News of yet another school for higher military education may sadden those who think that there are more than enough war colleges already. But the NATO Defense College is unique both in its form and its mission.
With a French Admiral as its commandant, with a faculty drawn from the United States, Britain, and France, and with a student body consisting of professional military men and civilians from all the fourteen NATO countries, this college may be worth taking a closer look at. If to this is added that it is situated in Paris, perhaps some officers may consider seriously whether a NATO college diploma might not look well hanging on the wall of their office.
The idea of a NATO college was born in the mind of General Eisenhower early in 1951, soon after SHAPE was established. The General felt the need for some permanent institution which would have as its aim the building up of a body of officers and civilians in each NATO country who were thoroughly imbued with the NATO spirit, who were conversant with the aims of NATO and the organization of its various military commands; who possessed sufficient information about each other’s countries to be sympathetic towards national problems; and who, by study of the strategical, economic, and political problems involved in NATO defense, would contribute to the development of NATO forces into a unified and efficient combat team.
There were several opinions as to the type of instruction to be given, but eventually it was decided that a level approximately the same as that of the National War College would produce the best results. It was agreed that students should be of the rank of Captain or Commander (or equivalents in other services), and that they should have either had responsible command or joint staff experience or have attended a joint service staff college.
During the summer of 1951 the nucleus of the faculty, led by the newly appointed Commandant, Vice Admiral d’Escadre A. G. Lemonnier, worked feverishly preparing for the opening which was scheduled for November. An excellent location was made available by the French government in a wing of one of the most magnificent buildings in Paris, the Ecole Militaire. (Its name is fully justified as it now houses no less than five separate staff colleges under its roof.) Considerable alterations were required to make this eighteenth century building meet the needs of an international military school, but the deadline was met, and, with some of the paint still wet, the NATO Defense College was opened on November 19, 1951, by General Eisenhower.
There were forty-seven students in the first course. They included some old enough to have fought in the closing months of World War I and others just old enough to put on a uniform at the start of World War II. The members from each country varied according to the size of that country’s armed forces, the larger countries sending up to eight. Luxemburg and Iceland were the only NATO countries not represented in the first course. About one-tenth were civilians, usually from the foreign service of their country. All students had to speak either French or English reasonably well.
The language problem was solved by having simultaneous translation of all lectures into either English or French with headphones available at each seat. By turning a switch the desired language could be heard. (By turning the switch to zero it was also possible to obtain complete silence!)
The lecturers were all immensely distinguished and a list of them would read like a “Who’s Who’’ of NATO. The question period which followed each lecture was particularly good value. It is something of a privilege to be able to fire questions about, say, carrier operations at Admiral Carney, to ask Mr. Kennan his view of some aspect of the Soviet Union, or to hear Admiral Mountbatten expound sea power.
For the study of specific problems the students were grouped into small syndicates or committees. A typical committee might include an Italian Air Force Colonel, a Danish diplomat, a French cavalryman, an American artilleryman, and a Canadian naval commander. There were no interpreters provided for the committees, which resulted, it must be admitted, in some language difficulties. Those who spoke only English suffered less disadvantage than the half dozen who spoke only French, since the English speakers were in a large majority. (It is sometimes said that NATO, even if it achieves nothing else, is going a long way toward making English the universal language!)
Other features of the course which everybody enjoyed were the field trips. There were short visits to factories, airfields, military units, and NATO organizations in the Paris area. (There was even an unofficial and extra-curricular tour of the Charles Heidsieck Champagne caves at Rheims.) Longer trips were made to the Normandy beaches and to the French Riviera for a day at sea in U.S.S. Midway.
But the climax of the course was the study trip, a sort of Grand Tour through France, Northern Italy, Austria, Germany, and Denmark. In fourteen days, by train, bus, aircraft, and on their own feet, the students inspected just about everything of military significance (as well as fitting in a lot of sightseeing) on a route which stretched from Venice to Copenhagen. Nobody who was on this trip will forget walking through the snow, in bright sunshine, far above the Brenner Pass while Italian ski troops demonstrated their difficult technique against a background of mountain peaks.
Everybody asks, “Is it a good course?” The answer must be to some extent subjective. Each student probably found some part of the course boring or considered some part as waste of time for him. With such a diverse body that was inevitable. Some students did not enjoy living in Paris. With some confidence, however, it can be said that to the great majority of the students the greater part of the course was interesting, valuable, and enjoyable.
So far as fulfilling the mission assigned to it is concerned, there is no doubt that the NATO Defense College is a resounding success. Whether the students go to appointments in the NATO organization or to their own national commands or ministries, they and their countries and NATO itself will benefit from the training they have had. If there are any who doubt the value of NATO, let them imagine how it looks to a potential aggressor. He no longer sees any chance of a cheap, short war for a limited objective. If he starts anything there is an almost cast- iron certainty that he will immediately find himself at war with fourteen countries. The forces of NATO are not yet strong enough, but their weaknesses are known, and every month the price that an aggressor must pay for victory becomes higher. Some day it may be prohibitive.
Not least of the benefits derived from the course resulted from the close association of so many different nationalities. Towards the end the actual country from which a man came seemed to matter less and less. The number of subjects which one had to avoid became fewer and fewer, although every country still has one or two things they are not quite sane about. (Pay was always a touchy point. One speaker said that he hoped standardization among NATO forces would one day reach the point where everybody had American pay, Canadian allowances, and French cooking.) One student, at least, reached the profound conclusion that foreigners are just people, and that the proportion of people in each country, including his own, who are pleasant or disagreeable, clever or stupid, capable or incompetent, or any other pair of adjectives you may like to choose, is just about the same. Perhaps that is the NATO spirit.