NATO – 2.13 – Hastings Ismay (Secretary-General, 1952-1957)


Hastings Ismay

The Official Story

(1st Secretary General of NATO, 1952-1957)
[United Kingdom]


Hastings Lionel Ismay, 1st Baron Ismay KG, GCB, CH, DSO, PC, DL (21 June 1887 – 17 December 1965), was a diplomat and general in the British Indian Army, remembered primarily for his role as Winston Churchill’s chief military assistant during the Second World War and his service as the first Secretary General of NATO from 1952 to 1957.

Ismay was born in Nainital, India, in 1887, and educated in the United Kingdom at the Charterhouse School and Royal Military College, Sandhurst. After Sandhurst, he joined the Indian Army as an officer of the 21st Prince Albert Victor’s Own Cavalry. During the First World War, he served with the Camel Corps in British Somaliland, where he joined in the British fight against the “Mad Mullah”, Mohammed Abdullah Hassan. In 1925, Ismay became an Assistant Secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID). After being promoted to the rank of colonel, he served as the military secretary for Lord Willingdon, the Viceroy of India, then returned to the CID as Deputy Secretary in 1936.

On 1 August 1938, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, Ismay became the Committee’s Secretary and began planning for the impending war. In May 1940, when Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, he selected Ismay as his chief military assistant and staff officer. In that capacity, Ismay served as the principal link between Churchill and the Chiefs of Staff Committee. Ismay also accompanied Churchill to many of the Allied war conferences. For Ismay’s advice and aid, “Churchill owed more, and admitted that he owed more” to him “than to anybody else, military or civilian, in the whole of the war.”

After the end of the war, Ismay remained in the army for another year, and helped to reorganise the Ministry of Defence. He then retired from the military and served as Lord Mountbatten of Burma’s Chief of Staff in India, helping to oversee its partition. From 1948 to 1951, he served as chairman of the council of the Festival of Britain, helping to organise and promote the event. Then, in 1951, when Churchill again became Prime Minister, he appointed Ismay Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations.

Ismay accepted the position, but resigned after only six months to become the first Secretary General of NATO in 1952. He served in this role until 1957, and helped establish and define the position. After retiring from NATO, Ismay wrote his memoirs, The Memoirs of General Lord Ismay, served on a variety of corporate boards, and co-chaired the Ismay–Jacob Committee, which reorganised the Ministry of Defence once again. He died on 17 December 1965, at his home, Wormington Grange, Gloucestershire.

Secretary General of NATO

At the Lisbon Conference, the members of NATO agreed to appoint a Secretary General who would direct the organisation’s staff and serve as Vice-Chairman of the North Atlantic Council. The position was initially offered to Sir Oliver Franks, but he declined. As such, the allies scrambled to find someone else to take the position. Two weeks later, the countries agreed to ask Ismay to become Secretary General at the suggestion of Churchill and Anthony Eden.

Eden asked Ismay to accept the position, but his response “was an immediate and emphatic negative,” as he saw NATO as an overly bureaucratic and inefficient organisation and complained that the position of Secretary General was “divided and ill-defined.” Churchill then personally asked Ismay to accept the position, telling him that “NATO provided the best, if not the only, hope of peace in our time.” After further urging, Ismay reluctantly agreed to take the job. On 12 March 1952, the Atlantic Council officially passed a resolution appointing Ismay Secretary General, and he started work on 24 March.

Ismay’s appointment to the position was well-received, enjoying the unanimous support of all the NATO members. The press and public also responded favourably. The Times wrote: “of all the candidates whose names have been mentioned, Lord Ismay would seem to have the strongest qualifications for the post.” The New York Times applauded his “vast experience in military planning, strategy, and administration,” and The Washington Post wrote that Ismay would bring NATO “great authority, experience and energy and a personal charm that can dissolve difficulties.”

As the first Secretary General, Ismay was “assuming an entirely new role in the history of international organizations,” and as such he helped to define the position itself. While Ismay “deemed it wise not to step too boldly in a political role” in disputes among the members, he asserted himself strongly on issues relevant to the organisation of NATO. From the very beginning of his time in office, Ismay worked to empower the permanent representatives to NATO, and emphasised that they had the same legal authority to make decisions as the NATO foreign ministers.

Ismay was also a proponent of NATO expansion, saying that NATO “must grow until the whole free world gets under one umbrella.” However, before Warsaw Pact was even put in place, he opposed the request to join NATO made by the USSR in 1954 saying that “the Soviet request to join NATO is like an unrepentant burglar requesting to join the police force” thus making apparent that NATO alliance (“the police force”) was directed against the USSR. As stated in the official NATO website “the request tested the limits of NATO’s willingness to admit new members”.

As Secretary General, Ismay also worked to encourage closer political co-ordination among the members of the alliance. During the Suez Crisis he offered his good offices to help resolve issues among members of the alliance. Ismay also offered to help mediate disputes over Cyprus.

In December 1956, Ismay decided to retire from NATO. He told the press that “he was not giving up his position for personal reasons, but because he felt it needed a fresh hand and a fresh brain.” Paul-Henri Spaak was immediately chosen as his successor, but Ismay remained in office until May 1957, when he left with “the affection and respect” of all the NATO members. While Secretary General, Ismay is also credited as having been the first person to say that the purpose of NATO was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down,” a saying that has since become a common way to quickly describe the alliance.

Source: Wikipedia

The Truth


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