Promoted to brigadier general in March 1943, as director of the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces Norstad helped devise the bombing campaign against Axis forces in the Balkans and Italy. Returning to Washington in 1944 as Arnold's chief of staff, Norstad worked on planning the B-29 strategic bombing campaign against Japan that preceded the detonation of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He subsequently served on the Spaatz Board, which revised American airpower doctrine and policy in light of nuclear weapons and established the Strategic Air Command (SAC). He was promoted to major general in June 1945. From 1945 to 1950, he held several air force staff positions and was closely involved in postwar air force planning.
In October 1950 Eisenhower, returning from retirement to become the first Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), which headed the new North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), appointed Norstad commanding general of United States Air Forces in Europe, soon expanded to include control of all Allied air forces in Central Europe. In July 1952 Norstad became, at age forty-five, the youngest American four-star general. In July 1953 he became air deputy to General Alfred Gruenther, the new SACEUR, whom he succeeded in 1956, the only air force officer ever to hold this position. In 1958 Norstad was concurrently appointed Commander in Chief, U.S. European Command (CINCEUR).
From the late 1950s Norstad lobbied fiercely for an independent NATO nuclear-armed force, including both long-range strategic and short-range tactical missiles, which he believed were essential to demonstrating NATO's resolve to utilize such weapons if necessary in its own defense, and increased threefold the number of such missiles under his command. In 1961 Norstad's pressure persuaded President John F. Kennedy to commit Polaris submarines to such a force, with each NATO member retaining a veto over nuclear decisions. Norstad wished to enhance West German defense capabilities, initially proposing a West German nuclear-armed force, and was instrumental in equipping Germany with nuclear-capable missiles, although these remained under his control. During the 1961 crisis over Berlin, Norstad unsuccessfully urged Kennedy to state publicly that the United States would, if necessary, employ nuclear weapons to defend Berlin. In January 1963 Norstad's belief that the Kennedy administration's defense posture overemphasized conventional forces at the expense of nuclear weaponry brought his early resignation.
In retirement, Norstad held various top positions with Owens-Corning Fiberglass Corporation. In the mid-1960s he urged the Republican Party to endorse an independent NATO nuclear force. In 1972 he was one of several senior statesmen who, at the request of President Richard Nixon, successfully opposed the congressional Mansfield Amendment, which would have cut American troops in Europe. Able and energetic, he was instrumental in setting the direction of post-1945 U.S. aviation and strategic doctrine. Norstad died in Tucson, Arizona, on 12 September 1988.
Duffield, John S. Power Rules: The Evolution of NATO's Conventional Force Posture. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995.; Jordan, Robert S. Norstad: Cold War NATO Supreme Commander: Airman, Strategist, Diplomat. New York: St. Martin's, 2000.