in: IMI/DFG-VK: Kein Frieden mit der NATO

The NATO 1949-91: brief review of a belligerent history

von: Joachim Guilliard | Veröffentlicht am: 3. Januar 2009


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This is an english translation of an article in the german brochure „Kein Frieden mit der NATO“:

NATO presents itself as a defensive alliance. When it was founded 60 years ago, however, it had no enemies. Even the US Joint Intelligence Staff concluded, in a study dated 6 January 1945, that the Soviet Union had neither the capacity nor the will to confront the United States and its allies but had to focus on reconstruction and on safeguarding its sphere of influence and would do its utmost to avoid any post-war international conflict.[1]

The United States and its allies, however, were aware that they comprised only a small percentage of the global population but possessed the bulk of the world’s riches. The task was now “to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security”, as George F. Kennan, the theorist of the containment policy towards the Soviet Union, In US State Department Policy Planning Study No 23.[2]


As a result of two devastating world wars waged between the imperialist powers, the part of the world to which they had direct access was greatly reduced in size. The joint aim of all capitalist states was therefore to recover control of those areas which, after the First World War (Russia) and after the Second World War (Central and Eastern Europe and China), had struck out along a non-capitalist path. To that end, the forces of capitalism had to pull together. Since the United States had achieved a position of unassailable dominance, a transatlantic alliance could be established under US leadership to ensure close cooperation among the imperialist states and to keep the lid on rivalries within the imperialist camp. For the United States, NATO was the instrument with which it could enforce its hegemony in the Western world; through voluntary subjugation, the weakened European powers secured support in the assertion of their interests vis-à-vis the Eastern bloc and the African and Asian countries that were struggling for their independence.

During the Second World War, the United States had already devised ambitious plans to secure strategic control of the world economy and, to that end, had drafted a blueprint that became known as ‘grand area planning’. This blueprint contained prescripts as to which regions of the world had to be kept ‘open’ – open for investments and for access to natural resources – and on the way in which financial institutions and financial planning had to be organised.

The main obstacles to these plans were the Soviet Union and China. Encapsulated in the term ‘roll-back’ was a concerted political and military effort to repulse ‘aggressive communism’. This effort began in the United States’ own hemisphere with the military campaign against the left-wing Popular Front in Greece and the framing of plans for coups designed to prevent Communist Parties from taking power in countries such as France or Italy. Indeed, safeguarding the prevailing capitalist order within its own territory was to become one of NATO’s main functions.[3] From June 1950, nine months after the founding of NATO, all of its member countries at that time except Iceland and Portugal fought on the US side in the Korean War.

Planning for nuclear war

Only a fortnight after the end of the Second World War, the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US armed forces issued a memorandum in which they insisted that the United States should on no account wait for the Soviet Union to strike but must strike first before it was attacked.[4] Throughout the entire period of the Cold War, this remained the leitmotif of all military planning directed against the USSR, and this basis of all US strategies was largely adopted by NATO. In the following years, the confrontation course was consolidated by means of savage offensive plans such as Totality (Directive JIC 329, 1945), Broiler (1947), Halfmoon (1948) and Dropshot (1949). Each successive plan provided for the destruction of a greater number of Soviet population centres by atom bombs.[5]

After the first Soviet atomic test in 1949, the United States developed the strategy of ‘massive retaliation’. Even limited conventional attacks on a US ally were to be met with a nuclear strike. NATO adopted that strategy in 1952. Once the Soviet Union had established strategic parity in 1954 by deploying its own intercontinental atomic missiles, the United States began to deploy in Western Europe short- and medium-range missiles which could carry nuclear warheads and reach the territory of the Eastern bloc. The rearmed Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) also became a member of NATO. In response, the Soviet Union founded the Warsaw Pact military alliance in 1955 and also equipped its forces deployed in Eastern Europe with atomic weapons. In 1958, NATO decided to incorporate the American atomic bombs into its military strategies, although the decision to use them remained the sole prerogative of the United States.

Once the Soviet Union had just about drawn level in the realm of nuclear arms, massive retaliation became inappropriate, because it could now turn a limited local war into a global war of extermination. In view of the long-term consequences of nuclear warfare, massive retaliation would no longer have been politically tenable either. For that reason, massive retaliation was replaced in 1967 by the strategy of ‘flexible response’, which provided for a staged approach involving conventional weapons, tactical nuclear weapons and intercontinental nuclear missiles. It was thought that this strategy could limit a war against the Warsaw Pact countries geographically and in terms of the choice of weapons. This strategy, which continued to apply, with modifications as regards the role of nuclear weapons, until 1991also included the option of a nuclear first strike.

Contrary to the constant propaganda about a Soviet threat, the NATO countries were always militarily far superior to those of the Warsaw Pact, enjoying clear supremacy in every branch of the armed forces, at least in terms of quality.[6] Nevertheless, the second-strike capability of the Soviet Union remained irrefutable, despite all the efforts to out-arm it. In view of the nuclear stalemate, however, the immense arsenal of strategic nuclear weapons had largely become politically worthless. Since their use in limited conventional conflicts was entirely disproportionate and far too risky, they scarcely constituted a plausible threat. They could do little to back up the assertion of foreign-policy interests.

Accordingly, from the 1970s onwards, the United States stepped up its efforts to make nuclear warfare wageable and winnable again, encouraged by the newly developed intermediate-range missiles, which could guide nuclear bombs accurately to military targets and command bunkers. On the basis of these weapon systems, the United States switched to a strategy of ‘decapitating’ the Soviet Union, in other words eliminating its political and military leaders. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed Presidential Directive 59, which formulated a ‘countervailing strategy’ with the aim of being able to wage a nuclear war below the level of an all-out exchange and to win it.[7] In addition, an article entitled Victory is possible appeared in the summer of that year in which Pentagon adviser Colin S. Gray described a surprise nuclear attack by the United States designed to take out the political and military leadership of the Soviet Union as a necessary ‘option’ and even suggested that 20 million US casualties would be an acceptable price to pay. President Ronald Reagan officially adopted that strategy and made its author his chief military adviser.[8]

At the heart of the refined plan of attack were the Pershing II and cruise missiles which were deployed in Western Europe as a consequence of NATO’s ‘two-track’ INF decision of December 1979. The official reason given for the NATO decision was the threat from the new Soviet SS-20 missiles. As Colin S. Gray confirmed in Air Force Magazine in 1982, however, the 108 Pershing IIs and the 464 ground-based cruise missiles were actually part of the decapitation strategy.[9]

Air-Land Battle and Follow-On Forces Attack

Parallel to the nuclear war planning, the NATO countries’ conventional strategy was also realigned, moving away from ‘forward defence’ right at the borders with the Warsaw Pact towards offensives reaching far into enemy territory. This was first formulated in 1982 in the Air-Land Battle doctrine of the US Army and became even more prominent in the context of long-term plans such as Air-Land Battle 2000. Both of these were espoused by the Bundeswehr.[10] In the Alliance framework, the NATO Defence Committee adopted the almost identical concept of “Follow-on Forces Attack”, in which attacks extending up to 500km into Soviet territory were envisaged.[11]

These military plans were closely linked with the concept of ‘horizontal escalation’, which was a key component of flexible response. Horizontal escalation meant the threat to ‘retaliate’ for political or military intervention by the Soviet Union in a local conflict – in the Persian Gulf, for example – by attacking vulnerable parts of the Warsaw Pact.[12] As Meinhard Glanz, then Army Chief of Staff of the Bundeswehr, and his US counterpart, Edward C. Meyer, stated in 1982 in explanation of the jointly devised Air-Land Battle 2000 strategy, it was not focused solely on conflict with the Soviet Union but also had to do with policing the rest of the world. The up-and-coming countries of the Third World were creating a greater imbalance of forces. These nations could make common cause with hostile states and resort to terrorism, blackmail or limited warfare in order to obtain an equal share of resources.[13] This was the purpose of the network of military bases that was created in the NATO framework, with its centre of gravity in the FRG. From the outset it also served as a platform for wars against the African and Asian nations that were struggling liberation. NATO lent support, including active support, to the United States in its wars against Korea and Vietnam and to Portugal in Angola and Mozambique.

NATO’s openly warmongering policy that it began to adopt in 1990 does not therefore signal a change of course from a defensive alliance to an aggressive alliance, as is often claimed. The collapse of the Soviet Union merely gave the members of NATO a free hand to pursue a policy to which they have adhered ever since the Alliance was founded.


[1] Memorandum of the Joint Intelligence Staff, Capabilities and Intentions of the USSR in the Post-War Period, JIS 80/2, January 6, 1945, National Archives, Washington D.C. (as cited by Lühr Henken in ‘Die NATO im Kalten Krieg – Verteidigungs- oder Angriffsbündnis’, contribution to the Kassel Peace Council (Kasseler Friedensratschlag), 2 December 2008)

[2] George F. Kennan, ‘Review of Current Trends in U.S. Foreign Policy’, Policy Planning Study No 23, in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1948, Vol. I, dated 24 February 1948, pp. 509-529

[3] This was the reason for the creation of mechanisms such as Gladio, a secret paramilitary organisation operated through NATO for the purpose of conducting guerrilla operations after a communist seizure of power in Western Europe. Parts of that organisation, which existed from 1950 until at least 1990, committed systematic targeted acts of terrorism in various European countries with the connivance of government bodies. See Daniele Ganser, NATO’s Secret Armies: Operation Gladio and Terrorism in Western Europe, London, 2005

[4] Joint Chiefs of Staff, ‘Basis for the Formulation of a U.S. Military Policy’, JCS 1492/2, September 9, 1945, printed in U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1946, Vol. I, Washington D.C.

[5] See Heinrich Hannover, ‘Befreiung auf amerikanisch’, in Ossietzky, special issue, March 2004 (Source: Jürgen Bruhn, Der kalte Krieg oder: Die Totrüstung der Sowjetunion. Giessen, 1995)

[6] See Lühr Henken, ‘Die NATO im Kalten Krieg – Verteidigungs- oder Angriffsbündnis’, contribution to the Kassel Peace Council (Kasseler Friedensratschlag), 2 December 2008)

[7] Matthew M. Oyos, ‘Jimmy Carter and SALT II: The Path to Frustration’ in American Diplomacy, 12/1996

[8] Colin S. Gray and Keith Payne, ‘Victory is Possible’, in Foreign Policy, Summer 1980, pp. 14-27

[9] Till Bastian (ed.), Ärzte gegen den Atomkrieg. Wir werden Euch nicht helfen können. Pabel-Moewig Verlag, Rastatt, 1987, p. 9 (see IPPNW-Chronik 1982)

[10] Bjørn Møller, ‘Wider die Offensive – Vorschläge für eine defensive Sicherheitsstruktur in Europa’, in Wissenschaft & Frieden (W&F), No 3/98
Ludwig Weigl, Strategische Einsatzplanungen der NATO, Dissertation presented to the Bundeswehr University, Munich, September 2005

[11] Bernard W. Rogers, ‘Greater Flexibility For NATO’s Flexible Response’, in Strategic Review, XI (Spring 1983), pp. 11-19

[12] Wilhelm Bittorf, ‘Der Schlieffen-Plan des Pentagon’, in Gewerkschaftliche Monatshefte, 9/83

[13] Clemens Ronnefeldt, ‘Wieder einmal Blut für Öl’, in Friedensforum 1/2002