By David Webster, Bishop’s University |
Seventy years ago, delegates from Canada, the United States and ten European governments fulfilled the dream of many policymakers in Ottawa as they signed the North Atlantic Treaty. Signed on 4 April 1949, the pact marks the birth of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), formalized a little bit later. But it almost didn’t happen: a little-know colonial dispute threatened to throw it off track as the prospective alliance’s last member tangled with one of its smallest members.
Even before its birth, NATO was shaken by events in Asia, far outside its geographical area. Colonialism and cold war intertwined.
The dispute was the Indonesian revolution against efforts to re-impose Netherlands colonial rule. The Netherlands, a little northwest European country, was at odds with the United States, prospective kingpin of the North Atlantic alliance. As US pressure on the Netherlands to move towards decolonization in Indonesia mounted, the Dutch government threatened to withhold its signature from the treaty – and leave the new alliance stillborn.
Indonesian nationalists declared their country’s independence when it was still under Japanese wartime control, in 1945. Days later, and with no apparent awareness of the proclamation, Canada authorized a loan for the Dutch East Indies of $15-million (alongside another loan for the Netherlands itself of $25-million). By the end of the year, Canada had equipped one of the three Dutch army divisions. It would not be long until the Dutch were fighting a war against Indonesian independence. There was no particular Canadian malice towards Indonesian independence – Canada took very little interest one way or the other on the question. Rather, Canadian ignorance and indifference towards Indonesia revealed that Ottawa’s priorities lay across the Atlantic, with Asia an afterthought.
Canadian policy makers worked hard to ensure an American military commitment to Europe, and thus played an important role in the negotiations that led to the North Atlantic treaty. Famously – at least to historians of Canadian foreign relations – they asked only for the inclusion of a “Canadian article” committing signatories to economic cooperation. Meeting resistance, they reached out to lobby potential members. One of those was the Netherlands, emerging as a close Canadian ally, partly on the strength of Canadian forces’ role in liberating the Netherlands.
The price of Dutch backing for the “Canadian article” was an implicit promise of help on Indonesia. After meeting foreign minister Lester Pearson, the Dutch ambassador to Canada sketched the outlines of a deal: “Dutch support for this Canadian point of view would make it easier for Pearson to inconspicuously support our struggle in the Security Council in some respects,” J.H. van Roijen reported to his government.
Yet events in Indonesia threatened to derail progress towards a North Atlantic Treaty. After Indonesian nationalists crushed their communist party in 1948 and promised to export to world markets as soon as the Dutch economic blockade on their country ended, their diplomats in the United States saw doors open more easily. Increasing US pressure ruffled feathers in the Netherlands, determined to regain influence in its former Southeast Asian colonies. Dutch-American tensions soared: both sides raised NATO as a bargaining chip with the other. Tensions sored in the last days of 1948 as Dutch troops attacked Indonesian nationalists in what they euphemistically termed a “police action.”
Canadian officials feared that the Netherlands might not sign the North Atlantic Treaty due to US pressure over Indonesia. “There is a strong feeling amongst the people in Holland that at the moment there does not exist that real confidence between our nations which must be present if the Atlantic pact is to be a success,” the Dutch ambassador wrote to Secretary of State George Marshall.
If the Dutch stayed aloof, so might the other European continental colonial powers. “Without the Netherlands there could be no Atlantic Union,” Pearson told Australian high commissioner F.M. Forde. For Ottawa, the North Atlantic talks reduced all other foreign policy issues to insignificance, Forde reported. “I cannot too strongly emphasize,” he wrote, “that in the present stage of negotiations directed toward the North Atlantic Security Pact, it is probable that the Canadian Government will regard almost any other international question as secondary to it. It appears that the Dutch timing of the ‘police action’ was largely determined by that preoccupation of the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada herself.”
When the US tabled an emergency Security Council motion for an immediate cease-fire and the withdrawal of Dutch troops, Canada opposed it. Canada’s vote saved the Dutch from having to defy the UN, but left the American and Dutch governments at odds. Washington then threatened to exclude the Netherlands from the Military Assistance Program linked to NATO, or even cancel it entirely, if there was no settlement in Indonesia.
In the Security Council, Canadian ambassador Andrew McNaughton offered a compromise, calling for “preliminary talks” between Dutch and Indonesian officials. Canada was acting as “the mouthpiece of Holland” by offering “half-baked ideas like this out of a hat,” complained Australia’s high commissioner in London. But in vain: Canadian diplomats stuck to their guns.
In the Hague, the Dutch coalition government had only the weapon of its own weakness with which to move Washington. Foreign minister Dirk Stikker insisted he was a friend of America, but that anti-American feeling in the Netherlands might soon topple the government. Whoever replaced it would probably not sign the North Atlantic treaty at the ceremony slated to take place soon.
McNaughton’s resolution passed on 23 March 1949, just in time to halt a Dutch call for talks among North Atlantic treaty signatories in Washington – an idea that appalled Canadian diplomats. The dangerous month had passed and the treaty could be signed as planned on 4 April. But it had been a close call. The Netherlands recognized Indonesian independence at the end of 1949, but drove a hard bargain and forced the Indonesian nationalists to accept a Dutch-Indonesian Union, Dutch economic privileges in Indonesia, and other concessions.
Events in the Hague and Indonesia almost stopped the scheduled treaty signing. Perhaps the Netherlands would have had no choice but to give way and sign, but its attempt to leverage treaty talks in order to get its way in a colonial conflict indicated the power of smaller nations to cause trouble. The Dutch got most of what they wanted on Indonesia, thanks to an assist from their allies in Ottawa, and managed to head off American pressure to decolonize faster.
NATO has been a space in which smaller allies have been able to speak with louder voices ever since. Yet it has never escaped its implication in colonial conflicts and out-of-area concerns. The North Atlantic treaty almost didn’t happen because of Indonesia. The North Atlantic powers have never been able to confine their concerns to the North Atlantic area ever since. And NATO has tended to favour colonial powers and Northern influence ever since when facing the global South. A messy episode in the weeks before the alliance’s birth did not change the course of events, but it set some of the tone for what was to come.
 This discussion borrows from my Fire and the Full Moon: Canada and Indonesia in a Decolonizing World (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2009).
 Ambassador J.H. van Roijen to foreign minister Dirk Stikker, 14 Feb. 1949, Officiële Beschieden betreffende de Nederlands-Indonesische Betrekkingen 1945-1950, vol.17: 561-2.
 Ambassador Eelco van Kleffens to Secretary of State, 18 March 1949, Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) 1949, vol. 7: 325-30.
 F.M. Forde to Australian Dept. of External Affairs, 28 Dec. 1948, Library and Archives Canada (LAC), RG 25, vol. 4715, file 50054-40 .
 Forde to Australian DEA, 11 Feb. 1949, Documents on Australian Foreign Policy vol. 15: 214.
 Security Council Official Records, 417th meeting, 11 March 1949.
 R.A.D. Ford, Canadian High Commissioner in London, to DEA, 16 March 1949, LAC, RG 25, vol. 4716, file 50054-40 .
 Van Kleffens to Secretary of State, 18 March 1949, FRUS 1949, 7: 325-30.