Nicknamed “Mr Europe” because of the huge influence he had on European politics and the creation of the European Economic Community, Paul-Henri Spaak was a prominent Belgian politician who became NATO’s second Secretary General in May 1957. He was well versed in international affairs having presided over the first General Assembly of the United Nations in 1945 and signed the North Atlantic Treaty for Belgium in 1949.
Spaak was an accomplished orator and a prolific writer. He later became a member (then President) of the Belgian Royal Academy of French Language and Literature. His “speech of fear” delivered at the General Assembly of the United Nations in September 1948 denouncing soviet policy has gone down in history and his numerous publications, essays and speeches still inspire. On the tenth anniversary of the Alliance, he wrote a book entitled “ Why NATO? 1949-1959.”
He was also well versed in Atlantic issues and he used his charisma and persuasive nature to further his conviction that cooperation and consultation should be strengthened within the Alliance. He felt that debate and discussion of dissenting points was crucial within the Organization and was not shy about making his opinions known. He was instrumental, for instance, in the choice of Brussels as the new location for NATO HQ when France withdrew from the integrated military structure in 1966, obliging NATO to leave Paris. He also had a vision of an Atlantic community with a global economic reach so he pushed for an economic function for NATO. However, occasionally he felt debates went on for too long and once said:
OUR AGENDA IS NOW EXHAUSTED. THE SECRETARY GENERAL IS EXHAUSTED. ALL OF YOU ARE EXHAUSTED. I FIND IT COMFORTING THAT, BEGINNING WITH OUR VERY FIRST DAY, WE FIND OURSELVES IN SUCH COMPLETE UNANIMITY.
In his spare time, Spaak was a keen tennis player and bridge enthusiast. He also enjoyed watching football and was known to be a charmer and relish his food.
The turning point in Spaak’s tenure was the election of General de Gaulle and the subsequent deteriorating relations between France and the United States. Spaak’s relationship with military issues had varied from issue to issue and he was eventually overshadowed by the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) General Lauris Norstad. Sensing that his relationship with the major powers was becoming strained, Spaak resigned in January 1961 and returned to Belgian politics shortly afterwards. He was awarded the Medal of Freedom by US President John F. Kennedy on 21 February 1961.