From the Archives: Locating NATO’s ‘Surreal’ Mission

From the Archives is a new regular feature on Defence-in-Depth. Archives are the lifeblood of historians. Papers, correspondence, diaries and journals constitute the primary material on which historical analysis is based. This feature is designed to fulfill two objectives. Our authors have selected an archive that has yielded an important find and will explain how this document has been used to create history. The juiciest documents are often found in difficult to reach places, and our authors will also comment on the trials and tribulations of accessing their archives.


In 1954 the North Atlantic Council approved the Military Committee’s new strategic planning document, MC 48, ‘The Most Effective Pattern of NATO Military Strength for the Next Few Years’. The defensive concept outlined in the paper tied irrevocably NATO ground forces to the first use of tactical nuclear weapons to arrest a Soviet ground offensive on the European Central Front. The plan was absurd. A tactical nuclear war in Europe would have resulted in unprecedented destruction, devoid of any political benefits, and would have obliterated the territory and peoples the alliance sought to defend. It was a surreal mission, Strangelovian in its conception.

The notion of a tactical nuclear land war in Europe has always fascinated and horrified me in equal measures. In reading around the subject I had become increasingly disenchanted with the mainstream accounts of how and why NATO arrived at such a bizarre military plan. Indeed, there appeared to be no explanation outlining the planning-processes and underlying conceptual rationales that resulted in the infamous MC 48 document. So, last year, I decided to get to the bottom of it and knew that this would require going to the very heart of the alliance itself, to its archives at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

Having been approved access to the archive, which is determined through the submission of an online application form, I arrived at the headquarters a few weeks later. I was greeted by one of the helpful archivists and escorted to the comfortable reading room, which to my interest and delight, was furnished with the contents from the old office of NATO’s first Secretary General, Lord Ismay. Perusing the catalogue, at Ismay’s erstwhile writing desk, I discovered that it was not as user-friendly as other comparable institutions, such as the UK National Archives. The extensive collection covers many aspects of NATO military planning during the early years of the alliance, yet after an afternoon of orienteering I had finally identified the files with which I was interested.

My starting point in my quest to find the conceptual origins of the surreal mission was the records of the top-level defence debates of the North Atlantic Council (catalogue reference: CR). At first glance, the files appeared to contain little more than summary records of policy discussions held by the Council and the principal conclusions arrived at. This shed little light on the matter as I could only find veiled comments about the adoption of ‘new defensive concepts’, ‘future weapons’, and a ‘new look’ ground force. I delved a little deeper, however, and discovered verbatim reports of multi-lateral defence discussions between national military chiefs (AC/100). This seam of documents was much more revealing and showed how vested interests and partisan strategies influenced wider NATO policy. Here I found the private battles of national military chiefs as they advertised competing strategies and operational concepts in an attempt to attract customers in NATO’s market for strategic ideas. What became clear was that the ‘winners’ of these intellectual struggles were granted increased influence over the conceptual elements of the work carried out by the Military Committee, the papers of which I now turned my attention.

The records of the Military Committee (MC) provide a detailed account of how the development of strategic concepts were approached and executed, including MC 48, on a multi-national level. My real interest in these files was that I was able to trace the evolution of a strategy document from its inception, through the multitude of written drafts, to its final incarnation. This allowed me to assess exactly which organisations, individuals, and other NATO departments, influenced the crafting of the strategy. For me, what was rescinded, re-worded, omitted, appended, or revised, was just as important as the material contained in the final version of the document, perhaps more so. What struck me immediately was that it was US representatives who were the most vocal, and who appeared to carry the most influence. As NATO’s most powerful member, this was not surprising, and the American guidance in the writing of MC 48 was clear.

This confirmed my long-held suspicions that since NATO’s highest ranking military officer, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, had by statute to be an American, then the adoption by NATO of a nuclear posture in 1954 was merely the extension of US national defence policy during this time, which was built on the premise of massive retaliation with nuclear weapons. I knew already that the records of the work produced by Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe was classified to the public, but I took the opportunity to see whether I could consult adjacent documents to judge the extent to which the Supreme Commander, through his military representatives lobbied the Military Committee to bring its strategic concepts in line with that of US policy. I was largely successful in this by consulting the documents of the Military Representatives Committee (MRC), the Permanent Representatives (PO), and the Standing Group (SGM). Although there remained a number of unknowns, I was able to piece together a broad picture of the influence of American concepts on alliance strategy.

I left the archives a couple of weeks later with much greater insight into the origins of MC 48 and the NATO plan to fight a tactical nuclear war in Europe. I arrived at the conclusion that in attempting to enhance political cohesion within the burgeoning alliance NATO members acquiesced to American leadership on nuclear issues and accepted a strategy that, while militarily unviable, brought the US into the fold and reassured nervous members of American commitment to the defence of Western Europe.

The research I conducted at the NATO archives contributed to an upcoming article, ‘Enhancing Political Cohesion in NATO or: How it Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tactical Bomb’.

Image: Cadets from the Chard School, Somerset Army Cadet Force being shown the Douglas Aircraft MGR 1 Honest John free flight rocket at the School of Artillery, Larkhill. This American built artillery missile continued in service with the British Army until 1975. (IWM R 13775)

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