35+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

NATO's Original Purpose: Double Containment of the Soviet Union and "Resurgent" Germany

Secretary of State Dean G. Acheson. He was a key figure in the creation of the North Atlantic alliance and the effort to bring West Germany into a Western European community. (Photo taken at Acheson’s office in 1950, from collection of Harry S. Truman Library, accession number 85-63).

Published: Dec 11, 2018
Briefing Book #652

Edited by William Burr

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

French Told U.S. that West Germany Could Join NATO as Long as There Was “No Independent Wehrmacht”

State Department Intelligence Saw NATO as a “Place” to Help West Germany “Satisfy its Reasonable Aspirations and Contain any Potential Unreasonable Ones”


Washington, D.C., December 11, 2018 – In the Fall  of 1966, as part of an ongoing debate about the U.S. troop presence in Western Europe and the role of NATO during the Cold War, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara sent an illuminating memo to President Lyndon B. Johnson to explain the political reasons for keeping U.S. troops in Europe.  The rationales, he wrote, were to maintain NATO’s “cohesion,” to prevent Soviet “political blackmail,” to deter “any bilateral Soviet-FRG [Federal Republic of Germany] security agreement,” and to discourage “the revival of German militarism,” according to a collection of previously classified documents published today for the first time by the National Security Archive, 

Against the current backdrop of discussions at the top levels of the U.S. government over security guarantees in Europe , McNamara’s  memo and a selection of other declassified U.S. documentation posted today by the National Security Archive provide historical context for decades of U.S. policy toward Europe and more specifically the functions of NATO and the relationship between Germany and European security.  Since the formation of the North Atlantic alliance in the early years of the Cold War and the decision to keep U.S. troops in Europe, U.S. policymakers have generally seen those commitments as critical to both U.S. and European security.

With World War II then only two decades past, concern that a West Germany unmoored from alliance relations could turn revanchist or make deals with the Soviet Union remained in the thinking of top American policymakers.  Declassified documents in today’s Web posting demonstrate how the United States and its allies established NATO partly to reassure France about Germany. The allies then brought West Germany into the alliance as a deterrent against the Soviet Union but also to ensure that it did not develop independent military forces. During the 1960s State Department intelligence analysts described that arrangement as a means to “contain” the West German state so that it developed in harmonious association with former adversaries and avoided militarism or security arrangements with the Soviet Union.

Today’s configurations of power are different:  The Soviet Union no longer exists, Germany is united, and several former Warsaw Pact states have joined NATO.  Few see Germany as a potential aggressor, although unease about German economic power is common. In short, the old formulation attributed to NATO's first secretary general, Lord Ismay, is substantially outdated: “Keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”

Yet, the international situation is in some ways reminiscent of the Cold War years, with U.S.-Russian relations tense and Moscow hostile to NATO.  With rightwing nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment attracting greater support, new elements of instability have emerged in Western Europe. If outside political pressures intensify, Western European concern about U.S. security guarantees could lead NATO's European members to explore other options, including a larger relative role for themselves.


Origins of Double Containment

Nazi Germany’s unprecedented criminal violation of international norms starting in the 1930s prompted the members of the Grand Alliance to impose constraints that would “permanently and pre-emptively retard a third effort to achieve European hegemony.” Immediately after World War II, U.S., British, French, and Soviet policy aimed at demilitarizing Germany for good.  In the context of emerging Cold War tensions, Western European states signed the Brussels Treaty, partly to constrain German power. Washington and its European allies also negotiated the North Atlantic Treaty to offer security guarantees against potential aggression not only from the Soviet Union but also German revanchism.  To assure German assistance for Western European recovery the U.S. and its allies helped create a West German state organized on a politically decentralized basis.  The Soviet blockade of West Berlin during 1948-1949 failed to prevent the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949.[1]

As far as U.S. policy was concerned, the NATO alliance that developed during the Cold War was partly a means to integrate Germany into the West so that it could never again become a menacing independent power, much less a neutral one that could play off East against West or develop an entente with Russia.  Also operating as a “countervailing power” or a tacit constraint on the exercise of German power was the presence of U.S., British, and French troops in West Germany and Soviet forces in East Germany.[2] 

The goal of demilitarization faded as Cold War tensions intensified during the Korean War. Washington sought a West German military contribution to NATO but under arrangements that would prevent the new West German state from having autonomous military power.  A proposal to do so, the proposed European Defense Community, failed, but the United States and its allies quickly agreed to a plan supported by the British and the French: West German admission into NATO under controlled conditions.

Thus, as a result of decisions made by the Nine-Power Conference in September 1954, West Germany joined the alliance in 1955 with its armed forces under the authority of NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR).  The same arrangement applied to other continental European members of NATO, but the British and French supported it specifically to constrain the West German military. Further, as a step toward joining NATO, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer renounced West German production of atomic, biological, and chemical weapons. To monitor military production, the Nine-Power agreement created a special arms control agency within the Western European Union.[3]

French support for bringing West Germany into NATO partly depended on British and U.S. commitments to keep troops in Western Europe. Both Washington and London made such guarantees during the Nine-Power Conference, with Eisenhower later announcing a virtually unlimited commitment to keep a “fair share of the forces needed for the joint defense of the North Atlantic area while a threat to that area exists.” But that promise and West German membership in NATO was only part of the story of the effort to bringing the Federal Republic into a broader community of interest.  Seeing an integrated Western Europe as essential to developing healthy relations between West Germany and its neighbors – France in particular – Washington supported the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community in the early 1950s and the European Economic Community in the late 1950s and beyond.

By the 1960s, as they watched Bonn become a constructive member of the European and international community, U.S. officials took for granted the constraints on West German power that they had developed during the late 1940s and the 1950s.  To explain U.S. policy toward Bonn, State Department intelligence analysts used the language of “containment.”  Thus, a State Department INR report referred to “NATO’s function of containing West German strength and predominance on the continent.” Ideas about “containing” the Germans presaged the “double containment” thesis of German political scientist Wolfram Hanrieder, who argued that during the decades after World War II and beyond the United States sought to contain the Soviet Union “at arm’s length” and West Germany “with an embrace.”[4]

As implied by Hanrieder’s tongue-in-cheek use of “embrace,” tensions and suspicions between Washington and Bonn were seldom far from the surface. Thus, during the 1960s U.S.-West German relations were strained over offset payments supporting the cost of U.S. troop deployments and when Washington sought Bonn’s support for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. After Richard Nixon became president in 1969, he and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, were deeply suspicious that Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik might end up bringing West Germany to close to the Soviet bloc. Later in the 1970s, West German apprehensions about the direction of U.S. nuclear policy had an important impact on the Carter administration’s support for deployments of Pershing II and ground launched cruise missiles in NATO Europe.  And during the Euro-missile crisis of the late 1970s and early 1980s, broad swaths of West German opinion feared that Washington might launch a nuclear war that could destroy the Federal Republic.[5]

When the Cold War ended and German unification was achieved in 1990, the constraints developed by the Nine-Power Conference remained in place. Without controls over German armed forces, the Soviet Union would not have acquiesced in unified Germany’s option to join NATO. The Two plus Four Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany, signed on 12 September 1990, included built-in limitations on German power. Specifically, Article 3, Section 2, put a ceiling on levels of German armed forces. Moreover, the Treaty continued the arms control limitations of the Nine-Power agreement by prohibiting German manufacture of ABC weapons, but also their “possession and control.” While not mentioned in the Treaty, SACEUR controls over NATO forces deployed on the continent applied to a unified Germany as they had to West Germany.[6]

On French insistence the deal-making over German unification also involved the deepening of European integration to bind the Berlin republic into European institutions. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl readily agreed, but also sought to ensure that the new arrangements comported with German financial policy. Thus, Kohl played a central role in the 1992 negotiation of the Maastricht Treaty that created the Common Foreign and Security Policy and the European Monetary Union, and ultimately the Euro. Another step toward integration was the creation of the Eurocorps, initially based on a French-German brigade. This involved tensions with Washington, which saw it as a potential threat to the central role of NATO for European security, but the French and Germans mitigated the problem by agreeing that in the event of a war the Eurocorps would report to SACEUR.[7]


Contemporary Strains in NATO and Europe

Nearly 30 years since Two Plus Four, the multinational arrangements created after World War II are in duress. Serious structural flaws in European Union financial policy have weakened public support for the EU.  Right-wing nationalist forces have made political gains by attacking the EU and immigrants. Brexit is one example; another is the Alternative for Germany, which plays down the horrors of the 1930s and World War II, with some members denying the Holocaust. 

Meanwhile, U.S.-West German ties have been weakened by White House criticisms of Chancellor Merkel and demands for higher German financial contributions to NATO. Questions have been raised in Washington about the validity of U.S. security guarantees to Europe.  The prospect of U.S.-European trade wars also threatens to undermine trans-Atlantic political ties.  Broader U.S.-European tensions or the continuing growth of rightwing political forces on the continent could wind up encouraging France, Germany, and their neighbors to create a regional security arrangement, a concept that has widening appeal in some quarters, for better or worse. The future is unpredictable, but whichever direction events flow it is worth keeping in mind the range of issues, considerations, and complexities that went into creating a constructive relationship between Germany and its neighbors and allies after 1945.[8]


I. Guarantees Against German Resurgence


[1]. James Sperling, “Neither Hegemony Nor Dominance” Reconsidering German Power in Post- Cold-War Europe,” British Journal of Political Science 31 (2001): 418-419; Melvyn P. Leffler, The Struggle for Germany and the Origins of the Cold War (Washington, D.C.: The German Historical Institute, 1996).

[2]. Sperling, “Neither Hegemony nor Dominance,” at page 411 for “countervailing power.”

[3]. Ibid., 423.

[4]. Wolfram Hanrieder, Germany, America, Europe: Forty Years of German Foreign Policy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 6.

[5]. For a useful survey, see Frank Costigliola, “An 'Arm Around the Shoulder': The United States, NATO and German Reunification, 1989-90,” Contemporary European History 3 (1994), 92-95.

[6]. Sperling, “Neither Hegemony nor Dominance,” 423-424.

[7]. For helpful coverage of key issues, see Franz-Josef Meiers, “A Change of Course? German Foreign and Security Policy After Unification,” German Politics 11 (3), 195-216.

[8]. Marc Fisher, “Trump Thinks NATO is Just About Russia. It’s About Germany, Too, Washington Post, 13 July 2018 . See also Klaus Larres and Ruth Wittlinger, eds., “A Fragile Friendship: German-American Relations in the 21st Century,” German Politics 27 (2018), and Gunther Hellmann, “Germany’s Strategic Repositioning,” Lawfare, 14 October 2018.

[9]. This and the following four documents are cited in Leffler, The Struggle for Germany, as well as A Preponderance of Power: National Security, The Truman Administration, and the Cold War (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1992). For a different perspective on U.S. policy, see Carolyne Woods Eisenberg, Drawing the Line: The American Decision to Divide Germany (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[10]. See also Secretary of State Dean Acheson, “Meeting with the President: Item 2 The Position of Germany in the Defense of Europe,” 31 July 1950, Foreign Relations of the United States 1950, Volume III Western Europe (Washington, D.C., 1977). For McCloy’s role generally, see Thomas Schwartz. America's Germany: John J. McCloy and the Federal Republic of Germany (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991).

[11]. For the EDC debate and the Nine Power Conference, William Hitchcock, France Restored: Cold War Diplomacy and the Quest for Leadership in Europe, 1944-1954 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 190-202. See also Richard Immerman, John Foster Dulles: Piety, Pragmatism, and Power in U.S. Foreign Policy (Wilmington, DE: SR Books, 1998), 99-104.

[12]. Hitchcock, France Restored, 199.

[13]. For background, see Hitchcock, France Restored, 199-201, and Jean Lacoutre, Pierre Mendes-France (New York: Holmes & Meir, 1984). 277-282 and 320-327