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Norway and NATO

Why did Norway, a neutral country with close links to its neighbours, join an Atlantic alliance in 1949 instead of a Scandinavian union?  How did Norwegians encourage greater cultural and economic cooperation among NATO Allies? During the Cold War, how did a territory of Norway end up populated mostly by Soviet citizens? And who was the “Breakfast Diplomat”?

The overwhelming majority of the Norwegian people deeply believe that the signing of the Atlantic Pact is an event which may decisively influence the course of history and hasten the day when all nations can work together for peace and freedom.

Halvard M. Lange, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Norway at
the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty in Washington, D.C., on 4 April 1949

A land that lets the imagination wander with its fjords and aurora borealis, while attracting world attention each year with the Nobel Peace Prize, was also a founding member of NATO in 1949. Norway has an exceptionally long coastline and while that is an economic and strategic advantage, throughout history it has often counted on friendly forces to help protect its territory. The Western Allies did not want to leave Norway open to communist domination in the post-war era; and Norway understood that neutrality was no longer a viable form of defence. However, the 200-km border that Norway shares with what was the Soviet Union at the time, gives it a different outlook to international relations. Its refusal to host NATO bases from the very start stemmed from the delicate balancing act it had to pursue as a Western Ally with one of the biggest industrial-military power houses of the Soviet Union literally at its doorstep in the Kola Peninsula. The latter served as one of the largest naval and air bases for the Soviet Union during the Cold War, posing a direct threat to Norway.

Norway’s shift to an “Atlantic policy” began in December 1940, the same year that saw the country’s neutrality violated and its land occupied. At the time, Trygve Lie was the Foreign Minister of the Norwegian government in exile in London. He believed Norway’s long-term security prospects were intimately tied to its far-away neighbours across the Atlantic. Occupation and war had shaken Norway’s traditional belief in neutrality, and a dramatic change in posture occurred.

Norwegians would rather die tomorrow on their feet than live a thousand years on their knees.

Wilhelm Morgenstierne, Norwegian Ambassador to the United States

Trygve Lie was convinced of the need for transatlantic security cooperation, which would at least include the United States, the United Kingdom and Norway – the United Kingdom historically having been a guarantor of its neutrality. In a speech broadcast from London to occupied Norway at the outbreak of the war, he focused on the need for cooperation and mutual security once conflict ceased. Lie was already a staunch advocate of this form of close international cooperation. He went on to become the first Secretary-General of the United Nations in 1946.

The Nordic option?

The end of the Second World War created a multipolar world in which Norway hoped to navigate as a mediator between the “blocs”. The prospect of complete and isolated neutrality was no longer credible in the eyes of the Norwegians. There was, however, an alternative: a “Nordic option” that could unite neighbouring countries in a defence pact. Sweden was the main driver of this endeavour. After failed attempts in the 1930s, it pushed for a federation in 1942 and then the idea of a “Nordic pact” re-emerged in January 1948. Denmark, Norway and Sweden met several times over a span of 12 months to consider the creation of a fully neutral bloc. Ultimately, this proposal was considered to be too weak to counter potential Soviet aggression. Norwegian politicians believed that a Nordic pact could only stand with military support from the United States and countries from Western Europe. Norway failed to reconcile this disagreement with Sweden and remained unconvinced that the Nordic option would truly guarantee security.

The coup d'état in Prague, the disappearance of Czechoslovakia as a free democratic state, was the last straw on the camel's back, or, if you prefer, the flash of lightning which forced open the most stubborn eyes.

Paul-Henri Spaak, NATO Secretary General, November 1957

The Czechoslovakian example, where a Soviet-backed coup took over the entire country in February 1948, shocked Norway and the Norwegians. Czechoslovakia and Norway were close after the war: their peoples had both been occupied and liberated, and both hoped to act as a bridge between East and West. Public opinion sharply turned in favour of stronger defence guarantees, such as a potential North Atlantic Alliance. Two months later, Finland and the Soviet Union signed the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance, putting increasing pressure on Norway to move closer to the West.

Similarly to Trygve Lie, Halvard M. Lange, who had started his political career in the 1930s, steered his country towards a Western alliance from his position of minister of foreign affairs (1946-1965). Norway decided to join the North Atlantic Alliance, which convinced both Iceland and Denmark to follow suit as founding members. Finland had signed a treaty with the Soviet Union and Norway’s last fellow Scandinavian country – Sweden – remained neutral throughout the entire period of the Cold War.

A careful balancing act

In 1949, Norway was the only NATO country to share a border with the Soviet Union.  Relations between the two countries were tricky, especially since many Norwegians saw the Soviet Union as one of their primary liberators during the war.  Soviet soldiers withdrew immediately from Finnmark, the northernmost province of Norway, which shares the border with the Kola Peninsula. However, Norwegian politicians remained suspicious of Soviet intentions.  In 1944, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov presented Norway with demands to revise the Svalbard Treaty and cede Bear Island, the southernmost island of the archipelago, to the Soviet Union. These demands would have a long-term impact on the Norwegian government’s view of their much larger neighbour.

Norwegian territory inhabited by Soviet citizens?

The Svalbard archipelago is Norwegian territory located in the Arctic Ocean nearly 1,000 km from the Norwegian mainland. In 1920, the Svalbard Treaty (originally known as the Spitsbergen Treaty) ended decades of disagreement. It granted Norway sovereignty over the islands, but the other 13 signatories were granted access, as well as commercial and residency rights.

Throughout the Cold War, the Svalbard Treaty held a balanced, though sometimes uneasy, peace. After Norway signed the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949, the Soviet Union feared Svalbard could become a forward base for NATO, which would have been a violation of the Treaty. Norway followed the treaty-imposed military restrictions and continued to exercise its sovereignty, while the Soviet Union exercised its treaty rights and retained its presence and commercial exploitation.

During the Cold War, two-thirds of the population residing on this Norwegian territory were Soviet citizens, working for state-owned companies. More countries have since acceded to the Svalbard Treaty, each with the right to live on Svalbard, but in practice only Russia and Norway continue to exercise their treaty rights.

With the country’s accession to NATO, one particularly thorny question surrounded the stationing of foreign bases on Norwegian territory. Norwegian politicians were keen to reassure the Soviet Union that their country would not be used as a forward base for invasion and that the North Atlantic Treaty was purely defensive in nature. Norway therefore declared that it would not allow the stationing of foreign bases nor the deployment of foreign forces on its territory during peacetime. It also precluded the stationing of any nuclear weapons on its territory or in its ports. These decisions were taken as a pre-emptive measure of assurance towards the Soviet Union.


For the Alliance, the threat of hostilities during the Cold War was very real. The following maps, taken from NATO intelligence assessments in September 1953, show what NATO deemed to be possible Soviet campaigns against Norway and Denmark, including options to violate Swedish and Finnish territory.

This fear was compounded during the 1960s by concerns over Soviet nuclear submarines entering Atlantic shipping lanes through the strategic Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) gap. These maritime passages were the only routes for Soviet submarines to leave naval bases in northern Russia and have access to the Atlantic Ocean. As seen in the maps below, the Soviet Northern Fleet became increasingly bold with farther and more complex maritime exercises and journeys. This pushed NATO to review its maritime contingency planning. 

Securing the Northern Flank

Defending the vast and sparsely populated Northern Flank was NATO’s Headquarters Allied Forces Northern Europe, or AFNORTH. The Headquarters was situated outside Oslo at Kolsas and had the overall responsibility for the defence of Denmark, Norway, Northern Germany (Schleswig-Holstein area) and the strategically crucial Baltic Approaches.

AFNORTH logo 1951

In 1951, AFNORTH was activated under Allied Command Europe and reported to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR). Because of Norway’s unique geography, in times of war its forces were earmarked for SACEUR, with the exception of its submarines, which were earmarked for Allied Command Atlantic (ACLANT) headed by the Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic (SACLANT).  AFNORTH’s geography also led to its choice of official crest: a Viking ship, representing the command area, the colour blue representing the surrounding water, and a shield showing determination to repel aggression.

AFNORTH was active throughout the Cold War, watching and preparing the Northern Flank against attack. 

NATO produced dozens of films on the subject. The goal was to explain Norway’s place and AFNORTH’s importance within NATO.  Borealis, a high-quality documentary produced in 1977, highlights Norway’s, Denmark’s and AFNORTH’s vital roles in the defence of the North.

The wise man of the North

The only means of arriving at just solutions, as we see it, is through negotiation, through diplomacy…

Halvard Lange, 11 December 1956

Halvard M. Lange, Norway’s long-serving minister of foreign affairs, was arguably one of the most influential figures in Scandinavia, pushing for both Norway and Denmark to join NATO. This staunch supporter of Western alignment negotiated Norway’s participation in the Alliance and was able to sign the founding treaty on behalf of his country since he had been appointed foreign minister in 1946. His commitment and belief in Western alignment were so strong that even though he was a member of the Norwegian Labour Party, he was considered by some to be a right-wing politician.

On 5 May 1956, he was among three to be appointed by NATO’s top political decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council, to advise NATO on strengthening non-military cooperation and reinforcing political consultation between its members. Halvard Lange, Gaetano Martino and Lester B. Pearson led the Committee on Non-Military Cooperation, also known as the “Committee of Three” or the “Three Wise Men”. Halvard Lange and his Italian and Canadian colleagues believed that if NATO were to succeed, it would need to develop beyond a purely military alliance. NATO Allies were tied by shared cultural, economic and scientific progress, all of which were important to counter the Soviet Union’s vision of the world.

The task of the Committee was to write a report that would examine and redefine the objectives and needs of the Alliance, making recommendations to strengthen its internal solidarity, cohesion and unity. The “Three Wise Men” identified key areas where cooperation in dispute resolution was needed and suggested ways this cooperation could be encouraged within the Atlantic community.

The report, officially entitled the Report of the Committee of Three, or Non-Military Co-operation in NATO, was a monumental task to realign priorities and shape NATO into the Alliance we know today.  The report is still a foundational document and seen as the starting point of NATO’s cooperation in scientific, cultural and economic affairs, as well as in greater cooperation in the information field.

Bringing together the Atlantic people

The Report of the “Three Wise Men” emphasised the sort of cooperation that could bring together the people from NATO member countries beyond their military integration. Initiatives in the 1950s to better “Know Your Allies” included projects such as the introductory films on each Ally, that later became known as the “Atlantic Community” series. The film “Introducing Norway” can be viewed here.

NATO was also keen on highlighting the unique cultural and historical aspects of the different member countries, so NATO photographers went out to capture daily life in each one of them.

Discover scenes of daily life in Norway.

Initiatives were also taken to familiarise different service members with their Allies, such as posters showing the different uniforms and ranks. Here you can see the Norwegian uniforms around 1962.

Norway’s know-how

Due to its geography, Norway has a huge merchant fleet and remains a major fishing and shipping country. During the Cold War, national emphasis was therefore on the navy, which did not stop the country from having an air force, an army and a Home Guard. Norway also participated in NATO’s network of radar systems known as the NADGE – the NATO Air Defence Ground Environment – which improved the Organization’s ability to detect, identify and intercept aircraft and, if it came to that, to destroy enemy aircraft. It was an unbroken chain of radar stations running from Norway to Turkey, providing a powerful barrier against the intrusion of enemy aircraft into the NATO European airspace.

Following their experiences in the Second World War, Norway and its armed forces knew the value of preparation when it came to defence. Norwegian forces used a variety of military equipment conceived to work in cold, snowy and mountainous terrain.

During the Cold War, Norway was a frequent host to NATO exercises due to its unique terrain. Exercises varied equally between Northern and Southern Europe to test and practise NATO defensive doctrine. The Allied Command Europe Mobile Force, known as the AMF, was a brigade-sized force capable of quickly reacting to counter any aggression or threat. The AMF frequently exercised in Norway to display the resolve of the Allies to deter any threat. Below, AMF’s Exercise Atlas Express brought together 13,000 Norwegian and Allied troops to the north of Norway in March 1976.

A homage to Thorvald Stoltenberg, the "Breakfast Diplomat”

Throughout his 35 years of service in the Norwegian government, Thorvald Stoltenberg was no stranger to NATO and its missions. He participated in many NATO meetings as the former defence minister and foreign minister of Norway, and beforehand in 1956 when he was still a student, he participated in one of NATO’s Youth Conferences. The promotion of youth conferences at NATO were one of the points highlighted in the Report of the Three Wise Men.

Thorvald Stoltenberg’s first appearance in NATO’s archives dates back to 1971, with him welcoming new Secretary General Joseph Luns and discussing the advantages of arms control as a means of improved East-West relations.  In the same vein, he actively supported NATO’s double-track decision in 1979. It consisted in offering the Warsaw Pact, which had deployed SS-20 missiles, a mutual limitation of medium and intermediate-range ballistic missiles; failing a positive reaction from Moscow, NATO would deploy Pershing and Cruise missiles, which it eventually did.

During his years of government service, Stoltenberg became known for his friendly and informal manner of diplomacy.  He would frequently invite diplomats and dignitaries to discuss politics over breakfast or around his kitchen table, earning him the title of “Breakfast Diplomat”.

Thorvald Stoltenberg (seated) with Icelandic Foreign Minister Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson in 1991
Thorvald Stoltenberg (seated) with Icelandic Foreign Minister Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson in 1991

But for Thorvald Stoltenberg, diplomacy and NATO were not yet finished. In 1993, he was appointed Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for the former Yugoslavia and UN Co-Chairman of the Steering Committee of the International Conference on the former Yugoslavia.  Together with Lord Owen, he made his last visit to NATO Headquarters in his capacity as a UN representative.

In 2014, some 20 years after Thorvald Stoltenberg’s last official visit, NATO appointed his son Jens Stoltenberg as the first Norwegian Secretary General of NATO.

The Freedom Navy and the Hungarian Revolution

The Cold War saw a number of democratic uprisings and challenges to Soviet control in Eastern Europe, including the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Although NATO did not intervene militarily, swift decisions were taken to mobilise humanitarian aid. Individuals across Europe, such as Thorvald Stoltenberg himself, braved the dangers on the Einser Canal between Austria and Hungary, rescuing stranded Hungarian refugees trying to escape. The system was effective but the crossing remained dangerous: two men paddled across the canal in a raft then once the refugees were on board, the men would pull it back and forth between the shores of the canal using a rope. Meanwhile, guards were patrolling the area beaming torches and spraying the fields with machine gun fire… In total, an estimated 200 000 refugees fled from Hungary at that time.