After the establishment of the North Atlantic alliance in 1949, almost immediately two important organs for the running of NATO were set up under article 9 of the treaty: the North Atlantic Council and the Defense Committee. The first council meeting in September 1949 in Washington and the subsequent meetings in late 1949 and early 1950 decided that for the time being the organizational structure of the Brussels Treaty Organization was to be adopted for NATO's use. In addition, the establishment of a united command with a supreme commander and Council of Deputies was also agreed upon. The most important NATO institutions for the next few years were the five regional planning groups (including the Western European Regional Planning Group consisting of the five BTO nations); the Military Committee, consisting of the chiefs of staff of the member states with a standing group based in the Pentagon; and a general three-nation standing group of NATO's most crucial members, the United States, Britain, and France. Thus by 1950 a relatively well-integrated alliance structure was taking shape.
It was much more difficult, however, to design a strategic and military concept that would turn NATO from a paper tiger into a real collaborative transatlantic alliance. NATO's first strategic concept was adopted in January 1950, with the United States being mostly responsible for strategic bombing issues, the United Kingdom for naval warfare matters, and the continental Europeans for tactical air warfare issues and the provision of ground troops. However, differences soon surfaced regarding American ideas about the defense of Europe. During the first few years of NATO the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff were so pessimistic about the availability of Western military resources that the American defense plans for Europe essentially consisted of the withdrawal of U.S. troops to the Pyrenees and Britain. It was hoped that it might be possible to reconquer the continent at a later stage. Not surprisingly, the Europeans were less than impressed; they insisted on a defense of Europe at the Rhine or ideally at the Elbe. Thus, in May 1950 the Medium Term Defense Plan (MTDP) that took European sensitivities into account was agreed upon. Still, the plan was based largely on the optimistic prognosis that more than ninety divisions and eight thousand planes would be available by 1954. This was highly unrealistic but NATO essentially believed that no Soviet invasion was to be expected in the foreseeable future (1954 was regarded as the danger year). Further, it was assumed that the American atomic monopoly would provide immunity from attack, whatever the availability and readiness of Western conventional forces on the continent. There was great fear that any strenuous rearmament effort by the Europeans would irreparably damage the economic and social reconstruction of the continent.
The explosion of an atomic bomb by the Soviet Union in August 1949 undermined this confident belief in the American atomic umbrella. After all, the Western alliance had expected that Moscow would not be able to develop atomic weapons for a considerable number of years. Yet, much to the consternation of politicians in Washington, by mid-September firm scientific evidence was available that a Soviet explosion had indeed taken place. Britain was only able to embark on its first atomic test explosion in 1952, and it took France until 1960 to develop an atomic device. Although it was considered unlikely that the Soviet Union would be able to rival Washington's growing atomic arsenal for a significant period of time, the Truman administration decided to go ahead with the building of a hydrogen bomb.
In the course of 1950 the U.S. government began to doubt whether the resources allocated to the defense of the Western world were sufficient. The result was the controversial document NSC 68, which reflected the increasing militarization of the Cold War. Subsequently, Washington's belief in the necessity of making more radical efforts to rearm the countries of western Europe (including the new West German state) and to expand and modernize America's conventional and nuclear forces was strengthened by the out-break of war in Korea, which was regarded as another Western failure in Asia after the loss of China to the communists in 1949. In June 1950 communist North Korean forces invaded South Korea, the American protectorate. Parallels were drawn with the precarious position of divided Germany in Europe. It was clear that the envisaged MTDP program was grossly inadequate. Under the impact of the Korean War the huge American and allied rearmament program called for by NSC 68 was signed into law by President Truman. In addition, and despite strong French opposition during the Western head of government conference in September 1950 in Washington, the United States firmly insisted on the rearmament of the new West German state. West German forces as well as the territory of West Germany were needed for the forward defense of the European continent.
Eventually, a compromise was achieved by means of the Pleven Plan, which was based on the recently conceived European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) for the integration of the French and German coal and steel industries. Both plans were the brainchild of the influential French businessman and civil servant Jean Monnet. Instead of an independent German army, navy, air force, and general staff, French Prime Minister René Pleven proposed the creation of a multinational European army under the umbrella of a European Defense Community (EDC), which, as Acheson expressed it, would be closely "interlocked" with (and presumably subordinate to) NATO. Approximately ten German divisions would be integrated with other countries' forces at the regimental level to form mixed European divisions that would remain under the command of non-German EDC member states. To make the difficult task of rearming the Germans more palatable to West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who would face enormous domestic opposition, he was offered sovereignty for the Federal Republic as a reward. The EDC solution also envisaged the establishment of a European minister of defense, an assembly, and a council of ministers as well as a common defense budget. The persuasive skills of NATO's first allied supreme commander and World War II hero Dwight D. Eisenhower helped to convince the Truman administration that the EDC project was a sensible way of obtaining West German rearmament without antagonizing the other European countries too much. Fears of the reestablishment of Hitler's Wehrmacht were still widespread. Consequently, Washington regarded the realization of the EDC as of vital importance. It was believed that the European army would cement the Western alliance and lead to the establishment of lasting Franco-German friendship, thus strengthening NATO's coherence and preventing future European civil wars.
Although the EDC treaty was signed in May 1952, ratification was a difficult affair. President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who succeeded Truman and Acheson in January 1953, were unable to pressure Paris into ratifying the treaty. Ultimately, in the absence of Britain, which was prepared to cooperate with the EDC but not to join it, fear of German dominance of the EDC led the French parliament not to go ahead with the ratification of the EDC treaty in late August 1954. With the exception of the out-break of the Korean War, this was the most severe crisis of the Atlantic alliance to date. NATO was thrown into turmoil. Washington was particularly shocked. After all, the U.S. administration had hoped that the establishment of the EDC might enable Washington to reduce both its financial and troop commitments to Europe. Instead, the rearmament and sovereignty of the Federal Republic of Germany, as well as the European integration process and the coherence and military buildup of NATO, had to be reconsidered from scratch.
The British managed to come to the rescue. During two rapidly convened conferences in London and Paris in September and October 1954, and by way of an earlier whirlwind journey through the European capitals, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden was able to convince his partners to agree to West German membership in NATO on a nondiscriminatory basis. Eventually, French agreement was won after the negotiation of Bonn's prior admission to the Western European Union (WEU). This was the renamed Brussels Treaty Organization of 1948. By way of West German WEU membership, France and the other member states were to receive a veto over the rearmament and arms procurement activities of the Federal Republic. Eden had also announced during the London conference that despite British sovereignty concerns, his country would not withdraw its Rhine army and tactical air force based in West Germany without the agreement of its WEU partners. As long as U.S. troops remained on the continent, the British would also be prepared to make a European commitment. The "great debate" of 1951 in Washington between the administration and isolationists in Congress about further troop commitments in Europe had already resulted in the dispatch of four additional American divisions to Europe.
Thus, the WEU solution to control German rearmament and London and Washington's commitment to continue deploying troops on the European continent were decisive in persuading France to cease its opposition to West German membership in NATO. Both German rearmament and the unity of the Western alliance had been preserved. Yet the WEU never developed a life of its own. It is fair to say that the development of a European defense identity and a European pillar of NATO—as had been envisaged with the explicit agreement of the United States by means of the EDC—therefore did not commence before the 1980s and 1990s. With the exception of France and despite the occasional crisis in transatlantic security relations, throughout most of the Cold War the western Europeans placidly accepted American predominance in NATO and thus the buildup of the American empire. While Britain believed it could rely on the "special relationship" with the United States to maintain its influence, the West Germans, at the front line of the Cold War, felt too dependent on the American security umbrella to oppose this strongly. Only the French were prepared to challenge American hegemony in Europe.
At the Lisbon North Atlantic Council conference in February 1952, agreement had been reached on a substantial military and political reorganization of NATO. That structure was largely still in place in the early twenty-first century. With regard to the military organization of the alliance, most of the regional planning groups were abolished. Instead, the standing group of the Military Committee would oversee SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe), commanded by SACEUR (Supreme Allied Command Europe). An Atlantic command (Supreme Allied Command Atlantic, SACLANT) and an English Channel command were established on the same level of responsibility, which included planning issues. SHAPE, which was essentially modeled on the Brussels Treaty Organization headquarters near Paris and took over many of its administrative units, was clearly the most important command. It was subdivided into four geographical commands: Northern Europe, Central Europe, Southern Europe, and the Mediterranean. While the supreme commanders for Europe and the Atlantic were Americans, the Channel Command was headed by a Briton; all the command posts reported directly to the standing group in Washington. Unlike the failed European Defense Community, in NATO the vast majority of troops were national forces; NATO only mixed nationalities at the various command headquarters.
The Lisbon conference also approved a new political structure. A civilian secretary general (who would always be a European) was to be appointed. The secretary general was to be responsible to the Council of Ministers and in charge of an international secretariat that had responsibility for financial and economic planning and for military production issues. The Council of Deputies was to be replaced by permanent representatives at the ambassadorial level who assumed responsibility when the Council of Ministers was not sitting; their meetings would be chaired by the secretary general. Moreover, despite British protests it was decided to move NATO headquarters from London to outside Paris where it would be closer to SHAPE.
The conference also approved the first enlargement of NATO, which led to the admission of Greece and Turkey in 1952. Both countries were of great strategic importance to NATO's southern rim and contributed more than twenty-five valuable divisions. The western Europeans reiterated their willingness to make huge rearmament efforts in the conventional field so that ninety-six well-equipped divisions (including the West German contingents) would be available by 1954. However, economic and financial realities in western Europe would prevent the achievement of these ambitious and quite unrealistic military goals. With respect to domestic opinion and the obvious limits on the tax burden that could be imposed, no country was willing to adhere to the Lisbon goals.
Still, by 1955 NATO had already expanded its membership twice, had become a much more integrated military alliance with a clear political dimension, and had also seriously attempted to tackle its military weakness. However, it was still in no position to rival the forces at the disposal of the Soviet Union.