Airman in the Shadows

Aug. 1, 2005

Gen. Lauris Norstad could be described as the most important Air Force officer in history who remains a virtual unknown.

Norstad was a principal architect of the modern US national defense establishment.

For the better part of a decade, he served in the highest allied posts. He played an indispensable role in the structuring of the 1947 National Security Act and formation of the independent Air Force.

Yet, four decades after his retirement (in 1963, as Supreme Allied Commander Europe), Norstad is little known even in Air Force circles. Sometimes, he is put down as having been a mere “staff officer.” This is far from accurate.

Norstad was a shadowy figure who worked well behind the scenes. His enormous negotiating skills and outstanding political instincts enabled him to work with the leaders of Europe and, when necessary, to confront them.

His resume, however, includes quite a great deal more than his postwar political achievements. Equally great—and equally underappreciated—were his contributions to air operations in North Africa, Europe, and the Pacific. The toughness of the man was manifest in his wartime roles.

In 1942, Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, Commanding General of the Army Air Forces, brought the 35-year-old Norstad—then a lieutenant colonel—into his personal advisory council just before sending him to England and North Africa as assistant chief of staff for operations, Twelfth Air Force. Norstad conducted the air planning for the Allied North African invasion. In 1943, then-Brigadier General Norstad planned air operations for Northwest African Air Forces before moving to Italy to become director of operations for Mediterranean Allied Air Forces.

However, things were about to change. Arnold in early 1944 had established Twentieth Air Force in the Pacific. (See “The Twentieth Against Japan,” April 2004, p. 68.) The commander was to report directly to him as executive agent of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Early B-29 operations—code-named Matterhorn—had been launched in 1944 from the Chengtu valley in west China, but things had not gone well; air operations were slowed by bad weather and massive logistical difficulties, with the B-29s even being used to haul fuel from India to western China.

Back to Washington

Arnold was determined to get results with the B-29 effort against the Japanese home islands, and he thought he knew the man he needed. In mid-1944, the AAF Chief traveled to Italy, to inform Norstad that he was being pulled back to Washington to oversee B-29 bomber operations in the Far East.

Norstad was reluctant to leave. He had played a major role in the Italian campaign and wanted to see it through to the end. However, the younger officer failed to persuade Arnold, who named him in July 1944 to be chief of staff, Twentieth Air Force.

Brig. Gen. Haywood S. Hansell Jr. had preceded Norstad as the Twentieth’s chief of staff. In the summer of 1944, Arnold directed Hansell, as commander of the XXI Bomber Command, to take the first Superfortresses to the Marianas Islands.

Over several months in late 1944, however, Hansell’s operations out of the Marianas failed to produce the results that Arnold expected. In January 1945, Arnold replaced Hansell with Maj. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, who had been running the Matterhorn B-29 operation out of India. Hopes for improvement ran high.

However, LeMay’s initial operations during January and February fared no better than had Hansell’s.

Norstad, who as chief of staff of Twentieth was close to Arnold and met him on a daily basis, saw that the AAF commander had staked everything on the B-29 offensive and that he was becoming increasingly frustrated. Norstad, well aware of Arnold’s thinking, contacted LeMay and put it all on the line.

He wrote: “If you don’t get results, you will be fired. There will never be any Strategic Air Forces of the Pacific after the battle is fully won in Europe and those European forces can be deployed to the Pacific. If you don’t get results, it will mean eventually a mass amphibious invasion of Japan, to cost probably a half a million more American lives.”

Norstad’s brutal warning had its effect. LeMay before too long made one of the most critical decisions of the war: Without informing Arnold—thereby absolving him of any responsibility for failure—he sent the B-29s on the night of March 9-10 over Tokyo at low level, the most destructive single bombing of the war.

The massive incendiary attacks against Japan’s urban areas marked a turning point in the world conflict and signaled a new phase in the bomber offensive. The raids were devastatingly effective.

Norstad praised LeMay for “solving an acute operational problem by using high-altitude Superfortresses at low level to achieve the unloading of a large tonnage of bombs in a short time.” His hand in the episode did not show.

In the summer of 1945, Arnold appointed Norstad to be assistant chief of the air staff for plans. Norstad’s task was to make certain that the postwar AAF organization was compatible with an independent Air Force.


The postwar drive in Congress for defense reorganization started before war’s end. The War Department and Army Air Forces favored a single national defense establishment, with a new, independent Air Force. The Navy, led by Secretary James V. Forrestal, opposed reorganization.

Arnold and his successor, Gen. Carl A. “Tooey” Spaatz, received strong support for air independence from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Army Chief of Staff. In late 1945, President Harry S. Truman delivered to Congress a special message on defense that sent a clear signal. He wanted a single Department of National Defense, headed by a civilian Secretary and to include an independent USAF.

The Navy, however, continued to oppose unification.

In the unification battle, Norstad was the AAF’s chief planner. He and Vice Adm. Arthur W. Radford, deputy chief of naval operations (air), were named as advisors to a Senate military affairs subcommittee charged with writing the legislation.

Norstad enjoyed Ike’s backing, and he worked closely with W. Stuart Sy­mington, assistant secretary of war for air, and Robert P. Patterson, Secretary of War. After negotiations dragged in 1946, Truman increased pressure on the subcommittee and the services to reach agreement. At this point, Forrestal replaced Radford with Vice Adm. Forrest P. Sherman, who supported a balanced fleet and independent air force.

Radford subsequently noted that the work of Norstad and Sherman “removed the impasse between the services.”

In 1947, Eisenhower appointed Nor­stad as director of plans and operations for the War Department, making him only the second airman to hold this position, after Brig. Gen. Frank M. Andrews. This gave Norstad greater leverage in unification talks, where he had the complete confidence of Eisenhower and Patterson. He and Sherman thus were able to work out draft unification legislation.

Despite his high-level support, however, Norstad realized that some in AAF Headquarters remained fearful that he might give away too much in the negotiations.

“If I sensed dissent,” he observed, “I tried to get the argument from the dissenter, but never to let him think for a minute that he was participating in this because then I would have been obliged to compromise. When you are in this kind of battle, you don’t compromise.”

First, Norstad and Sherman tackled the question of unified commands, since, in principle, the services agreed—based on wartime experience—that this was a necessity. During the war in Europe, unified command had been established—service component commanders, under an overall unified commander, supported by a staff from the components under his command.

In the Pacific, however, creation of unified command proved intractable. Agreement could not be reached between Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Southwest Pacific area commander, and Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, commanding Central Pacific area.

“Time Had Come”

Norstad discussed this key issue with Eisenhower in the autumn of 1946, and it became clear that the Joint Chiefs as well as the Army and Navy leaders supported the concept of combined operations under unified command. It was, Norstad emphasized, “an idea whose time had come.”

Norstad and Sherman drafted the landmark “Outline Command Plan,” the first of its kind. It was approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and signed by President Truman in December 1946. This plan created theater commanders responsible to the Joint Chiefs, with a joint staff and three service commanders under the theater commander.

In this plan, Norstad and Sherman solved the problem in the Pacific by creating two commands—Pacific Command and Far East Command. Seven unified commands were created. Service roles were to train, organize, and equip forces for operations within the theater, under unified command. This system remained basically stable for the next half-century.

Also noteworthy, the Joint Chiefs recognized Strategic Air Command, formed in 1946, as a specified command reporting directly to the JCS, an outgrowth based on organization of Twentieth Air Force during the war.

Still, Norstad and Sherman faced the enormous task of resolving other deep-seated service conflicts and crafting strong legislation to create a new national security organization.

“It was clear,” Norstad observed, “that there were differences between us, certainly in degree. But it was characteristic of our relationship, due more to him than to me perhaps, that we never wasted time rearguing established differences between the services.”

Working with the Senate Military Affairs Committee, the airman and naval officer were able to outline service functions and draft a national security setup. Norstad had the support of Patterson, Eisenhower, Symington, and Spaatz, who in early 1946 became AAF commander.

In January 1947, Patterson and Forrestal informed Truman that, based on the work by Norstad and Sherman, the Senate Military Affairs Committee had approved a draft organization calling for a Secretary of National Defense and Departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force.

In February, Truman sent Congress a draft of the National Security Act of 1947, including the formation of the Air Force. The Senate and House approved the bill and, on July 26, 1947, Truman signed the Executive Order 9877, detailing the functions of the military services.

The National Security Act of 1947 was a compromise. The Army and its airmen succeeded in having the Air Force established and roles and missions promulgated by executive order rather than written into the act as desired by the Navy. The Navy kept its air element, and Forrestal won his point on structuring the Office of the Secretary of National Defense as a coordinator rather than as a true administrator.


Norstad’s role in establishing an independent United States Air Force and National Military Establishment failed to meet with everyone’s approval. There were those in the Air Force who criticized him for giving in to the Navy on land-based air, for—as Norstad put it—“not diminishing the naval air service.”

Norstad’s view was that naval aviation had “some very special missions which are quite separate and distinct, and the Marine Corps has some.”

Even Arnold had reservations, but he quickly realized that Norstad had done an effective job. Symington noted that passage of the act was merely a start and that the new organization would be evolutionary in character. “Norstad should get the most credit for unification,” Symington emphasized. “In the days when it looked grim, he stuck to it.”

With creation of USAF in September 1947, Norstad was promoted to lieutenant general and named deputy chief of staff for operations, Headquarters USAF.

He later went to Europe, first as commander in chief of US Air Forces in Europe. There, he once again found himself working with Eisenhower, who was the Supreme Allied Commander Europe. Eisenhower gave Norstad the task of coordinating the mission of Strategic Air Command with SACEUR’s plans.

Norstad made four stars in mid-1952 and was appointed air deputy to the SACEUR in 1953. Three years later, he was named SACEUR.

In this key role, Norstad gained the respect of European leaders such as West Germany’s Konrad Adenauer and France’s Charles de Gaulle. When de Gaulle returned to power in 1958, he pressured Norstad to give the French nuclear weapons. The US had built bases and atomic storage facilities in France. De Gaulle, however, refused to give Norstad permission to store the weapons on French soil unless the NATO commander turned the weapons over to Paris.

Norstad made very clear to de Gaulle that this was impossible. As Norstad recalled, his response was: “Over my dead body!” He then moved his atomic-trained fighter-bomber units to Britain and West Germany.

From that point on, he and de Gaulle got along famously. Norstad noted: “I needed his respect, and I knew that he respected power. He used it and he respected it. I was going to show him that I damn well had it. From then on, I was an authority, I was a power.”

Like Eisenhower, Norstad believed in unity of command, with an integrated allied headquarters and command structure.

Nuclear Dimension

Also like Ike, he believed in the efficacy of nuclear weapons as the absolute deterrent. He did not support a strategy of graduated deterrence or flexible response. Therein lay his difficulties in the early 1960s with officials of the Kennedy Administration.

Norstad was convinced that, should the Soviet Union mount an attack in Europe, nuclear weapons employment would be inevitable. Graduated deterrence was not a strategy that would work against the Soviets, he concluded.

This was also Eisenhower’s view, but, when Ike left office in 1961, Norstad lost the support of the White House. Also, the Berlin crisis of 1961 convinced the Kennedy Administration that nuclear superiority had its limits as a political-military strategy. Kennedy and Robert S. McNamara, the Pentagon chief, wanted more emphasis on conventional forces.

The fact is, Kennedy and McNamara were never comfortable with Norstad, a SACEUR who had commanded in the field for years. McNamara, especially, wanted his own man in the SACEUR post.

Norstad however, refused to retire within two months, as McNamara desired. With important talks ongoing with European allies, Norstad insisted on staying longer, and Kennedy agreed.

As it turned out, with the onset of the Cuban missile crisis, Norstad was asked by McNamara to stay on, and he did not retire until 1963.

Norstad, with his enormous willpower, was that rare combination of exceptional planner/operator and skilled negotiator, who as NATO commander had the ability and toughness to engage and confront European leaders.

Herman S. Wolk is senior historian at the Air Force Historical Research Agency’s Washington, D.C., operating location. He is the author of The Struggle for Air Force Independence, 1943-1947 (1997) and Fulcrum of Power (2003). His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Knerr the Crusader,” appeared in the December 2004 issue.