America, Europe, and German Rearmament, August-September 1950




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America, Europe, and German Rearmament, August-September 1950:

A Critique of a Myth


Marc Trachtenberg and Christopher Gehrz

In September 1950, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson met in New York with the British foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, and the French foreign minister, Robert Schuman. Acheson had an important announcement to make. The United States, he declared, was prepared to "take a step never before taken in history." The American government was willing to send "substantial forces" to Europe. The American combat force would be part of a collective force with a unified command structure, a force which would ultimately be capable of defending western Europe on the ground. But the Americans were willing to take that step only if the European allies, for their part, were prepared to do what was necessary to "make this defense of Europe a success." And his government, he said, had come to the conclusion that the whole effort could not succeed without a German military contribution. So if the NATO allies wanted the American troops, they would have to accept the idea of German rearmament--and they would have to accept it right away. The U.S. government, he insisted, needed to "have an answer now on the possible use of German forces" in the defense of western Europe.1

The position Acheson took at the New York Conference was of quite extraordinary historical importance. The American government was finally committing itself to building an effective defense of western Europe and to playing a central role in the military system that was to be set up. But the Americans were also trying to lay down the law to their European allies: the U.S. government wanted to force them to go along with a policy that made them very uneasy.

It was not, of course, that the Europeans disliked the whole package Acheson was now proposing. They knew that an effective defense of western Europe would have to be based on American power and therefore welcomed much of the American plan. The offer of a major American troop presence in Europe, the proposal to set up a strong NATO military system, the suggestion that an American general would be sent over as NATO commander--all this was in itself music to their ears. The problem lay with the final part of Acheson's proposal, the part relating to German rearmament, and even here the issue had more to do with timing than with ultimate objectives.

The allied governments were not against the very idea of German rearmament. Of all the NATO allies, the French were the most reluctant at this point to accede to Acheson's demands. But Schuman was not dead set against German rearmament as a matter of principle.2 He in fact now admitted that it was "illogical for us to defend Western Europe, including Germany, without contributions from Germany."3 The French government, he told Acheson, was "not irrevocably opposed to German participation" in the NATO army. Indeed, he thought it was likely that "some day" Germany would join the western defense force.4

The problem from Schuman's point of view was that Acheson wanted to move too quickly. The Americans were insisting on immediate and open acceptance of the principle of German rearmament. But Schuman could go along with the U.S. plan, he said, only if this were kept secret. It was politically impossible for him to accept the plan publicly at that point.5 Only a minority in France, he pointed out, appreciated "the importance of Germany in Western defense."6 The French public could probably be brought along and would ultimately accept the idea of a German defense contribution, but only if the West moved ahead more cautiously--only if a strong European defense system had been built up first.

Domestic politics was not the only reason why Schuman took this line. The east-west military balance was perhaps an even more fundamental factor. In late 1950 the western powers were just beginning to rearm. In military terms, they felt they could scarcely hold their own in a war with Russia. General Omar Bradley, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff [JCS], for example, thought in November 1950 that if war broke out, the United States might well lose. The Soviets, on the other hand, seemed to be getting ready for a war: the sense was that they were poised on the brink and might be tempted to strike before the West built up its power. In such circumstances, people like Schuman asked, was it wise to move ahead with the rearmament of Germany, something the Russians were bound to find highly provocative? Rather than risk war now, at a time of western weakness, didn't it make sense to put off the decision until after the West had rearmed itself and would thus be better able to withstand the shock?7

These were perfectly reasonable arguments, and were in fact supported by the U.S. government's own assessments of the risk of war with Russia at the time. The U.S. High Commissioner in Germany, John McCloy, thought, for example, in June 1950 that "the rearmament of Germany would undoubtedly speed up any Soviet schedule for any possible future action in Germany and would, no doubt, be regarded by [the Soviets] as sufficiently provocative to warrant extreme countermeasures."8 In December, the CIA concluded that the USSR would "seriously consider going to war whenever it becomes convinced that progress toward complete Western German rearmament," along with the rearmament of NATO as a whole, had reached the point where it could not be "arrested by other methods."9 It was of course possible that the Soviets might choose to live with a rearmed Germany, especially if there continued to be major limits on German power, but certain groups within the U.S. government--Army intelligence, for example--believed that if the West moved ahead in this area, it was more likely "that the Soviets would decide on resort to military action rather than make the required adjustment."10

So if even American officials were worried about what a decision to rearm Germany might lead to, it is not hard to understand why the Europeans, and especially the French, were so disturbed by the U.S. proposal. The NATO allies would have to accept the whole package, Acheson told them. They would have to agree, publicly and immediately, to the rearmament of Germany. They would have to go along with what they honestly viewed as a very provocative policy vis-à-vis Russia and risk war at a time when no effective defense was in place--either that, Acheson said, or the Americans would simply not defend them.

The fact that the U.S. government had chosen to deal so roughly with its allies had one very important effect: it helped bring France and Germany together. It helped bring about a certain change in perspective--a change in the way the Europeans viewed America and thus in the way they viewed each other. Up to this point, the French, for example, had tended to think of the policy of "building Europe" in essentially manipulative and instrumental terms. It was, to use Raymond Poidevin's phrase, a way "to seduce and to control" Germany.11 But now the idea was beginning to take hold that the Europeans--that is, the continental west Europeans--were all in the same boat in strategic terms. The Europeans had interests of their own--interests that overlapped with, but which were in important ways distinct from, those of the United States. The fact that the Americans could adopt a highly provocative policy toward Russia, with scant regard for European interests, meant that the Europeans could not afford to be too dependent on the United States. Yes, there had to be a strong counterweight to Soviet power in Europe, and yes, that counterweight had to rest largely on American power. The American presence in Europe was obviously essential and an American combat force would have to be the heart of an effective NATO defense system. But there needed to be some counterweight to American power within the Atlantic alliance. And given the fact that Britain held herself aloof from Europe, that counterweight had to be built on a real understanding between France and Germany.

We do not want to overstate the argument here. This sort of thinking was just beginning to take shape in 1950 and things obviously had a long way to go.12 But the importance of what was going on at the time should not be underestimated either. The line Acheson took at the New York Conference was quite extraordinary, and what was at stake was of enormous importance. The events of late 1950 were therefore bound to make a profound impression. They were bound to lead many Europeans to begin thinking more seriously about the importance of coming together as a unit in order to give Europe more of a voice in setting the policy of the West as a whole.

Consider, for example, the reaction of the German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, to the American plan. Shortly after the New York Conference, Adenauer had his top advisor, Herbert Blankenhorn, tell Armand Bérard, the French deputy high commissioner in Germany, that he did not want Germany to simply provide forces for an American army--that is, an army in which the Americans would have all the power. The two men soon met again and Blankenhorn returned to the charge. "With great emphasis," Bérard wrote, Blankenhorn "repeated what he had already told me a couple of weeks ago, namely, how desirable it was that an initiative come from the French side. Germany did not want to take her place in an American army.” “If France,” Blankenhorn continued, “proposed the creation of a European army under allied command, an army whose supreme commander might even be a Frenchman,” his government “would support that solution."13

Bérard's comment on this is worth quoting at length:

The chancellor is being honest when he says he is worried that what the German [military] contribution will boil down to is simply German forces in an American army. He is afraid that his country will end up providing the foot soldiers and shock troops for an anti-Communist offensive force that the United States might build in Europe. People in our own country are worried about the same sort of thing. Adenauer is asking for a French initiative that would head off this American solution, which he fears. I think he is sincere in all this, just as sincere as he was, and still is, in his support for the Schuman Plan [for an coal and steel community in western Europe]. He believes that the problems of western Europe have to resolved on a Franco-German basis, the military problem as well as the economic problems.14

The important point here was that France and Germany had major interests in common, not just vis-à-vis Russia, but vis-à-vis America as well. There was, Bérard noted, "a certain parallelism between the position of France and that of West Germany with regard to the defense of the West. Both of them are concerned above all with making sure that they are not invaded and that their territory does not serve as a battleground; they both feel very strongly that the West should hold back from provoking the Soviets, before a western force, worthy of the name, has been set up."15 To go from that point to the conclusion that the Europeans had to act more as a strategic unit--that European integration had to be real, and not just a device to keep Germany from becoming a problem--did not require any great leap of the imagination.

Reading these and related documents, one thus has the sense of a new way of thinking beginning to take shape--of French leaders rubbing their eyes and waking up to the fact that they and the Germans had more in common than they had perhaps realized, of an important threshold being crossed, of France and Germany just starting to think of themselves as a strategic unit. And if this kind of thinking was beginning to emerge, it was in large part in reaction to the heavy-handed way in which the U.S. government had chosen to deal with its European allies in September 1950.

But had the American government, in any real sense, actually chosen to deal with the allies in that way? It is commonly argued that the policy that Acheson pursued in September 1950 is not to be understood as a choice freely made at the top political level, but is rather to be seen as the outcome of a bureaucratic dispute in which Acheson ultimately had to give way to pressure from the Pentagon.16 The State Department, according to this argument, understood the need for an effective defense of western Europe; now, following the outbreak of the Korean War in June, the need for action was obvious. It therefore wanted to begin building an effective defense by sending an American combat force over to Europe. But this gave the military authorities the leverage they needed to achieve their "long-standing objective of German rearmament."17 They were willing, they now said, to go along with the plan to send over the U.S. combat divisions, but only as part of a "package": the JCS "wanted categorical assurances that they could count on German assistance in the shape they desired and that they would be able to make an immediate start on raising and equipping the German units"; they insisted that the offer to deploy the U.S. force "be made strictly conditional upon iron-clad commitments by the Europeans to their own contributions, and in particular, upon unequivocal acceptance of an immediate start on German rearmament in a form technically acceptable to American strategists."18

The State Department, the argument runs, resisted the Pentagon's efforts to bring the German rearmament question to a head in such a blunt and high-handed way. The two sides debated the issue for about two weeks in late August, but the "Pentagon stood united and unmovable." Acheson, according to his own widely-accepted account, "agreed with their strategic purpose," but "thought their tactics murderous."19 At the end of August, however, Acheson had reluctantly decided that he had to give way. He had earlier felt that insisting on the inclusion of Germany at the outset "would delay and complicate the whole enterprise," and that a more flexible approach made more sense, but, by his own account, he was almost totally isolated within the government and therefore had no choice but to back off from that position. "I was right," he said, "but I was nearly alone."20 Most of the State Department, and even the president himself, seemed to be on the other side. So somewhat against his better judgment, he accepted what he later recognized as a mistaken policy.21 He accepted not only the "package" approach--that is, as one scholar put it, a formula which "tied German rearmament to the State Department package much more rigidly than the State Department had intended"22--but a plan that would allow Germany to rearm on a national basis, which was also very much at variance with what the State Department had originally wanted.23 But this was the only way he could get the Pentagon to accept the rest of the plan.

If all this is true--if the American government just stumbled into the policy it pursued in September 1950, if the policy, that is, is to be understood essentially as the outcome of a bureaucratic process--then the episode might not tell us much about how the American government, at the top political level, dealt with its European allies. But if that standard interpretation is not accurate, then the story might tell us something fundamental about the nature of America's European policy, and indeed about the nature of U.S.-European relations in general.

The goal here, therefore, is to examine this interpretation of what happened in August and September 1950 in the light of the evidence. But is there any point, one might wonder, to conducting an analysis of this sort? If so many scholars who looked into the issue all reached essentially the same conclusion, that conclusion, one might reasonably assume, is probably correct. There is, however, a basic problem with this assumption: the standard interpretation rests on a very narrow evidentiary base. It rests, to a quite extraordinary extent, on Acheson's own account and on scholarly accounts that depend heavily on Acheson's story.24 A self-serving account, however, should never be taken at face value; given the importance of the issue, the standard interpretation really needs to be tested against the evidence. And a good deal of archival evidence has become available since Acheson's memoirs and the first scholarly accounts were published. But what light does this new material throw on the issue?


German Rearmament: On What Basis?

The State and Defense departments did not see eye-to-eye on the German rearmament question in mid-1950. On that point, the standard interpretation is indeed correct. But the differences between the two departments were not nearly as great as they sometimes seemed, and the area of disagreement had virtually disappeared by the time the New York Conference met in early September.

The military authorities had favored German rearmament since 1947. On May 2, 1950, they had officially called for the "early rearming of Western Germany," and had formally reiterated this call on June 8. But the State Department had taken a very different line and on July 3 had flatly rejected the idea that the time had come to press for German rearmament.25 It was not that top State Department officials felt that Germany could never be rearmed. Acheson himself had noted, even in 1949, that one could not "have any sort of security in western Europe without using German power."26 But until mid-1950, it was thought for a variety of reasons that it would be unwise to press the issue.

In July 1950, however, a major shift took place in State Department thinking. Acheson told President Truman at the end of that month that the issue now was not whether Germany should be "brought into the general defensive plan," but rather how this could be done without undermining America's other basic policy goals in Europe. He pointed out that the State Department was thinking in terms of a "European army or a North Atlantic army"; that force would include German troops, but the German units "would not be subject to the orders of Bonn."27 A whole series of key State Department officials, both in Washington and in the major embassies abroad, had, in fact, come to the conclusion at about this time that some kind of international army that included German troops would have to be created, and Acheson's own thinking was fully in line with this emerging consensus.28

This shift in State Department thinking is not to be viewed in bureaucratic politics terms as an attempt by the State Department to reach some kind of compromise with the JCS on the German rearmament issue. It was instead a quite straightforward consequence of the outbreak of the Korean War in June. As Acheson later noted, after the North Korean attack:

we and everybody else in Europe and the United States took a new look at the German problem. It seemed to us that it was now clear that Germany had to take a part in the defense of Europe; it seemed clear that the idea that we had had before that this would work out through a process of evolution wasn't adequate--there wasn't time, the evolution had to be helped along by action. It was quite clear by this time, as a result of the staff talks in NATO, that the Western Union idea of defense on the Rhine was quite impractical and foolish, and that if you were going to have any defense at all, it had to be in the realm of forward strategy, which was as far east in Germany as possible. This made it absolutely clear that Germany had to be connected with defense, not merely through military formations, but emotionally and politically, because if the battle was going to be fought in Germany it meant that the German people had to be on our side, and enthusiastically so.

The U.S. government "immediately went to work" on "this German matter"--at least as soon as it could, given the need to deal, in July especially, with even more urgent problems relating to the Korean War.29

So there was now a certain sense of urgency: an effective defense of western Europe had to be put in place and, indeed, put in place rather quickly. It was obvious from the start that this would "require real contributions of German resources and men." But the German contribution could not take the form of a German national army; the Germans could not be allowed to build a military force able to operate independently. The only way the Germans could make their defense contribution was thus to create some kind of international army that included German forces--but forces not able to conduct military operations on their own.30

A plan based on this fundamental concept was worked out by a key State Department official, Henry Byroade, at the beginning of August. Byroade, the Director of the State Department's Bureau of German Affairs, discussed his ideas with the Army staff officers most directly concerned with these issues on August 3. (The Army, for obvious reasons, took the lead in setting policy on this issue for the military establishment as a whole.) Those officers were pleased by the fact that the State Department now appeared "to be looking with favor toward the controlled rearmament of Western Germany"; they "felt that great progress had been achieved on the question of German rearmament, since both the State Department and the Department of Defense are now attempting to work out a suitable plan which would make possible a German contribution to the defense of Western Europe." These Army officers had in fact just come up with their own plan for a "controlled rearmament of Germany."31

There were, however, major differences between the two plans, or so it seemed to both sides at the time. The Byroade plan called for the establishment of a highly integrated "European Army"; that army would include practically all the western military forces--American and German as well as west European--stationed in Europe; it would have a "General Staff of truly international character," and a single commander, an American general, with "complete jurisdiction" over the whole army. The force would have as much of an international flavor as possible. The goal, Byroade said, was to apply the Schuman Plan concept to the military field; the aim was to enable the Germans to contribute to the defense of the West, without at the same time becoming too independent--that is, without getting a national army of their own.32

The Army, on the other hand, was not in favor of setting up a highly integrated "European Army." The Army staff did not call explicitly for a "German national army," but key officers did seem to feel that any plan the U.S. government came up with would need to "appeal to the nationalistic tendencies of the German people." The Army plan, moreover, called for "controlled rearmament," but the officers who drafted it were reluctant to state formally what the "nature of the controls" would be. In short, the State Department called for a truly international force, while the military authorities, it seemed, wanted a less highly integrated force composed of national armies. The two plans, in Byroade's view, were "miles apart." Or as the Army staff put it: the State Department proposal would reduce the "military sovereignty status" of the European countries down "to the level of Germany in order to secure her contribution," while the Army proposed "to raise Germany's status" to the level of the NATO allies.33

So there was clearly a major difference of opinion on this issue at this point--at least at the level of rhetoric. But in practical terms were the two sides really so far apart? The great goal of the State Department was to make sure that there was no new German national army--that is, an army capable of independent action, and thus able to support an independent foreign policy. The military authorities understood the point, and it was for this reason that they, from the start, favored the "controlled" rearmament of Germany. And when one examines the sorts of controls they had in mind, and when one notes that certain key military controls in their plan would apply to Germany alone, it becomes obvious--the rhetoric notwithstanding--that military leaders had no intention of giving the Federal Republic the same "military sovereignty status" as the NATO allies. In the Byroade plan, not just allied headquarters, but also field army and corps headquarters were to be "international"; in the plan worked out by the officers in the Pentagon, "Army and Corps should be national," except that the Germans would be "allowed none." In both plans, the Germans would contribute only ground forces, and not air or naval forces; in both plans there would be German divisions, but no larger purely German units; in both plans, the German forces would be under allied control; in both plans, the Germans would not be allowed to manufacture certain kinds of weapons ("heavy ordnance, etc."); and both plans implied German participation in NATO.34

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