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

Part 1
Chapter 4

by Lord Ismay

Secretary General



The pace quickens

The London session of the Council ended on the 18th May, 1950. On the 25th June, there occurred an event which was to have a profound influence on the evolution of NATO. North Korean Communist divisions crossed the 38th parallel, delivered a sudden attack on the poorly armed forces of South Korea and advanced rapidly on Seoul. On the 26th June, at the request of the United States, the United Nations Security Council (from which the Russians were absent) met and ordered a cease-fire. This order was ignored. On the 27th June, President Truman instructed United States air and naval forces to support the South Korean units, and directed the 7th US Fleet to protect Formosa. He also announced that American aid to Indo-China and the Philippines would be increased.

On the same day, the Security Council denounced North Korea as the aggressor, decided on economic and military sanctions and requested that all member nations should go to the rescue of the South Korean Republic. This was the first time in history that a decision to apply military sanctions had been taken by an international organization. A number of free nations, boldly led by the United States - which committed its land forces in Korea on the 1st July - at once rallied to resist the invader. This was clear proof of the solidarity of the free world; and it showed that when the democracies spoke of defence against aggression they really meant what they said. It was obvious that the sort of outrage which had taken place in far-away Korea could easily be repeated elsewhere. For NATO the period of cautious optimism and slow methodical progress was over.

Thus, it was in a changed atmosphere that on the 25th July, 1950, the newly-appointed Council Deputies met for the first time in London, under the Chairmanship of Ambassador Charles M. Spofford, who had been selected by his colleagues to preside at the Deputies' meetings; he was also the United States Deputy. In the same month, the speeding up of deliveries of United States military equipment had been announced. In Europe, the Defence Ministers of the Brussels Treaty Powers had conferred on rearmament measures.

On the 28th July, Mr. Spofford informed the Council Deputies that the United States Administration, in order to document the need for an additional aid programme, had requested all NATO countries to indicate 'the nature and extent of the increased effort each proposed to make. The recognition by governments of the urgency of rearmament was evident from the speed with which they answered: all replies were in by the 31st August. Nevertheless, many governments, while planning to expand their national defence effort, were gravely concerned with the financial and economic difficulties involved.

Decision to build an integrated force

When the North Atlantic Council met in New York on the 15th September, 1950, their discussions were centred on a single problem: how to defend the NATO area from an aggression similar to that which had taken place in the Far East. On the one hand, there was complete agreement that a 'forward strategy' should be adopted in Europe, i.e. that any aggression should be resisted as far to the east as possible, in order to ensure the defence of all NATO European countries. On the other hand, it was obvious that existing forces were wholly inadequate to give effect to that strategy. The Council therefore decided that member countries should take urgent measures to increase their military strength and that the Medium Term. Defence Plan should be revised. An 'integrated force under a centralised command, adequate to deter aggression and to ensure the defence of Western Europe', was to be created and placed under a Supreme Commander to be appointed by NATO. The Standing Group was to assume the 'higher strategic direction'. The Council requested the Defence Committee to recommend the measures necessary to bring the force into being 'at the earliest possible time'.

Plans for a German contribution

This fifth session of the Council was held in two parts. After conferring for three days and issuing a communiqué on the proposed 'integrated force', the Council adjourned for several days to enable Ministers to consult their governments. The reason for this procedure was that a momentous development had taken place during the first part of the talks. Secretary of State Acheson had informed his colleagues that his government was prepared to 'participate in the immediate establishment of an integrated force in Europe, within the framework of the North Atlantic Treaty, adequate to ensure the successful defence of Western Europe, including Western Germany, against possible aggression'.

Furthermore, he had specified that the force in question should involve 'the participation of German units and the use of German productive resources for its supply'. The United States Government favoured definite limitations and guarantees: for instance, the biggest German unit would not exceed a division, and each German unit would be integrated in larger Allied forces. The creation of a German General Staff would not be permitted, and German forces would be dependent upon other nations for vital military equipment which was not to be produced by German industry.

The United States proposal entailed a reversal of the Allied policy of disarmament and demilitarisation of Germany. German participation in Western defence had been mooted several times in the preceding months, and the anxiety caused by the Korean war had brought the question to a head. Moreover, a feeling of insecurity was growing in Western Germany, particularly since the Soviets had encouraged Eastern Germany to raise a militarised 'People's Police', 50,000 strong and heavily armed. Chancellor Konrad Adenauer had urged the creation of a West German police force of similar size and strength and had repeatedly suggested that the United States should despatch more divisions, particularly armoured divisions, to Europe. He had also declared in a public statement on the 23rd August, 1950, that he favoured the creation of a unified Western European Army, adding that 'if Germany is called upon to provide a contingent for this army, she is ready, under certain conditions, to make sacrifices for her own and Western Europe's sake'.

The proposal to rearm. Germany was bound to provoke conflicting reactions amongst the governments and the peoples of the NATO countries for reasons too evident to need explanation. Suffice it to say that during the Council's discussions, all the arguments for and against German participation in Western defence were examined and weighed. From a military point of view, the main argument in favour of participation was that NATO's forward strategy made it imperative to defend Europe on German soil: this was hardly conceivable without the military and political participation of the German Federal Republic.

A political impasse

When the Council interrupted their session on the 18th September, all the members were prepared to accept the principle of German participation in the NATO forces, with the exception of the French Foreign Minister, M. Robert Schuman. He held the view that, while certain methods of securing a German contribution to defence might be acceptable, e.g. in the fields of production and of military construction, the raising of German troops would at this stage 'do more harm than good'. Being thus unable to reach agreement, the Council adjourned in order to allow the Ministers - and particularly those of the three Occupying Powers - to re-examine the matter.

On the 19th September, the Foreign Ministers of the three Occupying Powers, who had been holding separate meetings in New York, issued a statement in which, amongst other matters, they dealt with the security of Western Germany. They declared that they would 'increase and reinforce their forces in Germany', and that they would consider 'any attack against the Federal Republic or Berlin from any quarter as an attack upon themselves'. They recognised that 'the creation of a German national army would not serve the best interests of Germany and Europe', and added that 'the question raised by the problems of the participation of the German Federal Republic in the common defence of Europe was at present the subject of study and exchange of views'.

This, however, was as far as they got. Consequently, when the North Atlantic Council reconvened on the 26th September, their final communiqué was couched in intentionally vague terms. AH it stated was that Germany 'should be enabled to contribute to the build-up of the defence of Western Europe'. The Defence Committee was invited to make recommendations as to how this should be done.

The French Proposals

On the 24th October, 1950, the French Prime Minister, M. Rene Pleven, submitted to the French Assembly a plan for 'the creation of a European army linked to the political institutions of a united Europe'. Under this project there would be 'a complete fusion of all the human and material elements' of the proposed force. A European Minister of Defence responsible to a European Assembly would be appointed by the participating governments. His authority would extend over the execution of the armament and equipment programmes. The financing of the projected army would be effected by a common budget. Finally 'the European forces would be placed at the disposal of the unified Atlantic force and would operate in accordance with the contractual obligations of the Atlantic Pact'.

This plan was presented to NATO's Defence Committee on the 28th October
by M. Jules Moch, French Minister of National Defence, as an alternative to the American proposals. There had been no time for a detailed examination of its vast implications; furthermore the positions of the United States and of France were too divergent to be reconciled at that particular session. In these circumstances the Defence Committee(1) were bound to admit their inability to take final decisions on NATO's military organization in Europe and on the command structure. They instructed the Military Committee and the Council Deputies to pursue the study of these questions.

A report on the German problem

The two bodies conducted their investigations separately while keeping each other informed of progress. The negotiations were delicate: a large part of the credit for their success should go to Mr. Spofford, who played an important personal role in presenting compromise proposals (involving modifications of both the French and United States positions) which he defended with skill and patience. On the 13th December, the Council Deputies and the Military Committee held a joint meeting, and were able to forward an agreed report to the Defence Committee and to the North Atlantic Council.

The essence of their recommendations was that 'an acceptable and realistic defence of Western Europe and the adoption of a forward strategy could not be contemplated without active and willing German participation', and that certain provisional measures in respect of a German contribution should be initiated in the immediate future - for example, 'preliminary work on the military organization'. The report dealt with the maximum size of future German units and with the various limitations and controls which should be applied to the German defence contribution, particularly with respect to air power, naval power, armoured units, atomic power and military production.

The report recognised that 'any system of German participation must be within the NATO structure' and mentioned the various solutions which had been discussed - without, at this point, making a choice between them. The broad alternatives were the incorporation of German units either in NATO's integrated defence force (United States proposal) or in the unified European Army (French proposal). The Netherlands, moreover, had put forward the idea of appointing a NATO High Commissioner in Western Germany with responsibilities for all armed forces stationed in Western Germany, and German forces in particular.

The Brussels meeting of the Council

When the Council met in Brussels on the 18th December, 1950, for their sixth session, they stated 'that German participation would strengthen the defence of Europe without altering in any way the purely defensive character of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization'. They also took the first steps to bring about this participation: on the one hand, the Council invited the governments of the three Occupying Powers to 'explore the matter' with the Government of the German Federal Republic; on the other, they took note of the French Government's intention of calling a conference of the European Powers which might participate in the organization of a unified European Army.

Eisenhower appointed

At this same session, the Council took important decisions on defence matters. The first related to organization. The Standing Group was in future to determine on behalf of the Military Committee, the requirements of the projected NATO force, composed of contingents from the member countries. Accordingly the Military Committee established in Washington a permanent Committee of Military Representatives from all the NATO countries. In addition, a Standing Group Liaison Office "was to be established in London, to ensure closer co-operation between the Council Deputies and the NATO military authorities.

The second and most far-reaching decision of the Council was that an integrated force should be constituted under the supreme command of an American officer.

The words 'integrated force' and 'supreme command' at once brought to mind the name of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Of him Prime Minister Churchill at the end of the Second World War had written to President Truman: 'In General Eisenhower we have a man who set the unity of the Allied Armies above all nationalistic thoughts. In his Headquarters unity and strategy were the only reigning spirits'.

The Council had no hesitation in requesting President Truman to designate General Eisenhower to serve as Supreme Commander of the integrated force. The President agreed, and the Council duly appointed General Eisenhower to this vital post. It was announced that he would establish his headquarters in Europe early in 1951 and would 'have the authority to train the national units assigned to his command and to organize them into an effective integrated force'. He was to be supported by 'an international staff drawn from the nations contributing to the force'.

It was indeed fortunate for the free world that a man of General Elsenhower's unique prestige, qualifications and experience was available at this critical juncture. His name was associated with victory in the minds of millions and millions of people, and his appointment was a tremendous psychological asset to the Alliance.

First forces assigned to NATO

The effect of General Elsenhower's appointment was reinforced by immediate and weighty assurances at the same session of the North Atlantic Council: 'I am authorised by the President', said Secretary of State Acheson, 'to say that before this day is out he will place under the command of the Supreme Commander the United States forces in Europe. We hope that this action will be matched as soon as possible by other governments belonging to the North Atlantic Treaty - all the other governments who have forces... The President again authorises me to say that he will increase the forces of the United States under the command of the Supreme Commander'. The French Minister of Defence, M. Jules Moch, announced that the three French divisions stationed in Germany would be placed under General Eisenhower and that two other divisions would be added in 1951. Several other member governments were soon to state their intention of taking similar measures.

NATO had taken an enormous step forward. An organization was to be brought into being which would have the authority and the power to ensure that, from Norway to the Mediterranean, national forces allocated to Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (henceforward to be known as SHAPE) were properly assembled and trained into an effective integrated force. There was, in fact, to be the unprecedented arrangement of a unified command in time of peace.

The Brussels session of the Council had indeed borne fruit. It is moving to recall the words of the United Kingdom Representative, Mr. Bevin, who was already a very sick man, and who was to die a few months later. Speaking to a close friend after the meeting he said: 'It is given to few men to see their dreams fulfilled. Three times in the last year I know I have nearly died, but I kept myself alive because I wanted to see this North Atlantic Alliance properly launched. This has been done today'.

The first integrated command

No time was lost in giving effect to the Brussels decisions. In World War II General Eisenhower had proved himself to be adept in picking the right men for the right jobs. Almost his first act as Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) designate was to select as his Chief-of-Staff Lieutenant-General Alfred M. Gruenther (the present Supreme Allied Commander in Europe). General Gruenther in turn picked four or five United States officers who at once began to study the problems of organization and command.

Paris was chosen as Headquarters, largely because of its central position and excellent communications; the Hotel Astoria, near the Etoile, was made available and quickly fitted up to receive the United States officers who constituted the SHAPE planning group. They arrived in January 1951 and were soon joined by the representatives of eight other member nations. (2) This small band of pioneers laboured together so that SHAPE could get into action as quickly as possible.

For General Eisenhower himself the first and foremost task was to form his own estimate of the chances of success of the enterprise which he had been called upon to lead. Accordingly, in January 1951 he made a whirlwind tour of the capitals of all the countries in Europe which had signed the Treaty. He was thus able to meet, and in many cases to renew acquaintance with the principal civil and military personalities of all the NATO nations, and to learn at first hand their resources, their existing plans and their intentions.

As a result of this tour he became convinced of the determination of NATO governments to afford him every possible support. He found that although the forces currently at his disposal were small, there existed on all sides the will and ability to increase them. He was therefore able, at the end of January 1951, to tell the United States Congress in Washington, that the European members of NATO were determined to defend themselves, and that the preservation of free America required American participation in the defence of Western Europe.

Meanwhile, General Gruenther and his officers in Paris were wrestling with manifold problems of a novel character. The North Atlantic Council at their New York session in September 1950 had laid it down that the Supreme Commander should be 'supported by an international staff representing all nations contributing to the force'. How was this staff to be organized? On the American system, which was not unlike the French? Or on the British system, which was different from both? How were the staff appointments to be distributed among the various nationalities so as to ensure that each and all were fairly represented? What was to be the command structure through which the Supreme Commander would exercise control? Where were Headquarters to be situated? These were some of the problems which kept the lights in the Hotel Astoria burning till after midnight seven nights a week for the first three hectic months.

It was, indeed, fortunate for the planners of SHAPE that the Western Union Command Organization had already studied analogous problems and had prepared the plans which served as a foundation for future dispositions. Western-Union had also created the precedent of an international and inter-service staff, working together in time of peace and using the same two official languages as NATO - French and English. In addition, they had bequeathed to SHAPE not only their many studies of the defence of what was to be the central sector of the SHAPE Command, but, more important, a number of officers of different nationalities with the in valuable experience of working together as an allied team.

In addition, there were available to the SHAPE planners all the studies carried out by three of the Regional Planning Groups which had been set up by the Council at its first session. (3) These Groups had small international staffs working in Europe who had for some time studied the defence problems of the area that was now to become Allied Command Europe.

Thanks to the work of their predecessors and their own unremitting labours, the SHAPE planners were able to settle most of the fundamental problems by the time General Eisenhower got back to Paris from Washington. On the 2nd April, 1951, SHAPE assumed operational control. It did not, however, leave its cramped quarters in the Hotel Astoria until June of that year when it moved into prefabricated buildings, which had been erected in approximately three months by French Army engineers on a splendid site donated by France in the Versailles area. So, where the Presidents of the French Republic once invited guests to shoot pheasants there now exists the nerve centre of the military organization controlling a defence line of 4,000 miles, from the North Cape to the Caucasus.

Related chart:


  1. General Marshall had become United States Secretary of Defence, and was Chairman at this meeting.
  2. Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and the United Kingdom.
  3. See Chapter III.
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