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One for All and All for One: The Conception and Early Development of NATO

During his opening remarks at the Munich Security Conference in February 2020, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg declared that “[I]n many ways, NATO is the ultimate expression of the ‘West.’” Born out of the ashes of World War II, this organization strives to champion the values of freedom, democracy, and peace, in turn functioning as a beacon of hope for the Western world.

Flag of NATO (1953) | Wikimedia
Flag of NATO (1953) | Wikimedia

However, the pursuit of such ideals is rarely without its challenges, and NATO is no exception to this trend; in its early days, NATO faced a slew of internal and external difficulties—difficulties that in certain cases have subsided and in others have only perhaps become further exacerbated.

In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, we see that Ambassador Theodore Achilles identified two particular challenges in his experience of establishing and developing NATO. The first concerns the fear of a spreading communist influence. The U.S. standing their ground against the Soviet request for France and China to be absent from the initial peace treaties provided proof for one critical concept: the Soviet Union was not going to reasonably cooperate with the West anytime soon. It therefore appeared crucial to certain officials that NATO in turn had to develop an agenda aimed at preventing the rise of Communism throughout the world, not only within Eastern Europe but also within Western countries such as France and Italy.

The second issue was far more Europe-centric, with the Americans worrying about the efficiency of production among their NATO allies as a means to withstand potential threats, physical or otherwise. Achilles believed that this was evident both through the attempts at standardization of weaponry development between the Western powers and through the admittedly understandable recalcitrance from other European powers to allow Germany to rearm against the looming Soviet threat. Especially given the importance of Britain and France as economic and political partners to other European countries, the U.S. found it hard to push their own ideas forwards against such odds.

Achilles spent a large portion of his career dealing with the intricacies and challenges of NATO. Even when the Korean War came in 1950, his task was to ascertain the potential effects that this war would have on his Western European division and use the situation to his advantage by compelling other countries to see the threats with their own eyes.

Ambassador Theodore Achilles’s interview was conducted by Richard D. McKinzie on November 13, 1972.
Read Ambassador Theodore Achilles’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by: Will Shao

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“I remember at the time thinking that this might mark the transition from a short-lived postwar era to the beginnings of a potentially pre-war era.”

Organization of the European Defense Community (2019) Ssolbergj | Wikimedia
Organization of the European Defense Community (2019) Ssolbergj | Wikimedia

Tough Situations: In September of that year, I was assigned to London and detailed as Secretary of our delegation to the first Council of Foreign Ministers, which met in London immediately after Victory over Japan (V-J) Day to try to negotiate peace treaties with Italy, Germany, and the eastern European countries.

Secretary of State [James F.] Byrnes, who had just assumed the role, was chairman of our delegation. John Foster Dulles went and represented Senator [Arthur H.] Vandenberg, who was then chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Jimmy [James C.] Dunn was the second-ranking member of the State Department. Chip [Charles E.] Bohlen was there as the interpreter and also adviser on Soviet affairs. Jimmy Byrnes was quite new to the process; he had been in Congress, in the Senate, and was a Supreme Court Justice.

At the end of the first day’s meeting, I typed up a routine telegram to the State Department reporting what had happened that day. I took it to Jimmy Dunn who initialed it, and then took it to Secretary Byrnes for signature. Secretary Byrnes looked at it and said, “What’s this?”

I said, “This is the usual telegram to the State Department reporting what happened.”

Byrnes said, “God Almighty, I might tell the President what happened sometime, but I’m never going to tell those little bastards at the State Department anything about it.”

There was a fairly tough situation over the next few days in the Council of Foreign Ministers. We were making a little progress towards negotiating a treaty of peace with Italy. The Russians were being obstinate and difficult, but no more so than usual. But one morning, Molotov opened the session by declaring that unfortunately the whole procedure was illegal. There were five governments represented at the talks: our United States, Great Britain, Soviet Union, France, and China. Molotov announced, obviously on the basis of new instructions overnight, that the French and Chinese had no business being there, and he would not participate any further in the conference.

That presented everyone else with a real choice. Should we ask the French and the Chinese to leave and try to work out agreements with the Russians and the British; or, should we stand firm and insist that they continue there and risk the breakup of the conference? I remember at the time thinking that this might mark the transition from a short-lived postwar era to the beginnings of a potentially pre-war era.

Secretary Dulles records in his book War and Peace that he followed Secretary Byrnes up to his bedroom that night and insisted that Secretary Byrnes take the hard line, that France and China should stay regardless of whether the Russians broke off the conference or not. Byrnes was of two minds, but Dulles was quite persuasive. As I say, Dulles recalls this in his book. Shortly after the book appeared and I had read it, I met Mrs. Dulles at a cocktail party and told her that I had just read that chapter and vividly recalled that day at the London Council of Ministers.

She said, “Foster wrote that he had followed Jimmy Byrnes into his bedroom to tell him that, but he didn’t write in his book that he’d also followed him into his bathroom and told him that, if he took any other course, Senator Vandenberg would denounce him on the floor of the Senate the next day.”

“There is no chance that the Soviet Union will deal with the West on any reasonable terms in the foreseeable future. ”

Conceiving NATO: On that New Year’s Eve [December 31, 1947] I was sitting at my desk, slightly drowsy in the middle of the afternoon, when my immediate chief, Jack Hickerson, Director of the Bureau of European Affairs, came into my office. Well mellowed by Fishhouse punch, he said, “I don’t care whether entangling alliances have been considered worse than any original sin ever since George Washington’s time. We’ve got to negotiate a military alliance with Western Europe in peacetime, and we’ve got to do it quickly.”

I said, “Fine, when do we start?”

He said, “I’ve already started it. Now it’s your baby. Get going.”

He sat down and elaborated. He had been with General [George C.] Marshall, who succeeded Jimmy Byrnes as Secretary of State, at the last meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers in London in December [1947]. That meeting had broken up with no progress on negotiating the treaties which they had been trying to negotiate for the last two years. The night it broke up, the British Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, invited General Marshall to dinner alone in his apartment. That night, after dinner, he made a statement to General Marshall, which was almost word for word the same one he made in the House of Commons two or three weeks later. He said, and I quote, “There is no chance that the Soviet Union will deal with the West on any reasonable terms in the foreseeable future. The salvation of the West depends upon the formation of some form of union, formal or informal in character, in Western Europe, backed by the United States and the dominions, such a mobilization of moral and material force will inspire confidence and energy within and respect elsewhere.”

At that point, Western Europe was devastated, prostrate, and demoralized; it badly needed confidence and energy within. With the Soviet armies halfway across Europe and still at their full wartime strength, and with the Communist parties the largest single political elements in France and Italy, something to inspire Soviet respect was equally essential.

The only moral and material force adequate to deter further Soviet expansion was a combination of that of the United States and Western Europe together. Some form of union was definitely essential, but there was a great question as to what form and between whom.

The next morning Secretary Marshall told Dulles and Hickerson of Bevin’s words. He was impressed, but he thought that the union should be purely European, with the United States supplying material assistance. He had made his famous Marshall plan speech at Harvard only six months before and was still trying to get Congressional authorization for it. He did not want to complicate that task any more than was absolutely necessary.

Secretary Marshall flew home. Dulles and Hickerson came by sea. Jack Hickerson was convinced that a European union backed by U.S. material assistance would not be enough, that only a moral commitment by the United States to do whatever was necessary, including to fight if necessary, to restore and maintain a free and solvent Europe could create that “confidence and energy within and respect elsewhere.”

. . .

The talks—even their existence—were ultra secret. To this day, I don’t believe anything has been written or said publicly about them. Yet it was only two or three years later that Donald McLean defected to Moscow. The Russians must have been getting a daily play-by-play account.

The talks lasted about two weeks and, by the time they finished, it had been secretly agreed that there would be a treaty, and I had a draft of one in the bottom drawer of my safe. It was never shown to anyone except Jack. I wish I had kept it, but when I left the Department in 1950, I dutifully left it in the safe and I have never been able to trace it in the archives.

It drew heavily on the Rio Treaty, and a bit of the Brussels Treaty, which had not yet been signed, but of which we were being kept heavily supplied with drafts. The eventual North Atlantic Treaty had the general form and a good bit of the language of my first draft but with a number of important differences.

The other front was the Senatorial one. The Europeans were, with reason, becoming increasingly frightened of Soviet expansion, and their pleas for U.S. action were becoming increasingly insistent. Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, and Poland had been taken over by the Communists by the fall of 1947. The Czech coup came in February, 1945 and the murder of Masaryk was in March.

After the signature of the Brussels Treaty on March 17th, Bevin and [Georges] Bidault, the then French Foreign Minister, said in effect, “Now we’ve shown what we expect to do for ourselves and each other, what are you going to do? For God’s sake, do something quick.”

“We were all in favor of German rearmament; the problem was how to get it started politically.”

Senator John Foster Dulles (2014) Hohum | Wikimedia
Senator John Foster Dulles (2014) Hohum | Wikimedia

A Productive Europe: One thing we tried to do in the early days was promote the rationalization of defense production and standardization of weapons. We never got very far with standardization. A committee was set up and had some success. I think it reduced the types of aviation fuels from 111 to 23 and the number of aviation lubricants from 20-odd down to about 7. It also reached the agreement that different parts of the electrical system of Jeeps should have the same colored wires. But that was about as far as they got.

In the rationalization of defense production we had the bright idea; let the French produce the anti-tank guns, the Belgians the rifles, the Italians the trucks, and so and so down the line, each producing something on a large scale and doing it very effectively. For a long time nothing happened, and then the French army suddenly ordered 10,000 Fiat trucks. We thought that at last this idea had taken hold; here we go from here on. We found out a little bit later that the wife of the then French Minister of War was the sister of the head of the Fiat company. So it goes.

Q: Mr. Ambassador, was there not some opposition, though, in the United States to the production of certain military items in Europe? I recall the Italian proposal to produce aircraft engines, and there seemed to be some disagreement about the advisability of that because it might prevent the development of the aircraft industry in the United States, which was essential to future defense needs.

ACHILLES: Yes, there has always been arguments about what should be produced where, some of it financial in character. The Pentagon was naturally anxious to transfer as much weaponry as possible to the Europeans and get credit for it on the books so that they could buy more modern equipment. There was also fear of constructing factories in exposed parts of Europe to turn out the most modern types of equipment, for fear that in the event of war they would be overrun and used by the enemy.

Q: Do you recall a French plan for production of defense items, a kind of unified defense budget plan that they proposed at one time, wherein each of the NATO countries would make its contribution to the defense budget and yet contracts would be allowed in various places, presumably mostly in France.

ACHILLES: Yes, the French tried that one. It had its good points, aside from the fact that people were not too keen about French manufacturing. Some of the items were not too wise.

The French also proposed the infrastructure program which was adopted. “Infrastructure” was defined as coming from an old French word meaning someone else had to pay for it. It meant constructing the airfields, the highways, communications networks, depots, and all kinds of things on French soil. But that was a useful operation, and those things are still there even though NATO forces are not using them since de Gaulle ordered NATO forces out of France.

. . .

One night when Chuck and I were in Washington, we had a small stag dinner at the house. We had Averell Harriman, who was the then Special Assistant to the President; General Gruenther, who was Director of the Joint Staff; Hank [Henry A.] Byroade, who was Director of the Office of German Affairs in the State Department; Doug [Douglas] MacArthur, [the second], who was Director of the Office of NATO Affairs in the State Department; and Chuck and myself. Sitting on the terrace on a hot Washington summer evening after dinner, we concocted a simple scheme. We were all in favor of German rearmament; the problem was how to get it started politically. Our scheme was this: Averell Harriman would draft a letter for the President’s signature to the Joint Chiefs of Staff asking whether they considered German rearmament essential. Al Gruenther would reply for the Chiefs of Staff that they did consider it essential. The President would then direct the State and Defense Departments to seek Allied agreement to proceed to rearm Germany. It worked out, but neither quickly nor easily.

A NATO ministerial meeting was to be held in New York that September, and although the exchange of letters between the White House and the Pentagon was speedily completed, there were only two or three weeks left before the meeting to sound out and soften up the British, who were hesitant, and the French, who were certain to go straight through the roof—and they certainly did.

The meeting began auspiciously at the Waldorf Hotel in New York. It began particularly “auspiciously” for Dean Acheson, whose bête noire in the administration had been Louis Johnson, the Secretary of Defense. The first evening of the meeting, Johnson’s resignation was announced. Dean had a few extra bourbons to celebrate. Bob Lovett became Acting Secretary of Defense. But substantively, the meeting did not begin auspiciously. As soon as the formalities were over, Dean Acheson announced that we considered the state of Western defense forces so weak that they could constitute a credible deterrent only if they were supplemented by German rearmament. Robert Schuman was the French Foreign Minister and Jules Moch the Defense Minister. Moch’s only son had been a resistance fighter. He had been caught by the Nazis and shot against a wall in the Rue de Rivoli in Paris. Moch vowed that Germany would be rearmed only “over his dead body.” There were three days of discussion which got absolutely nowhere. Then—and I think it was at Schuman’s suggestion—the meeting was adjourned for a week to enable each delegation to go home for personal consultation. As he was saying good-bye to Dean Acheson, Schuman, and I quote substantially, said: “I understand your belief in the need for German rearmament, but the French Assembly will never approve it as such. I will go home and try to figure out some way of filling the need.”

When the meeting reconvened a week later, Schuman proposed creation of a European Defense Community to include Germans, but only in an international force integrated down to the squad level with no national staff or other military organization. That plan was to keep us occupied for the next four years.

The concept was approved by the ministers for study. It was also agreed that study be given to the appointment of a Supreme Allied Commander in peacetime who would command both the national forces that were assigned to him and a proposed European force. After the Council of Ministers adjourned, the Council of Deputies took it up in London, while the French set up a working group in Paris to begin formulating concrete plans for it. The Paris working group was at about the lieutenant-colonel level—ample evidence that no one took any of it too seriously. In the permanent Council of Deputies at London, only the French pushed it very hard. [Harve] Alphand, the French Deputy, who couldn’t have liked the idea less, pushed it dutifully. We opposed it as dangerously delaying German rearmament. The British, Belgians, and Italians were mildly favorable. The Dutch joined us in opposing it. One day the Dutch Ambassador van Starkenborgh surprised everyone by coming out in favor of it. After the meeting, I asked him why instructions had been changed.

“It’s simple,” said he, “if France, Germany, Belgium and Italy form some kind of a union and the Netherlands is not included, all the trade that now passes through Amsterdam and Rotterdam would go through Antwerp and Bremen; it’s just as simple as that”—and it was. We continued to oppose the EDC. The low level group in Paris continued work on an enormously detailed and complicated draft treaty.

All that Fall, I was continuing to commute between Washington and London. Staying at the Connaught when in England, and living alone, I had a lot of time to think.

Somewhere along the line, Washington decided that perhaps the proposed European Defense Community was the most likely way, after all, to get agreement on German rearmament and that, even if painfully slow, it might also turn out to be the quickest. We began to support it and urged the others to get on with it.


Joined the Foreign Service 1931
Washington, D.C.—British Commonwealth Division, Chief 1941–1945
London, England—First Secretary 1945–1946
Brussels, Belgium—First Secretary 1946–1947
Washington, D.C.—Division of Western European Affairs, Chief 1947–1949
London, England—North Atlantic Council, U.S. Vice Deputy 1950–1952
Retirement 1962