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Lauris Norstad

General Lauris Norstad cut a dashing figure as the face of NATO’s military command. As he travelled across Europe, giving speeches to parliaments and the public, his straight-backed posture and striking good looks commanded attention and inspired confidence in the Alliance.

Having been promoted to the rank of four-star general when he was only 45, Norstad was one of Eisenhower’s youngest protégés. He was a sharp dresser and quietly proud that his measurements had not changed since he was a cadet. According to a profile in TIME magazine, ''Norstad stands 6 ft. 1 in., weighs 142 Ibs., and with his wavy hair, finely chiseled nostrils and strong, pointed jaw, could almost as well be a product of central casting as of West Point.'' A senior British civil servant went even further:

He looks like the North Atlantic alliance.

Long before he became Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), his high school basketball coach noted that “he was a rangy, determined boy, could eat larger steaks than the other boys.” But far from being arrogant, young Norstad shied away from the spotlight that everyone seemed determined to shine on him.

Norstad began his career as a middling student (graduating 139th in a class of 241 at West Point) who loved to read but did not distinguish himself academically. According to his teachers, his most noticeable attributes were “a modesty approaching an inferiority complex and an unappeasable desire for sleep." This famous modesty continued at NATO. Norstad liked to slip unobtrusively in and out of Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE)—a practice he abandoned reluctantly when his press officer argued that “a commander must be seen by his troops.” Despite his social duties and frequent travel, he guarded his home time ferociously—always carving out time for reading, fishing and family.

Unsurprisingly, Norstad placed great value on fitness, remarking that physical health could make the difference between a good commander and a poor one: ''You've got to be fit in this business. When the pinch comes, you've got to operate for long periods without sleep, and the peak requirements are usually placed on you when you're at peak fatigue. During the war, I observed that a man who exercised good average judgment 24 hours a day soon established a reputation for brilliance.''

With his huge appetite for reading, obvious physical fitness and sharp mind, Norstad indeed established a reputation for brilliance as a young officer and attracted the attention of his superiors. By the time he became SACEUR, he had helped plan air operations across multiple theatres during the Second World War, co-wrote the unification act for the American armed services, and worked under his two predecessors at SHAPE for five years. Below, General Norstad with his SACEUR predecessor General Alfred Gruenther.

Norstad’s time as SACEUR was defined by crises. Immediately prior to taking up his post, the Suez Crisis exposed rifts in the Alliance which threatened to split NATO apart. Shortly before his planned retirement, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. But it was another crisis, midway through his term, which truly tested Norstad’s mettle as NATO’s military leader.

On 13 August 1961, after three years of rising tensions, East Germany erected the Berlin Wall. This action was not unexpected, but it still stoked further divisions within the Alliance.

In 1958—after Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had issued his first ultimatum for the Western Allies to get out of Berlin—the United States, France and the United Kingdom had set up a contingency planning cell called LIVE OAK (which West Germany joined in 1961) to prepare for a possible Soviet military action against Berlin. Shortly after the wall went up, LIVE OAK reacted by creating a set of  ''Draft Instructions to General Norstad,'' advising him to consider both expanding conventional forces and ''the selective use of nuclear weapons to demonstrate the will and ability of the Alliance to use them.''

These Draft Instructions widened a rift between LIVE OAK and the other NATO Allies. Many Allies saw the expansion of conventional forces as an unnecessary expense when nuclear weapons worked as a deterrent against Soviet aggression. Norstad—who was known to some as the “Nuclear SACEUR” and who had been the US Air Force’s chief architect in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—originally believed that nuclear force was NATO’s most important security tool. But he was eventually persuaded that NATO needed both a sword (nuclear weapons) and a shield (conventional forces).

Our shield of defense, our sword of retaliation: I repeat the phrases in order to emphasize that NATO always puts the shield before the sword, defense before attack. Ours is a defensive alliance.

More controversial than the debate over nuclear vs. conventional forces was the perception that the four LIVE OAK Allies were bypassing the North Atlantic Council effectively taking over NATO and sidelining the other 11 Allies. As Norstad remarked to the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “our Allies outside of the Four are becoming increasingly concerned over the dangers of the situation and restive under a system which they feel does not respect their desire for adequate consultation.” For Norstad, keeping the alliance together was of paramount importance.

There are no borders for this man.

Norstad wore ''three hats'' as NATO's SACEUR, the US Commander in Chief in Europe (USCINCEUR), and as the head of LIVE OAK. These roles involved different demands, but for Norstad being SACEUR took priority. According to the New York Times, ''General Norstad saw his own role as that of an international Allied servant, and not only a United States general.'' Norstad's peers at NATO described him in similar terms. A SHAPE colonel remarked that Norstad "is not conspicuously American. He never makes a move that, of itself, gives a clue to his nationality."

This trans-Atlantic quality appeared not only in Norstad's demeanour, but also in his internationalist schedule. Norstad travelled extensively across the countries of the Alliance, speaking to audiences about the vital role that NATO played in their national and personal security. The only Air Force man to have held NATO’s top military post until the new millennium (his three predecessors and 11 subsequent successors all being Army men), Norstad had no problem jumping on a plane and crisscrossing Europe on a moment’s notice. Having this literal bird’s eye view of the Alliance reinforced the interconnectedness of NATO's Allies and the crucial importance of unity.

There are few sights more beautiful than a flag in the wind. When I look at the flags of the 15 nations that constitute NATO, I would say, ladies and gentlemen, that you are looking at the hopes of the Western world.

Ultimately, Lauris Norstad oversaw NATO's military forces during a tumultuous period. His term saw the Soviets launch Sputnik, conflict with Charles de Gaulle over France's nuclear programme, and increased Cold War tensions after the downing of an American U-2 spy plane over the USSR. But through all of this turbulence, Norstad's main achievement was keeping the Alliance together and explaining its importance to NATO citizens.

I get my formal directives on a piece of paper which I receive from the NATO Council. But my real directive is the confidence that nations place in this agency.