NATO’s role during the Cold War

“NATO is perhaps the best known and arguably the most successful multilateral military alliance in contemporary world politics” (Pease, 2008, p. 139). NATO is not successful solely by its ability to provide conventional and nuclear deterrence, thereby providing physical security for Western Europe. NATO also united Western Europe, and in conjunction with the Marshall Plan, ensured the economic rebuilding of Europe. These efforts made the later development of the European Union possible.

According to Dr. Kelly Pease, an eminent scholar in international relations, “[NATO] was able to stabilize the European continent after centuries of violent conflict and build a lasting peace between such historical adversaries as France and Germany” (2008, p. 141). NATO provided a forum for both military and political cooperation for the states of Western Europe. While NATO was not entirely free of conflict (as the tension between Greece and Turkey clearly showed) it provided a greater degree of cooperation than had ever been seen before in Europe.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was only one part of the American strategy for the rebuilding and security of Europe. The Marshall Plan was the other. Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, secretary-general of NATO, explained that “security and economics are linked. One cannot flourish without the other” (Lord Robertson, 2001). The common strategy of NATO and the Marshall Plan linked the two together so closely that President Truman said that the Marshall Plan and NATO were “two halves of the same walnut” (Lord Robertson, 2001). The Marshall Plan also promoted European unity just as NATO had done. States were only eligible for aid under the Marshall Plan if they accepted international economic cooperation as a specific condition (Pease, 2008, p. 146). President Clinton, speaking at Geneva on the fiftieth anniversary of the Marshall Plan, explained the unity that this economic program brought to Europe:

“The Marshall Plan offered a cure, not a crutch. It was never a handout; it was always a hand up. It said to Europe, if you will put your divisions behind you, if you will work together to help yourselves, then America will work with you. The British Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, called the Marshall Plan ‘a lifeline to sinking men, bringing hope where there was none.’ From the Arctic Sea to the Mediterranean, European nations grabbed that lifeline, cooperating as never before on a common program of recovery. The task was not easy, but the hope they shared was more powerful than their differences” (Bill Clinton, 1997).

Jamie Shea also pointed out that the security guarantees that NATO provided allowed the European powers to focus on economic development and reconstruction without the heavy burden of high defense spending (Shea, 2003). This shows how tightly integrated the NATO and Marshall Plan strategies were.

The economic rebuilding of Europe did as much to protect the national security of the United States as the military aspect of the alliance itself, because it prevented the contagion of communist revolution from spreading further west in the chaos that followed World War II and thereby prevented the Soviet Union from finding allies in Western Europe. It helped ensure that the American blood that was spent in the liberation of Europe would not be wasted. After World War I, the American people refused to support European recovery and security by rejecting the League of Nations and overseas commitments in general. The result was another bloody war that brought carnage to an unprecedented level. NATO and the Marshall Plan ensured that this terrible mistake would not be repeated. America realized then that forcing Europe to fend for itself following World War II could result in failed states that would be vulnerable to communist influences and provide security risks for the entire world. Even today, many of the security problems around the world revolve around failed states like Somalia, especially the plague of international terrorism.


Clinton, W. J. (1997). The lesson of the Marshall Plan. Vital Speeches of the Day, 63, (18), 546-549. Retrieved from EBSCO index.

Lord Robertson of Port Ellen. (2001). Security and prosperity: Two halves of the same walnut. Retrieved from

Pease, K. S. (2008). International organizations: Perspectives on governance in the twenty-first century. (3rd ed.) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Shea, J. (2003). How did NATO survive the Cold War? Retrieved from

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