Reappraising NATO, 1956 style

  • Themes: NATO

Debates in 1956, triggered by British attempts to reappraise NATO strategy in Europe, echo in the present.

Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden at Victoria Station in London to meet Marshal Nikolai Bulganin (left), chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR, and Nikita Krushchev, First Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party.
Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden at Victoria Station in London to meet Marshal Nikolai Bulganin (left), chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR, and Nikita Krushchev, First Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

NATO is in the news, and not just because it marked its 75th birthday on 4 April. On the one hand, commentators approve the way in which the crisis provoked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has administered a shot in the arm to an organisation that President Macron, as recently as 2019, described as experiencing brain death. Putin may have thought NATO would roll over in the face of his latest aggression, but instead it has gained two new members and a renewed sense of purpose. On the other hand, the crisis has exposed perennial tensions between members regarding relative levels of contribution, and stimulated alarm that the winner of the US presidential election in November might be someone who has no intention of observing NATO’s collective security provisions, and might even withdraw America from the organisation altogether. The perceived potential Russian threat to some of NATO’s members has also revealed serious problems of logistics, armaments supply and manpower.

Working on British policy in 1956, I am struck by the resonance in 2024 of discussions on ‘NATO Reappraisal’ that took place nearly 70 years ago. Several months before Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company, the British government began strenuous efforts to persuade the US and other NATO members of the need to ‘reappraise’ force allocations in Europe, and to redraft the existing NATO Directive to reflect an evolving international situation. Prime Minister Anthony Eden, who spearheaded the campaign, argued that the threat of major Soviet aggression on the European continent using conventional weapons had receded. Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in February 1956, followed by a (relatively) amicable visit to the UK by Khrushchev and Bulganin in April and the announcement of a degree of Soviet demobilisation, suggested that the risk of a major conflict using conventional weapons had diminished significantly. The existence of thermonuclear weapons (Soviet tests of a hydrogen bomb were announced in March and April) would undoubtedly change the character of any future conflict, thereby lessening the need for large conventional forces stationed in Europe.

These developments were, Eden insisted, game-changers. NATO should be laying greater emphasis on economic propaganda, countering Soviet efforts, and less on military strength; nuclear weapons would be the defence of last resort in case of major conflict. Public opinion, he asserted, would lose confidence in the alliance if it failed to move with the times. Eden and his colleagues were not impressed with the results of the meeting of the North Atlantic Council on 5 May, which focused on non-military cooperation, appointing ‘Three Wise Men’ (the foreign ministers of Canada, Italy and Norway) to prepare a report by the end of the year on ways of encouraging broader political consultation in NATO to ‘reinforce unity and cohesion’ – an idea that suited the US as it diverted attention from their own defence arrangements, and smaller countries who saw a rare opportunity to make their voices heard within NATO. No one seemed to be much interested in ‘reappraising’ NATO militarily.

Eden, together with Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd, embarked on a campaign to persuade NATO members (and most of all to the US) that urgent reappraisal was essential to avoid the Alliance disintegrating through its failure to adapt to an evolving situation. The ministerial Policy Review Committee was set up at Eden’s instigation in early May. It considered adjustments to British defence policy in view of ‘changes in the methods, if not the objectives of the Soviet Union,’ and sought to draft proposals to be presented initially to the Americans, in the hope that they would support the idea of convening an early meeting of the North Atlantic Council to discuss them. The problem was, according to a memorandum presented to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles on 15 June, one of great urgency: ‘Nothing would be more calculated to evoke popular support for NATO than evidence that it has sufficient imagination and elasticity to recast its policies rapidly in order to confront the new situation.’

Unfortunately, fine words butter no parsnips, to recall an ancient English phrase. Neither the Americans nor other NATO members to whom these ideas were floated in the early summer of 1956 believed that they were based, as British ministers insisted, on an objective assessment of the situation and a genuine desire to improve collective security. They suspected, rightly, that the parlous state of the British economy was the principal motivation behind the campaign for NATO reappraisal. Taking up his post as chancellor at the beginning of the 1956, Harold Macmillan had been appalled by the financial data and told the Cabinet they must find £100m in savings. Ministers nodded solemnly, but each produced reasons why their own department could not find the money. Cut social services? Very unpopular with the public. Increase the cost of school meals? Even worse. Reduce military expenditure? Good idea – it offers the greatest immediate relief to the economy and the PM insists the threat level is low. Ministers particularly liked the idea of cutting the number of British divisions in West Germany from four to two. As West Germany grew increasingly prosperous, they found it galling that Britain should be bankrupting itself for the sake of a country that lost the war, but was now overtaking them in economic growth and trade while resisting demands to increase its contribution to support costs. These ideas fed into anti-European sentiment, already provoked by the burgeoning plans for economic integration from which the British government had determined to distance itself. Even if Eden and at least some of his colleagues believed genuinely that NATO needed to adapt to changing circumstances, the real aims of the reappraisal campaign were to plug a major hole in the British economy, to transfer the principal burden of continental defence to the United States, and to make sure that European countries – particularly West Germany – paid more.

NATO powers, including the US, were also interested in collective security, the level of the Soviet threat and the development of the hydrogen bomb. Yet they had their own policy priorities, political difficulties and economic woes, to which British ministers paid virtually no attention. They assumed – not for the first, nor last time – that their ‘closest partner’, the United States, would both embrace their arguments and provide the necessary financial and military support. The cautious, if not actively discouraging response to the British proposals by Dulles and Eisenhower was ignored. In fact, American resources for nuclear and conventional weapons were under review: as Dulles explained to Roger Makins, the British ambassador, even the US could not sustain two military establishments, one for nuclear and one for conventional war. Congress was in a fractious mood about passing legislation on foreign aid. Most importantly – an imperative that Eden would brush aside several times in 1956, most damagingly over the Suez crisis – in a presidential election year the emphasis, as always, was to avoid any major foreign policy initiatives that would provoke Congressional opposition, unless guaranteed to reflect well on the incumbent. The fact that Eisenhower was in poor health and that his candidacy was uncertain made him, and his administration even more resistant to change.

British ministers also ignored the warnings of the UK Permanent Representative at NATO’s Paris headquarters, Sir Christopher Steel, that any proposals to re-examine NATO strategy would undoubtedly be opposed by the Supreme Allied Commander of Europe, General Gruenther, who was wedded to the current military directive and considered that ‘any fundamental change now would fatally undermine the will of the smaller Powers to raise the forces to defend themselves’. Gruenther had a lot of influence in the Pentagon, warned Steel, and unless British plans were ‘squared at the highest US level’ the UK would be accused of wrecking NATO. Indeed, when he learned about the British proposals, Gruenther threatened that any attempt to force the issue might push the US towards what he called the ‘B-52 strategy’: the Americans would withdraw from Europe altogether and defend the US from their own soil. If the British wanted to save money, he suggested, they might cut back on their atomic weapons programme. Writing to his colleague, Harold Caccia, Steel repeated the argument – so irritating to Americans – that, while Britain might not be a ‘colossus’ like the US, it was a ‘world power’ with commitments ‘rather wider’ than those of the US, and which must be defended. In a sly dig at the late US entry into the Second World War, Steel noted that ‘inflexible’ constitutional arrangements meant that Britain could not rely on US help arriving when needed, so must have its own nuclear weapons: ‘We have no intention of being left in the saloon bar with the local badman when the Sheriff withdraws unless we have the old equaliser.’

Much of this was posturing on both sides (the Foreign Office’s Lord John Hope thought the Americans suspected the British of tempting them into isolationism ‘rather as one might tempt a reformed alcoholic by trying to get him tight again’). There were practical reasons for resisting early changes to NATO. As the US argued, there should be no question of withdrawing any forces from Europe until West German forces were available to replace them – Chancellor Adenauer was in the middle of delicate political negotiations over legislation to introduce conscription and increase rearmament. The Second World War had ended barely more than a decade before, and many West German politicians opposed rearmament, and certainly opposed conscription. Some even favoured withdrawal from NATO in order to reach an accommodation with Moscow. Any attempt to force the pace of NATO reappraisal could derail Adenauer’s plans and even threaten his position as chancellor. As Dulles told Makins, for both political and military reasons there must be a substantial German contingent integrated in NATO forces. The British timetable was unrealistic and their proposals too ‘spectacular’, creating the impression that a serious crisis existed in NATO where there was none. It was also important to reassure Adenauer that the US, in particular, intended to keep troops in Europe, and to remove suspicion that the British were ‘actuated primarily by their own economic motives’. The Chancellor was likely to retort that there was insufficient proof that the Soviet threat had abated, and that the proposed changes amounted to a complete reversal of what the Western Allies had been pressing him to do, implying the abandonment of NATO forward strategy.

The US and West Germany were not alone in their objections to the British ideas. Sir Gladwyn Jebb, the ambassador to Paris, worried that the French government – always nervous about changes that impacted German security – were unlikely to agree with the British proposals, especially if they had not been consulted in advance (as usual, both Americans and British were inclined to discount French views). Other countries whose borders were nearer to the Soviet bloc, like Norway, worried that any changes in NATO might both increase their vulnerability and involve them in extra commitments at a time when they, too, were hoping to reduce defence expenditure. Some wanted the whole issue thrashed out in the Western European Union, before NATO took any decisions. Despite these considerations, and continued attempts by Dulles and Gruenther to scare them off, British ministers kept up the pressure well into July. They ignored their own advisers, including the service chiefs, who warned of the dangers of reducing already inadequate defence levels: it is telling that on both the US and British sides, the impetus for discussions about NATO came from politicians, not the military.

Eden, spurred on by Macmillan, as chancellor, pressed ahead, writing on 18 July to Eisenhower, just out of hospital, to argue that reappraisal was both ‘necessary and urgent’. Eden conceded that a ‘shield’ of conventional forces in Europe remained essential, but insisted this was no longer the principal military protection. ‘Need it’, he asked, ‘be capable of fighting a major war?… Big decisions will be called for and maybe we shall have to take some risks if we are to carry our people with us and maintain public confidence in the Alliance.’ The response was a vague promise to talk about NATO in ‘mid-August’. The US was saved by the bell, or rather by Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company on 26 July. As the crisis kicked in, with high-level consultations, international meetings and increasing Anglo-American friction, British ministers had to accept that any discussion of NATO reappraisal must be delayed. Gruenther’s suggestion on 7 August that the British might like to draft a new NATO politico-military directive for discussion later in the year, was met with a sense of relief (though some European countries, where British proposals had stirred up a hornets’ nest, wanted now to get on with discussions). Suez took precedence, and after the end of October international relations were dominated by the shock of the Israeli attack on Egypt and the ensuing Anglo-French invasion, plus the Soviet invasion of Hungary.

It is commonplace to assert that Anglo-American relations were damaged badly by the ill-fated Anglo-French expedition and the humiliating withdrawal of their forces enforced by Washington. It is certainly true that Eisenhower and Dulles were exasperated at what they saw as an ill-timed and badly-executed operation in which the British persisted despite repeated warnings, right at the peak of the presidential election. The relationship was shaken rather than stirred. When the North Atlantic Council finally met in December, discussion of reappraisal was detailed and business-like, the British and Americans having reached a compromise at a pre-meeting. The final communiqué stated that the council had discussed frankly the problems confronting the Alliance and decided they would be worked out by ‘continuous consultation’ in the months ahead.

There is no doubt the British attempt in 1956 to push through proposals for NATO reappraisal, largely for their own economic reasons, looks both clumsy and cloth-eared. There is, however, more beneath the surface of this episode that strikes a chord in 2024. US resistance to British pressure, though understandable in the light of political sensitivity and timing, was also rooted in the belief that US decisions on American defence and force allocation would always trump those of NATO. One reason why smaller NATO members were keen to support the Three Wise Men initiative was the difficulty of making their voices heard: the US was always determined to retain the freedom to act as it saw fit, if necessary without consulting NATO. They could not prevent this, but hoped wider political consultation might help. This applied particularly to NATO members whose geography made them more vulnerable to the Soviet bloc. West Germany, a new (1955) NATO member, was particularly concerned about its defence. For the British, though economics drove the reappraisal initiative, there was genuine concern about American intentions in Europe, particularly in relation to nuclear weapons: despite a degree of Anglo-American atomic collaboration, the US restricted access to its technology and weapons as it saw fit, resisting any idea of cooperation with France, for example. The centrality of the transatlantic relationship to Britain made it difficult to foster closer defence coordination with European nations.

1956 was not all about Suez, nor the Soviet suppression of riots in Poland and the Hungarian uprising. It was also a time of deep international instability, in which the development of new (and frightening) weapons posed both opportunities and threats. The received military wisdom was that the Soviet Union did not want, and was not ready for war against NATO. Nobody could be sure about that, and the balance between NATO members’ domestic and foreign policy was difficult for all of them to maintain. Eden asked Eisenhower whether the conventional weapons ‘shield’ needed to be capable of fighting a major war; the question of whether it was capable did not receive an answer, either.


Gill Bennett