Does NATO make for a good read? No, especially since most people don't even know what the acronym stands for, and if you spelled it out for them--North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which comes to 11 syllables and 31 letters--you would put them to sleep even faster. But Don Cook's "Forging the Alliance," which is really about something else, namely the "dramatic transformation of U.S. foreign policy," does make for an astoundingly good read, and an edifying one, to boot.
It may have helped that he is no academic (though academics would have liked footnotes attached to the deftly chosen quotes from all the lead players). Formerly a distinguished foreign correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, Cook has a natural feel and flair for the innate drama of politics. And so he has rendered a felicitous, indeed, suspenseful tale not just about the birth of an alliance, but about America's coming of age as a great power.
Isolationism is not dead in this country, but in 1945, after almost four years of dreadful exertion, it was positively thriving. Traditional distrust of the British, weariness with the world, Roosevelt's recklessly naive view of Josef ("Uncle Joe") Stalin all reactivated ancient withdrawal instincts. Perhaps for a "couple of years," and no more, would U.S. troops stay in Europe, confided F.D.R. to Uncle Joe at Yalta.
It is not known whether Stalin purred upon hearing this, or whether he filed this good news, too, in a bulging mental folder labeled "Capitalist treachery." At any rate, six months after V-J Day, Stalin proclaimed that a "peaceful international order" was not possible with the monopoly-capitalists, directing his planners to channel what they had into rearmament.
Unlike his patrician predecessor, the spunky haberdasher from Missouri, Harry S. Truman, got the point even before Stalin made it brutally explicit. And so, on Jan. 5, 1946, he wrote: "I do not think we should play compromise any longer. I am tired of babying the Soviets." That day probably marked the birth of NATO, though it took until April 4, 1949, before the alliance was formally consecrated.
Cook's special hero in this drama is the British foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, who was the first to push the idea of an Atlantic alliance--one where the United States would not just look kindly upon a West European defense organization, but join with Britain in a "general commitment" to "reinforce the Western European project." Even in 1948, when the Cold War was already in full swing, that was too much for the United States, steeped as it was in George Washington's famous Farewell Address injunction to steer clear of "entangling alliances."
So, in a way, Cook ought to have "dedicated" his book to none other than Uncle Joe, the unwitting, unwilling father of NATO. Democracies, as Tocqueville had so eloquently explained in his American treatise more than 100 years before, do not take easily to notions of reason of state, the balance of power or realpolitik. Indeed, America, the only true child of the Enlightenment, was conceived in opposition to those corrupting "games of princes."
When the United States went to war, it was then never for the sake of interests but always and only of ideals. Evil, not encroachment, had to be fought--at least, this is how leaders had to put it to a populace surrounded not by jealous rivals, but by vast expanses of land and water. It was the nastiness of Kaiser Bill and the sheer evil of Adolf Hitler rather than the menace of German power that galvanized Americans for the cause of war, and then only after the bad guys drew first.
How then to build an alliance to prevent war--in corrupt old Europe, to boot, on which most Americans-to-be had gladly turned their backs. The short answer is: with the indispensable help of Joe Stalin, who did his worst to persuade hesitant Americans: by suppressing Polish freedom, extending his covetous hand for Greece and Turkey, sweeping away democracy in Prague, finally, by making a grab for West Berlin, the Western enclave deep inside the Soviet Occupation Zone in the summer of 1948.
The longer, eminently readable answer is Cook's, who manages to tell the story with a master playwright's skill, except that the protagonists--Americans, British, Continental and Russian leaders--all declaim their own prose. "Berlin was the high point of Stalin's postwar challenge," notes Cook, and this is where "the hinge of fate turned for the West."
But the Berlin Blockade was over in May, 1949, one month after the North Atlantic Treaty had been signed. And the treaty was hardly more than a piece of paper unless Congress voted billions of defense dollars to infuse it with the reality of guns and GIs. And so Stalin had to lend a helping hand once more--by exploding the first Soviet atom bomb in September, 1949.