The Warsaw Pact was created as a political instrument for Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev's Cold War policy in Europe. The immediate trigger was the admission of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany) into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) on 5 May 1955 and the Austrian State Treaty of 15 May 1955, which provided for Austrian neutrality and the withdrawal of Soviet troops. The creation of the Warsaw Pact sent important signals to both Eastern Europe and the West. On the one hand, the Soviet Union made clear to its satellite states that Austria's neutral status would not likewise be granted to them. On the other hand, Khrushchev allured the West with a standing offer to disband the Warsaw Pact simultaneously with NATO, contingent upon East-West agreement on a new collective security system in Europe.
The Political Consultative Committee (PCC) was established as the alliance's highest governing body, consisting of the member states' party leaders. The PCC met almost annually in one of the capitals of the Warsaw Pact states. On the military side, a unified command and a joint staff were created to organize the actual defense of the Warsaw Treaty states. Soviet Marshal Ivan G. Konev was appointed as the first supreme commander of the Warsaw Pact's Joint Armed Forces.
In its early years, the Warsaw Pact served primarily as a Soviet propaganda tool in East-West diplomacy. Khrushchev used the PCC to publicize his disarmament, disengagement, and peace offensives and to accord them a multilateral umbrella. The first concrete military step taken was the admission of the East German Army into the unified command, but not until the Berlin Crisis (1958–1961) was there a systematic militarization of the Warsaw Pact. The Soviet General Staff and the Warsaw Pact unified command prepared East European armies for a possible military conflict in Central Europe. In 1961, the Soviets replaced the old defensive strategy of Soviet leader Josef Stalin with an offensive strategy that provided for a deep thrust into Western Europe. In the early 1960s, the Warsaw Pact began to conduct joint military exercises to prepare for fighting a nuclear war in Europe. The new strategy remained in place until 1987. Despite détente, the militarization of the Warsaw Pact accelerated under Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in the 1970s.
Behind the façade of unity, however, growing differences hounded the Eastern alliance. Following Khrushchev's campaign of de-Stalinization, Poles and Hungarians in the fall of 1956 demanded a reform of the Warsaw Pact to reduce overwhelming Soviet dominance within the alliance. Polish generals issued a memorandum that proposed modeling the Warsaw Pact more after NATO, while Hungary's new Communist Party leader, Imre Nagy, declared his country's neutrality and plans to leave the Warsaw Pact. In November 1956, the Soviet Army invaded Hungary and soon crushed all resistance.
In 1958, Romania demanded the withdrawal from its territory of all Soviet troops and military advisors. To cover Soviet embarrassment, Khrushchev termed this a unilateral troop reduction contributing to greater European security. At the height of the Berlin Crisis (1961), the Warsaw Pact's weakest and strategically least-important country, Albania, stopped supporting the pact and formally withdrew from the alliance in 1968.
The Warsaw Pact was left in ignorance when Khrushchev provoked the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Only after the crisis was ended did East European leaders learn in a secret meeting that a nuclear war had been narrowly avoided. Romania reacted promptly to Moscow's nonconsultation in such a serious matter. In 1963, the Romanian government gave secret assurances to the United States that it would remain neutral in the event of a confrontation between the superpowers. In the same year, Romanian and Polish opposition prevented Khrushchev's plan to admit Mongolia into the Warsaw Pact.
In the mid-1960s the Warsaw Pact, like NATO, underwent a major crisis. The 1965 PCC meeting, convened by East Germany, demonstrated profound disagreements among Warsaw Pact allies on matters such as the German question, nuclear weapons' sharing, nuclear nonproliferation, and the Sino-Soviet split. In early 1966, Brezhnev proposed a Soviet plan to reform and institutionalize the Warsaw Pact. But resistance by Moscow's allies prevented the implementation of the scheme for more than three years.
In 1968, the Czechoslovak Crisis resulting from the Prague Spring seriously threatened the cohesion of the alliance. While the Soviet Union tried to intimidate Alexander Dubček's liberal Czechoslovak government with multilateral Warsaw Pact military maneuvers, the invading forces sent in on 20 August 1968 were mostly from the Soviet Union with token Polish, Hungarian, and East German contingents but no Romanian troops. Romania denounced the invasion as a violation of international law and demanded the withdrawal of all Soviet troops and military advisors from its territory. It also refused to allow additional Soviet forces to cross or conduct exercises on its territory.
The consolidation that resulted from the PCC session in Budapest in March 1969 transformed the Warsaw Pact into a more consultative organization. It established a committee of defense ministers, a military council, and a committee on technology. With these three new joint bodies, the Warsaw Pact finally became a genuine multilateral military alliance.
In 1976, previous informal gatherings of the Warsaw Pact foreign ministers were institutionalized into a committee of ministers of foreign affairs. In the 1970s, consultations within Warsaw Pact bodies primarily dealt with the Council on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) process. Despite détente, preparations for a deep offensive thrust into Western Europe accelerated and intensified during numerous military exercises. In 1979, a statute on the command of the alliance in wartime was finally accepted by all but Romania after a year-long controversy.
During 1980–1981, the Solidarity Crisis in Poland heralded the end of Moscow's domination of Eastern Europe. Yet it did not pose a serious threat to the Warsaw Pact's integrity. At first, Moscow was tempted to threaten the opposition with military exercises and, eventually, military intervention. To avoid the high political costs of such a move, however, Moscow in the end trusted that the loyal Polish military would suppress the opposition on its own. The imposition of martial law by General Wojciech Jaruzelski was a major success for Moscow, as it demonstrated that the Moscow-educated Polish generals were protecting the interests of the Warsaw Pact even against their own people.
During the renewed Cold War of the 1980s, internal disputes in the Warsaw Pact increased. Romania demanded cuts in nuclear and conventional forces as well as in national defense budgets. It also called for the dissolution of both Cold War alliances and for the withdrawal of both U.S. and Soviet forces from Europe.
The issue of an appropriate Warsaw Pact response to NATO's 1983 deployment of U.S. Pershing II and cruise missiles in Western Europe, matching Soviet SS-20 intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) aimed at West European targets, proved to be most divisive for the Eastern alliance. In 1983, East Germany, Hungary, and Romania engaged in a damage control exercise to maintain their ties with the West, which they had established during the era of détente in the 1970s.
At the time of the Warsaw Pact's thirtieth anniversary in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became the new Soviet leader and improved the role of Warsaw Pact consultations on the desired nuclear and conventional cuts in the Eastern alliance. At the PCC meeting in Berlin in May 1987, he changed Warsaw Pact military doctrine from offensive to defensive. In the late 1980s, however, East Germany, Bulgaria, and—in a reversal of its earlier opposition—even Romania proposed to strengthen the Warsaw Pact by improving its intrabloc political consultative functions.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, East and West at first saw merit in keeping both Cold War alliances in place. In January and February 1991, however, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Bulgaria declared that they would withdraw all support by 1 July of that year. The Warsaw Pact thus came to an end on 31 March 1991 and was officially dissolved at a meeting in Prague on 1 July 1991.
Jones, Christopher D. Soviet Influence in Eastern Europe: Political Autonomy and the Warsaw Pact. Brooklyn, NY: Praeger, 1981.; Mastny, Vojtech, and Malcolm Byrne, eds. A Cardboard Castle? An Inside History of the Warsaw Pact, 1955–1991. Budapest/New York: Central European Press, 2005.; Mastny, Vojtech, Sven Holtsmark, and Andreas Wenger, eds. War Plans and Alliances in the Cold War: Threat Perceptions in the East and West. New York: Routledge, 2006.