Auf Wiedersehen to a Mostly Successful, Sometimes Rocky Arranged Marriage

From economic woes to racial strife, America’s troop presence in Germany hasn’t always been easy. But it always made an impact.

A U.S. serviceman bids farewell to his friend prior to the departure of a detachment of U.S. military police by train from the Coleman Barracks in Mannheim, Germany to Bosnia via Hungary in 1995.
A U.S. serviceman bids farewell to his friend prior to the departure of a detachment of U.S. military police by train from the Coleman Barracks in Mannheim, Germany to Bosnia via Hungary in 1995. MIKE NELSON/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. President Donald Trump recently announced that he was going forward on an earlier decision to move 11,900 troops out of bases in Germany, citing as justification Germany’s ongoing failure to pay its share of NATO costs, among other issues. “We don’t want to be the suckers anymore,” he declared. Trump’s decision is generating bipartisan opposition in the U.S. Congress, where it has been condemned as a gift to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The move has also caused consternation in Germany, whose ambassador to Washington tweeted that her country has been “proud to host US troops” and is the “3rd largest contributor to [NATO’s] budget.”

The widespread outrage over Trump’s troop-withdrawal decision notwithstanding, this move is not unprecedented in recent times. (In 2011, then-President Barack Obama pulled two combat brigades out of Germany for redeployment in Afghanistan.) Nor is it unprecedented that there should be rifts over the dimensions and costs of America’s military presence in Germany. What is new is the highly combative tone in which the initiative has been issued, along with an ancillary questioning of NATO’s necessity, America’s participation in that alliance, and the value of close U.S.-German ties.

The history of U.S. troop deployment in postwar Germany shows that its meaning to Germans, other Europeans, and Americans isn’t simply what it has seemed on the surface. The enterprise has always been about helping to buttress the post-World War II order by reassuring the British and Europeans that the United States had a meaningful and enduring investment in European stability—that Washington was keeping a close eye on the Germans while making the Russians think twice about undertaking any violent disruptions of this new Pax Americana. The U.S. military presence in Germany also went to the very heart of the German-U.S. relationship, endeavoring to sow mutual trust, valuable cultural exchange, and economic vitality in areas where the troops were stationed.

Fortunately, this military contingent has not had to go into full-scale battle. But it has never ceased to be a deterrent to possible aggression and a form of ambassadorial service that has been beneficial to all parties involved.

It was not a mission that the United States actively sought at the end of World War II. By the end of December 1945, U.S. troop strength in the vanquished Reich had been pared to three armored and seven infantry divisions. The purpose of this much-reduced contingent was to police Germany and help enforce Washington’s de-Nazification and demilitarization campaigns. But the size and purpose of America’s military presence in Germany quickly changed with the onset of the Cold War, highlighted in Germany by the Soviet blockade of West Berlin starting in June 1948. In the wake of this dangerous challenge to its position in divided Germany, Washington embarked on a hasty buildup of U.S. forces and altered their mission to one of maintaining internal security in their occupation zone while also deterring the Soviets from making further threats to that region’s security. In April 1949 the American troops began operating within the confines of the newly created NATO alliance, whose purpose with respect to Germany was best described by Hastings Ismay, its first secretary-general: “to keep the Soviets out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”

For the Americans, this impulse to keep the Germans “down,” which had already been receding in the late 1940s, ebbed further with the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, which was perceived in Washington as a challenge to not only the U.S. position in Asia but also in Germany, another nation divided along ideological lines. U.S. President Harry S. Truman dispatched thousands of ground troops to the newly created Federal Republic of Germany to defend that state in case of a Korean-style invasion by Soviet-backed East German troops. Truman had wide support for that action, but once the threat of a proxy war in Germany dissipated, he faced pressure at home to significantly reduce the size of America’s military presence in West Germany and elsewhere in Europe.

Soon West Germany itself would become part of that Western alliance as Washington, over the objections of Britain and France, succeeded by the mid-1950s in rearming West Germany and integrating its new Bundeswehr into NATO. There was no way that President Dwight D. Eisenhower could have managed this feat without maintaining a strong U.S. troop presence in West Germany. Britain and France would have dug in their heels against this momentous development, and West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer made it part of his price for pursuing rearmament against bitter opposition from the Social Democrats and far-right elements at home.

The size and costs of America’s military force in Germany had been a major factor in the Senate’s debate on strategic commitments in 1951, and they became so again in the mid-1960s and early ’70s, when Sen. Mike Mansfield, a Democrat, introduced resolutions calling for massive cuts in U.S. troop deployments in West Germany and elsewhere in Europe. During this period, as the once-mighty dollar came under pressure and the United States faced growing balance-of-payments deficits, “burden-sharing” became a major bone of contention between Washington and the West German government in Bonn. Even Eisenhower, before leaving office in 1961, threatened to reduce the level of America’s military commitment to West Germany unless that nation paid a greater portion of the maintenance costs. His successor, John F. Kennedy, did not threaten troop withdrawals, but he too saw burden-sharing as imperative and therefore demanded higher offset payments by Bonn, which required West Germany to buy American goods to offset the costs of Washington’s Germany-based troop deployment. Bonn reluctantly acceded to the offset payments, because its leaders considered the U.S. security commitment to West Germany too vital to be endangered by economic discord. Washington, for its part, also deemed the German tie and the viability of NATO so crucial that it would not allow the demands of the Vietnam War or domestic political pressures to prompt a significant reduction of U.S. forces in West Germany.

In the 1970s the U.S. troop presence in West Germany was beleaguered by a host of internal problems. Numbering between 250,000 and 300,000 personnel, the U.S. contingent had become a seemingly permanent fixture in West German life and society, but the U.S. military colony’s relationship with the Germans had been in flux since occupation times. Early on, the American troops were much wealthier than their German hosts, but during the late ’50s and early ’60 that wealth gap narrowed, and by the ’70s, soldiers often felt poor and socially disempowered, including in their attempts to socialize with German women. Moreover, the civil rights movement fueled racial strife among the American military contingent in West Germany and, together with the Vietnam War, sparked condemnation from young Germans. For all their high-mindedness, though, those same Germans were also worried about the growth of Black nationalism among African American troops stationed in their midst. In their list of possible violent threats to the Munich 1972 Summer Olympics, West German security officials included Black service members deployed in Bavaria.

The 1980s brought another surprising and troubling change. Whereas heretofore it had been mainly American politicians and newspaper pundits calling for downsizing their country’s military contribution to West Germany (and Europe), in that decade it was segments of the German public and left-leaning politicians making this demand. The reason for this largely had to do with a fierce trans-Atlantic battle over the kinds of weapons at the Americans’ disposal. In the 1950s, West Germans had fretted over the stationing of nuclear arms on their soil; now, in the 1980s, they were protesting over the U.S. military’s deployment of Pershing II missiles and cruise missiles on West German territory. The West German peace movement of the 1980s was rife with an anti-Americanism even stronger than that of the “sixty-eighters” of the Vietnam War days. Yet throughout all the strife, Bonn’s governments, first under the Social Democrat Helmut Schmidt and then the Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl, insisted that the Western alliance remain intact and that the Yanks stay in place. There was no significant downsizing.

German reunification in 1990 did not initially lead to a lessening of German support for a strong U.S. military contingent in their land. On the contrary, Kohl understood that there could be no reunited Germany without Washington’s reassurances to Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and France’s François Mitterrand that the Americans would stay on and hold the fort—not so much against the newly non-communist Russians as the newly united Germans.

Of course, the reunited Germans did not return to aggressive old ways, and soon the chief complaint about them from their Western partners was that, once again, they were not paying their fair share of allied security costs. Partly in response to that supposed delinquency, but even more to shifting global security threats, Washington began drawing down its German-based forces in the 1990s and early 2000s. In 2006 it began executing another big drawdown, from 72,400 to 33,250 by 2018, thus more than halving the contingent. Still, the reduced force remained important to the German-U.S. relationship and especially to the economic and cultural makeup of the villages and towns near U.S. bases. Germans had learned much, and earned much, from their American military friends, just as many American learned from the Germans and profited from their stay there. They brought back to the United States something of what they had picked up in Deutschland.

The story of America’s military presence in Germany from the end of World War II to the present shows that the U.S. contingent there, along with a united NATO and a strong U.S.-German relationship, have survived a host of challenges from both sides of the Atlantic. The question now is whether that relationship, a crucial anchor of the trans-Atlantic partnership, will weather this latest storm churned up by America’s own leadership. This question is important because, buffeted as it has been by the winds of change over the past 75 years, the American troop presence in Germany has been one of the more dependable fundaments in the trans-Atlantic architecture. Probably no investment the United States has made in postwar Europe has achieved greater returns. This commitment has not been rendered “obsolete” (as some have charged) either by Germany’s own rearmament or the end of the Cold War. The woefully underequipped and underfunded Bundeswehr remains dependent on the U.S. military forces there for access to certain armaments (especially atomic) and larger-scale deployment capabilities. And, as we all know, Russia under Putin is back as a major threat to European and world security, whatever Trump would have us believe.

David Clay Large is a senior fellow with the Institute of European Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Among his many books are Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936; Munich 1972: Tragedy, Terror, and Triumph at the Olympic Games; and, most recently, The Grand Spas of Central Europe: A History of Intrigue, Politics, Art, and Healing.

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