Plaque on the Old City Hall in Vilnius, Lithuania.
Many Americans served in Europe during the Cold War. I was one of them, serving on the border of the former Czechoslovakia from 1981 through 1984. I served in the 1st Battalion, 54th Infantry, a part of the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Armored Division. Our battle plan called us to defend the German town of Marktredwitz.
We knew that if an invasion occurred, we would be met with three enemy echelons. First we would face the Czechs, then the East Germans, and finally the Russians themselves. We had great hope of stopping the Czechs and slowing the East Germans, but we really did not think that we would still be around to face the third Soviet advance. I would die in Marktredwitz.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was established in 1949 as a response to the two world wars that broke out in Europe during the first half of the 20th century. As the Iron Curtain descended across Europe, trapping millions of Europeans under the rule of totalitarian regimes and displacing millions to their deaths in Siberian gulags, NATO proved itself to be a critical deterrent to Soviet aggression on the continent. In the decades since, a growing NATO has done more to preserve the peace and security in Europe than any other institution.
When the USSR dissolved and freedom returned to Eastern Europe, most former captive nations desired the protection of NATO — a desire that helped to rapidly transform these former communist countries into thriving democracies. That’s because NATO requires aspiring member states to hold free and fair elections, make their governments more transparent and accountable, uphold the rule of law and move toward freer markets. The former captive nations’ transition from communism to democracy and centralized economies to competitive markets was not easy, but NATO is stronger and the world is safer and more free because we integrated these young democracies into the West and into our defensive alliance.
While our shared values unite us in a common purpose, Article V of the NATO treaty is what really holds this indispensable alliance together. Article V simply states that an armed attack against one or several members shall be considered as an attack against us all. The treaty never laid out specific requirements for each country in response to such an attack. It was always assumed that each member would do its part. This was and remains a sacred commitment and solemn duty, borne by all nations and by every man and woman who serves in uniform, to uphold this pledge of mutual protection.
After the 2002 NATO summit in Prague, I was honored to stand in the town square of Vilnius, Lithuania, with President George W. Bush. The NATO summit has just invited the Baltic countries — Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — along with Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia, to join the alliance. On a brass plaque on the corner of the old City Hall is a quote from President Bush’s address that day. It reads: “Anyone who would choose Lithuania as an enemy has also made an enemy of the United States of America.” This is NATO.
So when has this commitment ever been tested? I am sure most Americans would be shocked to learn that the first and only declaration of Article V from the North Atlantic Council was in support of none other than the United States of America.
Following the devastating terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, NATO quickly moved additional early warning aircraft and air-to-air fighters to the United States in defense of our homeland. Our NATO allies also dispatched military personnel from across Europe in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, where more than a thousand of their sons and daughters made the ultimate sacrifice. We have a saying in the veteran community: “All gave some, but some gave all.” This is true of our NATO allies in the Global War on Terror.
Today, as the free world faces threats from adversaries old and new, we would do well to call to mind President Reagan’s famous phrase: “Peace through strength.” We know Russia has invaded Georgia and Ukraine, regularly interferes with the internal affairs of its neighbors, and hates that the former captive nations look to the West for prosperity and security. Yet having joined the community of free nations, Article V ensures Eastern Europe will remain whole and free.
NATO has thrived for many decades throughout countless election cycles in many countries. These countries have all gone through swings from the left to the right and back again. But even as national leaders have come and gone, NATO has remained steadfast in its mission to provide security for all its members, and it must continue to be that guarantee for future generations.
I would die today for Tallinn because I would have died for Bonn, Paris and London 32 years ago. That is the NATO that I am proud to have served with and that I am proud to support today.
John Shimkus is a 1980 graduate of the United States Military Academy. After graduation he served as an infantry officer in the former West Germany from 1981 to 1984. Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1996, he established the Baltic Caucus with former U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich. He also served as a member of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly from 2001 to 2014, serving on the Defense and Security Committee, as co-rapporteur on terrorism and as vice-chairman of the assembly.