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Lord Ismay

Lord Hastings Lionel Ismay was NATO’s first Secretary General, a position he was initially reluctant to accept. By the end of his tenure however, Ismay had become the biggest advocate of the organisation he had famously said earlier on in his political career, was created to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”


The position of Secretary General was not established until several years after the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty – and after the nomination of a military commander. With the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, military affairs were of primary concern and the Supreme Commander Allied Forces Europe (SACEUR) was nominated in December 1950. The post of Secretary General was created in February 1952 and Ismay was appointed a month later.

Since the headquarters had been moved from London to Paris, it was decided the post of the first Secretary General should be given to a Brit. Winston Churchill put forward Ismay’s name, his Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations and a former soldier with a prestigious military career. Ismay tried to decline but eventually relented believing the posting would only last two years. He took office on 4 April 1952 – NATO’s third anniversary.

Ismay is credited with developing the administrative side of NATO – a dedicated International Staff and the necessary committees. At the time of his appointment, the North Atlantic Council (NAC) – the principle decision making body – was rearranged into the format it is in today (permanent representatives at ambassadorial rank from each member country). In the beginning Ismay did not chair Council meetings. This authority was granted a few years later, yet Ismay modestly maintained he was a servant of the North Atlantic Council. Preferring short meetings, his function was to summarise the discussion, emphasising the points of agreement, and bring the meeting to a close. When issues prevented unanimous decision, Ismay would invite the dissenting parties to lunch at his residence to find a compromise in a more informal setting.

Ismay on the North Atlantic Council
Ismay on the North Atlantic Council

It was not only administrative details that needed ironing out – even a place for the Secretary General to live had to be decided! For several months after his appointment, Ismay was still living in the Hotel Bristol. NATO eventually purchased a house on Villa Said, a private street in one of Paris’s best districts, to become the official residence. Ismay grew to enjoy life in Paris, particularly taking in the horse races. His grey bowler hat was a recognisable image at the tracks. His enthusiasm even trickled down to the international staff, who would telephone the office for advice on bets.


Ismay realised that one of his most important duties would be to publicise NATO as much as possible so that the populations of member states would support the fledging organisation. A warm, good natured, and informal speaker fond of illustrating his points with anecdotes, Ismay rarely passed on an opportunity to speak publicly and travelled widely throughout the member countries. During his term, a NATO flag was developed – a four point compass on a dark blue background – providing a recognisable symbol of the Alliance.

The formerly reluctant Secretary General retired in 1957 but continued to promote NATO. Ismay’s publication NATO: The First Five Years remains an excellent explanation of why the Treaty was signed, how the civilian and military machinery worked, and what was accomplished from 1949 to 1954.