NATO vs. Warsaw Pact: How 2 Powers Opposed Each Other

In 1948, after the beginning of the Cold War, Europe became split into two opposing camps: the US-backed NATO members and the Warsaw Pact countries supported by the USSR.

May 7, 2022By Tsira Shvangiradze, MA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l Relations

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The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Warsaw Pact were two ideologically opposed military and security entities of the Cold War. They were formed early at the beginning of the Cold War with the primary goal of mutual protection from each other; an attack by an external party on one of the member states meant immediate assistance from other member states in any form necessary, including the military one. The Soviet Union-backed Warsaw Pact represented communist countries of Eastern Bloc, whereas the United States-backed NATO and its member states represented the Western countries.


Ideologically opposed, NATO and the Warsaw Pact developed their own defense systems over time, stimulating an arms race that lasted for the whole duration of the Cold War. However, these two organizations had never waged direct war, particularly in Europe. Instead, the US and the Soviet Union, along with their allies, implemented strategic policies aimed at containing each other in Europe while fighting for influence on the international stage.


International System After World War II 

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Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain Speech, March 5, 1946, via The National WWII Museum, New Orleans


The end of World War II in 1945 and the victory of the three allies (the United States, Great Britain, and the USSR) created the expectation that the harmonious coexistence of great powers and stable development would be possible on the European continent. After the war, Europe and particularly Western European countries were economically exhausted and militarily weak. They fulfilled their post-war commitments to reduce military forces and demobilize military personnel in Europe. In contrast, the Soviet Union emerged from World War II with its armies stationed on Central and Eastern European territories. By 1948, Moscow-backed communist political parties suppressed all non-communist political activities in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, as well as Austria and Germany. They managed to occupy strategic positions on the European continent.


It was also clear that the Soviet Union’s intentions were not limited to Eastern and Central European territories. The leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, aspired to spread communist ideology and expand his sphere of influence in Western European countries as well. In France, Italy, and Greece, a growing tendency for political forces that were sympathetic to communist ideology was already evident. On March 5, 1946, Winston Churchill (former British Prime Minister) drew the attention of the international community to the impending danger from the Soviet Union and first used the term “The Iron Curtain,” referring to the Soviet Union’s efforts to isolate itself and its satellite states from open contact with the West and its allies.

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Photographs from a ‘pictorial record of Operation Plainfare’, 27 July 1949, via the National Archives, the United Kingdom


The situation became especially tense between 1947 and 1949. The Berlin Blockade was particularly important. At the end of World War II, the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union separated defeated Germany into four zones of influence. Berlin, located within the Soviet Union’s zone, was also divided, with the western area under Allies control and the eastern part in Soviet hands. Leaders of the United States, Britain, and France met in London during the first half of 1948 to discuss Germany’s future.


The United States and Britain agreed to merge their occupied zones to form Bizonia. The ultimate goal was to create a unified West German state incorporating the occupied zones of Germany and Berlin. In response, from 24 June 1948 to 12 May 1949, the Soviet Union imposed a blockade, cutting off all land and river transit access to Allied-controlled areas of Berlin. The Western Allies provided a massive airlift and humanitarian aid for Berlin. The crises demonstrated the deep political and ideological differences splitting East and West.


Establishing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)


At the end of 1940, it became evident that the weakened European countries would not be able to defend themselves independently in case of Soviet attacks, and the UN Charter and other existing international mechanisms could not guarantee the democratic and peaceful development of Europe.


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Mr. Dean Acheson (Minister of Foreign Affairs) signs the NATO Treaty for the United States, via NATO Multimedia


In response, in March 1948, five Western European countries–Belgium, Great Britain, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and France–signed the Treaty of Brussels. The signing countries aimed to create a common European defense system that would withstand the ideological, political, and military expansion of the Soviet Union. The Treaty became a precondition for establishing a common security system in Western Europe and became the basis for the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).


The United States and Canada, as well as Denmark, Iceland, Italy, Norway, and Portugal, joined the founding states in April 1949 and signed the Treaty of Washington (The North Atlantic Treaty). A unified security system was established based on close cooperation and common values ​​of all twelve member countries.


The treaty of Washington consisted of 14 Articles. However, Article 5 is the cornerstone of NATO, stating, “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 enshrines the principle of collective defense.”


The negotiation of West Germany’s membership in the alliance was a significant matter for NATO in the early and mid-1950s. The prospect of a rearmed Germany was understandably met with widespread skepticism and uneasiness in Western Europe. Still, the country’s strength had long been recognized as essential to protecting Western Europe from a potential Soviet invasion. As a result, arrangements for West Germany’s “safe” engagement in the alliance were worked out as part of the London and Paris Conferences held in October 1954. The discussion ended by signing the Treaty of Paris, which granted West Germany full sovereignty, ended the occupation, and allowed it to join NATO later in 1955. These measures prompted the Soviet Union to form the Warsaw Pact alliance in Central and Eastern Europe the following year.


Establishing the Warsaw Pact

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Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev speaks at the 1960 Paris Summit, which was interrupted when an American high-altitude U-2 spy plane was shot down on a mission over the Soviet Union, via CNN


The Warsaw Pact (officially named the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance) was established in 1955 to counterbalance NATO. Similar to NATO, it represented a collective defense treaty signed between the Soviet Union and seven Eastern Bloc socialist countries: Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Romania. The Warsaw Pact was an addition to the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, established in January 1949 by the Soviet Union for further economic integration of the above-mentioned Central and Eastern European communist countries.


The catalyst for the creation of the Warsaw pact was the integration of West Germany into NATO in 1955. Like many European countries on both sides of the Iron Curtain, Soviet leaders and Eastern bloc countries worried that rearmed West Germany would reemerge as a military force and would pose a direct threat to their security. The Warsaw Pact declared that “a remilitarized Western Germany and the integration of the latter in the North-Atlantic bloc… increase the danger of another war and constitutes a threat to the national security of the peaceable states;… in these circumstances, the peaceable European states must take the necessary measures to safeguard their security.”


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First Session of the North Atlantic Council, via NATO Multimedia


The Soviet Union aided East Germany to rearm, and the National People’s Army was established as the country’s armed forces to counter West Germany’s rearmament. The Soviet Union hoped that the Warsaw Pact would not only contain West Germany’s political aspirations but also negotiate with NATO as an equal political entity in an international setting. At the same time, the tendencies of civil unrest and political turmoil were evident in the Eastern European countries; communists believed that the unification of those states into one political and military alliance would make them closely tied to Moscow and, consequently, easily controllable.


Despite the Warsaw Pact members’ formal commitment to defend one another if attacked, their emphasis on non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs, and collective decision-making, the Soviet Union ultimately controlled the Pact’s majority of decisions.


Lining Up Against Each Other During the Cold War

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Force Comparison, NATO and the Warsaw Pact, 1987, via the North Atlantic Treaty Organization


Throughout the Cold War, NATO and Warsaw Pact nations never directly entered into armed conflict on the European continent. The foreign and security policy of the United States, the Soviet Union, and their allies were based on the implementation of the strategic policies that aimed to deter and contain each other’s military interventions in Europe, leading up to an arms race, a pattern of competitive military capability acquisition between two or more opposed countries.


At the same time, since the Warsaw Pact’s reliability was not strong enough in the USSR’s satellite Eastern European countries, the Soviet Union was forced to build up its military capabilities and use the Pact to suppress opposition in Eastern Europe, including Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Poland in 1956 and 1981. However, NATO could not intervene and implement its “roll-back” doctrine because the USSR’S excessive military presence in Eastern Europe acted as a deterrent factor. Instead of “rolling back,” i.e., using the specific strategy to cause a major political change in a state, usually by replacing the ruling regime, the United States adopted the policy of containment, trying to isolate the Soviet Union. However, fighting for the zones of influence outside the European continent was not limited. Examples include the Vietnam War, the Korean War, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and so forth.


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Sputnik 1, exploded view, via NASA History


In a broader Cold War context, member states of NATO were worried about the so-called Fulda gap (an area between the East German border and Frankfurt in West Germany), which could have been used by the USSR army to reach the Atlantic shore. NATO tried to correct the imbalance by deploying thousands of tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of its allies, Italy and Turkey, hoping that it would stop Russia in case of a military attack.  In response, the Soviet Union activated Sputnik, long-range ballistic missiles that could reach the territory of the United States.


The United States implemented the “Flexible Response” defense strategy during John F. Kennedy’s presidency in 1960, which greatly influenced NATO-Warsaw Pact relations. The strategy relied on various responses to the Soviet Union, rejected massive retaliation, and highlighted the importance of mutual deterrence. The Doctrine of Flexible Response, which was also formally adopted by the North Atlantic Alliance, quickly resulted in a preoccupation with the concept of escalation control, in which demonstration of dominance was required. The aim was to show the opponent that it would be defeated if it attempted to escalate the military conflict. NATO attempted to achieve such escalation control by deploying an array of different weaponry; the Warsaw Pact acted the same way.


As a result, by the early 1970s, the conventional and nuclear arms races had resulted in strategic parity between the two sides. In 1972, the USSR and the US signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty-1 (SALT-1) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM). The period of Détente (from the French word for “release from tension”) lasted until the early 1980s and referred to an era of improved relations between NATO member states and the Warsaw Pact countries during the Cold War.


The End of Rivalry Between NATO & the Warsaw Pact

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NATO-Warsaw Pact Force Comparison, 1984, via the North Atlantic Treaty Organization


In 1985, the Soviet Union’s economy was severely struggling and could not keep up with the arms race against the West. Hoping to transform and save the USSR, newly elected Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced new economic and political reforms of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). Moscow’s grip over the communist governments in Central and Eastern Europe loosened. Positive political changes towards democracy in most Warsaw Pact’s member countries deemed the Warsaw Pact largely ineffective. Gradually, it had become much less of a military threat to NATO.


East Germany left the Pact in September 1990 in preparation for reunification with West Germany, and in October 1990, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland all quit Warsaw Pact military exercises. These factors prompted some to question NATO’s existence as a military organization, particularly after the end of the Cold War and the Warsaw Pact’s dissolution in 1991. It also created a need and a potential for NATO to be converted into a more political alliance that we have today, dedicated to maintaining international stability in Europe for its member states.

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By Tsira ShvangiradzeMA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l RelationsTsira is an international relations specialist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. She holds a MA in Diplomacy and International Politics and a BA in International Relations from Tbilisi State University. In her spare time, she contributes articles in the field of political sciences and international relations.