Forging the Shield

Forging the Shield

The U.S. Army in Europe, 1951-1962

Donald A. Carter

Center for Military History, Washington, D.C., 2015, 534 pages

Book Review published on: March 17, 2017

The Center for Military History publication Forging the Shield: The U.S. Army in Europe, 1951-1962 by Donald Carter is a contemporary reminder that certain geopolitical challenges stand the test of time. This exhaustive review of the U.S. Army’s buildup in Europe offers today’s military professional insight into the strategic context of the Cold War, the Army’s role in securing the uneasy peace that followed World War II, and the lessons that this era of officers may learn from a study of the past. Carter’s thorough research into Army, Department of Defense, and presidential archives reveals the challenges and process of how the U.S. government and our allies developed the strategy to address the Soviet threat in Europe and the Army’s role as part of this strategy.

Carter chronologically organizes the book beginning with an introductory chapter to set the stage in 1950s Europe. Subsequent chapters address the Seventh Army’s new mission and role as it transforms from constabulary duty to the Army’s deterrent force in Europe. As the Seventh Army’s role is solidified within European Command, West Germany’s status becomes one of the central political questions of the 1950s. He devotes one chapter to the question of rearming Germany and how the Army played a critical role in the rebuilding of the German army.

International politics gives way to domestic politics and the New Look national security policy. The extensive use of presidential archive material illuminates the debates about atomic warfare, economic strength, the nature of a war with the Soviet Union, and civil-military relations. The exchanges between President Dwight Eisenhower and Gens. Matthew Ridgway and Maxwell Taylor provide ample room to discuss the roles of senior military leadership, best military advice, and the conviction required as strategic leaders to thoughtfully and honestly provide such advice. The remaining portion of the book concludes with the building of the Berlin Wall and the shift to the Flexible Response defense strategy. Throughout all of these themes in his book, Carter illuminates the challenges and decisions that political and military leaders in Washington, Bonn, and throughout the Army made in a complex and uncertain environment. Those leaders would disagree that the Cold War was a simpler and less complex time.

As one of the principal means to the strategy, the Army in Europe transformed from a constabulary force and expanded into a field army integrated with NATO in less than a decade. Carter documents the activities and decisions that made this transformation. Alongside this strategic transformation, the Army, in response to the atomic battlefield, moves away from the battle-tested triangular division organization from World War II to the pentomic division. Extensive exercises tested the new formation. Senior leaders grappled with technological shortfalls with the ability to communicate with highly dispersed formations and challenged assumptions about the environment in which atomic warfare would be fought. Over time, the reliance upon atomic weapons as a deterrent raised questions about the purpose of conventional forces.

Today’s leader in U.S. Army Europe faces similar challenges, although in a vastly different context. Planners are learning—or relearning—that the West must contend with the tyranny of distance and how to defend our interests when the threat can mobilize and strike more rapidly than NATO can marshal the force necessary to prevent a fait accompli. Replace today’s discussion about the Baltics and insert the same discussion about West Berlin. Readiness and force structure was a dominant motif then as it is now.

In contrast, the 1950s-era Army had more contact with the Soviets through the Berlin monitoring mission than we do today, highlighting the importance of contact and communication with potential adversaries. Leaders from the 1950s would question if the Army should adapt to the antiaccess/area denial environment today or stick to our current doctrine, organizations, and formations—much like the debate over the pentomic division and the nuclear battlefield. Overall, this book is a great reminder that some issues stand the test of time and the timeless importance of studying history to gain insight into future challenges.

Book Review written by: Col. Chuck Rush, U.S. Army, Washington, D.C.