Twenty years ago history was made in Independence, Missouri. Three post-communist countries officially entered the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland were the first former members of the Warsaws Pact to join NATO. Why was the small US Midwestern city selected as the best place for the main official event on that significant day?
Independence, Missouri, was the hometown of Harry Truman, 33rd president of the United States. His library, which is something between a museum and a research center, is located there as well. Its former director Michael Devine explained why the first enlargement of NATO after the end of the Cold War took place precisely there:
“Secretary of State at the time was Madeleine Albright. She chose the Truman Library as the right location to have the ceremony bringing those countries into NATO. After all, Harry S. Truman played a key role in creating NATO back in 1949.”
The North Atlantic Treaty was an answer to the Soviet Union’s expansionist ambitions on the European Continent. One of the key impulses for creating such a block of nations in 1949 was actually the communist coup d’état in Czechoslovakia a year earlier. It was symbolic that one of the first countries to join NATO 60 years later was the Czech Republic. This, of course, was not lost on Madeleine Albright, who officially welcomed the new member states into the alliance:
“History will record March 12, 1999, as the day the people of the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland strode through NATO’s open door and assumed their rightful place in NATO’s councils.”
It is worth noting that all three new NATO member states had felt betrayed by the Western democracies at one point or another in the previous decades of the 20th century. Czechoslovakia was abandoned in 1938 when Nazi Germany demanded a substantial part of its territory. Britain and France had defense agreements with the Czechs but did not keep them in the vain hope that this would appease Hitler.
A year later, Poland too was attacked by Germany. And again, although Britain and France formally declared war on Germany, they did not support the Poles militarily.
And Hungary was also left without help in 1956 when it tried to leave the Soviet bloc. The Red Army was able to suppress the Hungarians’ hopes for freedom because the West was not willing to risk an all-out war with the Soviet Union. Secretary Albright assured the new democracies, that there would be no repeat of such situations in the future:
“The promise of ‘nothing about you, without you’ is now formalized. You are truly our allies, you are truly home. This is a cause for celebration not only in Prague, Budapest, and Warsaw but throughout the Alliance. We are tightening trans-Atlantic ties today, inspired by the leaders half a century ago.”
Jan Kavan, then Czech minister of foreign affairs, stressed that the United States had played an important role in the birth of independent Czechoslovakia:
“My country’s accession to the North Atlantic Treaty fills me with satisfaction and pride. Today we seal the entry of the Czech Republic to this successful and very important alliance. It is a very special and unique feeling for a Czech politician to deposit these ratification papers in a country, where the basic ideas and principles of the new Czechoslovak state were first formulated and announced in 1918 in Philadelphia. We will always remember the invaluable role of President Woodrow Wilson as the new Czechoslovakia was founded on the treaties for which he was primarily responsible.”
According to public surveys, about 60 percent of Czechs supported their country’s entry to NATO in 1999. Of course, like any other nation, the Czechs may disagree with some things and argue about others; but the majority of them have consistently continued to support membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance. The only political party represented in the Parliament that wants to leave NATO are the Communists. In the last parliamentary elections in 2017, they received less than 8 percent of the vote.
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