Sixty Years of the North Atlantic Council
The first formal meeting of the North Atlantic Council occurred on 17 September 1949. It was held in the auditorium of the United States Department of State in Washington, DC, the same room where the North Atlantic Treaty had been adopted on 4 April 1949.
The main purpose of the meeting was to establish an organizational structure for NATO, and at the start of the meeting the US Secretary of State, Mr. Dean Acheson, called for two principles to be observed: “the machinery should be as simple as possible and the organisation should not be multiplied merely for the purpose of setting up many committees….Secondly, the machinery should be businesslike and should reflect underlying realities.”
It was in this spirit that the Council then established the Defence Committee, composed of the Defence Ministers of the member nations. The Council also recommended that the Defence Committee establish the following additional bodies to make up the military structure of the Alliance: the Military Committee, to be composed of the senior military officers (Chiefs of Staff) of the nations; a “Standing Group” to serve as the executive body for the Military Committee because this body did not yet meet in permanent session; and five Regional Planning Groups tasked with preparing plans for the defence of their regions. The five geographical areas for the Regional Planning Groups were Northern Europe, Western Europe, Southern Europe-Western Mediterranean, Canada-United States, and North Atlantic Ocean.
The organisational structure established by this first Council meeting was different from what we know today, in keeping with the desire for simplicity expressed by Secretary of State Acheson. There were no permanent sessions of the Council or the Military Committee, no Secretary General, no Supreme Allied Commanders, and no military headquarters. A handful of high-level committees were required to meet once a year. A very small military structure consisted of five Regional Planning Groups – basically committees – under the supervision of the Standing Group, which served as the executive body for the Military Committee when the latter was not in session.
The Standing Group – located in Washington - was composed solely of senior officers from the three most powerful NATO members: the United Kingdom, the United States, and France. Two of the smaller nations – Portugal and Italy -- expressed concern at the first Council meeting about this limited membership but did not stand in the way of the adoption of the proposed organizational structure. The final communiqué of the meeting noted that the nations not represented on the Standing Group were entitled to appoint representatives to provide permanent liaison with the Standing Group.
The organizational structure established by the first Council meeting would undergo further change in the years to come, beginning with the Council’s decision the following year to establish a true military command structure and a Supreme Allied Commander Europe. The process continued in 1952 with the creation of a Permanent Session of the Council under a permanent chairman known as the Secretary General.