The Southern Flank of NATO, 1951-1959: Military Strategy or Political Stabilization. Dionysios Chourchoulis. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2015.
The Southern Flank of NATO takes a historical excursion off the beaten path, exploring the initial attempt to mount a political and military defense against the Soviet Union in Greece, Turkey, Italy, and at times, Yugoslavia. For this reason alone, this work is of value—this is an under-researched topic, and this study closes a gap in the historical literature. The work is packed with detail, and provides an excellent reference for anyone interested in Southern Europe or the early history of NATO. There are times when the writing is dense, but this is an understandable consequence of framing a history of a decade’s worth of seminal political and military maneuvering. This work’s main contribution is the provision of a comprehensive historical narrative.
According to Chuourchoulis’ thesis, NATO attempted to build a buttress along its southern flank with both political structures and military strategies. They were generally effective on the political front, navigating Anglo-American rivalries, deep Greco-Turkish issues, and internal instability in order to stave off Communist encroachment. The military strategy fortunately remained untested, as only for brief windows could the region have mounted a plausible defense to the bordering Warsaw Pact. In both cases, the daunting geography of the region resulted in shaky footing for any regional security construct. This is perhaps the most useful takeaway—sometimes muddling through is good enough. After all, wars are graded on a curve, and the Cold War is no different.
There were essentially three phases of the defense of the southern flank. During the initial unsure steps, the Americans and the British were still negotiating their global great-power transition, and the longstanding British alliance and its expectations did not always gracefully dovetail with American efforts. Once the alliance worked out its initial kinks, the southern flank mounted its strongest defense of the period, and possibly for the duration of the Cold War. The prospect of a Stalinist Russia was a concern from Yugoslavia’s Tito as well as NATO. A grand partnership between Greece, Yugoslavia, and Turkey presented the best chance of actually repelling an invasion.
This phalanx ended with the thaw between Tito and the Soviets that followed the death of Stalin and the rupture between the Greeks and the Turks over the status of Cyprus. Following this rupture, NATO patched together a line with through largely independent relationships with Turkey and Greece, with some informal understandings between the Greeks and Tito’s government, underwritten by the nuclear-armed U,S, Army’s Southern European Task Force in Italy. The arrangement held until the end of the Cold War.
Part of the unique value of studying any work of history is its ability to shake the reader loose from comfortable, contemporary understandings of the past—for instance, it is easy to take the awkward co-existence of Greece and Turkey under the aegis of the NATO alliance for granted. By revisiting these episodes, relationships and meanings that might be taken for granted in the present become contingent once again—the political aspect of the alliance could easily have crumbled, potentially changing the trajectory not only of Southern Europe but also North Africa and the Middle East over the last few decades. Alternately, early warm relations between members of the alliance and Tito’s Yugoslavia might have cemented a different sort of relationship, which might have changed the post-Cold-War history of the Balkans. Through this, the reader realizes how much is in play, and how much is at stake, as policymakers muddle through these sorts of problems.
Reflecting on this work, I am struck by how different the geopolitical world of the 1950s was from the later worlds of bipolarity and American hegemony. Anglo-American intrigue, from side dealings with in the Balkans during the early 1950s through to the Suez Crisis of 1956, makes sense within a story of great power transition. The author describes a world following the Second World War where the Greeks and Turks were, at least initially, on decent terms. I found it intriguing to consider that the realization that the Anglo-American partnership took time to cement, as did the uglier features of the contemporary Greco-Turkish rivalry.
I also found it interesting to consider that, even though these features took time to crystallize, they were not necessarily as deeply rooted as I had thought—Churchill’s project of a History of the English-Speaking Peoples was very much a recent construct at that point. Conversely, Lord Byron’s nineteenth-century entreaties to Greek Revolutionaries to “snatch from the ashes of your sires the embers of their former fires” from the Ottomans weighed far less heavily on the Turkish mind than the prospect of T-34 tanks on their borders. That is, until the immediate fear of the Soviets gave way to struggles over Cyprus and concomitant concerns over Mediterranean seapower. Identity, history, realpolitik, and realism all came into play upon a fractured tableau of mountainous geography. While it is easy to take the current map for granted, things could have turned out very differently had the region splintered on any of a number of other fault lines. So, if nothing else, this book reminds the reader of the contingency of history.
The author’s description of the southern flank raises a fascinating point of NATO’s geography –the Nordic northern flank strangely mirrors the southern flank. Most obviously, both are extremely mountainous and involve maritime choke points. Most fascinatingly, the author points out that role of Yugoslavia during the period prior to Tito’s rapprochement with the Soviet Union bore a striking resemblance to that of Sweden on the northern flank. Both were nominally neutral, but both were expected to fight with NATO if it came to it. Even if they didn’t, they could at least threaten Soviet flanks. This expectation was so deep that Yugoslavia very nearly entered into a joint planning relationship with NATO at one point, and even after the Soviet rapprochement, the Greeks and the Yugoslavs retained a limited security partnership. Yugoslavia emerged as a leader in the later non-aligned movement. This serves as a reminder that even in a bipolar world, there are wildcards and pieces on the board whose alignment will remain unclear until the chips are down.
Another intriguing and fascinating facet of this episode is the challenge of indefensible fronts. The Thracian Plain, located at the southeastern tip of Europe, and shared between the Greeks, Turks, and Bulgarians, presented an impossible problem for NATO. The Greek portion of Thrace provided as few as ten miles of defense between the Bulgarian border and the Aegean Sea. The prospect of resupplying any sort of force against Soviet divisions was daunting at best, so the question became what favorable options were available if victory was not, at least in the short term. The mountains of Turkey created some natural defenses, and if the Soviets got bogged down, they would be vulnerable to streams of air attacks from NATO forces at Incirlik Air Base—the inhospitable geography would then prove inhospitable to all parties. Guerrilla defense was also an option across the scattered topographical features of the Balkans. Ultimately, though, these were all delaying and harassing actions that placed their hopes in a Central European victory or, less optimistically, in the Southern European Task Force’s access to the American nuclear stockpile. The best outcome that could have been realistically hoped for is the one that actually happened—some modicum of political solidarity, in the context of the larger global deterrent, deterred Soviet action by promising to make any invasion costly.
In summary, this work closes a gap in the historical research with a comprehensive and extremely detailed look at NATO consolidation during the 1950s. Beneath the surface of that project, the reader can find some fascinating and challenging presentations of a very different world which tempts one to wrestle with an of a number of ‘could-have-beens.’ The role of geography is evident throughout, reminding the reader that some things remain constant—Thrace was shaped the same, whether for Alexander the Great or for Josef Stalin. What I found particularly fascinating were the aspects of this period that could be be mapped onto contemporary problems—Yugoslavian non-alignment as a planning factor might speak to the non-alignment of the Vietnamese in a contemporary South China Sea scenario. Similarly, the prospect of defending the Thracian plain might provide insights for Baltic scenarios. To borrow a line from Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis, there’s no “better guide for the way ahead than studying the histories.” Chuourchoulis has added another strong volume to these histories.
Dave Blair is a U.S. Air Force officer and is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy. He holds a PhD and a Masters degree from Georgetown, and a Masters in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: A map and logo for NATO (NATO)