• Contemporary Conflict
  • Age 11 to 14 (KS3)
  • Age 13 to 14 (KS3)
  • Age 14-16 (KS4)

The North Atlantic Treaty was signed in 1949 and designed to provide greater collective defence and European military co-operation in the aftermath of the Second World War. The 12 countries that signed it created the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, or NATO, to discuss political and military decisions with the aim to make collective decisions by consensus. As of 2024, NATO has 32 members and more than 40 partnerships with other countries. While the organisation maintains its original purpose of European relations and co-operation, its purpose has shifted since its first inception and now focuses on a variety of global issues from terrorism to climate change. 


  1. Timeline of key events
  2. The origins of NATO
  3. Source Activity: "Sinews of Peace"
  4. The Founding Nations
  5. Suggested Activities
  6. Glossary of key terms

Watch this video

This includes real footage from the Imperial War Museum archive and depicts a routine flight during the Berlin Airlift where the US, UK and France were working to provide vital supplies to Berlin after it was blockaded by the Soviet Union. 

Why do you think events like this would have furthered tensions and created a need for organisations such as NATO?

Find out more about the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall here.

© IWM (COI 177)

“They were soon winging their way daily over the port of Hamburg. Destination…Berlin.”


“Past the Olympic Stadium and presently over the only power station left working in the western sector.”


“Immediately on landing, unloading commences and the machines are prepared for the return journey.” 

The origins of NATO and how it was established

Timeline of Key Events

Please be advised that this timeline is not intended to detail every event in the history of the formation of NATO. It provides context by highlighting some of the key events which led to its formation and subsequent events.

8 May 1945July - August 19455 March 1946September 1947June 194824 June 1948May 19494 June 1949
VE Day: Germany unconditionally surrenders to the Allies, including Britain, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union.Potsdam Conference: Formally divides Germany and Austria into 4 zones.‘Sinews of Peace’: In the aftermath of the partition of German, Soviet expansion threatens Western ideals. Churchill’s famous ‘iron curtain’ speech is given.The Soviet Union sets up the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform).The Formation of West Germany.The Berlin Blockade takes place, cutting off West Berlin from all essential supplies. The Soviet Union ends the Berlin Blockade after the success of the Berlin Airlift. NATO is formed with 12 member states, in response to Soviet expansion, military aggression and the need for greater security. 

Europe after the Second World War

A Douglas C-54 Skymaster of the Military Air Transport Service, US Air Force coming in to land at Templehof Airport, Berlin, watched by a crowd of German civilians during the Berlin Airlift.
© IWM (HU 73010)
Citizens of Berlin at Tempelhof airport waiting for supplies to be dropped by US air forces during the Berlin Blockade.

The devastation caused by the Second World War, with approximately 36.5 million Europeans killed, caused extensive divisions across Europe and the wider world. As a catalyst in the years following the end of the war, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), was first formed to ensure there was not a nationalist militarism revival in Europe, and to encourage political integration across Europe. 

In the years leading up to the formation of NATO, there had been a number of events that had led the founding members of NATO to the point of requiring mutual and assured security. Communism was spreading across Eastern Europe and Asia. Nations such as the USA and USSR began taking step to assure their own future and place as a world power through economic, social, and political change. The nations opposed each other in their political ideologies, such as the USA’s Marshall Plan, which aimed to provide economic aid for Europe vs the Russian policy of Cominform, which was devised to create a communist Eastern Bloc. However, tensions reached a peak when the French, USA and UK joined their partitions of Germany to form West Germany. Russia’s retaliation was the Berlin Blockade, an operation to cease all movement of road and rail travel to the sector. The retaliation forced the US and UK to deliver food supplies to the region by plane in a counter exercise that came to be known as the Berlin Airlift. Less than a year later, on 4th April 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty was signed. 

NATO’s role was devised and constructed by 12 member countries from both sides of the Atlantic as a defensive alliance and network. The states committed themselves to protecting one another in an event of military aggression with a guarantee of joint defence. The Treaty is made up of 14 articles and has remained largely unchanged since its inception, with the exception of a few amendments.

A glossary of key terms can be found at the bottom of the page.

Quote from the original NATO Treaty 1949

This Parties to this Treaty reaffirm their faith in the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and their desire to live in peace with all peoples and all governments. They are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage, and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law. They seek to promote stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area. They are resolved to unite in their efforts for collective defence and for the preservation of peace and security. They therefore agree to this North Atlantic Treaty.

The NATO Treaty
You can read the Treaty in full on the NATO website.

Potsdam and the aftermath

Winston Churchill, President Truman and Stalin at the Potsdam conference, 23 July 1945.
© IWM (BU 9197)

The Potsdam Conference 1945 formally divides Germany and Austria into 4 zones. In the aftermath of the partition of Germany, Soviet expansion threatens Western ideals.

Below is a selection of quotes from a speech made by Winston Churchill in 1946 to the small town of Fulton, Missouri. State and presidential visits to small towns were almost unheard of during this time and the audience was comprised of local inhabitants listening in the college gymnasium and on the streets outside due to the popularity of the event. The quotes have been taken from a variety of sections within the speech. 

Task: Ask your students to explore the extracts and use the discussion points below to explore the speech and its relation to the formation of NATO in further detail. 

Extracts - Sinews of Peace: Winston Churchill 5 March 1946, Westminster College, Missouri.

“To give security to these countless homes, they must be shielded from the two giant marauders, war, and tyranny. We all know the frightful disturbances in which the ordinary family is plunged when the curse of war swoops down upon the breadwinner and those from whom he works and contrives. The awful ruin of Europe, with all its vanished glories.”

“Beware I say; time may be short. Do not let us take the course of allowing events to drift along until it is too late. If there is to be fraternal association…with all extra strength and security which both our countries can derive from, let us make that great fact known to the world, and that it plays its part in steadying and stabilising foundations of peace. There is a path to wisdom. Prevention is better than cure.”

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”

“It is because I am sure that our fortunes are still in our own hands and that we hold the power to save the future…But what we have to consider here today while time remains, is the permanent prevention of war and the establishment of conditions of freedom and democracy as rapidly as possible for all countries.”

“If the population of the English-speaking commonwealths be added to the United States…there will be no quivering, precarious balance of power…On the contrary, there will be an overwhelming assurance of security.”

Founding Nations of NATO and the Initial Treaty

The Prime Minister, Anthony Eden and General Lord Ismay attend the ninth session of the Council of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in the Chamber of the Portuguese National Assembly in Lisbon, February 1952.
IWM (GOV 5239)
The Prime Minister, Anthony Eden and General Lord Ismay attend the ninth session of the Council of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in the Chamber of the Portuguese National Assembly in Lisbon, February 1952.

The initial talks took place with the members of the Brussels Treaty, and was signed by Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and the UK in 1948 to guard against any further German aggression. This included the addition of the US and Canada. Formal negotiations began in December 1948, where countries were invited to discuss common desires for the Alliance:

  • Collective defence
  • Political and military cooperation
  • Geographical scope of the Alliance 

The drafters of the Alliance held different views on which nations should be chosen to join. While the UK wanted to keep the alliance small and strong avoiding commitments to countries away from Western Europe, the US wanted to invite those who were more likely to be threatened by Soviet expansion and vulnerable to Communism. One of the key factors for countries such as France and Belgium regarding who would be invited to join was concerning the protection of their colonial territories. However, this was blocked by the US and Canada who did not want NATO to become concerned for the security and problems of overseas territories, instead choosing to focus on Europe. Another factor was the internal political, economic, and social conditions of countries at the time. Some countries, like Ireland or Austria, wanted or had to remain neutral. Others, like Spain, were not invited because they didn’t have a free, democratic political system. 

After deliberations and negotiations, the countries invited to attend and sign the treaty in 1949 were: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the UK, and the USA. However, over the duration of the Cold War to the present day, NATO has expanded to include 32 member states called Allies, as well as over 40 international non-member partners across Europe and the wider world. 

Suggested Activities

  1. Use the timeline to explore the events that took place before the formation of NATO.
  2. Analyse the quote from the Treaty and explore the language used to describe the aims of NATO and what is promised by this alliance to all member countries. 
  3. Which events do you think may have been a catalyst for the formation of NATO? Use the timeline to discuss. 
  4. Discuss which nations were the first to join NATO and why?
  5. Why were some countries not asked to join NATO?
  6. Although the original formation of the Alliance was by invitation only, think about other countries in Europe and the wide world at the time and why might they have not chosen to join the Alliance at this time?
  7. What do you think the reaction to this alliance might have been from the rest of Europe and the world? Can you think of specific example of reactions and subsequent actions taken? Use the timeline above to analyse the events that took place after the alliance was formed. 

Student Discussion Points

  1. Discuss the state of Europe after the Second World War. Explore ideas of how the world had changed.
  2. Using the quotes and the above timeline of events, discuss the atmosphere after 1945 and why Churchill appears to be concerned about world security?
  3. This speech was given 3 years before the formation of NATO. Can you pick out any key words or phrases that could be linked to the desire to form an organisation like NATO and why?
  4. Explore the way Churchill speaks about the future. Choose specific examples and analyse the use of past and future when discussing present events. 
  5. Analyse the language used by Churchill and think about the audience of this speech. What do you think the aim of this speech is and what could the reaction have been?
  6. Using the evidence gathered and discussed for the above questions, do you think NATO would be a good solution for the problems faced by post-war Europe and the wider world? 
  7. Explore the rest of the speech in more detail and research, discuss, and analyse in more depth the above discussion points. 

Explore Further

Berlin Wall in 1989 before it is torn down, you can see the chips that have been taken away by the public.
IWM (CT 1491)
Classroom Resource

NATO and The Cold War

This resource explores a timeline of key events, decisions, and NATO involvements since 1949 to 1991. Focusing on the social, political, and economic impacts of NATO and how this organisation has shaped world events. Discussion points will allow for critical thinking and analysis, exploring the years following the Second World War.

A section of the twisted and rusted steelwork from the World Trade Centre, New York
IWM (EPH_10364)
Classroom Resource

NATO and the Modern World

This resource explores a timeline of key events, decisions, and the role of NATO after the Cold War and in the 21st century. Exploring current NATO membership and non-member partnerships, changes in strategy and focus through modern global issues. Discussion points will allow for critical thinking and analysis, exploring how NATO functions in today's society.

Atomic Bomb damage: Aftermath of the Atomic Bomb in Hiroshima.
Second World War

How The End Of The Second World War Led To A Nuclear Arms Race

In August 1945 atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hastening the end of the Second World War and heralding the birth of the atomic age.

Glossary of Key Terms

The formation of NATO and the wide history of the Cold War can be a difficult subject to untangle. The definitions provided here are not all encompassing but give an indication as to some of the key terminologies and phrases.

Alliances and Terms

Key TermMeaning
NATONorth Atlantic Treaty Organisation, formed in 1949. Initial states comprised of Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxemburg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, United Kingdom, and United States. Concerned with the security of the member nations across both sides of the Atlantic. 
Warsaw PactIn opposition to the rearmament and induction of West Germany into NATO, the Warsaw Pact was a military alliance of communist countries, created by the Soviet Union and signed along with East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Albania, and Bulgaria.
United NationsAn intergovernmental organisation that was established in 1945 to promote peace and security and to cooperate on various global issues.
Member Nation/StateHas signed the treaty in question and agrees to the principles of the treaty. 
NATO PartnersNATO pursues dialogue and cooperation with partners on a wide range of political and security-related issues. 
Political ConsultationUnder Article 4 of NATO agreement, all NATO decisions that incur military or political action are made by consensus after discussion and consultation among member countries. 
Massive RetaliationAlso known as massive response or massive deterrence this is a military doctrine and nuclear strategy in which a state commits itself to retaliate in much greater force in the event of an attack. 
Flexible ResponseA military reaction that can be easily modified to respond to altered circumstances. 
DétenteAn easing of hostility or strained relations, especially between countries. 

Events, Conferences, and Political Actions

Key TermsMeaning
Potsdam ConferenceFormally divided Germany and Austria into 4 Zones of Occupation between Great Britian, France, United States and the Soviet Union. It was also agreed that the German capital Berlin would be divided into 4 similar zones.
Marshall PlanPresident Truman created the European Recovery Program aimed to provide foreign aid to Western Europe, promising to help any country facing Communist takeover.
CominformThe Soviet Union created the Communist Information Bureau which is responsible for the creation of the Eastern Bloc.
Berlin BlockadeThe first hostile act of the Cold War, the Soviet Union cut all road, rail and water transport links to West Berlin in 1948. The people living in this area had no access to food and faced starvation.
Berlin AirliftIn response to the Berlin Blockade, food and fuel was brought to the people of West Berlin by UK and USA aircraft, this exercise was known as the Berlin Airlift.
Cold WarAn ongoing political rivalry between the US and USSR and their respective allies that developed after the Second World War. 

Political Groups and Ideologies

Key TermMeaning
IdeologiesA system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory or policy. 
RegimeAn authoritarian approach to governing a state. 
IsolationismA policy of remaining apart from the affairs or interests of other groups, especially the political affairs of other countries.  
DemocracyA system of government by the whole population or all eligible members of a state are typically through elected representatives. 
LiberalismThe holding of political views that are socially progressive and promote social welfare.
NationalismIdentification with one’s own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations.  
CommunismA theory or system of social organisation in which all property is owned by the community and each person contributes and receives according to their ability and needs. 
AlliesA state formally cooperating with another for military or other purpose. 
Soviet/Soviet UnionThe elected governmental council concerning Communism, born in Russia.
USSRThe Union of Soviet Socialist Republics consisted of Russia and 14 surrounding countries from 1922- 1991. 
Eastern BlocAlso known as the Communist Bloc was the communist states of Central and Eastern Europe as well as satellite nations in support of the Soviet Union such as Asia, Africa, and South America during the Cold War, 1947-1991. 
Al-QaedaA militant Islamic fundamentalist group.
TalibanA militant organisation with an ideology comprising of Islamic fundamentalism.