A Military Coalition in Time of Peace:
America, Europe and the NATO Alliance, 1949-1962
Department of History
University of Pennsylvania
October 8, 1998
The Cold War--in Europe especially--was not a real war: great stockpiles of thermonuclear explosives were built up, but neither side actually dropped bombs on the other side's cities or ever even breached the line of demarcation separating the two blocs that ran through the heart of Europe. But if the NATO countries never actually had to fight a war as a strategic unit, the NATO alliance was still very different from the sort of coalition you normally see in peacetime--very different, for example, from both of the two great blocs that went to war with each other in 1914.1
How, exactly, was it different? To be sure, NATO had a formal institutional structure that was missing in the great peacetime alliances of the past, but how much of a difference did that really make? There are those who would argue that all of that--an international headquarters, an integrated command and logistical structure, joint planning, and so on--was just so much window dressing. In the final analysis, this argument runs, the Americans ran the show: NATO Europe was essentially an American military protectorate; the simple presence of a substantial American force on the continent was the only thing that really mattered, and in comparison with that, everything else was of minor importance. NATO, from this point of view, was simply an instrument of American domination--or at best a cloak to obscure the fact of American domination. The United States had created a kind of empire in the West--an "empire by invitation" perhaps, but a real empire nonetheless--and stripped to its essentials, that was what NATO was about.
If, in fact, that was the essence of the NATO system, it would make little sense to talk of the Atlantic Alliance as a real coalition, above all in the military sphere. I therefore want to explain, first of all, why this very common view is incorrect. In saying that, I do not mean to imply that the Americans did not, from the start, essentially control the whole NATO apparatus. My point is somewhat different: the claim here is that the political meaning of the NATO system--the meaning of the Atlantic alliance as a real coalition, the nature of the relationship between the United States and the European allies--only begins to become clear when we ask why it was that this happened.
But there are many people who take it for granted that there is really nothing here that needs to be explained. They assume that the United States would inevitably dominate the system. They take it as obvious that the Europeans could never stand up to Soviet power on their own, that the defense of Europe was therefore essentially an American responsibility, and that the U.S. authorities would therefore end up calling the shots. The assumption is that, except for a handful of idiosyncratic and romantic nationalists like the French president, Charles de Gaulle, practically everyone understood this basic reality from the outset.
And there is the additional assumption, also very common, that playing the leading role was something that the United States would obviously want to do. Even from de Gaulle's point of view, it was perfectly normal that that the United States would want to dominate the alliance. America was so strong that she could hardly be expected to resist the temptation to create a kind of empire for herself, and from his perspective, there wasn't anything particularly shocking about that. Indeed, it was as though a law of nature was at work: this was the way a country with such enormous power virtually had to behave.2
But if all these things were true, the NATO structure, NATO strategy, and so on, would not really be of much interest. The United States might have had a policy, but NATO as such would not have had much meaning--it would have been little more than mere window-dressing.
So the first important point is that this whole picture of NATO, and of U.S. policy toward NATO, does not begin to capture the reality of what was going on. During the formative period, which was also the most dangerous period of the Cold War--say, the period from 1949, when NATO was founded, to the end of 1962--the fact of a long-term commitment of American forces to the defense of Europe could by no means be taken for granted. The U.S. government was certainly not out to impose itself on Europe--that is, to create a kind of imperial system where the real power rested with the authorities in Washington and where the European countries were mere dependencies.
Dwight Eisenhower, the first NATO commander (in 1951) and then president from 1953 to 1961, in fact wanted to get out of Europe: he wanted to pull the American troops out as soon as he could, that is, as soon as the Europeans were able to defend themselves. His goal was for the Europeans to come together, both politically and militarily--that is, for Europe to become an independent pole of power in world affairs, a "third great power bloc," as he put it, friendly to America, but able to stand on its own.3 The Europeans, in his view, certainly had the resources to do so, and could balance the USSR on their own if only they came together and organized themselves into a strategic unit.
In military terms, this meant that the Europeans would obviously have to have nuclear forces under their own control, for how else could they stand up to a great nuclear power like the Soviet Union without direct American support? And, in the Eisenhower concept, the Europeans would develop their nuclear capabilities, not on a purely national basis, which he viewed as absurdly wasteful and at variance with the principle of collective action, but within the NATO framework; and NATO, as the American presence withered away, would become a purely European defense organization, with a European general as its commander.
In this concept, a unified military structure could precede political unification. One did not have to wait for the Europeans to get their act together and create a true federal state, although Eisenhower very much wanted them to do so. But if they refused to take the plunge and still clung to what Eisenhower saw as their antiquated nation-state system, they could still act as a bloc in the military area. A strong NATO structure could thus devolve into an effective supra-national European structure, as the Americans withdrew and the Europeans took over the system. Thus the integrated system was not a device for maintaining American control; it would serve, among other things, to pave the way to a purely European defense system. In this way, a strategically united Europe, independent of America, could become a "third great power bloc" in world affairs.
I want to stress this point that "integration," far from being an instrument of American "imperialism" or a veil for American control, has to be understood in a very different light, indeed, almost in the opposite sense. Integration meant, above all, a powerful SACEUR (the acronym for Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, as the NATO commander was called); SACEUR would have extensive authority in many areas; he would even have substantial predelegated war-making power. In this concept, the crucial decisions would be made largely on the basis of military considerations; more generally, the basic philosophy during the Eisenhower period was that within NATO, functional military considerations would be decisive--for example, in determining which units would be armed with nuclear munitions. The Europeans, in other words, would not be discriminated against on grounds of nationality.
The integrated system, far from being an instrument of American domination, to a certain extent tied the hands of the authorities in Washington--and indeed, it was for this reason that the basic thrust of the Eisenhower policy was opposed by the more nationalistic elements within the American national security establishment and welcomed by the Europeans. A strong SACEUR would limit the U.S. government's freedom of action; a strong SACEUR--a man who was obliged to think, day in and day out, in terms of the defense of Europe--was thus a source of reassurance to the Europeans. The integrated system thus helped to redress the imbalance resulting from the fact that the United States was by far the strongest country in the western bloc. From the European point of view, at least in the pre-de Gaulle period, a strong NATO was not part of the problem--it was part of the solution to the problem of overwhelming American power, and the solution to other problems as well, both political and military.
Eisenhower thought of himself as championing the interests of the West as a whole, and thus as having to fight those elements, both in Europe and even more at home, who thought in more parochial, nationalistic terms. And he succeeded in pushing policy very far in the direction he wanted, especially in the nuclear area. At the end of the Eisenhower period, hundreds of U.S. nuclear weapons were under the effective control of America's NATO allies. A plan was being developed to create a NATO nuclear force, free of an American veto--a force under the control of SACEUR, who, as Eisenhower repeatedly stated, might well be a European general.
But Eisenhower left office in January 1961, and a new administration with a very different philosophy took over in Washington. Indeed, policy on a whole series of issues was now utterly transformed. I have in mind here not the famous shift from "massive retaliation" to "flexible response." In this area, the area of general military policy, the shift was not nearly as great as the conventional wisdom would have it. The Eisenhower administration certainly understood the need for a degree of flexibility, and in 1960 its chief spokesmen were already using the term "flexibility of response" in major policy statements. As for the new administration, it continued to rely on the threat of a massive nuclear strike as the ultimate basis of policy.
The really radical shift took place in the area of NATO policy. On one issue after another, the old Eisenhower strategy was totally reversed in early 1961. The goal now, in the early Kennedy period, was to tighten American control--not just over war-making, but over western policy as a whole, especially on the German question, that is, on the cluster of issues related to a settlement of the Berlin Crisis. But what was done in the military sphere was particularly striking. Command and control was tightened up; permissive action links (PALs) were introduced into western Europe to secure the American nuclear weapons there against unauthorized use; the new administration turned against the idea of nuclear forces under European (even British) national control, and also turned against the idea of land-based MRBMs, and instead supported the plan for a sea-based missile force, the famous "multilateral force" or MLF, whose use would be subject to an American veto. None of this, to put it mildly, was to the liking of the NATO commander, General Lauris Norstad. Norstad also disagreed with the political leadership about Berlin strategy, and the authorities in Washington, for their part, disliked the idea of a strong and somewhat independent SACEUR; in their view, the top American officer in Europe should be bound by the policy worked out back home by the president and his top advisors. The conflict came to a head in 1962, and Norstad was in effect fired; SACEUR was "racked back" virtually to the role of an ordinary field commander. This was yet another important element in the general story of the transformation of America's NATO policy in the early 1960s: the basic theme of that story was the centralization of control in the hands of the political authorities in Washington.
How is all this to be understood? Was the Eisenhower policy a mere anomaly, to be attributed to the fact that Eisenhower was a military man--a man whose whole career had trained him to think not in national but in much broader terms? Under Kennedy, the U.S. government--that is, the political leadership in Washington--had adopted a policy of concentrating power in its own hands. Was this a simple reversion to the norm, that is, to the policy that one would expect a very great power like the United States to pursue--a policy of imperial domination?
Once again, the answer is no. For Kennedy as for Eisenhower before him, the American presence in Europe was no end in itself. The U.S. commitment there was a burden. It was certainly a financial burden: the balance of payments deficit that bothered Kennedy so much was of the same order of magnitude as the foreign currency cost of maintaining the troops there, so cutting back on troop levels overseas was always attractive for financial reasons alone. But far more important than that, it was a political burden. The United States was putting its own cities at risk for the sake of Europe. The Americans were committed to risking war even for the sake of Berlin--something which was sustainable during a period of American nuclear superiority, perhaps, but, as everyone understood, that period was rapidly coming to an end. Who, in their right mind, would want to continue carrying that burden simply as a matter of imperial pride?
The problem was not that the United States wanted to make NATO Europe part of a vast American empire and thus wanted to impose itself on that area. The problem was that, from Kennedy's point of view, the United States was trapped. The Americans could not withdraw from Europe; they thus would have to continue paying a certain price; but the risks inherent in the situation had to be made manageable.
How was it that the Kennedy administration reached this conclusion? The Eisenhower policy of getting Europe to stand on its own had implied, as I noted above, that the Europeans would get nuclear forces of their own. Given the fact that Europe was not unified politically, these forces, although coordinated within the inter-allied framework, would be under ultimate national control. This implied in particular that the Germans would have a nuclear force of their own. For Eisenhower, this was not a problem, but for the Kennedy, a German nuclear force was absolutely out of the question: such a force was considered too dangerous, both in itself and because of the presumed Soviet reaction. This was the basic taproot of the Kennedy administration's new NATO policy--that is, the new policy on the MRBMs, the MLF, the PALs, British and French nuclear forces, and so on. If Germany was to be told "no," then Britain and France would also have to be told "no"; and indeed the feeling was that none of the European armies should have effective control of nuclear weapons. But in such circumstances, how was Europe to be defended? There obviously had to be an effective counterweight to Soviet power on the continent. If the Europeans were not to provide it, then American power would have to play that role. There was no alternative, therefore, to a continuing American military presence in Europe. But if the United States was, in effect, stuck in Europe, the other side of this coin was that the Americans had to take charge of the political side of western policy. The Europeans could not be given a blank check; the U.S. government had to do what it could to make sure that the Soviet challenge was manageable--that is, it had to pursue policies that looked toward a real east-west accommodation, whether the Europeans liked it or not.
All of this is important because it helps us understand what was going on within NATO, and especially in the area of NATO military strategy. The normal tendency, especially among military people, is to look at military strategy and take it on its own terms. But NATO, as I said before, was a peacetime alliance, and whereas in time of war, military considerations tend to be the predominant factor in shaping strategy, in time of peace, the balance shifts and political factors normally play a somewhat greater role. This was certainly the case in the Kennedy period.
The official U.S. strategy for the defense of Europe was laid out by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in the spring of 1962. In his Athens speech to the NATO Council in May, McNamara insisted that the American nuclear guarantee of Europe remained intact. If, in the event of war, NATO's defenses in Europe were overwhelmed, the West would have to escalate the war and launch a major nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. It was extremely important in such circumstances--and indeed crucial to the credibility and thus to the effectiveness of this strategy--that the Soviets not retaliate with whatever survived the attack. They therefore had to be given a very strong incentive--the desire to preserve the bulk of their own society intact--for holding their remaining forces back. Soviet cities were therefore to be spared, the Soviet population kept alive for its hostage value. The United States would focus instead on military targets, and especially on the Soviet nuclear force; urban-industrial targets would be avoided. The western attack would be discriminate. Yields would be matched to targets. Accuracy would be improved so that yields could be reduced. One could rely more on airbursts than on groundbursts so as to limit the amount of fallout. The aim was to "reduce damage to civilians." As McNamara put it: "the more discriminating the attack, the less the damage."4
The goal, in other words, was to be able, in the event of war, to "engage in a controlled and flexible nuclear response": the "counterforce no-cities" strategy, as it was called, was thus a strategy for controlled nuclear war. But how seriously is this strategy to be taken? Is it, in fact, to be taken at face value--that is, as reflecting a strategic logic that McNamara and the U.S. political leadership actually believed in? For many years, I had thought that the answer was yes, but now I'm convinced that the Athens strategy was something of a fraud--that is, that it is to be understood not in strategic but rather in essentially political terms. This judgment rests partly on technical considerations--on the fact that the arsenal was not rebuilt and the war plans were not recast to support the sort of strategy McNamara laid out in the Athens speech, and on the fact that McNamara and the others had learned by the end of 1961 that the strategy of controlled nuclear war might be workable only with a command and control system that could survive and function in a nuclear environment, and that such a system was, for all practical purposes, beyond reach. But the more basic reason is that Kennedy, McNamara, and the other top policymakers did not really believe in the strategy of controlled nuclear war--that McNamara in particular did not believe the United States should ever strike first with nuclear weapons, no matter what was going on in Europe, a position that was clearly at variance with the line he took in the Athens speech.
There are other indicators, and taking all of them together, it seems quite clear that the basic goal was political in nature: the Athens strategy was an instrument for getting the Europeans to fall into line and accept the policy of centralizing control in American hands--in order, ultimately, to keep nuclear weapons out of German hands, which was seen as crucial in terms of east-west relations as a whole.
All this may sound a little hard to accept, especially for military people, whose every instinct tells them that a military strategy needs to make sense in military terms--indeed, that in planning war as in warfare itself, military considerations have to be taken as absolutely fundamental. It certainly was hard for military men at the time to accept what the civilian leadership was doing in this area.
And yet, looking back, one point stands out. The system that took shape during the Kennedy period--a system based on the non-nuclear status of Germany and on a permanent American military presence in Europe--actually worked. We ended up with a more or less stable system, not because of nuclear deterrence primarily. Indeed, the system became a lot more stable in 1963 than it had been up to that point, and, as it turns out, this was the same year that the U.S. government came to the conclusion that it had lost its nuclear edge and could no longer seriously contemplate going first with a major nuclear strike--and people like Kennedy were well aware of the fact that the loss of American nuclear superiority would inevitably weaken reduce the deterrent value of America's nuclear forces. But the system became more stable, in spite of this weakening of nuclear deterrence, because a political structure came into being at this time that everyone could live with, a political structure that rested on the twin pillars of the American military presence in Europe and Germany's non-nuclear status--and what went on in the military sphere, especially at the doctrinal level, was a way of gilding the lily and shoring up that political structure. A military strategy that emphasized centralized control served to rationalize a system whose real justification--whose real raison d'être--was political in nature.
And this system remains intact even in the post-Cold War period. America is still a European power, as President Bush put it, and Germany is still non-nuclear. That political structure was the basis of the Cold War peace; NATO strategy and America's general NATO policy were elements in that structure, and certainly need to be understood in that context. But what this implies is that in thinking through the problems of the post-Cold War period--the future of NATO, the future of an alliance without an enemy, the question of America's future role in Europe and in the world generally--we need to keep the past in mind. The NATO alliance came to have a particular form for particular reasons. If those reasons are no longer valid, that simple fact is bound to have major implications. The persistence of the present system can certainly not be taken for granted. Whether the essence of that system can be preserved--whether it should be preserved--are fundamental questions that we need to grapple with if we are to deal effectively with the problems of the next century. And in doing so, it helps to understand what that system was, and why it came into being in the first place.