“Think Once, Think Twice”: Ernest Bevin and the Creation of NATO.
By James A. S. Sunderland
An expansionist Russia sweeps through Eastern Europe, a weary America – seemingly unwilling to shoulder heavy foreign military burdens – turns increasingly away from the international stage, and a small coterie on the left in Britain seek to defend Russian actions. You could easily be forgiven for thinking that we were talking about the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine. I am not. The situation above was the one that confronted the Labour Government of Clement Attlee in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War
One man, in particular, understood the threat that Russian expansionism posed to Britain and her European allies and decided to create the framework of a system that could constrain Russia or any other would-be aggressor who might seek to imperil peace in Europe. Ernest Bevin was a hulking bull of a man, the likes of whom the Foreign Office had never seen before. Born into poverty in a village in Somerset, Bevin had worked on the Bristol docks aged 11, beginning his route into trade unionism, culminating in his founding of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) in 1922. This was certainly not the traditional background of a British Foreign Secretary, the role to which Attlee appointed him in 1945. “Must be kinda queer for a chap like you to see a chap like me sitting in a chair like this?” he had jibed upon his first meeting with the Eton and Oxford-educated diplomat Gladwyn Jebb at the Foreign Office.
Nevertheless, if his appointment as Foreign Secretary raised a few eyebrows among the Whitehall elite, he quickly demonstrated his abilities. His stamina for hard work and absorbing information, often working gruelling hours, combined with his ability to forcefully argue his and his ministry’s position on any issue at Cabinet meetings or on the international stage, won many around. As a result, many in the Foreign Office came to refer to him affectionately as “Ernie” or “our Ernie.”
Much of Bevin’s time, especially between 1945 – 1949, was spent dealing with Russia and her claims in Europe and elsewhere, first at Potsdam and later at the Council of Foreign Ministers. The going was tough, with Russia seeking to drive a wedge between Britain and her American allies and undermine British and European recovery for her own ends. Bevin was much quicker than his American counterparts to grasp the threat Russia posed, yet despite his belief that Britain was dealing with a tyrannical totalitarian regime, he persisted in attempts at diplomacy and compromise well into 1947.
This was not a sustainable policy. As Russia swept across more of Europe, Czechoslovakia fell to Communism, and the Berlin airlift commenced, it became increasingly clear that Russia was not interested in diplomacy or compromise. Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov and his deputy Andrey Vyshinsky repeatedly sought to undermine British and American cooperation and disrupt decision making at the Council of Foreign Ministers. By 1946 Bevin had had enough. After one too many jibes from the Russian delegation, Bevin stood up and rolled towards Molotov, growling, “I’ve ‘ad enough of this I ‘ave.” Timely intervention by Bevin’s security narrowly prevented a diplomatic incident. Still, the meetings limped on until 1949, when all sides realised the futility of continuing to pretend that the long and often bad-tempered gatherings were leading anywhere productive.
Russia had no intention of compromising on her territorial ambitions, and an exasperated Bevin knew he had to find a way to engage the Americans to protect Europe from Russia’s westward march. Britain had already been instrumental in founding new treaties and deals intended to secure a long-lasting peace. This began with the signing of the Treaty of Dunkirk in March 1947, a bilateral agreement designed to assuage French concerns about German militarism. However, Bevin knew these deals had to go further if he were to convince the Americans that a wider Trans-Atlantic deal was possible. The next step was the formation of the Western European Union, incorporating the Benelux countries, Britain and France, and designed to protect its members from the Soviet threat.
Around this point in 1948, Bevin began to work on a draft of a document that he saw as a “nucleus” around which Britain could build wider security arrangements. The document envisaged a wider Trans-Atlantic pact between the US, Britain, and parts of Europe which would commit each member to consider an attack on one to be an attack on all. After some haggling with the Americans around the exact wording, it was the core of what is today Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. These would be the most important two paragraphs Bevin would ever write.
The treaty was very much Bevin’s initiative. Thus, on the 11th March 1948, he sent Secretary of State George Marshall a telegram urging the need for “a regional Atlantic Approaches Pact of Mutual Assistance, in which all the countries directly threatened by a Russian move to the Atlantic could participate.” Marshall, who had stressed the need for Europe to take the initiative, responded immediately: “We are prepared to proceed at once in the joint discussions on the establishment of an Atlantic security system.” The seeds of the idea that would become NATO had been planted.
Besides efforts to create meaningful defence arrangements in Europe, two other factors aided Bevin in gaining American support for the North Atlantic Treaty. The first was his ability to rally a wide swathe of those distrustful of Communist Russia behind him. Besides speaking regularly with Anthony Eden, his opposing number on the Conservative benches with whom he was on good terms, Bevin rallied Labour ministers behind his position. These included figures on the Labour left normally regarded as antagonists by Bevin, including Aneurin Bevan, with whom he frequently clashed on other issues.
Although a small number of backbench Labour MPs (numbering between 50-75 persistent critics) often voted against the government on foreign policy issues, by 1948, these were largely isolated voices. Morgan Phillips, the party’s General Secretary, kept a ‘lost sheep’ file of Labour MPs thought to be sympathetic to Soviet Russia of which Attlee was kept informed, whilst Bevin worked with Walter Citrine at the Trades Union Congress (TUC) to keep an eye on communist sympathisers among the unions. By 1948 these figures had either been expelled from the party or were isolated even within the broader left.
For the next couple of years, Bevin, more than any other European leader of perhaps even Truman himself, could claim to speak on behalf of a nation united to a large degree on foreign policy towards Russian aggression. However, the ability of Truman to pursue a strong line against Russia was about to shift radically. Indeed, the second reason for Bevin’s remarkable success in creating the North Atlantic Treaty was a change of attitude in America. Bevin had argued in early 1947 that “if the Americans are to be made conscious of anything, they have to be shocked into consciousness.” American politicians had largely been keen to withdraw from the world stage. They saw Bevin as an alarmist in 1945-6. However, Russian aggression had begun to convince them and the American public that the USA needed to deter Russia. American polls showed a drop of 10% in those who blamed Britain for international trouble (9%) in 1947 compared to 1946, whilst those who believed the Kremlin sought to dominate the world leapt from 39% to 52% in the same period.
Truman’s re-election in 1948 on an explicitly anti-Russian ticket, together with his decision to replace the ailing Marshall with Dean Acheson as Secretary of State, would prove fortuitous for Bevin. The US elections had put the plans for NATO on hold, but with Truman’s re-election, they could move forward apace.
In mid-March 1949, Bevin set off to Washington on what he described as “a most famous, historic undertaking.” After a brief meeting with American trade union leaders in New York, Bevin met Acheson face to face for the first time. The meeting was a success, and the two formed a strong working and personal relationship. Both were jovial men who loved a stiff drink and were deeply distrustful of Russia. Acheson admired anyone of humble origins who could drag themselves up by their bootstraps. Bevin certainly personified that. Later, the two would sing ‘The Red Flag’ together in an elevator. One can only imagine how confused Molotov would have been to observe such a sight.
Bevin had created the vision needed for the treaty and shown the Americans that he could rally support for it at home and in Europe, whilst Acheson and Truman assuaged the concerns of some senators in Congress who feared that the US might be committing itself beyond its means or interests.
Thus, on April 4th 1949, Britain and eleven other states signed the treaty near the National Mall in the Mellon Auditorium today. After a speech by Truman, he described their nations coming together in a pact of self-protection as like “a group of householders living in the same locality,” the foreign ministers of the other nations present signed the treaty. Signing for Britain, Bevin declared that “our peoples do not want and do not glorify war, but they will not shrink from it if aggression is threatened.” NATO was born. The treaty was, as Bevin told the American press, a warning to Russia or any other state which threatened the peace: “to would-be aggressors, it says: ‘think twice – think thrice.’” His words were greeted with cheers.
Bevin did not seek special recognition for his role in founding NATO, but the treaty’s signing was, without doubt, the climax of his career as Foreign Secretary and a greater personal achievement than even his founding of the TGWU. It was, as Attlee put it, “the termination of many months of skilful and patient negotiations by the Foreign Secretary.”
In many ways, this understated what Bevin had achieved. The balance of power in Europe had been restored after a war in which it had torn itself apart only four years before. It was an extraordinary achievement for any person, but especially one who was so seriously ill at the time. As Bevin confided to a friend, “Three times last year, I know I have nearly died, but I kept myself alive because I wanted to see the North Atlantic Alliance properly launched.” He would die two years later of a heart attack, the key to his red box still clutched in his hand as he read official papers at home.
The treaty personified the best of the Labour and trade-unionist tradition in many ways. It was born of a belief that people deserved to live in peace and prosperity in a free world and that only by acting collectively could this right be preserved against outside aggression. The strong would not look away when the weak were attacked but instead would come to their aid. It represented a desire for peace whilst recognizing that geopolitical realities might force Britain to fight to ensure peace in the event of a Russian attack on a member state.
Today, the organization, and indeed the world situation, has grown and evolved in ways that Ernest Bevin could never have conceived of. However, for all of this, NATO still represents many nations’ best safeguard against a new strain of Russian expansionism in the 21st century led by Putin and his regime. NATO is not without its flaws or problems, but at its core is the same principle that Ernest Bevin first laid out three-quarters of a century ago. The principle of solidarity in the face of a threat by those who wish to cower to those weaker than themselves. This ideal is also at the heart of what it means to be a Labour member. Those on the left seeking to defend Russia should remember that today.
James is a DPhil student at Merton College, Oxford. His research evaluates the impact of the Jewish insurgency between 1944 and 1948 in effecting the decision of the British Government to withdraw from Mandate Palestine. Follow via twitter