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Joseph Luns


Probably one of the most unconventional Secretaries General NATO has ever had, Joseph Luns had a commanding presence and vibrant personality which he used unapologetically in his drive to place NATO at the forefront of transatlantic security and prosperity. He was also the longest serving Secretary General NATO has ever had – thirteen years from 1971 to 1984!

With authority and a keen sense of humour, Luns chaired Council meetings rather informally compared to his predecessors. He called Ambassadors by their first name and put on slippers during lengthy Council discussions. However, Luns could become rather confrontational with those he felt were not supportive of the American view. High-minded yet visionary, he made it clear that staunch Atlanticism and a united Europe were complementary and expected others to get on board.  


His tenure was principally 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. When he left office, US President Ronald Reagan presented him with the Medal of Freedom – an honour which Secretary General Lord Robertson received years later from US President George Bush after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

Luns chose to rely on his personal knowledge and charisma to foster consensus.  He was fully aware that NATO was an insurance policy not to be taken for granted. He advocated for robust defence policies and military investment. He continually prodded Allies with his mantra that resources had to be found, deployments had to be made, and tough decisions had to be taken. He also ensured that certain NATO programmes got his support such as the new “Science for Stability” programme launched in April 1979.

Even though he did not enjoy public engagements, he attended most receptions but never stayed for long. Contrary to what the photo below may lead one to believe, Luns was chauffeur-driven in the NATO official car - a Rolls Royce. He chose the colour green and cut a rather majestic figure riding around Brussels.

Luns was quite frugal – he preferred to have his clothes repaired instead of buying new ones, making him look disheveled at times. However, when he travelled to the Netherlands – his home country – without his wife, he would always bring her back a tulip.

He kept sensible hours, starting the day at 9:00 and ending by 17:30 or 18:00 unless an important meeting was scheduled. On Fridays, he would leave at 13:00 with his wife for the weekend. Every morning at 10:30, except on days the Council met, he would go to the NATO cafeteria with two of his staff. They would have two cakes, each cut into three pieces, and Luns always ate the middle.

Luns’ long term was something of a novelty. After five years of service, a journalist asked about his plans after NATO. Luns replied that as his predecessor had occupied the post for seven years, he still had time to consider. The same journalist inquired again two years later to which Luns replied that he still had time to reflect as his predecessor left the post upon turning 75 years of age.

Some critics believed that Luns stayed in the top position too long to remain effective, yet it cannot be denied that his commitment to transatlantic cooperation was unwavering. You can read more about his legacy in this address by NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson at a memorial service for Luns on 23 July 2002.