The North Atlantic Treaty was signed in Washington on 4 April 1949. Foreign ministers from the seven original negotiating states, Belgium, Canada, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States, provided signatures on behalf of their countries. Five further countries signed the same day: Denmark, Iceland, Italy, Norway and Portugal. Speaking at the signing of the pact, Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin said:

Today will bring a great feeling of relief to millions of people. At last democracy is no longer a series of isolated units. It has become a cohesive organism, determined to fulfil its great purpose.[1]

Mr Bevin noted the UK’s disappointment that achieving collective security through the United Nations had yet to be “fully realised” and that this new treaty was the result of “get[ting] together and build[ing] with such material as was available to us”.[2]

1. “A purely defensive arrangement”

The government published a white paper the next month, setting out the treaty’s background and providing commentary on the agreed text.[3] The paper said the treaty was “a purely defensive arrangement for the common security of the countries who join it. It is directed at no one. It threatens no one”. The paper explained the treaty was borne from “Soviet misuse of the veto” which had “hampered” the United Nations from providing “the security which the nations desperately require”. The North Atlantic community had therefore come together in a “more limited and closer association” based on article 51 of the UN charter. The paper stated that “signatories have solemnly proclaimed that an attack against one of them is an attack against them all, to be met with their united strength: and their strength is so great that the final defeat of any aggressor is certain”.[4]

The following week, the House of Lords was asked to resolve that it approves of the North Atlantic Treaty.[5] Viscount Addison, the leader of the House, moved the approval motion. He told peers there was hope the treaty:

[…] marks the beginning of a wider and more effective international co-operation. This nation, by the motion I have the honour to submit, is invited to join with others in a resolute partnership to preserve peace. Tragic and desolating experience during the last two generations has taught us that peace is indivisible.[6]

Lord Addison explained that the treaty contained “no vestige of aggressive intent. It is entirely an act of self-defence”. He said there remained hope “that the great Soviet power would cooperate in a frank and friendly way” to maintain peace. However, he said that that hope had been “dissipated by the spectacle of this great power subjugating her smaller neighbours”, its use of the United Nations for the “spread of disruptive propaganda” and its “sustained and organised endeavour to promote dissension in many parts of the world”.[7]

2. “Repair any weaknesses”

In response, the Marquess of Salisbury, leader of the opposition, said he was “very glad to be able to voice broad agreement with the sentiments which have been expressed by the leader of the House”.[8] He praised the UK government and the people of the United States for their commitment to Europe, citing the Marshall Plan and the treaty before the House. Lord Salisbury then drew laughs, according to the Times’ report the next day,[9] when he paid a “tribute of gratitude to the Russian government for the result that has been achieved”.[10] He went on to raise some broader points about defence and security. First, he argued, the pact was “merely a skeleton”. He said the onus was on its members to improve their armed forces. He added that the UK government therefore needed to “repair any weaknesses” in the armed forces “at the earliest possible moment”. Second, he said he regretted the treaty did not “make possible joint action in anticipation of aggression, to prevent aggression occurring”.[11]

The Earl of Perth, deputy leader of the Liberal peers, spoke to add his support for the treaty. He said he considered the treaty “a great step towards the preservation of peace”.[12] He regretted the League of Nations was unable to achieve “collective security” in its time, adding “the nations then were not ready to assume the responsibilities of protecting one another”.

The Earl of Halifax, foreign secretary when the second world war broke out and later ambassador to the United States,[13] said the treaty was “an historical event of the first importance”. He praised American participation in the pact, stating:

All nations, I suppose, like individuals, make mistakes, and great nations sometimes make great mistakes. Great nations made great mistakes after 1918, which reacted very unhappily upon one another. We certainly did, and the United States certainly did. But no nation—and this, I think, is one of the characteristics of the greatness of the United States—is more quick to learn than they are; and this pact seems to me to be a measure of the extent to which we have both learned a very bitter lesson.[14]

3. “A new chapter in world history”

Viscount Cecil of Chelwood spoke next. In 1937 he was awarded the Nobel prize for peace “for his tireless effort in support of the League of Nations, disarmament and peace”.[15] In his comments, Lord Cecil expressed hope “the Atlantic Treaty may mean the opening of a new chapter in world history”.[16] He spoke about recent challenges at the United Nations and drew parallels between its experiences so far and what went before. He thought the League of Nations had “plenty of teeth” but the “real difficulty was that its members did not use it”. However, the United Nations featured “an entirely new departure: the security council are given the special duty of keeping peace, and the special powers to do so”.[17] He echoed Viscount Addison in identifying the Soviet’s use of the veto at the security council as “responsible for the difficulties” the UN had in offering security to its members. To that end, “the object aimed at by the [North Atlantic] treaty is precisely and expressly the same as that contained in the [UN] charter”.[18] He closed by saying “The fate of the League of Nations stands as a great warning against slackness or indifference. Now we have another chance. In heaven’s name do not let us miss it again”.[19]

Viscount Templewood, who as Samuel Hoare served as foreign secretary in 1935,[20]  also urged members to resource the treaty. He said there should be “no delay in putting real substance behind the Atlantic pact”.[21] He argued:

[…] if the Atlantic pact is to be really effective and if each of the pact powers is to provide its quota and to do its part—and that is the essential foundation of the pact—we must set our own house in order and do so at once.

He concluded:

[…] the pact will be no better than the Locarno Agreement, the Kellogg Pact, or article 16 of the League of Nations, unless the western powers in matters of strategy, tactics, and defence are each prepared to put into it their defence quota without any further delay.[22]

Closing the debate, Viscount Hall, the first lord of the admiralty, reminded the House the reasons for the treaty. He said:

[…] the justification for the coming together of these particular ten countries is their common civilisation and way of life and their common ideals, and the fact that, owing to the Soviet misuse of the veto, they could not obtain through the United Nations the security which they need.[23]

Cover image by NATO Photos.