Independence, Missouri, 15 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic officially joined the NATO military alliance as full members on March 12.
The long-awaited induction took place at an exuberant ceremony in the U.S. city of Independence, Missouri. Independence was the home of former U.S. President Harry S Truman, a principal architect of NATO's founding 50 years ago.
The event marked the first eastward expansion by NATO since the end of the Cold War.
The ceremony was attended by the foreign ministers of the three countries and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Albright accepted the protocols of accession from the ministers on behalf of NATO.
The foreign ministers each gave a brief address, followed by the signing of a document marking the occasion. Once the document was signed, the auditorium erupted in applause and the foreign ministers abandoned diplomatic decorum, grinning broadly and enthusiastically hugging Albright and each other.
Jan Kavan, the Czech foreign minister, said the entry of his country, as well as Poland and Hungary, into NATO, is a great vindication for Czech democracy.
Kavan said he was honored to present the Czech Republic's protocols of accession into NATO. He recalled that in August 1968, when Soviet tanks rolled through what was then Czechoslovakia, he happened to be in the U.S. in the midwestern state of Kansas. He added that for the next 20 years, while working as an opposition leader, he dreamed of this day -- when his country would become independent, democratic and secure.
Kavan called NATO the bedrock of Western Europe's common defense, but added that it should also be an instrument for projecting long-term cooperation, peace, and stability beyond the treaty territory.
He said: "NATO is the strongest link between Europe and North America. The Czech Republic shares the interest to keep this trans-Atlantic link strong in order to be able to deal with the risks and threats of the 21st century."
Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi said his country's historic decision to apply for NATO membership was taken not only to enhance security, but to bring Hungary back into the family of European nations.
"The decision was not only about security. NATO accession is also about returning Hungary to her natural habitat. It has been our manifest destiny to rejoin those with whom we share the same values, interests and goals."
Martonyi said the price of liberty for those three former communist countries was very dear. He reminded listeners that Hungarian aspirations for freedom were once crushed by Soviet tanks in 1956. For that reason, he said, NATO's three newest members know well the value of freedom.
Martonyi said Hungary will respect all human rights and the right of freedom of expression for national minorities. He also said Hungary will support the aspirations of other central and east European nations that also want to join the alliance.
Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek declared that another Iron Curtain must never again descend on Europe.
"NATO must promote values appropriate to democracy, stability, and peace. The challenge facing us in the coming century, the challenge of creating a new international order, must be an indispensable and inseparable part of our agenda."
Geremek stressed that the door to NATO should remain open for all countries which fought for freedom. He said Poland's accession into NATO brings satisfaction to many who sacrificed in that struggle.
Geremek expressed gratitude to U.S. President Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and all the American people whom he said supported Poland during its most difficult hours.
Albright said that the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland will not be the last nations to join the NATO military alliance. She reaffirmed NATO's "open door" policy for future members.
Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Slovenia also want to join the alliance as soon as possible. Without singling out any prospective members, Albright said the expansion of NATO is what she called a process and not an event.
She said: "It is our common purpose over time to do for Europe's East what NATO has already helped to do for Europe's West. Steadily and systematically we will continue erasing, without replacing, the line drawn in Europe by Stalin's bloody boot."
Albright said that NATO will announce at its 50th anniversary summit in Washington next month a plan that will help prospective members join the alliance. She added that NATO also wants to expand cooperation with other nations in Europe, including Ukraine and Russia -- where NATO expansion is strongly opposed.
In welcoming the three newest members on Friday, Albright said their formal accession finally proves that the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland are allies in every sense of the word.