Air University Review July-August
The United States
and NATO—Past, Present, and Future
Charles E. Bohlen, U.S. Ambassador to France
The subject of the first Thomas D. White lectures is the North Atlantic
Treaty and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. To understand our
involvement in NATO and our involvement in Europe, it is necessary to go back into
history. The United States,
for 175 years of its existence, had been following a policy of isolationism, so
called. This was set forth most eloquently by President Washington in his
Farewell Address, in which he warned our young and struggling republic to avoid
involvement in any entangling alliances which might involve us or drag us into
the quarrels of Europe. And let me say, when the term “isolationism” is used it
always has referred to the attitude of the United States
government and the American people toward the old Continent of Europe.
We entered World War I late, it is true, but we did enter the war and played
a decisive part in the final victory. Then after the end of the war, tradition
was too strong for President Wilson, and the people of the United States
returned, almost with a sigh of relief, to the comfortable position of security
and isolation which had been characteristic of our entire history. There were
actually real reasons for this. In 1918, despite all the damage of the war—the
loss of life, the loss of material wealth—the great democracies of the world,
Great Britain and France in particular, still held most of the ramparts of the
world. You could look all over the globe and see the British flag flying in
every corner. So there was no immediate need for the United States
to change its attitude of isolationism, which was not only comfortable from a
security point of view but also infinitely cheaper than anything else has been.
I might mention that when I joined the Foreign Service in 1929 the State
Department budget was $17,000,000, of which 50 percent or more came back to the
United States Treasury through passports, visas, invoice, and other fees.
Therefore, it is not an overstatement to say that the cost to the American
taxpayer of involvement in the world as it was then constituted was less than
$10,000,000 a year, because out of the total sum came not only the salaries of
those of us who were in the Foreign Service then and worked for the Department
of State but also the cost to the United States of its involvement in any
international organization, such as the Rio Grande Committee, the Safety of
Life at Sea Commission, and those types of organizations.
And we entered World War II, still with the tradition of isolationism very
strongly upon us. We fought the war, and fought it, I think, exceptionally
well. Nevertheless most of the people who were running our government at the
time still carried with them certain reflexes from the period of
noninvolvement. Some, such as President Roosevelt, did not—during the
war—believe that it would be necessary for the United States
to maintain very appreciable armed forces on the Continent of Europe for
any length of time after the war. On one occasion during the Yalta Conference,
when Stalin asked President Roosevelt how long he thought it would be necessary
to keep troops in occupation of Germany and how long America would be prepared
to put up with this, President Roosevelt answered that he thought it would be,
roughly, two years. He said he thought that the United States was prepared
to participate in a worldwide organization but that we would not be prepared to
participate in an organization devoted exclusively to Europe—which was one of the proposals
discussed at some of the wartime conferences. As the war drew to a close, I
think it would have been difficult to find any planning in Washington
that really foresaw accurately what was going to happen.
On the evening of 17 February 1967, the first of the General Thomas D.
White Lectures was presented at Air University.
The general subject for the first group of lectures is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The Honorable Charles E. Bohlen, united States Ambassador
was chosen to deliver this first lecture because of his intimate familiarity
with the whole history of NATO as well as his long friendship with General
White. Ambassador Bohlen’s discourse seemed so cogent as to deserve a wider audience, and we
are pleased to publish it in Air University
We had underestimated, I think, the enormous sacrifices, not only in lives
but also in material wealth and position, which Great Britain
had undergone when she was all alone fighting Hitler. I think we should never
forget that from June 1940 to June 1941, when the Soviet Union was attacked, Great Britain
was the only country for one whole year that was openly fighting Nazi Germany.
Her effort in the war was so outstanding and so valorous in many respects that
I think most of our people tended to assume that she would have the same power
after the war that she had displayed during the war. I remember very well in
December 1946 when the British Ambassador in Washington came into the
Department of State (we had had some forewarnings of this but never
specifically) and told the Secretary of State that Great Britain no longer
could continue to support Greece, that the financial drain was too much, and
that therefore it was up to the United States. It was a clear choice of whether
to step in and assume the burden or to let Greece go, and Greece
would most certainly have gone Communist had we not stepped in. That was the
beginning of the United
States involvement in Europe. Public Law 75 authorizing aid to Greece was passed in the
spring of 1947, and thus the United States,
by a conscious act of will, picked up the challenge and of necessity moved in
with the financial, economic, and military aid and advice which eventually
ended in a victory. And Greece
is now a country with the freedom of choice which she certainly would not have
had, had she gone behind the Iron Curtain.
But even so, recognition of the necessity of a direct United States involvement
was relatively slow in coming. One recalls that the Council of Foreign
Ministers, a body which was set up by the Potsdam Conference in order to work
out the peace treaties with the defeated nations, finally came to grips with
the problem of Germany
in the spring of 1947 in Moscow.
There, they got nowhere at all. Incidentally it was there that the idea of what
came to be known as the Marshall Plan was born in the mind of General George C.
Marshall after an interview we had with Stalin in the Kremlin on 19 April 1947.
The Council reassembled later on in the year, November, in London.
And there it became absolutely apparent, clear as a bell to anybody,
that the Soviet Union was not going to permit the unification of Germany, was not going
to sign a peace treaty with a German state, was going to remain in occupation of East Germany.
Her whole attitude was becoming more and more threatening, a condition which
was very noticeable to the French and British foreign ministers who were there
at the time. They came to General Marshall and asked him what he thought they
could do to assure the security of Europe
in the face of this possible Russian threat. As I recall, General Marshall told
them he thought the formula that had worked in regard to the Marshall Plan in
the economic field was the proper one to attempt in the defense field: that
was, for the Europeans to go ahead with the treaty they had planned—the
so-called Brussels treaty-examine their pooled efforts and any gap between what
they could do and what the situation required; then General Marshall told them
to turn to the United States, and we would see what could be done to help them out.
I don’t think, even at that time, that General Marshall was thinking much about
a formal military alliance. He was thinking much more in terms of military
assistance. But then a number of things happened.
I shall not go into all the details, but the first thing was the Vandenberg
Resolution, in the spring of 1948, which was designed primarily to pave the way
for a Military Assistance Program for Europe. The British, I think, were the
ones who picked up the general idea of a military engagement and called it the
North Atlantic Treaty, because they were particularly interested in assuring
the security of Norway,
covering as it does their eastern flank from the north and the east. The result
of these deliberations was the North Atlantic Treaty, the terms of which are
The North Atlantic Treaty bound the signatories thereto to regard an attack
on one as an attack on all. The duration of the treaty was to be twenty years.
And here’s an interesting historical footnote: the country that really made the
greatest effort to have that period lengthened from twenty years to fifty was
the French Republic.
At that time the attitude of the French Republic
was somewhat different than it is now. Originally the North Atlantic Treaty was
designed more or less the way most treaties or alliances had been designed in
the past: it was merely to be a commitment on the part of the participants to
go to war under certain conditions. There had not been at the time of the
signing, I believe, the thought of creating an organization. This came later.
I think the event that stimulated the idea of creating a permanent
organization—to have it in-being for immediate utilization in the event of an
attack or threat of attack—was the Korean War. The Korean War was quite a shock
to many people all over the world, including of course the United States, but also in Europe. I think up to that time most people
had the idea that Communism was essentially an instrument of subversion,
propaganda, and political activity, but that military force was not something
that you could expect from the Communist side of the world. I think Korea dispelled all those
illusions and caused a great deal of alarm, particularly in Europe, for fear
that some of the special Communist forces would come over from East Germany and attack Western Europe, which was virtually
defenseless. Out of that fear grew the determination this time to learn
from the lessons of two world wars and to prepare seriously, in a military
sense, for the utilization of combined military forces the instant an attack
This is what is meant by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The SHAPE
headquarters was set up in Paris, and the United States, with the willing consent
of the French—often, in fact, at their instigation—established our bases in
France These actions were based on five agreements that we made with the French
government, four of which were supposed to last as long as the North Atlantic
Treaty itself. This arrangement was in response to what was then regarded as a
very clear and evident threat of possible military action against the Continent
of Europe. The threat was intensified by the takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948,
which was the forerunner of the type of operation they feared, a feeling which Korea
accentuated a great deal. As a result, in the early ‘50s there came into being,
on the Continent of Europe and particularly in France,
this whole complex of military arrangements, which came to be known as the
North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
NATO, I think, has done its work extraordinarily well. There has been no
aggression in Europe,
in the area covered by the Treaty. The Communist system has not advanced one
centimeter to the west from where it started behind the Iron Curtain. By all
the criteria for judging an alliance, I would say the North Atlantic Treaty
alliance has been an overwhelming success. It not only has kept the peace but
also has provided its members, particularly those on the edges of the Iron
Curtain, with a sense of security which has permitted them to develop their
day-to day lives without undue anxiety in the face of the colossus to the east.
But, nevertheless, since those days when this organization was drawn up,
there have been changes in Europe.
There have been threats. There were threats at the end of 1958. In fact we had
almost a continuous crisis from 1958 through 1962 in regard to Berlin—which
incidentally remains one of the most potentially dangerous spots on the face of
the globe. Berlin
is a city that is divided by a wall running right through the middle, and its
division is a function of the division of Germany.
Nevertheless, since 1962 there has been no sign of any Soviet aggressive move
This has led some countries, particularly France,
to cast into doubt the very origins and basis on which NATO was formed.
One of the fundamentals upon which the NATO organization was constructed,
which made it possible for us to have forces and bases in other countries, was
the common acceptance of the thesis that all would go to war together in
the event of an attack. This had no technical legal validity in the sense that
during the hearings before the U.S. Senate it was made perfectly plain that it
would be the U.S.
government alone that would have the power to go to war or not to go to war.
In effect, what France did in March of 1966 by the letters that General de
Gaulle sent to President Johnson, Chancellor Erhard of Germany, the President
of Italy, and the Prime Minister of Great Britain was to assert the principle
that you could not be sure whether you were going to war until you examined the
circumstances and saw whether you felt obliged to go to war-or if it was in
your interest to do so. Therefore, the French government has taken the position
that nothing that seems to imply a commitment to go to war could continue on
their soil, and this is the basis on which General de Gaulle has taken the French Republic
out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It is the basis on
which he has asked, or rather demanded, that the United States pull out its
troops and vacate its installations in France.
I would like to digress here to say that we have great reason to be very
proud of our military in France
for the work that they have done. Preparations for the complete evacuation by April
lst have been truly extraordinary. We had 800,000 tons of munitions and war
equipment of one kind or another on the soil of France.
By April 1st there will be only 6000 tons left, and that will consist of
equipment for support of dependents who
will stay on there until the end of June. This has been a truly staggering
performance, done with great dignity and great style. I think it has been a
great credit to the United States;
the way this has been done. It could have been very easy to become embittered
and indignant at the French, and it could have led to all kinds of friction
that would have done us no good from the point of view of our international
Naturally the question arises as to why the French government did this, and
one can only guess. De Gaulle mentioned a few reasons in his letters. First, he
seemed to have the belief that membership in the organization somehow limited
his freedom of action in the international arena. Of course the United States
does not agree with that, because under the terms of the organization none of
it goes into effect, none of it has any operational validity, until the
governments concerned make the decision that there has been an attack or that
there is about to be an attack. Only then do they transfer the power of command
to General Lemnitzer. As it stands now, in time of peace, General Lemnitzer
does not have command over even a corporal’s guard; he cannot order them to
cross a road; all of it is on an “if and when” basis. So we do not really feel
that this reason has much validity.
Another reason which has been offered from time to time is that through the
operation of the organization France could be drawn into
a war—possibly in the Far East—outside the NATO area because of the involvement
of the United States.
Again, we would question the validity of that reason. Membership in the
organization would not increase the risks of France
being drawn into wars outside the NATO area.
A third reason given, which I think is also very questionable, is that
General de Gaulle felt he would have to divest himself of any encumbrances
involving NATO in order to pursue the policies that he wishes to pursue now in
regard to the Soviet Union. About all that can be said is that up to the moment
there has been no sign that France is going very far in
its relations with the Soviet Union.
I think the only true explanation that can be given for France’s decision is
that General de Gaulle is convinced that after 1962—the time of the
confrontation over Cuba—there was virtually no danger whatsoever of any war
with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union backed away from that confrontation,
and in so doing really changed the basis of their approach to Europe. This is an opinion which can be held
and I think is held to some extent by many people in Europe. Of course, it is really based on the
old theory of the U.S.
nuclear umbrella, which is what is preserving the peace of the world,
particularly in Europe.
But aside from that, I do not think that this third reason has enough validity
to justify the destruction of the NATO setup in Europe. Incidentally, I might remark that
General de Gaulle still feels a need for the North Atlantic Treaty—despite the
facts that France will be totally out of NATO, with one or two minor
exceptions, by the first of April; that SHAPE headquarters will have moved to a
place near Brussels; that the U.S. European Command will have moved probably to
Germany; that all NATO military establishments that were on French soil
and all American military establishments will have completely vacated
France by April. But the United States and thirteen
other countries felt very strongly, and still do, that there is continuing need
for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; that Europe left to itself would not have the military power to defend
itself against a possible attack from the east, to take the extreme example.
And this remains our policy as matters stand now.
In fact, one hears a great deal that much has changed in Europe in the last
ten years, that Europe in
1967 is not the Europe
that it was in 1957. This is true, but most of the changes have been in the
realm of the intangibles. The big fact of modern Europe—the division of
Germany—still remains as it was, and the Soviets have shown not the slightest
sign of changing their attitude toward the continued division of Germany. They
recently sent to Britain,
and the United
States, as well as to West Germany, a very tough
note denouncing the West Germans for Nazi attitudes, etc., and saying that the
only basis on which there could be any peace in the future in Europe would be
recognition of two Germanys
and acceptance of the frontiers. We are not prepared to do either formally;
neither are any of our allies—including the French, I may add. As long as that
situation remains, I think there is reason to be prudent and to maintain our
In fact, a look at the Soviet
Union and at the Communist world reveals a number of
very interesting things. The Communist world has been fragmented. The
split between the Soviet Union and China
is certainly irrevocable. I think that as long as the present governments in China and in Russia
persist there is no possibility at all of a
reconciliation. The Soviet control over eastern Europe is very much lighter than it was in
the days of Stalin, and some of the countries, such as Romania,
are beginning to show signs of independence a bit in what they do. But
always, all along, the source of military power in the Communist world has been
the Soviet Union.
And it is certainly questionable whether there has been any evolutionary
change within the Soviet Union
that has radically altered her concept of the outside world and her attitude
towards it. She is still a totalitarian state, she has never neglected
her military forces, and, while I have no
figures nor any basis for making this statement, I think it is
true that the military power of the twenty-two divisions in East Germany
is considerably greater now in 1967 than it was ten years ago. In addition to
that, the Soviet Union is backed, nourished, and supported by an ideology which
is taught in every institution in the Soviet Union from primary schools
right up through the universities, the basic tenet of which is
the hostility, ideologically, between a non-Communist system and a Communist
system. In fact, Khrushchev, at the time
when he was so busily propagating the idea of peaceful coexistence —a phrase
which, incidentally, was originated by Trotsky in 1921—made specific exception
for the ideological field. He said that in the ideological field
there can be no truce, there can be no compromise, there can be no peace. Now I
am convinced that someday this will change, but it has not yet.
Let us look at the future of NATO. There are fourteen members of NATO, still
as solid as ever in support of the institutions that have been set up under the
treaty in anticipation of and preparation for a possible attack from the east.
has left that association but still remains a member of the Alliance.
Certainly one of the factors which will affect a great many of the countries
involved—and I would like to emphasize here that they are all virtually
democratic countries where public opinion plays a great part in the
determination of policy—is that if the Soviet Union continues the course it has
been following for the last four and one-half years, of making no trouble for
its neighbors and allowing its former satellite countries greater leeway in
their international behavior, then it is going to be harder and harder to get
the necessary monies voted in the various parliaments to sustain what,
from a military point of view, we would regard as a reasonable insurance
against a Soviet attack.
I do not predict what would be the attitude of the United States in those
conditions, but I think that the world of Europe has, to some extent, entered a new
phase of its history. Everything is a little bit unfrozen. The cold war is not so cold as it was, there is much
more broken-field running, and the lines are not drawn up quite as tightly as
they have been in the past. I think that we are coming into a new period in
regard to NATO—the end, as it were, of a phase, on which we as citizens
of the United States
can look with considerable pride. It has been enormously successful, the period
of NATO. The eighteen years of its existence, as I said earlier, have seen no
war, no attack, no loss of territory, but instead freedom and prosperity
ensconced on the Continent of Europe. This, I think, is something to take pride
in and to be greatly heartened about. And I am convinced that the United States
has learned its lesson of two world wars and will not be disposed to slide back
into isolationism and just let the rest of the world go hang.
But one of the problems that is
going to be with us for the future in regard to Europe is the
size and power of the United States
in relation to any given European country. In fact, this is one of the reasons
why the United
States, practically ever since the
end of the war and certainly since the time of the Marshall Plan, has
been in favor of the unification of Western
Europe. We have recognized that we are not
participants in this process and we cannot force it. It would be very unwise to
try to force it, but wherever we could we have given it an expression of our
It seems to me there are three reasons for this U.S.
policy toward European unification. One is that a united Europe would be able to contribute much more
toward its own security than could individual nations. Secondly, it would have
provided a comfortable setting into which West Germany—and we were certainly
hopeful in the early days after the war that it would eventually be all of
Germany—could be fined, one that would insure possibly the best guarantee
against any revival of extreme German nationalism or militancy of the kind that
we have so tragically seen in the past. The third reason, which seems to me to
be a very valid one, is that unification of Europe would create an entity
roughly approximate to the United States in power, in financial and economic
strength; composed of nations sharing in general the same philosophy, the same
basic religion, and the same general idea of the relationship of the individual
to the state. This union would be much easier for us to deal with, because as
it now stands it is very difficult for the United States
to have really very good relations with an individual European country. If we
are too friendly with one of them, the others charge “satellite,” “stooge,” “dependency.”
It is extremely difficult to work out genuinely harmonious relations when the
disparity in size is so great
as it is. For example, we are a nation with, I think, a population of
200,000,000 this year and a gross national product of 740 billion dollars a
probably the nearest comparable European country, has about 53 or 54 million
population and a gross national product of somewhere in the neighborhood of 125
to 150 billion dollars (equivalent). The difference between the two is clearly
evident. And this, as I say, will create a continuing problem for the United States in regard to Europe.
I would like to close with one main thought: that we all, or most of us,
directly or remotely, came from Europe and that there is a strong spiritual
affinity between the United
States and Europe. Besides that, we have powerful
material incentives to continue our involvement in the security of Europe. This relationship will change and
evolve as events develop, but I think basically the principle that Europe’s
fate is in part the fate of the United
States—and we would hope reciprocally—is
deeply embedded in the consciousness of the American people. And I for one most
certainly hope it will continue to be so.
The Honorable Charles E. Bohlen (A. B., Harvard University) is United States
Ambassador to France.
He has been a Foreign Service officer since 1929 and has held high posts in Washington.
Early in his career he began to specialize in Soviet and Communist affairs and
the Russian language. He became one of the State Department’s senior authorities
in this field. He was with President Roosevelt at the Tehran and Yalta conferences during World War II, with
President Truman at the Potsdam
conference, and has attended numerous Foreign Ministers’ meetings, notably
those held from 1945 to 1947 in Paris,
London, and Moscow.
He attended the conferences at Dumbarton Oaks and San Francisco
at which the United Nations was founded. As Counselor of the Department of
State he attended the San Francisco
conference on the Japanese Peace Treaty. He has served in Czechoslovakia, the
and the Philippines.
His last three overseas assignments have been as Ambassador in Moscow, Manila,
and, since October 1962, Paris.
In 1960 Ambassador Bohlen was promoted to Career Ambassador, the highest rank
in the Foreign Service.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this
document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression,
academic environment of Air University.
They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of
Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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