President Nixon at meeting of North Atlantic Council 1969

Recently, the United State’s role in NATO has received renewed public interest. While some Americans wish to continue backing NATO, critics of the alliance have called into question the levels of U.S. monetary and military support. U.S. representatives to NATO have urged other member countries to uphold more of the financial burden for years, and the character of American support to NATO has troubled U.S. foreign policymakers for decades.

During the Nixon Presidency, a similar debate took place, albeit in a strikingly different global context, amongst those who pushed for strengthened military support of NATO and an emerging group of Americans who questioned the need for any U.S. military presence in Europe.

Created in 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was founded by ten European nations as well as the U.S. and Canada. NATO was fundamentally an alliance intended to protect Western Europe from the threat of Soviet military encroachment and nationalist revolution. By the 1970s, there were over 275,000 American troops on European soil, many stationed in crucial areas like West Germany, Italy, and Turkey.

Nixon supported NATO as a young congressman from California, and as Vice President to Eisenhower. From the start of his first term, he pledged to continue U.S. sponsorship of NATO, despite calls for troop reductions. He believed that a strong Europe backed by U.S. military support was essential to not only containing the reach of the Soviet Union, but also to encourage negotiations with the foremost adversary.

In 1971, several U.S. senators proposed an amendment that would decisively cut U.S. military presence in Europe. The Nixon Administration stood firmly against it. In a report to Congress, the President insisted that “Given the existing strategic balance and a similar effort by our allies, it is the policy of this Government to maintain and improve our forces in Europe and not reduce them except through reciprocal reduction negotiated with the Warsaw Pact. With such mutual reductions on the agenda of East-West diplomacy, this is precisely the moment not to make unilateral cuts in our strength.”

President Nixon’s cool evaluation of the geopolitics of Europe led him to determine that active support to NATO was essential to the U.S. position abroad. Today, the U.S. and her NATO allies face a different set of international problems, yet the domestic debate remains remarkably similar.