The Politics of Global War: NATO’s Vulnerable Member States

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Within minutes of the balloon going up in Europe, the member-states of the NATO alliance, as well as the rest of the free world, instinctively rallied around the United States. In Washington, the Reagan administration breathed a collective sigh of relief. This moment of truth had long been anticipated by US politicians, diplomats, and general officers. Political, economic, and military disagreements between allied nations were generally expected, and even welcomed during times of peace. If war with the Soviet Union came, however, Washington expected its allies around the world to stand united behind America’s leadership. Alliance obligations notwithstanding though, there were no guarantees.

The anti-nuclear movement in Western Europe in the early 80s, and more recent fundamental security quarrels with NATO members had some officials on both sides of the Atlantic wondering if America’s European allies would actually step up when the chips were down. Recent events such as the Sigonella crisis between Italy and the US over the fate of the Achille Lauro hijackers, and France’s refusal to allow US aircraft to transit French airspace during the 1986 US-Libyan confrontation suggested that cracks were forming in the security relationship between the United States and Western Europe.

The nightmare political scenario for the US in the event of war breaking out in Europe was a NATO ally reaching a separate peace with the Soviet Union. Such a blow would instantly destabilize the alliance and could prove to be fatal. Denmark, Turkey, and Greece were the members considered most vulnerable to a Soviet diplomatic offensive promising peace in exchange for a declaration of neutrality, or an exit from NATO altogether. Internal political alignments, and geographic locations were two central factors for their susceptibility.

As tensions rose, and the international situation deteriorated in early summer of 1987, efforts were made to assure  nervous governments in Ankara, Athens, Copenhagen, and other European capitals that the United States was committed to the defense of their nations if war came. President Reagan personally called his counterparts across the Atlantic. US ambassadors, and senior State Department and DOD officials were dispatched to follow up on Reagan’s phone calls and iron out any misgivings that might exist.

On 9 July, all three nations were being hit hard by Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces.

In Denmark Soviet commandos, and KGB assets temporarily seized Denmark Broadcasting System’s studios, and destroyed the two largest radio transmitters in the country. Airstrikes against Danish military sites, and airbases began, and Soviet forces were pushing from the East German border north towards Jutland. The Danish government was hard-pressed, but did not break and seek a separate accommodation with Moscow.

The Turks and Greeks were approached in the early morning hours of 9 July by Soviet diplomats. It was a last ditch appeal by Moscow to keep both nations on the sidelines of the war. The Soviets promised to respect the boundaries and sovereignty of both nations in exchange for them declaring neutrality. Ankara and Athens refused. Less than an hour later, Warsaw Pact and Soviet air forces launched heavy air attacks on targets in Greece and Turkey. The tempo of the attacks increased throughout the first day. Still, neither the Greeks or Turks gave in. Forty-eight hours later, US diplomatic intervention was required in Ankara to shore up Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Özal’s government. This was discussed briefly in a previous post ( The Southern Flank: D+2 Part I) and will be discussed in greater detail down the line.

By the end of 9 June, although the military situations in Denmark, and on the Southern Flank was in doubt. Politically though, the Danes, Turks, and Greeks were firmly planted in the NATO camp.

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