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The United States and NATO

What motivated the United States to participate in the creation of a transatlantic alliance in 1949? Who were some of the Americans who had an impact on NATO during the Cold War? Find out what an American Nobel Prize winner, a historian and Orson Welles had to do with NATO.

By this treaty, we are not only seeking to establish freedom from aggression and from the use of force in the North Atlantic community, but we are also actively striving to promote and preserve peace throughout the world.

Harry S. Truman, President of the United States, 24 August 1949

Following the end of the Second World War, the United States found itself an undeniable superpower: a strong military, a booming economy and clear moral leadership for the post-war period. A generation before, during the First World War, the United States had tried to promote internationalism on the world stage, but ultimately succumbed to a policy of isolationism. The concept of isolationism had been a thread of the American fabric since George Washington, the revered first president of the young nation, had warned against entangling alliances.

With the Truman Doctrine of containment, which arose from a speech President Harry S. Truman delivered on 12 March 1947, the country’s reluctance to engage in regional conflicts not directly involving the United States started to change. The country would aid all “free people” being subjugated, starting with financial aid to Greece and Turkey to protect them from communist threats. The following year, the United States launched the Marshall Plan, officially known as the European Recovery Program, a massive initiative to help boost European economies and reconstruct the war-ravaged continent. In June 1948, the Senate, the upper house of the country’s legislative branch, passed a resolution that would change the course of American foreign policy: the Vandenburg Resolution, which allowed the United States to participate constitutionally in a mutual defence system in peacetime.

A superpower with a mission

Starting in 1948, secret talks began in the Pentagon among British, Canadian and American officials. These talks would eventually include other future Allies and would form the basis of the North Atlantic Treaty. American officials had to navigate carefully, as isolationist and unilateralist tendencies were strong within the Senate and among the population at large. However, 1948 saw momentous events in Europe, such as the Berlin Blockade and the communist coup in Czechoslovakia, which reshaped American views on the continent. On 4 April 1949, Secretary of State Dean Acheson signed the North Atlantic Treaty on behalf of the United States, formally wedding his country to the future of Europe. The Senate ratified the treaty on 21 July 1949 by a vote of 83-13. On 25 July 1949, President Truman and Secretary Acheson signed the Instrument of Accession, making the United States a founding member of NATO.

The newly created Alliance worked to introduce countries to each other through educational films, brochures and other promotional materials. A series of films called the "Atlantic Community," or "Know your Allies," was produced for the first 15 members. "Introducing the United States" was produced in 1956.

Bringing NATO's military family together

Due to its size and military capabilities, the United States played a major role in the formation of NATO's first ever integrated military structure. Following the outbreak of the Korean War, NATO members feared that if the Soviet Union was willing to extend its influence through a client state in Asia, it would do the same in Europe. Allies agreed to rethink the existing Regional Planning Groups to make NATO's military structures more effective. They decided to create an integrated military structure headed by a single, unifying commander, whose role would be to prepare the Allied defences of the European theatre. In 1950, NATO's top political decision-making body the North Atlantic Council, agreed to disband the Regional Planning Groups in favour of an integrated military command; create the post of Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR); and appoint an American General as the first SACEUR. In 1952, after significant political considerations, the Council also approved the creation of Allied Command Atlantic (ACLANT) in Norfolk, Virginia, to be led by an American Navy admiral.


One aspect of an integrated command was to foster a spirit of cooperation among troops from different countries. Initiatives were taken to familiarise service members with their Allies, such as posters showing the different uniforms and ranks. Here, you can see the American example from June 1963.

American commanders in Europe

NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe (or SACEUR), was responsible for the European mainland during the Cold War, safeguarding the area extending from the northern tip of Norway to southern Europe, including the whole of the Mediterranean, and from the Atlantic coastline to the eastern border of Turkey (this area of responsibility was extended in 2002).

All SACEURS are from the United States Armed Forces. Most have been Army Generals, but the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy have also held the top military post in the Alliance. SACEURs have the additional national responsibility as US Commander-in-Chief European Command or USCINCEUR (known today as Commanders of the United States European Command, EUCOM). This arrangement, termed "dual-hatted", ensures a high level of integration between US forces and other Allied forces stationed in Europe.

SACEUR is based at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, or SHAPE, in Casteau, near Mons, Belgium.

General Dwight Eisenhower

General Eisenhower became the first SACEUR in December 1950, based at SHAPE. He had been a face of the Allied war effort during the Second World War and was unanimously selected as the first occupant of the post. He set about the herculean task of forming a new command and convincing Allied leaders, including his own country's politicians, of supplying men and materials to ensure collective defence. Eisenhower met with policymakers who were often war-weary and suspicious, and through personal clout and substantial argument, convinced them of the need to bolster NATO's European defences across the entire continent. The early months of SHAPE saw the influence of the United States in developing a fully integrated command structure. General Eisenhower stated:

If SHAPE succeeds, it will be a model for future cooperation, and even if it fails, we should know the reasons why.

The earliest arrivals formed the "US Advance Planning Group, SHAPE", which was renamed the "SHAPE Planning Group" when the 11 other NATO members sent officers to participate. But by March 1951, 101 of the 150 officers at SHAPE were Americans. As their commander, Eisenhower was a convincing negotiator and skilled politician, securing the foundation of European security for decades.

Hear about NATO’s defences from the General himself (below) and more on his time as SACEUR.

General Matthew Ridgway

General Matthew Ridgway

Taking over from General Eisenhower in 1952 was no easy task. But General Matthew Ridgway was a battle-hardened soldier who had no qualms about jumping out of airplanes or slogging through the snow in Korea. In his 400 days as SACEUR, Ridgway's non-political, blunt and no-nonsense style enabled him to work through mammoth tasks. He finalised the task of unifying the command structure, integrated two new members – Greece and Turkey – into the military structure and pushed Allies to increase their regular and reserve troops.

More on General Ridgwayand his role as SACEUR.

General Alfred Gruenther

The third SACEUR, General Alfred Gruenther, was a charismatic general and unorthodox strategist. He spent 1950–1953 as the Chief of Staff at SHAPE for both Eisenhower and Ridgway, before taking up the post of commander in 1953.  His knowledge of the Organization and the challenges he would face were unparalleled. Gruenther oversaw the joining and integrating of the German Armed Forces when the Federal Republic of Germany joined NATO in 1955, a politically sensitive issue, only 10 years after the Second World War.  In his three years as SACEUR, Gruenther also saw the integration of nuclear weapons into the strategic level at SHAPE; his “New Approach Group” highlighted the need, for the defence of Europe, to use nuclear weapons alongside conventional troops. Find out more on Gruenther as SACEUR (1953-1956) and listen to the expert strategist speaking in October 1953.

General Lauris Norstad

General Lauris Norstad

General Lauris Norstad, the first Air Force General to hold the post of SACEUR, served from 1956 to 1962. During his long tenure, the intensification of the Berlin Crisis led to the creation of a special planning group, code-named LIVE OAK. Norstad was named Commander, LIVE OAK, but this planning group remained hierarchically separate from SHAPE. Starting with General Norstad, SACEURs became "triple-hatted", now serving as SACEUR, US Commander-in-Chief in Europe (USCINCEUR) and Commander LIVE OAK.

Read more about General Norstad as SACEUR.

Find out about code-name LIVE OAK.

An American commander for the Atlantic

Admiral Lynde D. McCormick

NATO commanders responsible for the protection of 41 million square kilometres of ocean were from the United States Armed Forces. Most were Navy Admirals (with the exception of one Marine Corps General and one Army General). They were based in Norfolk, Virginia, and commanded the defence of the Atlantic Ocean, from the North Pole to the Tropic of Cancer. The first Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic (SACLANT), Admiral Lynde D. McCormick (1952), ordered ambitious maritime exercises. Operation Mainbrace, the first of its kind, assembled 200 ships from nine NATO countries to exercise in the Northern Atlantic the very year of Admiral McCormick's nomination.

In 2003, Allied Command Atlantic (ACLANT) would transform from its operational role into a transformation HQ, baptised Allied Command Transformation (ACT).  American Admirals would continue to serve as Supreme Allied Commanders until 2009, when a French Admiral became Supreme Allied Commander Transformation (SACT).

What does it take to move an armoured division across the Atlantic? Operation Big Lift

The United States, as NATO's largest military power, stationed materiel and tens of thousands of troops across Europe to support the defence of Western Europe. But while there were 175 Soviet divisions, NATO could only assemble, in Europe, some 50 peacetime divisions. Should war break out, could American forces be mobilised and transported across the Atlantic? The Atlantic was a key defence when the United States was threatened by European powers in the 19th and 20th centuries, but it was a major obstacle to reinforcing Europe during the Cold War. A Soviet invasion could take place in a matter of days, and the United States had to show that it, too, could quickly and decisively reinforce the European continent. Operation Big Lift

In 1963, Operation Big Lift would do just that. The 2nd Armored Division, stationed in Texas, was air-lifted 5,600 miles to Allied bases in France and Germany. 204 aircraft, including C-135 Stratolifters, worked for three straight days to transport the division (14,500 soldiers) across the Atlantic. Once out of the planes and in position, the 2nd Armored moved into Germany and collected pre-positioned equipment: tanks, armoured personnel carriers and heavy guns. The United States had stationed equipment in Germany following the Berlin Crisis of 1961, to do just this. With one exercise, the United States, together with other NATO Allies, proved that reinforcement, even of a heavily armoured division, could be done in a matter of days -- a strong deterrent to any potential aggressor.

American presidents and NATO

Eisenhower resigned as NATO's first SACEUR in 1952 to serve as the 34th President of the United States. Every American president from then on and throughout the Cold War has sat around the table of the North Atlantic Council, re-affirming the United States' unshakeable commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty and the spirit of the Alliance. The United States strongly believes in the consultative power of NATO and the benefits of discussing global issues with Allies. Though not required, American representatives informed the Council of talks with the Soviet Union, consulted on other treaties such as on arms control, and reported on visits to and exchanges with the Warsaw Pact countries.

What do American presidents talk about during Council meetings?

President Richard M. Nixon took the Council floor to promote environmentalism and launched the Committee on the Challenges of Modern Society – a scientific research programme focussing on environmental problems. President Eisenhower ensured that the last point of business of the 1957 Paris Summit was a silent prayer. President George H.W. Bush, with the end of the Cold War a near reality, wanted NATO to send a clear signal, a "hand of friendship", to former adversaries.

Presidents and generals are not the only ones who have made their mark on NATO. Film directors, scientists, historians and thousands of other Americans have worked, both directly and indirectly, towards the improvement of transatlantic relations, and to the preservation of peace and security.

Dr Theodore von Kármán

Dr Theodore von Kármán

Dr Theodore von Kármán dedicated his life to the enhancement of understanding and cooperation among scientists of different countries. Born in Hungary, von Kármán was one of many Central European Jewish scientists who immigrated to the United States in the decade before the Second World War.

One day in April 1949, I read in the paper of the birth of NATO. Here was a small and simply administered group of nations bound together by the needs of defence. Why not use NATO as a pilot plant to test out the feasibility of scientific cooperation?

When Dr von Kármán learned of the establishment of NATO, he organised a meeting with NATO Allies in the Pentagon to discuss scientific cooperation. The 1951 conference recommended that a Scientific Advisory Board and a practical-level Advisory Group be set up for NATO to ensure that members would always have the best technology at their command. The Advisory Group for Aeronautical Research and Development (AGARD) was approved the following year. AGARD would review advances in aeronautical science, exchange important information, and recommend how the scientific talents within NATO could best be employed in strengthening overall technical ability to solve common defence problems.

AGARD was the first technical-scientific organisation under the NATO umbrella and a successful experiment in scientific cooperation among NATO countries. In 1996, AGARD merged with the NATO Defence Research Group (DRG) to form the new NATO Research and Technology Organization (RTO), headquartered in Paris. Von Kármán also founded the Von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics in 1955, an institution devoted to training and research in aerodynamics and which would be open to young engineers and scientists from NATO countries.

The launch of the satellite Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957 would renew interest in von Kármán's first recommendation for a Scientific Advisory Board for NATO. In 1958, the Science Committee was created with another American - Norman Ramsey - as its first chairman.

NATO's "third dimension"
Prof. Norman F. Ramsey Jr

Norman Ramsey was a renowned American physicist and Nobel Prize winner. He was NATO's first scientific adviser and chaired the first meeting of NATO's Science Committee from 26-28 March 1958. Ramsay and the Committee provided advice on scientific and technical issues of interest to the Alliance and ensured actions were taken to pool resources and increase scientific cooperation among NATO Allies. Ramsey had previously worked on the Manhattan Project and established and chaired the Physics Department at Brookhaven National Laboratory. In 1989, he would win the Nobel Prize in Physics.

The first meeting of NATO's Science Committee

Until this point, NATO was seen as a mainly political and military organisation. Science became a new pillar, or the "third dimension" of the Alliance, opening new avenues of cooperation. From these beginnings in the 1950s, NATO's contribution to science would grow, providing fellowships, research grants and sponsoring thousands of scientific endeavours. Today, the Science for Peace and Security Programme continues to sponsor hundreds of research projects, many in partner countries.

What did President Nixon do for environmental policy at NATO?

During President Richard M. Nixon’s 1969 visit to NATO Headquarters, he proposed that NATO should have a role in studying social and environmental policy.  Reluctant at first, the other Allies approved the creation of the Committee on the Challenges of Modern Society by the end of 1969. See more

A history professor at a military headquarters?
Prof. Roy Lamson

The first meeting of NATO's Science Committee Photo courtesy of SHAPE Historical Office

In February 1951, Lieutenant Colonel Roy Lamson, a university history professor who had served as a military historian during the Second World War, was recalled to active duty at the request of SACEUR Dwight D. Eisenhower. Lieutenant Colonel Lamson arrived in Paris to join the small multinational team that was setting up NATO's new military headquarters (SHAPE), to take up service as the first SHAPE Historian.

The army historian concept has a strong tradition in the United States, and it has continued at SHAPE. Lieutenant Colonel Lamson and his successors produced a series of SHAPE Histories to document the activities and decisions taken each year. These classified histories drew on a wide range of documents, and extend to the present day.  Today, the SHAPE Historical Office continues to provide invaluable historical support to the military command.

An American movie star works with NATO – Orson Welles

In 1958, Orson Welles, a famous actor, director, writer and producer, participated in a special NATO film project that would ultimately be one of the most successful films produced by the NATO Information Service. It adopts an unusual perspective to tell the stories of ten European Allies by filming from low-flying aircraft, conveying a sense of unity of the Alliance.

Orson Welles (seated) flanked by director Peter Baylis (left) and NATO Information Service Head, Peter Pooley (right). Orson Welles (seated) flanked by director Peter Baylis (left) and NATO Information Service Head, Peter Pooley (right).
Welles was specifically chosen to record the English commentary for the project, with the recording session taking place in Rome on 22 April 22 1958. The completed film, directed by Peter Baylis, was released as "High Journey" in 1959. It enjoyed wide theatrical distribution and played at international film festivals, winning several awards, including the silver medal at the 1959 Venice Film Festival and the British Film Academy Award for Best Short Film in 1960.

For the first time, you can now watch “High Journey” online.

More on NATO and film.