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The Netherlands and NATO

Do you know what was one of the Netherlands’ best kept secrets during the Cold War? Do you know why the country joined NATO? Find out what “Hollanditis” was and how the Netherlands came to construct what has been called one of the seven wonders of the modern world.

We who are vitally interested in the security of the North Atlantic area henceforth stand united in our resolve to repel aggression, just as we stand united in our resolve not to attack others.

Dirk Stikker, Foreign Minister,
speaking at the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty Washington, D.C., 4 April 1949

If ever there were a country that was tributary of its geography, it is the Netherlands, which literally means low countries. With a significant part of its territory at, or even under, sea level it is forever battling high winds and strong tides. A land of commerce and rich agricultural land, it is known worldwide for its exports and its expertise in water management. The land of Van Gogh has been a seafaring country for centuries, sending its citizens around the world and establishing a global network of shipping routes and trading partners. The government created the Dutch East Indian Company, an amalgamation of Dutch trading companies, which became a business model for the country. Some even say it became the foundation of the modern corporate model. For a long time, the Netherlands’ long-term exposure to different customs and cultures created an openness of mind that became part  of its culture, introducing a balance with the steady influence of the clergy back home. Over time, this openness also led to a high level of social tolerance on issues as fundamental as life and death; and its consideration for issues beyond its frontiers is reflected in the Dutch constitution, which states that “the government shall promote the development of the international legal order”. This stance and the country’s geography go together, and help to understand the Netherlands’ choices. Although its vast commercial empire faded long before it joined NATO, international commerce remained crucial to the Dutch economy during the Cold War - and thereafter. It had long sought protection in neutrality, but after the country and some of its colonies were occupied during the Second World War, Dutch leaders recognised that the only way to ensure security was to form a peacetime alliance with their European and North American neighbours. The Kingdom of the Netherlands became a founding member of NATO in 1949 and its unabated commitment to the international legal order gave it a much larger role in international affairs than its size would normally justify. It also explains why Dutch leaders let NATO membership, as well as its membership of the European Union and the United Nations, shape a large part of the country’s foreign policy and why Atlanticism formed a cornerstone of its security policy during the entire Cold War period.  

Becoming a NATO member

At the crossroads of Europe, the Benelux countries had been drawn into, and suffered from, conflicts between its larger neighbours. The two World Wars were no exception. On 10 May 1940, Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands and the country surrendered a few days later. The Dutch Cabinet left for England, as did the Royal family, part of which moved to Canada for additional safety.

Tulips from a princess

Tulips from a princess The very tulips that adorn parks in Ottawa today were a gift from the Netherlands. They were offered by the Dutch after Canada had given refuge to Princess Juliana in 1943 during the birth of Princess Margriet. The Canadian government even declared the hospital room in which Princess Juliana lived territory of the Netherlands and a Dutch flag was allowed to fly from the Parliament building – the only flag of a foreign country ever to have been allowed to fly on the Peace Tower.

In London, the Foreign Ministers Van Kleffens (the Netherlands), Spaak (Belgium) and Bech (Luxembourg) developed a close personal wartime collaboration. They were strong supporters of Western European unity and maintaining close ties with the United Kingdom. All three Benelux countries signed the United Nations Charter in San Francisco in 1945.

Later, due to the increasing fear of Soviet expansionism, they actively contributed to the creation of the Western Union with the signing of the Brussels Pact in 1948, the first guarantee of their security within a regional defensive alliance. The Dutch were convinced that there should first be regional cooperation before international cooperation, and the paralysing effect of the Soviet veto at the United Nations confirmed that. Moreover, with the creation of the Western Union, the Benelux countries, France and the United Kingdom proved to the United States that they could collaborate in order to attract greater American involvement on the European continent.

In the meantime, the Dutch East Indies proclaimed independence in 1949 and became Indonesia. On the economic front, contrary to its Belgian and Luxembourg neighbours,  the Netherlands had been devastated during the war and faced the mammouth task of reconstruction. The Dutch government had to keep wages and prices under strict control and maintain rationing for a long time. In 1946-1947, compounding this ill-fortune, an extremely harsh winter caused dramatic shortages of food, fuel and coal across Europe. So when the Marshall Plan was announced on 5 June 1947, it was welcomed in the Netherlands, as in many other European countries.

View other Marshall Plan posters

For a country whose foreign policy had been founded on neutrality, the post-war era marked a radical change of direction. Yet these choices were a necessity and in keeping with the spirit of the Netherlands’ constitutional obligations to “promote the development of the international legal order”. As such, joining NATO was generally regarded as the next logical step forward. On 4 April 1949, Foreign Minister Dirk Stikker signed the North Atlantic Treaty in Washington D.C. on behalf of the Netherlands.

A few years later in 1952, the Netherlands became a founding member of the European Coal and Steel Community.  By joining NATO and what was to become the European Economic Community, it continued to commit itself to mutually supportive and cooperative agreements. NATO’s principle of consensus was also fundamental to the comparatively smaller members of the Alliance. It gave them a voice among the bigger players. However, as the Alliance started to take shape, the 12 founding members from Europe and North America did not really know each other. For NATO, it was essential that not only the civilians, but also the armed forces get to know each other. To ease this process, NATO produced a series of films explaining the culture, traditions, economy and geography of each of its signatories. They were played in local cinemas and in teaching institutions.

They also produced posters representing the uniforms and insignia of each of the NATO member countries, including the Netherlands. The Netherlands Atlantic Association (or Atlantische Commissie) was created in 1952 with the aim of reaching out to the public to explain the Alliance, transatlantic security issues and raise awareness on NATO’s key objectives and activities. Over time, it has been very active in informing diverse audiences and producing educational tools to explain NATO to the young and the less young, and encouraging open debate.

Water, water, water…

in 1953 the Netherlands suffered one of the most deadly floods

Water has always been a challenge for the Dutch, but from the 17th  century they turned it into an unlikely weapon: a water defence line across the country that helped stop enemy invasions. Part of this defence known as the IJssel Line, continued to serve this purpose up into the early part of the Cold War to deter a Soviet invasion of the Netherlands. Built in the early 1950s, the IJssel Line became part of NATO’s defence for a few years and consisted of a series of dikes, fortresses and bunkers, some of which have survived the passing of time and are accessible as part of a Cold War museum.

However, water has not always been an ally: in 1953 the Netherlands suffered one of the most deadly floods in its entire history. In the night of Saturday 31 January, while people were sleeping, a heavy storm triggered the North Sea floods that, at times, reached five metres above mean sea level. Over 1,800 people were killed in the Netherlands, principally in the southern region of Zeeland, and thousands were left homeless or without their livelihood. The floods also claimed victims in Belgium, England and Scotland, as well as at sea where ships sank or were lost. However, the Netherlands were the worst affected.

For NATO, this catastrophe was an eye-opener: it realised that what it used to protect citizens against the effects of war could be used against the effects of disasters. It immediately put into place emergency airlifts to drop boxes of supplies over the disaster-stricken areas of the Netherlands. This relief effort was provided by different member countries and coordinated by NATO, a pattern that subsequently formed the basis of an agreed disaster assistance scheme that would be formalised a few years later. In 1958, the North Atlantic Council -–  NATO’s top political decision-making body–  established procedures to coordinate assistance between member countries in the event of disasters. This disaster assistance scheme continued to be used throughout the entire Cold War period.

For the Dutch government, the task was huge: it set about the construction of the Delta Works conceived to reduce the risk of flooding in the provinces of South Holland and Zeeland. Never had works of this scale been undertaken. It was a highly complex project that involved the raising of outer sea dikes and of inner canal and river dikes, and the closing of sea estuaries in the province of Zeeland. The intricate and far-reaching network of dams, locks, storm surge barriers, etc., has been called one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Water management has no secrets for Dutch engineers…

Atlanticists at the helm of NATO

The heiress to the throne, Princess Beatrix (left), and Princess Irene (right) are hosted by NATO Secretary General Dirk Stikker at NATO Headquarters in Paris, France, in September 1963. The heiress to the throne, Princess Beatrix (left), and Princess Irene (right) are hosted by NATO Secretary General Dirk Stikker at NATO Headquarters in Paris, France, in September 1963.

Dirk U. Stikker was the first Dutch national to become NATO Secretary General in April 1961. Stikker was first and foremost a strong supporter of the Alliance and its values. He was no stranger to the Organization: on behalf of the Netherlands, he had signed the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949 in his function as foreign minister; and from July 1958 to April 1961, he was the Permanent Representative of the Netherlands to NATO. He was also a strong supporter of American policy and during his tenure, he maintained a close working relationship with NATO’s military commander, the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR), General Lauris Norstad (United States). Unfortunately, due to ill-health Stikker resigned from the post in April 1964.

Read more on Stikker’s role as NATO Secretary General

Joseph Luns arrives at NATO Headquarters for his first day at work. Joseph Luns arrives at NATO Headquarters for his first day at work.

For 13 years, an exceptionally long period of time for a NATO Secretary General,  Joseph Luns (1971-1984) was the face of the North Atlantic Alliance. He had a commanding presence that gave him the natural authority to foster consensus among Allies, when necessary. In line with his country’s preferences, he was a staunch Atlanticist and guided the Alliance through a period dominated by arms control talks between the United States and the Soviet Union, the end of the war in Vietnam and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. Before becoming NATO’s fifth Secretary General, he had served as Dutch foreign minister (October 1956 to July 1971). In this function, he had already been heavily involved in Alliance affairs. 

Read more about Luns’ time as NATO Secretary General

Supporting the collective defence effort

Where the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany meet around the Maas River, lays what is called “the balcony of Europe” or “land without frontiers”. The Dutch province of Limburg is where there is easy access to three countries and explains how it changed from being a coal mining district to a strategic hub for NATO.

When French President Charles de Gaulle decided to withdraw France from NATO’s integrated military structure in 1966, NATO commands had to leave too. One of them: Headquarters Allied Forces Central Europe (HQ AFCENT) was relocated to Brunssum in the Dutch Limburg in 1967. This was a coal mining area, where the Hendrik Mine was active until 1973 and where the main military base in the region would be located: the Hendrik van Nassau-Ouwerkerk Camp. This is where AFCENT would officially be established from 15 March 1967 onwards; it was inaugurated on 1 June. It served as the headquarters for Allied forces assigned to the central region of Europe.  AFCENT has been reformed several times since the end of the Cold War, together with the rest of NATO’s military structure. Today, Headquarters Allied Joint Force Command (HQ JFC) Brunssum is located at the Hendrik Base.

Other NATO entities were established on the same military base and nearby an international school was opened in Brunssum, in September 1967, for the children of NATO military personnel working in the region, be it in the Netherlands or in Germany. Part of NATO’s communication and information systems was on the Hendrik Base too (the NCSA-B or NATO Communication and Information Systems Services Agency, Sector Brunssum). It was one among several installations that helped to control, operate and maintain NATO’s communications system at the time. During the late 1970s, the NATO Airborne Early Warning & Control Programme Management Agency (NAPMA) was also located on the Hendrik Base. Airborne early warning was needed to detect small, high speed intruder aircraft at long range. NAPMA was the executive agency of the organisation that would greatly reinforce NATO’s deterrence capability by giving it the means to complement its ground-based radars with airborne systems that could look down.

Across the other side of the country in The Hague, NATO’s Air Defence Technical Centre was established in 1955. It was responsible for research and development in the area of air defence and came under the responsibility of Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE). It was located next to the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) to create synergy and a more stimulating research environment  (NATO’s Air Defence Technical Centre was renamed the NATO Consultation, Command and Control Agency (NC3A) in 1996 and was merged into the NATO Communications and Information Agency (NCIA) in 2012). 

Equally valuable was the Netherland’s participation in the construction of one of NATO’s pipeline systems during the Cold War: the Central Europe Pipeline System (CEPS). It crossed Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg and, of course, the Netherlands, to ensure that Alliance forces were supplied with fuel, whenever and wherever required. The pipeline is still operational today.

The best kept secret during the Cold War

From 1954 to 1992, a quarry on the Dutch-Belgian border was used as a NATO Joint Operations Centre. One of the country’s best kept secrets, the Cannerberg with its intricate network of tunnels, bunkers and facilities had 8 kms of corridors and doors that could resist the pressure wave of any kind of explosion or attack – nuclear, biological or chemical. From 1 July 1963 onwards, it had a permanent military presence, 24/7. Several hundred soldiers were active during the day and 40 during the night, with numbers doubling during exercises. Equipped with heating and an air conditioning system, an independent water supply and a back-up electrical power capacity, it also had the facilities to serve 600 meals per day, a bar, a hair dresser’s and a golf course with artificial grass.

The Boschberg quarry was under the command of NATO’s Northern Army Group (NORTHAG), which was responsible for Dutch, Belgian, German, British and American units located in North West Germany. It guaranteed the functioning of the Joint Operations Centre of the Northern Army Group and the Second Allied Tactical Air Force in the Cannerberg, as well as the NATO Information and Communication System (NICS) near Maastricht. Meanwhile, the NATO Air Defence Ground Environment – or NADGE – in which the Netherlands participated, protected NATO European airspace against the intrusion of enemy aircraft.

While the Netherlands with its Atlantic preference eagerly hosted NATO structures on its territory, Atlanticism was also a driver to build up its national forces. After the Second World War and once Indonesia became independent in 1949, bringing an end to the expense of its intervention in this colony, it started to equip its armed forces. During the 1950s, the Netherlands contributed to the conventional build-up of the Alliance by beginning the process of creating a modern defence force. Initially, it benefited from the financial support of the United States through the Mutual Defense Assistance Program aimed at helping Western European countries rebuild their defences. In keeping with its naval tradition, the Dutch Navy was gradually reinforced, as was the Air Force. The Army was reorganised and focus given to having combat-ready forces rather than large numbers of troops. From 1965 onwards, the Netherlands also joined certain permanent NATO forces such as the Standing Naval Force Atlantic. With the build-up of Soviet naval power in the 1960s, NATO needed to protect shipping lanes across the North Atlantic to guarantee communication between Allies in North America and Western Europe.

It was not until NATO adopted its strategy of flexible response in 1967 that the country started to enlarge and equip its forces. By the 1980s, the number of Dutch heavy units had increased and the Netherlands boasted a reserve capacity in the Elbe, which could help hold a sizeable attack by Soviet forces. The Navy possessed approximately 30 vessels and the Air Force around 200 tactical planes. These figures were obscured by the attention given to the relaxation of discipline in the armed forces. This was a deliberate attempt by the government to integrate the forces better into society, which meant for instance that from the 1970s until conscription was suspended in 1997, soldiers could keep their hair long during military service. In parallel, military vocational training was gradually opened up to women; female soldiers were given the same legal status as their male counterparts and could fulfill most functions. This put an end to the existence of separate departments for women in the three armed forces.

View the Dutch military in action during the Cold War:


Tensions increased between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1979, first with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and then the deployment of Soviet SS-20 missiles targeting Western Europe. NATO reacted by adopting what was called the Dual-Track Decision. This meant that NATO wanted the Warsaw Pact to agree to a mutual limitation of medium and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, and should Moscow refuse then NATO would deploy Pershing and Cruise missiles. NATO did, in fact, end up having to deploy missiles. First in Germany, then in the United Kingdom. Both deployments led to heated protests throughout Europe.

In the Netherlands, the population rallied against the deployment of nuclear warheads very early on, well before the actual deployment of American missiles took place. There was already unease because of the rumours around the Cannerberg and the lack of government clarity on the existence of this NATO facility. This premice did not help to temper reactions.  The wave of protests was so strong that it fueled similar movements in other European countries. This may explain why Walter Laqueur, an American historian, coined the term “Hollanditis” to describe the scale of the peace activist movement in the country. In 1983, a demonstration in The Hague attracted a record half a million participants. This was even before the Dutch government decided in 1985, after much debate, to accept the siting of just under 50 American cruise missiles on its territory, in line with NATO’s agreed policy. The opposition that ensued was unequalled.

The controversy faded thanks to the signing of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, one year before the missiles were due to be deployed on Dutch territory. This was undoubtedly the only time the Dutch population was so vehemently opposed to NATO policy. Throughout the Cold War, the Netherlands was one of NATO’s most loyal Allies, both politically and militarily. It adhered to the Alliance’s fundamental values and continued to contribute to the general collective defence effort, as it still does today.