Standing Guard Over Europe

American troops in Europe were never meant to be a part of NATO-but they've been there for 33 years.


On April 4, 1949, in a ceremony described by the New York Times as a "restrained affair," President Harry Truman and 11 other heads of state put their signatures to the North Atlantic Treaty. After the signing, Truman spoke briefly and solemnly of the event. Secretary of State Dean Acheson glorified the pact in language thick with biblical allusions. On the front page of the April 5 Times, above a large and reverent photograph of the ceremony, ran the headline: "A Historic Event in Our Nation's Capital."

Within Congress and among the public at large, months of intense and often acrimonious debate regarding the treaty had preceded the signing. The debate continued with increasing bitterness through late July, when the Senate would vote on ratification of the treaty. Skeptics wondered how much and what kind of US arms aid would go to European nations. They wanted to know how—and by whom—the treaty's mutual-assistance agreement would be interpreted. During Senate hearings on the treaty, Truman-administration officials admitted that European negotiators had sought further American involvement, including arms aid, an "automatic war" clause, and even the provision of US troops, but the officials denied that the pact harbored any such obligations. Treaty opponents viewed those assurances with skepticism and proposed reservations explicitly protecting congressional war powers and the right to reject any subsequent arms-assistance legislation.

One issue that did not enter into debate, however, was the question of a large US-troops presence in Europe as part of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) army: that possibility seemed so remote—so fully outside of any reasonable interpretation of the US role in NATO—that treaty critics submitted no specific reservation on the subject. Indeed, a large peacetime alliance army was not contemplated at all. Proponents of the treaty portrayed it exclusively as a joint guarantee, a warning to the Soviet Union or any other would-be aggressor that a "divide and conquer" strategy would be futile.

Throughout the Senate's ratification proceedings, the issue of US troops for NATO received scant attention. One notable exception occurred during Foreign Relations Committee hearings on the treaty. Iowa Republican Bourke Hickenlooper asked Secretary of State Acheson whether the United States would "be expected to send substantial numbers of troops over there as a more or less permanent contribution to the development of these countries' capacity to resist." Acheson replied: "The answer to that question, Senator, is a clear and absolute 'No.'" (Acheson and other administration officials noted that the United States already maintained two divisions—about 100,000 troops—in Germany as part of the Allied occupation force. But as soon as a German peace treaty could be negotiated, those troops were to be withdrawn, a plan that still seemed plausible in 1949.)

With seemingly satisfactory assurances of a clearly limited US role in the defense pact, the Senate, by a vote of 82 to 13, ratified the treaty. Yet by the end of 1951, within little more than two years after ratification, some 200,000 US troops shipped out for Europe for NATO duty—thus putting the number of American soldiers stationed in Europe at 300,000. In 1984, 33 years later, those troops are a large component of a US contribution to NATO worth between $70 billion and $130 billion a year (depending on what is counted as part of that contribution)—an arrangement by which US taxpayers fund more than half of NATO's cost.

Today, throughout the United States, America's future role in NATO is increasingly being questioned. Citizens of diverse political persuasions express resentment toward the Western European nations, charging an uncooperative attitude and an apparent unwillingness to bear their "fair share" of the alliance's defense burdens. Highly publicized demonstrations in various NATO countries against the deployment of new American intermediate-range missiles (which the European governments originally requested) have exacerbated this annoyance. Discontent with the attitude and performance of the European alliance members has even penetrated establishment organizations such as the ardently pro-European Atlantic Council of the United States. Critics such as columnist William Safire and noted military analysts Jeffrey Record and Robert Hanks question the wisdom of subsidizing the defense of prosperous economic competitors four decades after World War II, and they wonder aloud whether NATO itself may have outlived its usefulness.

The continuing presence of 300,000 US soldiers in Western Europe is one of the most controversial aspects of the US role in NATO. Dissension regarding that issue has flared before. President Truman's original decision in late 1950 to station large numbers of American ground forces in Europe provoked an acrimonious confrontation with Congress—the "Great Debate"—and Truman's policy barely emerged from that struggle intact. During the late 1960s and early '70s, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D–Mont.) repeatedly introduced a resolution mandating the reduction of American forces in Europe by half. His proposal attracted considerable support, but the Nixon administration and a bipartisan interventionist coalition in the Senate defeated it in 1971.

Now, for the first time since the failure of the Mansfield amendment, substantial sentiment in Congress and throughout the country has emerged for reducing, if not entirely withdrawing, American troops from Europe. Even many ardent critics of current policy, however, do not realize that Truman's original commitment to provide ground forces for the North Atlantic alliance was intended to be a strictly temporary measure. Those units were to remain on the continent only until the Western European states could raise, equip, and train sufficient forces of their own. Substantial evidence—including some recently declassified documents—supports that conclusion. A decision to withdraw US troops, therefore, would hardly constitute the betrayal of any sacred trust—rather, it would represent a return to an original policy objective that the other NATO members systematically eroded during the past three decades.

The establishment of NATO did not alter the fundamental military equation in Europe. Everyone involved in this geopolitical struggle realized that the Soviet bloc possessed an overwhelming superiority of conventional forces on the continent and that America's nuclear arsenal and strategic air power, not any NATO army, would remain the principal deterrent to Russian aggression. The NATO pact merely made the linkage of American and European security interests explicit, warning Moscow that the United States would not view an attack upon Westen Europe with indifference. In all probability, the Kremlin leadership already reached that conclusion months, if not years, earlier.

Allied officials did view the disparity in conventional military strength between communist and noncommunist Europe with some concern, especially after America's atomic monopoly ended in August 1949. The Soviets' development of a nuclear capability portended long term difficulties for NATO, since the credibility of the US strategic deterrent in providing protection to Western Europe was inevitably to wane. Nevertheless, Truman-administration officials did not consider any contribution of American troops to a buildup of NATO's conventional forces until the summer of 1950. The top-secret comprehensive strategic plan (DC-6, "Strategic Concept for the Defense of the North Atlantic Area") adopted by NATO's Defense Committee in December 1949 and approved by President Truman the following month contained no hint whatever that the United States would expand its troop commitment to Europe. Administration policy was confined to programs of financial assistance and transfers of armaments to help the European governments build up their own armed forces.

The onset of the Korean conflict in 1950 altered Washington's position regarding European defense in several important ways. Almost immediately the various Western European governments feared that the Soviets might instigate a similar military assault in their region. They noted a disturbing analogy between Korea and Germany, each nation suffering under an artificial division with a well-armed communist regime confronting a pro-Western government possessing meager military resources. During July and August of 1950, the European allies inundated the Truman administration with proposals for a buildup of NATO's conventional forces and the inclusion of West Germany within the defense perimeter. These plans invariably called for the United States to contribute a large military contingent to an integrated NATO army and appoint an American general to command allied forces.

Dean Acheson and the State Department bureaucracy favored these proposals, but Pentagon officials were less enthusiastic. Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were united in opposing further US obligations unless the other NATO members met certain conditions, including acceptance of West German rearmament (a step vehemently opposed in France and several other countries) and a firm commitment to strengthen their own defense capabilities. Even then, Pentagon leaders emphasized that the United States should only undertake these new responsibilities temporarily.

After much internal wrangling, the Truman administration adopted a new and more vigorous leadership role within the North Atlantic alliance. The State and Defense departments prepared a document that embodied these changes. In September 1950 the National Security Council approved the document (NSC-82), which was declassified in mid-1983. Though NSC-82 represented a compromise between State Department and Defense Department positions on the US role in NATO, the Defense Department's position emerged victorious in several crucial areas. Administration officials agreed to station an additional four divisions in Europe as part of a combined NATO force, "based on the expectation" that this action "will be met with similar efforts on the part of the other nations involved." The policy paper emphasized that the United States "should make it clear that it is now squarely up to the European signatories of the North Atlantic Treaty to provide the balance of the forces required for the initial defense." Firm programs for the development of adequate European forces represented "a prerequisite" for the fulfillment of the new American commitment.

Although the National Security Council also agreed that the United States should appoint the first commander of NATO defense forces, there were stringent conditions attached to that proposed action as well. Appointment of an American general was contingent upon the Europeans assuring that "they will provide sufficient forces, including adequate German units, to constitute a command reasonably capable of fulfilling its responsibilities. " The ultimate US objective was to "assist" the European nations to provide a defense capable of deterring or meeting an attack: "When this objective is achieved it is hoped that the United States will be able to leave to the European nation-members the primary responsibility…of maintaining and commanding such a force."

The NSC-82 position, emphasizing the limited and temporary nature of these new American commitments, was not an isolated phenomenon. Six weeks after the National Security Council approved NSC-82, Secretary of State Acheson expressed similar sentiments. He informed Sir Oliver Franks, the British ambassador to Washington, that the European states must develop mechanisms for greater political cooperation to ensure an effective defense force when American troops "would no longer be necessary in Europe and went home." Although he did not stipulate a deadline for the latter development, Acheson implied that US forces would remain only for a few years.

A persistent and vehement foe of any long-term or indefinite American participation in NATO's conventional defenses was the man President Truman and the NATO Council selected as the first supreme commander in December 1950—Dwight D. Eisenhower. In a diary entry for February 1, 1951, Eisenhower recorded his view that "the United States should establish clear limits" regarding the length of time US forces would remain in Europe and "should inform Europe of these estimates" (his emphasis). He expressed virtually the same opinion three weeks later in a letter to President Truman. Although Eisenhower believed the existing American military presence in Europe was essential and that future troops levels must remain flexible, he concluded that "it should be possible within some 4–8 years to reduce the American ground forces stationed here at the same rate the European systems develop the trained reserves to replace American units."

The program outlined in NSC-82 traveled a tortuous path before it became official NATO policy. For nearly three months, American officials sought to overcome French objections to West German rearmament, eventually negotiating a fragile compromise. In mid-December 1950, the NATO Council finally adopted a slightly modified version of the American plan and ratified the appointment of Dwight Eisenhower as supreme commander, but political upheaval in the United States threatened for a time to overturn that result.

A conservative-isolationist coalition attacked both the wisdom of the new NATO strategy and President Truman's arrogance in assuming that he could implement such vital changes without congressional consent. This "Great Debate" raged throughout early 1951, but in April the Senate issued an anemic resolution approving Truman's decision to send the four divisions while admonishing him to take no further action without the approval of Congress. By the end of the year, all four divisions had assumed their "temporary" duty stations in Europe.

Available evidence suggests that American officials never intended to assign substantial numbers of their country's troops on the European continent as a permanent garrison. It is equally apparent that what began as an interim, emergency measure became a long-term commitment, increasingly viewed as normal and inviolate on both sides of the Atlantic. This transformation occurred gradually, as several developments eroded America's original intent.

The American desire for eventual withdrawal of US troops from Europe was vulnerable at its core, because it depended on European willingness to build a conventional force to match that of the Soviet bloc. Evidence of such dedication was not forthcoming. Although the NATO Council did adopt ambitious troop-level goals at its Lisbon meeting in February 1952, this action marked the zenith of allied determination. An omen of future trends came a few days later in France when, following the National Assembly's rejection of a proposed tax package to finance French obligations under the Lisbon plan, Premier Edgar Faure's cabinet collapsed. Other European governments soon exhibited a similar lack of enthusiasm for ambitious rearmament projects. Indeed, reductions rather than increases in military spending (measured as a percentage of annual gross national product) became the trend.

By the mid-1950s, the Lisbon force-level goals were merely a memory. Western Europe's military effort often seemed little more than the absolute minimum necessary to avoid US congressional wrath and possible legislation mandating a pull-out of American troops. In March 1955—more than three years after the Lisbon conference—NATO Supreme Commander General Alfred Gruenther conceded to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the conventional forces at his disposal were still totally insufficient to repel a major attack. The alliance increasingly depended on America's strategic nuclear arsenal for protection, a policy that remained credible only so long as the United States maintained a decisive nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union.

Washington occasionally expressed annoyance at the allies' unwillingness to build the powerful conventional army envisaged at Lisbon. Even a renowned Europhile such as former Secretary of State Acheson conceded that European apathy resulted from a "receding tide of political will," not economic constraints. But US officials feared taking any action that might jeopardize NATO's unity. Eisenhower acknowledged the powerful influence of that latter fear in a 1963 Saturday Evening Post article. "Though for eight years in the White House I believed and announced to my associates that a reduction of American strength in Europe should be initiated as soon as possible," the former president recalled, "the matter was then considered too delicate a political question to raise."

At the same time that it became apparent that the European allies would not fulfill their military obligations another event also undermined the possibility of an American troop withdrawal. Despite an agreement at the Brussels conference in December 1950 to permit a West German role in NATO's defense structure, French obstructionism prevented implementation of that decision until the mid-1950s. A succession of governments in Paris endeavored to secure a firm US commitment to maintain forces on the continent as a price for French acquiescence to German rearmament.

Both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations resisted such demands, indicating a continuing American reluctance to prolong the troop commitment. In his memoirs Present at the Creation, Dean Acheson recalled his response when French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman asked for an extended American troop presence at a 1952 NATO session: "I was very firm that we must keep our commitments within existing congressional authorization and treaties and would not enter into any new ones." The Eisenhower administration was equally unresponsive when French officials pressed those same demands the following year.

Not until the impasse concerning Germany's military role reached crisis proportions in late 1954 and early 1955 did Washington finally relent. As part of the agreement admitting West Germany into NATO's defense arrangements (thus providing badly needed manpower and a reasonably defensible frontier), the State Department dispatched a top secret list of "assurances" to the European allies. This document, declassified in late 1982, illustrated the expanding nature of America's NATO obligations.

One of the most important items promised that the United States would "maintain in Europe, including Germany, such units of its armed forces as may be necessary and appropriate to contribute its fair share of the forces needed for the joint defense of the North Atlantic area while a threat to that area exists, and will continue to deploy such forces in accordance with agreed North Atlantic strategy for the defense of this area." Eisenhower, who four years earlier had advocated strict time limits regarding the presence of American troops in Europe, now presided over the transformation of a temporary commitment into an indefinite one.

In fairness to Eisenhower, his agreement to expand US participation in NATO was given under duress, since the conflict over German participation threatened the alliance's unity and risked making a shambles of existing Western defense arrangements. The reluctant shift in government policy apparently did not eliminate the president's personal desire for an eventual withdrawal of American forces. The sentiments expressed in his 1963 Saturday Evening Post article as well as similar comments contained in a letter to congressional committees reviewing NATO policy (published in the New York Times in 1966) demonstrated the persistence of those attitudes after Eisenhower left the presidency.

A December 6, 1960, conversation between Eisenhower and President-elect John Kennedy, which Eisenhower summarized in his second volume of memoirs, Waging Peace, evokes even more clearly the tension between Eisenhower's personal views and the perceived constraints of established foreign policy. Eisenhower informed Kennedy that a variety of reasons, including his conviction "that America is carrying far more than her share" of Western defense responsibilities, inclined him to warn NATO that the US would "redeploy" some of its forces from Europe unless a more cooperative attitude was forthcoming. With some apparent irritation, the outgoing president charged that despite growing European prosperity, the allies "still seem to be unwilling" to assume "their fair share of the defense burden." Since the United States provided most of the naval strength and strategic air power for the defense of the North Atlantic region, the European nations "should be prepared to maintain a much larger proportion of the ground defense formations."

This conversation represented the last occasion when pressure for at least a partial withdrawal of American forces would come from the executive branch. Eisenhower assured Kennedy that, despite his personal views, he would take no initiative that would restrict the incoming president's freedom of action regarding NATO policy. The influence of redeployment threats on the European governments was virtually nil anyway since the Eisenhower administration was in its waning days. Allied leaders understood that America's new chief executive did not share his predecessor's views.

In fact, Kennedy placed renewed emphasis on a buildup of NATO's conventional military power so that the alliance would depend less on America's strategic nuclear deterrent. And he believed that the United States would appear inconsistent if it urged the European members to increase their conventional forces while planning to withdraw its own units from the continent. During succeeding administrations, this position became even more firmly entrenched.

When renewed sentiment for reducing the American military presence in Europe resurfaced in the late 1960s and early '70s, it came from the legislative branch in the form of Sen. Mike Mansfield's resolution. Both the Johnson and Nixon administrations castigated that initiative and used all their influence to defeat it, even though the proposal contemplated only a 50 percent reduction in American troops stationed in Europe rather than a total withdrawal. And the NATO critics' failure to enact the Mansfield amendment or any similar measure further solidified America's "temporary" alliance obligations.

In retrospect, American officials had been appallingly naive when, during the 1950s, they assumed that the Europeans would permit an eventual withdrawal of US ground forces. That assumption failed to comprehend European motives for wanting US troops in the first place. Continental political leaders viewed American forces as a tangible linkage of US security to that of Western Europe. Any withdrawal, even a partial one, reduced America's stake in Europe's fate and would renew doubts about the reliability of Washington's pledge to assist its allies in the event of a Soviet attack. And as the USSR eroded America's strategic nuclear preponderance, the symbolic importance of those ground forces increased rather than diminished: they reassured Europeans that the transatlantic protector would never abandon Europe during its hour of military need.

Both the United States and its allies are now snared in a mutually unpleasant dilemma. NATO's European members remain dependent on a distant foreign power for their defense, even though the credibility of that protection steadily evaporates. At the same time, the United States continues to bear costly and burdensome military responsibilities long after any rational justification for them has expired. The patience of many Americans regarding that situation is waning rapidly.

Even Henry Kissinger, a redoubtable proponent of mutual security, contends that major reforms are imperative if NATO is to survive. In his recent Time article, "A Plan to Reshape NATO," Kissinger advocated the appointment of a European as the commander of alliance forces and insisted, "By 1990 Europe should assume the major responsibility for conventional ground defense." The former Secretary of State warned that unless the Western Europeans demonstrate a determination to achieve a "full conventional defense," the United States should consider withdrawing a "substantial portion, perhaps up to half," of its existing troop contingent.

Kissinger's call for "reform" may alert European governments to the risks inherent in their continued insistence on the status quo, but it does not confront the crux of the problem. A recent position paper circulated by the Atlantic Council of the United States, a private organization concerned with US foreign policy, provides a succinct indictment (albeit unintentional) of NATO's central flaw. Admitting that the North Atlantic alliance never constituted a truly reciprocal security arrangement, the study concludes that from the inception of the pact, the European members viewed themselves not so much as partners, "but rather as holders of an American insurance policy—with remarkably reasonable annual premiums." It is an apt analogy. The time is long overdue for the United States to confront its allies with a substantial rate increase—or better yet, a cancellation notice.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a public-policy analyst, holds a Ph.D. in US history. His book America and the Transformation of NATO will be published later this year.