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Where does the NATO flag come from

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The Russian invasion of Ukraine has led, among other things, to making a little-known flag more visible than before: the blue NATO flag. The NATO flag, at least in Italy, is rarely displayed and is quite unrecognizable, at least for those born after the end of the Cold War, when for some decades the Atlantic Alliance had lost its centrality. It has only recently begun to talk about it again, after the so-called “NATO expansion” became an argument used by the Russian regime to justify the invasion and after some controversy related to the presence of NATO flags during the demonstrations for the 25th. April.

The NATO flag is quite simple: a blue and white compass rose, with four points indicating the four cardinal points, partially inserted in a circle. Four white lines start from the tips of the rose, while the background of the flag is blue.

NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization, also known as the Atlantic Alliance; the acronym NATO comes from the English North Atlantic Treaty Organization) was founded in 1949 as a defensive alliance of various Western countries in opposition to the Soviet Union and its allied countries and satellites, in the context of what would later be called the Cold War. That the alliance needed a symbol became clear soon enough, but it took a while to make a decision about it: the NATO flag as we know it today was adopted on October 14, 1953 and officially presented on November 9 at a ceremony. in Paris, four years after the founding of the alliance and after many months of discussions and tests.

The then secretary general, as well as the first secretary general of NATO, the British Hastings Ismay, so he described the flag: “A four-pointed star that represents the compass that keeps us on the right path – the way of peace – and a circle that represents the unity that binds the 14 countries together.” The blue of the flag represents the Atlantic Ocean. The flag, Ismay said, is “simple and harmless.”

The first version of the NATO flag was completely different. In its early years, when the Cold War was still only in its infancy, NATO was a rather loose structure, which existed mostly in name. The first nucleus of military organization of the Atlantic Alliance came only after the beginning of the Korean War with the formation in 1951 of the Supreme Command of the Allied Powers in Europe (English acronym: SHAPE), i.e. the integrated military command of the Western Allied forces that they had won the Second World War.

It is no coincidence that the first commander of SHAPE was Dwight Eisenhower, who had been commander in chief of the allied forces during the war and who a couple of years later was elected president of the United States.

General Dwight Eisenhower in the German town of Julich on March 6, 1945 (Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

SHAPE was therefore the first truly operational nucleus of NATO, and the SHAPE flag was initially used as the flag of all NATO: a green flag with a golden pennant made up of two swords in the center and the Latin motto “Vigilia pretium libertatis”, the vigilance is the price of freedom. Eisenhower himself is said to have helped decide the design of this flag, which is still the official symbol of SHAPE today.

A short time later, within NATO it was decided that it was necessary to create an original flag. As he writes the same organization websitethere was talk of flags from the moment of its foundation, but in 1952 a new commission was created (the Information Policy Working Group) which had, among other things, the task of deciding contents, ideas and symbols relating to NATO, including a flag.

Various styles were examined, such as a shield with 14 stars, to indicate the defensive nature of the alliance and the 14 member countries (today there are 30), or other flags in which the blue of the Atlantic Ocean has always remained the more or less predominant color. .

One of the NATO flag hypotheses, from official site of the Alliance

In the end, the four-pointed compass rose was chosen. It is not entirely clear how the selection came about: the NATO website only says that there was “a lot of indecision about the design”.

In any case, the four-pointed compass rose has now become a universal symbol of the Atlantic Alliance. When NATO headquarters moved to Brussels in the late 1960s (following France’s temporary exit from the Alliance), the courtyard was adorned with a large statue designed by Belgian architect Raymond Huyberechts depicting a version of the same rose as the winds. Today both the statue and the symbol on the flag are called the “NATO star”, and are featured on stamps, postcards and other commemorative material.

NATO headquarters in Brussels (AP Photo / Virginia Mayo)