for the alliance. And in August of 1989, Brant Scowcroft, who was George H.W. Bush's national security adviser, told President Bush, President Bush the first, managing our relations with Germany is likely to be the most serious political challenge our country faces over the next decade unless we have to cope with a disintegrating Soviet Union.

And guess what? November 1989 months later, the Berlin Wall falls and the process is going to lead to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 has begun.


President Ronald Reagan – June 12, 1987 – Soundclip Courtesy White House Television Office: General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.


Kate Jaimet: American President Ronald Reagan speaking at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, June 12th, 1987.


Timothy Sayles: So the end of the Cold War didn't solve those major questions about how the alliance manages its weapons and what that's required of populations. Instead, we just have this new problem, which is managing the end of the Cold War. And the argument I want to make here is that the decisions to expand NATO east in Europe, for its membership to grow in that territory, to move east, actually begins right in this period in 1990 and in 1991.

It's actually the way the Cold War ends that is going to necessitate the expansion of the alliance in private already in 1990 and 1991, US officials with Canadian counterparts, but especially British British counterparts, were establishing the two main arguments for why NATO should continue after the Cold War, for which it was created and why it should expand. And the first is Germany.

Germany's home in Europe. Margaret Thatcher and George Bush talked about this. And George Bush told Thatcher that the German problem what to do with Germany made NATO fundamental, indeed more important than ever. He's arguing that NATO's is now more important than before, and he's ruling out all of the Cold War in that calculation. And why? Because NATO had been the critical stabilizer and home for the rehabilitation of West Germany and essentially the Federal Republic of Germany had grown up as a part of NATO's all of the rules governing German, the German military and its weapons, its command structure, were all marbled totally into NATO's.

So NATO is the sort of military power, political home for Germany. And the question, of course, if NATO falls, what happens to Germany? Where does Germany go in this new world? And there were many people, especially in Europe, who are quite worried about this and again, had very personal experience about what it had meant, what Germany had meant before 1945.

So keeping NATO in place kept all of those treaties in place that governs Germany's military. And in Germany, Germans weapons and in 1990, there is an explicit quid pro quo between President Bush and Chancellor Kohl that the United States would champion German reunification if Germany stayed in Natal. So that was the deal. That was the deal that put let the Americans put their shoulder towards Germany, German unification.

So that maintains NATO but it also moves NATO east because a reunified Germany now includes East Germany. So NATO's already expanding at that point. The second major issue is what policymakers called instability in Eastern Europe. And instability can mean a lot of things. But for them specifically, they wanted to know where would Poland, where would Czechoslovakia, where would Hungary look to for their security?

These states had all been part of the Soviet Warsaw Pact, right? They'd been part of that alliance. Now, there was no Warsaw Pact. Those states wanted to join NATO and they certainly asked to join NATO and they would join NATO. But even before that, officials in in Washington especially are pushing this, that NATO can provide security to these states and it would avoid a situation like those before the world wars in which there were interlocking and sort of rickety systems of alliances in Eastern Europe.


NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner-20 Dec 1991 — Soundclip Courtesy NATO:
When I took office as Secretary General of the North Atlantic Alliance, I could not even receive the ambassador of any of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe in our headquarters, our states were adversaries, even if our people did not have this feeling of animosity.

Three and a half years later, here we are sitting around the same table celebrating the inaugural meeting of the North Atlantic Cooperation Council.


Kate Jaimet: NATO secretary general, Manfred Wörner, December 20th, 1991.


Timothy Sayles: So this thinking, I think, is summed up pretty well by Scowcroft when he told Bush that after the Cold War, even when the Cold War is over, he said Geo political realities will endure. It's a pretty grand phrase. It's quite good. Geopolitical realities will endure. But I'll tell you, the last thing anyone wanted to hear in the 1990s was that geopolitical realities will endure.

The Cold War had just ended. This was supposed to be a time to get back to whatever can happen when all those strictures of the Cold War are gone. When the heavy defense spending isn't required. So in the 1990s you had the strategic reason for keeping NATO, but you had a public relations problem. And NATO tried to solve this problem by doing a facelift, by changing how it spoke about itself and what what it existed for.

And so you had this heavy escalation in the nineties of this talk of NATO as an alliance of democracies, as an alliance of shared values.

But that's not what the people who are going to maintain NATO were saying behind closed doors. One US official said that it was mistrust that the European states had for each other, fear of Russian backsliding. So a real worry about where Russia will go in the world and the possibility of instability in Eastern Europe that held the alliance together.

So what about these new democracies of Eastern Europe that are asking to join the alliance and officials start writing? As early as 1991, we would make the expansion of NATO a goal. And so I think it's fair to say that the United States and NATO pursued sort of a double barreled policy towards Russia in the 1990s and into the 2000.

Even they sought to build relations with Russia, but at the same time, they absolutely were taking steps to hedge against a resurgent Russia.


Mikhail Gorbachev, July 31, 1991 – Soundclip Courtesy George H.W. Bush Presidential Library: The president and I noted the positive developments which had taken place in Europe. And we see that the Soviet Union and the U.S. must participate very actively in building a new Europe.


Kate Jaimet:  Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev speaking through a translator at a press conference with U.S. President George H.W. Bush. July 30th, 1991.


Timothy Sayles: In recent years, we have heard this argument coming from Moscow that it was the expansion of NATO's that caused Putin to invade Ukraine. I do not think that there is a clear line there or that there's a clear argument at all. But you don't have to listen to me. It's more important that I think the Russians have sort of stopped talking about this.

They tried out that argument for a while, but they just simply don't make that claim anymore. For the invasion, I would say that if you are looking for a connection, it's not the expansion of NATO's membership so much as the fact that NATO did start to do some new things in the 1990s in former Yugoslavia. NATO acted to prevent atrocities, right, especially with the bombing campaign against Serbia in regards to Kosovo and that was a real red flag for Moscow, because here was an alliance that claimed to be a defensive alliance that was using its offensive power.

And I'm not, I mean, there's a real discussion to have about how the Russians interpreted that. And it doesn't mean that it wasn't a moral policy by NATO, but that's that's honestly a better place to look for Russian fears about NATO than an expansion. But in my last few minutes here, think about NATO's role in this war in Ukraine.

And it's sort of paradoxical because the alliance insists, and I think quite rightly, that it is not a party to this conflict. This is a war between Russia and Ukraine. Even if individual NATO allies are choosing to support Ukraine, NATO itself doesn't consider itself a belligerent in the war. But one of the reasons that all of these individual countries, whether they're NATO's allies or not, are able to provide so much support to Ukraine is because Ukraine's western border borders on NATO.

Right. So all of these weapons that we hear about, the movement of troops to be trained are entering Ukraine through NATO states, right through Poland, through Romania, what have you. And of course, the Russians have not moved to intercept the delivery of these weapons, not because they can't, but because they know that that would be violating the sovereignty of these states and that NATO's then might very well declare itself a belligerent in this conflict.

So NATO, just by existing and serving its defensive purpose, is allowing the freedom of these states to act as they wish. Is shaping the war in Ukraine. The war would have gone, I think, completely differently if these arms had not been supplied as they were, of course, as the Ukrainians who are doing the fighting. But the fact that they've been able to fight as long as they have is because NATO provides a sort of corridor that allows all of these weapons to enter.

If the Russians move to attack Poland, well, then Poland could go to NATO. Begin a discussion about the treaty article, Article five, and perhaps the alliance might join the war. So that's one way that NATO's shaping the war. The other way, and I think this is equally important, is that the NATO states and especially Poland here, can make decisions about their role in the war with some sense that they will be protected.

If Poland was not part of NATO and did not feel that it would have the backing of the alliance if the Russians were to attack Poland, then Poland might feel compelled. It might have felt already compelled to enter this war, either in Ukraine or in Belarus, to protect itself. All right. So the there is some restraint happening by some of the NATO allies who we might otherwise expect to have joined this war if they didn't feel they were protected by the alliance.

So it's another way that NATO is, in a way, serving to constrain this war. And that's played a big role. And I think the reasons why it hasn't escalated. This is how wars between two states escalate into regional worse because other states in the region feel they need to become involved. And that's how regional wars, of course escalate into general war.

So Finland is a part of NATO now. Sweden? Not yet, but perhaps soon. And that, I guess, is the third way that this war has played a major role in relation to NATO. It reminds me of the quote where the the British diplomat essentially said that every time NATO gets into trouble, the Russians come along and save it.

And in this case, the war has totally energized the alliance, and it has caused people and politicians in Sweden and Finland to decide that they want to be a part of this alliance because they've seen what the Russians have done in Ukraine. So it is it is changing Europe, this war and it is changing NATO.


Jens Stoltenberg – July 12, 2023 – Soundclip Courtesy NATO: When President Putin invaded Ukraine last year, he underestimated the bravery of the Ukrainian people, the courage of the Ukrainian forces and the determination of the Ukrainian political leadership. But he also underestimated the unity and strength of the NATO alliance.


Kate Jaimet: NATO's Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg. July 12th, 2023.


Timothy Sayles: You see that there are, you know, tens of thousands of allied forces on NATO's border, and they're there to make sure that the war does not spread. And that's why there are Canadians in Latvia. Right. To make sure that the Russians don't do what they wanted to do to Norway, what they did in Czechoslovakia, what they were thinking about or what they most certainly did in Finland by flexing that force and convincing states to either step away from this conflict, not support Ukraine or whatever, by having all of these forces here.

The idea is that these NATO allies are protected and they're able to make their own choices about what they do, both in regards to Europe and European security more broadly. And that just loops us back, I guess, to this, where I tried to begin the talk today. In the 1940s, there was no one who could have predicted the precise situation we're seeing here in the 2020s.

I'm not trying to make that argument, but there are real echoes between that world and today's world. And when allied officials built the alliance at the start of the Cold War, they did it with a logic that wasn't only Cold War logic. It drew on the logic from before the Cold War and what might come after. Now, I'll just give the last word to Field Marshal here, who said the men of his generation who had fought in the war wanted peace above all.

But as he wrote, peace in the modern world cannot be assured without military power. The fact might be sad, but it is true. Peace was in fact, a byproduct. And it's that thinking that has guided NATO from the 1940s all the way to today and explains why it's still with us, shaping our world. So I'll leave it there.

Thank you very much.


Kate Jaimet:  The Stories Behind the History Podcast is produced by Canada's History Society. If you enjoyed this podcast, why not subscribe to Canada's History Magazine? To subscribe for simply to find out more about Canada's History Society, visit us at Our theme music is the Red River Jig performed by Alex Kusturok from his album Métis Fiddling for Dancing. I'm Kate Jaimet, thanks for joining me.