The American presence in Europe was a consequence of World War II. When the fighting in Europe ended in May 1945, some 2.6 million U.S. troops occupied much of Western Europe, including the former Axis territories of Italy, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany), and part of Austria. Although American military planners had foreseen the need for a limited occupation, they had not anticipated the antagonisms that would develop into the Cold War with the Soviet Union, nor had they envisioned that U.S. forces would assume a role far beyond that of short-term occupation and constabulary duties or that these troops would still be in Europe more than a half century after the end of the war.
After May 1945, the United States removed significant numbers of men from the continent for the anticipated Allied invasion of Japan. Following the Japanese surrender that August and given the worsening of relations between the Western powers and the Soviet Union, the United States redeployed considerable military assets to Europe, including B-29 strategic bombers and naval units. A year after the end of the war, U.S. forces in Europe numbered some 278,000 men.
The first major European crisis faced by American forces in Europe came with the Soviet imposition of a blockade of West Berlin in June 1948. Rather than risk a shooting confrontation with the Soviets, U.S. President Harry S. Truman decided to airlift supplies into the city. When the Soviets raised their blockade and the airlift ended in September 1949, some 2.3 million tons of supplies had been delivered, and the West had registered a significant victory. That same year, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) came into existence.
In June 1950 the Korean War (1950–1953) began, imposing a severe strain on already-stretched U.S. resources. The Truman administration made the political calculation that it could not afford to maintain as large a presence in Europe as its allies would have preferred, although in December 1950 President Truman pledged to send four additional divisions to Europe to bolster NATO defenses. That deployment began the next year. At the same time, Truman named General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower as NATO's first Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), a post he took up in January 1951.
Part of the American solution to defend Europe with reduced strength was President Eisenhower's New Look defense posture. This policy, also known as "more bang for a buck," was opposed by General of the Army Omar Bradley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It placed greater reliance on nuclear weapons in the event of war with the Soviets. Beginning in 1955, nuclear weapons were stored in Germany, Britain, Italy, and Turkey. Ten years later these weapons numbered slightly more than 7,000 warheads. That number would remain constant until 1979, when it began to decline; by 1986 about 4,500 remained.
Following the Korean War, Washington demonstrated the primacy of Europe in its military policy. U.S. troop strength increased so that by 1955, the American commitment stood at 356,800 men, a dramatic difference from the low of 80,000 troops deployed there in 1950. In the early 1960s, flexible response replaced the New Look. Flexible response held that the deployment of a larger number of ground troops would permit more options in the decision-making process before the employment of nuclear weapons. One consequence of this policy was that until 1968, troop levels never went below 300,000 personnel.
The late 1960s saw substantial changes in the American military presence in Europe and in European attitudes toward the Americans. The war in Vietnam became the first priority. By 1968, with troop levels in Europe at 268,000 personnel, below-strength units endured maintenance and supply problems, low morale, heavy drug use, and racial conflict. At the same time, the crime rate, especially violent crimes against local civilians, increased dramatically. During this time, changes in the U.S. economic situation became apparent. The value of the dollar declined vis-à-vis many local currencies. The standard of living and contributions to the local economy were declining, and many soldiers and their dependents lived in near poverty. In addition, organized opposition from peace activists protesting the deployment of nuclear weapons as well as terrorist bombings of military facilities seemed to demonstrate that Americans were not as welcome as had once been the case.
In the 1980s, the deployment of Pershing II missiles and cruise missiles led to increased hostility toward the American military presence on the part of many West Europeans. Although nuclear weapons had been in Europe for almost thirty years and Pershing missiles had been deployed since 1965, deployment of the improved Pershing IIs in the early 1980s proved controversial. The government of West Germany, however, approved deployment of Pershing missiles in 1983.
Before the year's end, the first units were declared combat-ready. The number of Pershing IIs, all positioned in Germany, reached a maximum of 118 until 1990, when their mission was considered completed. The Pershing missiles were not the only source of controversy, as the United States also stationed cruise missiles in West Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Belgium. These deployments were vocally opposed by a number of people in the localities of the deployments.
Military dependents were an important part of the American presence, whether they lived on base or off the economy. In the mid-1980s, half of the approximately 326,000 U.S. military personnel in Europe had dependents there. While there were many benefits to families being located with the military, there were also problems. Not the least of these were concerns over the evacuation of military dependents in the event of a Warsaw Pact invasion.
U.S. military strength did not match that of the Warsaw Pact or even its Soviet elements. In the mid-1970s, Americans fielded 9,000 tanks against the Soviets' 40,000, 22,000 armored vehicles against 40,000, and 6,000 artillery pieces as opposed to 18,000 Soviet guns. The one area of American quantitative superiority was in tactical helicopters: 9,000 American attack helicopters to 2,000 for the Soviets. In the areas of tactical attack airplanes, the United States maintained in Europe only some 300 (about 15 percent of the NATO total). These faced more than 7,200 Warsaw Pact airplanes. In the same time frame, the disparity in manpower was even more stark. To oppose the total American force of more than 300,000 personnel, the Soviets deployed 825,000 men in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary. This was in addition to 425,000 indigenous soldiers from those countries. It was for that reason that nuclear weapons early on became and remained an integral part of American strategy during the Cold War.
Robert N. Stacy
Duke, Simon W., and Wolfgang Krieger, eds. U.S. Military Forces in Europe: The Early Years, 1945–1970. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1993.; Isby, David C., and Charles Kamps, Jr. Armies of NATO's Central Front. London: Jane's Publishing, 1985.; Nelson, Daniel J. A History of U.S. Military Forces in Germany. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1987.