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Alfred M. Gruenther

Described by NATO’s first Secretary General Lord Ismay as "the greatest soldier-statesman I have ever known," General Alfred Maximilian Gruenther was the consummate staff officer, overseeing NATO’s military command with the same attention to detail he had shown as a military strategist in the Second World War. Gruenther served as Chief of Staff to both of his predecessors at SHAPE - Eisenhower and Ridgway - before taking over as Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR) in 1953.

I have come to realize security is much broader. If we think we're going to get security by military strength, we're wrong.

In many ways, Gruenther was not a typical general. At the time of his appointment as SACEUR, the largest military unit he had directly commanded was an artillery battalion. His early military career was undistinguished, with eight years spent as a mathematics instructor at West Point’s Military Academy. But he had nonetheless become the youngest four-star general in American military history when he was named Eisenhower’s NATO Chief of Staff at the age of 53.

The Brain of the Army

Gruenther’s remarkable rise is attributed to his phenomenal intellect, and particularly his ability to rapidly synthesize huge quantities of information into concrete plans. Eisenhower described him as ''one of the ablest all-around officers, civilian or military, I have encountered.'' In 1956, Gruenther featured on the cover of TIME Magazine, which described him as “a human IBM machine, the perfect staff officer, the smartest man in the U.S. Army, the most factual man of his times.” Tasked with cajoling reluctant European political leaders to contribute more to the Alliance, Gruenther would use his huge memory and deft political skills to win support in parliaments across the continent. According to TIME, “Gruenther not only understands, but often startles ministers by reciting production figures of their own countries that they do not know themselves, amazes politicians by quoting election figures down to the tenth of a percentage point. As a result, he has won an admiration among European statesmen that borders on adulation.”

Gruenther was, above all things, a strategist. During the war, he was the chief American planner of both Operation Torch (the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied North Africa) and the Allied invasion of Italy. But even in his personal life, his decisions were calculated. Shortly after his graduation from military college, he noticed that a superior officer enjoyed playing bridge, and so he took up the game as his main hobby. By the time he met Eisenhower, Gruenther was the best bridge player in the US Army, having refereed famous bridge matches—including the “Bridge Battle of the Century” in 1931—and written three books on the subject. When it came time for Eisenhower to pick a second-in-command at NATO, he reportedly said, “I ought to take Bedell Smith [who had served as his chief of staff during the war and had signed the German Instrument of Surrender on Eisenhower’s behalf], but I think I'll take Gruenther because he's the better bridge player.”

He is able to clear his mind and his desk with lightning speed… He never abandoned the detail; he simply operates brilliantly on two levels instead of one.

As NATO’s commander, Gruenther developed an awed respect among his staff for his efficiency, his energy, and for his ability to work with both a big-picture vision and microscopic detail. He greeted thousands of visitors to NATO every year, detailing the value of the Alliance to their own interests and remembering each person by name. His office had to deal with a constant flurry of “Gruenthergrams”—paper slips bearing his questions and commands—most of which were requests for the huge quantities of raw information her required.

Gruenther oversaw the accession of West Germany to the Alliance in 1955. He also set up the New Approach Group, which officially shifted NATO’s strategy from a troop-based approach supported by artillery and air power, to an atomic-strike approach supported by troop movements. But his main role was as NATO’s tireless champion—using his enormous intellect, personal charm, and diplomatic skill to shepherd the organization through a period where the continued existence of the Alliance was not yet assured.

Ultimately, Al Gruenther’s story is one of humble roots and life-long service. According to residents of Gruenther’s boyhood town, the future four-star general was bullied and called a sissy in grade school for wearing knee-length trousers. After graduating fourth in his class from West Point, he spent 17 years as a second lieutenant before being promoted to captain. And after taking over as SACEUR, he faced the political challenge of reduced military commitments from nearly all NATO member states. Armed with little more than “a cascade of facts drawn from an incredible memory, an inextinguishable smile and a dry Nebraska lucidity,” Gruenther converted skeptics into supporters and left NATO stronger than he found it.

I think most people agree that NATO is the best instrument to insure the preservation of our freedoms. But basically, NATO is a state of mind, and the condition of the state of mind depends upon public support. Without that support the alliance could deteriorate rapidly.”