COMMENTARY: Is NATO relevant in these times?

What’s NATO’s mission these days? All those folks wringing their hands and wailing big tears over what President Trump said in Brussels last week should explain exactly why it is that we spend so much time and money on this alliance.

Now, let’s be clear. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a very good thing. But it most assuredly isn’t the same thing it was when founded nearly 70 years ago. And here’s a little quiz question to get you started on that context: Who was NATO’s first commander?

But two things remain the same. The first is that the core mission is to defend against Russia. In 1949, the threat was real and existential to several, perhaps most, European members, especially (then-West) Germany.

Reid Beveridge

The second is what is called Article 5, which states that an attack on one member is legally the same as an attack on all. Early on, there was some concern that President Trump would not uphold Article 5. Since then, he has twice said specifically that, yes, he would.

So back to the beginning we go. NATO was founded in 1949 by the Western European and North American winners of World War II. The threat, of course, was the Soviet Union and its leader, Josef Stalin. Stalin had blockaded Berlin in 1948, resulting in the famous Berlin Airlift, which supplied Berlin with everything, even coal, that year. Berlin was within the Soviet sector of Germany as the allies had divided that defeated nation at the end of World War II in 1945.

Originally, there were 12 NATO members. This expanded to 15 by the early 1950s, when Greece, Turkey and West Germany were added. This stayed fairly stable for most of the rest of the Cold War (Spain was added in 1982). Then things changed.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of both the Soviet Union and its eastern European alliance, the Warsaw Pact, several of those countries joined NATO: Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Others were added in ensuing years, for a total now of 29.

During the Cold War, the mission was simple and easily understood. It was to defend Western Europe in the event of a Soviet invasion of West Germany. This threat was real and dangerous.

The Russians had 90 divisions poised in East Germany and Czechoslovakia (as that nation was known before it divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia). By the 1970s, France, Turkey and Greece had withdrawn from the unified NATO command: Greece and Turkey because they hated each other, and France because Charles de Gaulle hated the United States.

Nonetheless, NATO conducted an annual military exercise in Germany called REFORGER, an acronym for Return of Forces to Germany. The idea was that after the United States withdrew a couple infantry divisions in the 1950s, that we would annually test bringing one of those back to Germany in less than a month. But without most equipment.

The substitute for that was something called POMCUS, or Prepositioning of Materiel Configured to Unit Sets). Warehouses were full of tanks, artillery and other stuff ready to be driven away on a moment’s notice.

In addition to the division from the United States, all the other U.S. forces plus Germany’s, Britain’s, Belgium’s, the Dutch, etc. went into rural Germany to play war for a month or so, always in the fall just after the German farmers had harvested their crops.

In all cases, the scenario, no matter where the maneuvers were actually held, was to fight the Red Army as it crossed the North German plain through the Fulda Gap. Fulda is a village just east of Frankfurt. Every Army officer who has made it past the rank of captain has studied how to fight in the Fulda Gap.

Today, all that’s changed. No one cares about the Fulda Gap anymore. Germany is united. The Russians won’t be invading because they no longer have 90 divisions on the German border. Not to mention all those new NATO countries between Russia and Germany.

And, in fact, the new NATO reality is that those very countries joined NATO for the same reason Germany did: fear of the Russians. Poland has been afraid of Russia at least since the time of Ivan IV (the Terrible) and with good reason since from 1815 until 1919, there were no such nations as Poland, Czechoslovakia or Hungary. Poland was part of Russia. Hungary was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Or take the three tiny Baltic nations: Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. All were part of the Soviet Union until 1990. All three are surrounded by Russia. All three have substantial Russian populations, men and women sent there by the Soviet leadership.

So is it any wonder they are afraid and wanted to join NATO. Some years ago when still in uniform, I found myself seated at dinner one night next to the Lithuanian defense minister.

The man, of Lithuanian birth, was a retired U.S. Air Force colonel. He had fled Lithuania at the end of World War II with his family because his father didn’t get along with Stalin. He grew up in Chicago.

But when Lithuania became independent in 1990, its new president called him and asked him to “come home” and help. He did. I asked him what kind of defense policy Lithuania had.

The response was interesting. He said Lithuanians know that “the Russians will come for us someday. That is a given. Last time, we did not fight. Now, our young people vow to fight to the death. So we are planning a guerrilla war. We will take to the hills and fight on forever.”

And, he said, Lithuania desperately wanted to join NATO so it would have allies besides Latvia and Estonia.

And so, today, the question is, will the United States and the other NATO allies fight to save Lithuania from the Russians?

You, dear reader, please answer that question.

Reid Beveridge is a retired Army and Delaware National Guard brigadier general and resides at Broadkill Beach.

Answer to the above question: General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower, later 34th President of the United States.

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