Updated: 04-Sep-2001 NATO the first five years 1949-1954

Part 1
Chapter 3

by Lord Ismay

Secretary General



The first steps

In the North Atlantic Treaty, the member governments had undertaken collective obligations which called for immediate and continuous action. Clearly, therefore, their first task was to devise and create collective machinery which would enable them to fulfil these obligations. They were in fact specifically committed to doing so by Article 9 of the Treaty; and a Working Group had been set up two-days before the Treaty was actually signed to make recommendations as to the agencies which should be established, and the methods which should be adopted, to prepare a collective plan of defence for the protection of the North Atlantic area.

Meanwhile, it had already become clear - as shown in Chapter I - that the countries of Europe could not play their part without American assistance, and that without the assurance of such assistance any common defence plans would be woefully inadequate.

The Mutual Defence Assistance Programme

On the 5th April, 1949, the day after the signature of the Treaty, the five Brussels-Treaty Powers submitted a formal request for military and financial assistance to Washington. Similar requests were made by Denmark, Italy, and Norway.

The United States Administration tackled the problem at once. Within a few weeks they had prepared an overall programme of military assistance to the countries of the world whose independence and freedom were threatened. The programme amounted to $ 1,450,000,000 for the fiscal year 1950, of which a sum-of about $ 1,130,000,000 (later reduced to one billion dollars) was destined for European NATO countries.

On the 27th April, 1949, Secretary of State Acheson gave a clear definition of the attitude of the United States Administration towards mutual aid. Addressing the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate, he said: '. . . Article 3 (of the North Atlantic Treaty) does not bind the United States to the proposed military assistance programme, nor indeed to any programme. It does bind the United States to the principle of self-help and mutual aid. Within this principle, each Party to the Pact must exercise its own honest judgment as to what it can and should do to develop and maintain its own capacity to resist and to help others. The judgment of the executive branch of this Government is that the United States can and should provide military assistance to assist other countries in the Pact to maintain their collective security.

On the 25th July, 1949, immediately after signing the bill ratifying the North-Atlantic Treaty, President Truman submitted the Mutual Defence Assistance Bill to Congress. Mr. Acheson told the House of Representatives' Foreign Affairs

Committee on the 28th July that military aid was 'an extremely urgent necessity'. He stressed that the overall one-year programme represented no more than one-fifth of the defence expenditure made by the beneficiary nations for themselves and mutually.

The following day General Omar N. Bradley, the Army Chief-of-Staff, also emphasised the urgency of the assistance programme. On the 10th August, 1949, he stated that the American Joint Chiefs-of-Staff had during a European visit examined the defence concept of Western Union and found it 'in accordance with their own strategic thinking.

During the summer, modifications to the Military Assistance Bill were put forward in Senate committees. Senators Vandenberg and Dulles sponsored seven of them, with the purpose of 'making clear the supremacy of the North Atlantic Treaty'. Among the amendments accepted by the committees was one requiring recipient countries to use the arms to be provided under mutual aid to promote the integrated defence of the North Atlantic area in accordance with defence plans to be drawn up under the provisions of the Atlantic Treaty. Another amendment permitted Congress, by a simple majority vote of both Houses, to terminate the programme; similar authority had already been given to the President. Still another permitted the President or Congress to 'recapture or retain' any arms earmarked for NATO countries if no longer required under the terms of the Treaty.

The Mutual Defence Assistance Act of 1949 was signed by the President on the 6th October - only two weeks, incidentally, after it had been publicly revealed that the first atomic explosion in the USSR had been detected. On the 7th October, Mr. Truman nominated a Director of the Military Assistance Programme and in the following month, the United States Defence Department set up an Office of Military Assistance to co-ordinate arms aid to the North Atlantic countries. On the 27th January, 1950, bilateral agreements implementing the aid programme were signed in Washington between the United States and the eight European NATO countries who had requested military assistance. The first shipments to Europe left the shores of the United States on the 8th March, when the French aircraft carrier Dixmude took on a consignment of Hellcat and other US naval fighter and dive-bomber aircraft at Norfolk, Virginia.

First meeting of the Council

Now let us trace the beginnings of the Organization set up to implement the North Atlantic Treaty. The report of the Working Group mentioned at the beginning of this Chapter was considered by the North Atlantic Council at their first session in Washington on the 17th September, 1949. The principal decisions may be summarised as follows:

  1. the normal composition of the Council was to be the Foreign Ministers of member countries;
  2. the Council were to meet in ordinary session annually and at such other times as might be deemed desirable, and extraordinary sessions under Articles 4 and 5 of the Treaty could be called at the request of any Party invoking one of these Articles;
  3. the United States Secretary of State, Mr. Dean Acheson, was to be the first Chairman of the Council; thereafter, the Chairmanship was to be held annually in turn by the Foreign Minister of each member country according to the alphabetical order in the English language; (1)
  4. English and French were to be the two official languages of the Organization;
  5. a Defence Committee was to be established, consisting ordinarily of Defence Ministers and charged with the task of drawing up unified defence plans for the North Atlantic area. The Committee was to be convened at least once a year at a location determined by the Chairman;
  6. it was suggested to the Defence Committee that the military organization should include a Military Committee (composed of one military representative of each member country, preferably a Chief-of-Staff) which would, among other duties, provide policy guidance of a military nature to its executive body, the Standing Group, composed of one representative of each of the Chiefs-of-Staff of France, the United Kingdom and the United States, and functioning continuously in Washington;
  7. five Regional Planning Groups were to be set up: the Northern European Group (Denmark, Norway and the United Kingdom); the Western European Group (Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom); the Southern European -Western Mediterranean Group (France, Italy and the United Kingdom); the Canadian-United States Group (Canada and the United States); and the North Atlantic Ocean Group (all member countries except Italy and Luxembourg). The United States was requested and agreed to 'participate actively in the defence planning, as appropriate' of all planning groups. In the same way, Canada agreed to participate actively in the work of the Western European Group. These Planning Groups were instructed 'to develop and recommend to the Military Committee, through the Standing Group, plans for the defence of their respective regions.

Creation of economic and financial agencies

At this first session the Council recognised that comprehensive questions of military production and supply, and of economic and financial factors would have to be studied. At their second session held in Washington on the 18th November, 1949, it was decided to set up two new agencies, namely: a Defence Financial and Economic Committee, and a Military Production and Supply Board.

The Defence Financial and Economic Committee was to be composed generally of Finance Ministers and to report direct to the Council. It was to have, in particular, the following tasks:

  1. to develop, in co-operation with the Military Committee (including the Standing Group) and the Military Production and Supply Board, overall financial and economic guides to, and limits of, future defence programmes which North Atlantic Treaty countries as a group and individually should undertake within available financial and economic resources;
  2. to appraise the financial and economic impact on member countries of major individual defence projects formulated by the Military Production and Supply Board or the Military Committee (including the Standing Group); to consider also the availability of raw materials, capital equipment and manpower; and to make recommendations as to action on such projects;
  3. to recommend financial arrangements for executing military defence plans, and particularly financial arrangements for the interchange among North Atlantic Treaty countries of military equipment, surplus stocks, or materials and equipment to be used in producing military equipment;
  4. to measure and to recommend steps to meet the foreign exchange costs of imports of materials and equipment from non-member countries required by defence programmes under the North Atlantic Treaty;
  5. to consider, as may be found desirable and appropriate, plans for the mobilisation of economic and financial resources in time of emergency.

The Military Production and Supply Board was to report to the Defence Committee. Its functions were to recommend ways and means of increasing available supplies when they fell short of military requirements and to promote more efficient production of military equipment.

Both the Defence Financial and Economic Committee and the Military Production and Supply Board were to have permanent working staffs in London, composed of qualified personnel from the interested countries.

Thus NATO now had the nucleus of an organization and a scheme on which to work. Nevertheless, as is only natural, the preparation of collective defence plans between sovereign states using different official procedures, different technical definitions, different languages and different currencies, was to prove extremely complicated. There were any amount of teething troubles to overcome, and work proceeded at a slow pace.

Agreement on a Strategic Concept

On the 1st December, 1949, the Defence Committee, meeting in Paris, agreed on a strategic concept for the 'integrated defence of the North Atlantic area', and on the methods by which a programme of production and of deliveries of military weapons and equipment should be devised. The Committee had, of course, taken into account the studies carried out in 1948 by Western Union, and later by the United States Joint Chiefs-of-Staff.

The Defence Committee's recommendations were approved by the North Atlantic Council at their third session in Washington on the 6th January, 1950. The Council stressed that 'these recommendations embody the principles of self-help and mutual aid and will provide the basis for the common defence of the Parties'. On the 27th January, the day of the signing of the bilateral military aid agreements, President Truman approved the 'master Defence Plan' for the North Atlantic area. (2)

Meanwhile, the Defence Financial and Economic Committee had begun work on a number of projects aimed at:

  • obtaining data on current and planned defence expenditures of member countries;
  • ascertaining the resources available for military production and for mutual assistance;
  • examining the financial arrangements for the transfer of military materials and equipment;
  • developing formulae for measuring the cost of defence.

This was the beginning of the discussions on an eventual 'common fund' and on a fair 'burden sharing', which were to be frequently debated later on.

When the Council met in London on the 15th May, 1950, they were brought up against the fact that there was a lack of co-ordination between NATO's military and civilian agencies. The military authorities were awaiting information from the Defence Financial and Economic Committee on what resources would be available to meet the Medium Term Defence Plan; this required a much higher level of forces than member countries were actually planning. At the same time, the Defence Financial and Economic Committee was awaiting specific information from the military authorities about the priorities and especially the costs of the plan. Long memoranda were being exchanged on the subject without much result. Ministers also showed concern at the considerable financial burden implied in the Medium Term Defence Plan. (3)

The Council Deputies

In this somewhat confused situation the Council decided that the time had come for the creation of a permanent civilian body which would be responsible for carrying out the policies of the NATO governments in the intervals between meetings of the North Atlantic Council. Accordingly, they established the Council Deputies to meet in continuous session in London. Each government was to be represented by a Deputy to its "Council Representative (i.e. its Foreign Minister). The Deputies were enjoined to select a permanent chairman from among their own membership and to establish a 'suitable full-time organization composed of highly qualified persons contributed by member governments. The Council also established a Planning Board for Ocean Shipping to deal with all matters relating to merchant shipping in defence planning.

The Council defined the numerous tasks of the Deputies and stated that 'the problem of adequate military forces and the necessary financial costs should be examined as one, and not as separate problems. They also said that 'the combined resources of the members of the North Atlantic Treaty were sufficient, if properly co-ordinated and applied, to ensure the progressive and speedy development of adequate military defence without impairing the social and economic progress of these countries' and they urged the member governments to concentrate on the creation of 'balanced collective forces in the progressive build-up of the defence of the North Atlantic area.

Two expressions here need to be qualified and stressed. The first is balanced collective forces', which marked a new development in NATO's thinking. The idea was to conceive the military build-up so that all effort be directed in the best possible way and to the best possible place. Duplication and overlapping were to be avoided; a government should not be wasting its money on building, say ships, if it could do more important work, equally useful to North Atlantic defence, in some other field.

The second expression worth noting is 'progressive build-up of defence. This reflected the rather leisurely pace of Western rearmament during that period. Clearly the NATO countries intended to take their time about rebuilding their armed strength; and each of them, before deciding on costly and somewhat unpopular measures, had a tendency to wait and see what the other fellow was doing.

The military situation in May, 1950

Let us now pause to take stock of the situation a little over a year after the signing of the Treaty. The Council, the Defence Committee and the Defence Financial and Economic Committee had had a number of meetings. Their subsidiary agencies had been continuously at work on the complicated and novel problems that confronted them. Much useful experience had been gained and much useful information collected. The habit of working together was growing sensibly. So far so good.

On the other hand, international tension all over the world had in no way relaxed and in Europe the military situation was fraught with danger. To the west of the Iron Curtain the members of the Atlantic Alliance had about 14 divisions on the Continent and less than 1,000 aircraft. These divisions were of varying quality both in training and equipment and several were below strength. They were not controlled by any single authority and arrangements for their effective command in case of war would have had to be hastily improvised. On the other side of the Iron Curtain Russia had about 25 divisions stationed outside the Soviet Union, supported by about 6,000 aircraft available for immediate attack, the whole under a centralised command: and behind these 'forward' Russian units was the massive bulk of the Red Army and air forces.

The figures alone make the picture bleak enough from the Allied point of view, but they do not tell the whole story. The Allied forces in Germany and Austria, apart from lacking the advantages of cohesion and unified direction, were disposed for easy administration, without any regard for their operational role. The three zones of Western Germany, American, British and French, had been demarcated as zones of occupation, not zones of defence - with the result that the line running from the Elbe down to Austria was not a defensive line in any sense of the word. One or two examples will illustrate this: the British troops were supplied through Hamburg, about an hour's drive down the autobahn from Lubeck, itself only 10 minutes from the Russian garrison. The only British armoured division was placed slightly behind its main base, and the British infantry division behind the armour. It is difficult to imagine dispositions that could be more unsuitable for operations in the event of an aggression. The American forces were just as badly placed. Their line of supply ran from Bremen parallel to the direction from which attack might come, and right through the British zone. Nor were the French forces prepared for anything beyond the administration of German territory.

These dispositions may in retrospect look extraordinary; but, as explained above, the forces maintained in Germany after the end of World War II by the Western democracies had not been organized with any idea of warlike operations. This situation was graphically described by Field Marshal Montgomery, Chairman of the Commanders-in-Chief Committee, Western Union, in a report to the governments of the Brussels Treaty Powers dated the 15th June, 1950: 'As things stand today and in the foreseeable future', wrote the Field Marshal, 'there would be scenes of appalling and indescribable confusion in Western Europe if we were ever attacked by the Russians.

Related chart:


  1. For the list of the Chairmen of the North Atlantic Council, see Chapter VI, Annex A, page 66.
  2. It had been specified by Congress that out of the § 1,000,000,000 allocated to NATO countries under the Mutual Defence Assistance Act of 1949, $ 900,000,000 could only be released after the President had approved the recommendations for the integrated defence of the North Atlantic area made by the North Atlantic Council and the Defence Committee.
    One more step forward was made on the 1st April, 1950 when the Defence Committee, meeting in The Hague, approved the first draft of a detailed four-years' defence plan (subsequently called the Medium Term Defence Plan) which had been prepared by the Regional Planning Groups, the Standing Group and the Military Committee. At this meeting it devoted particular attention to problems such as the financing of military production and the standardisation of equipment.
  3. It may be recalled that, one month earlier, the French Prime Minister, M. Georges Bidault, had stated in a speech that 'it would be wise and opportune to create a Supreme Atlantic Council to order and direct the development of the Atlantic Community in the two inseparable spheres of defence and economies' His views, however, were not debated at the NATO Council Meeting.
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