Parallel History Project on NATO and the Warsaw Pact

Vojtech Mastny, Project Coordinator

30 May 2002

New Documents Overturn Simplistic Myths of Cold War Alliances


Previously secret documents obtained by the National Security Archive and its affiliated network, the Parallel History Project on NATO and the Warsaw Pact (PHP), shed new light on current issues of NATO enlargement and relations with Russia.

Documents compiled by the Washington-based Archive cover a long span of NATO history, from the early 1950s through the late 1980s, and disclose significant detail on how the alliance and its members looked at Soviet military capabilities and intentions, how NATO sought to deter conflict with Moscow and the Warsaw Pact, and how it intended to fight a war if deterrence failed. While contemporary analysts often argue that security policy was simpler during the bipolar Cold War, these documents suggest the opposite, that differences in national interests, threat perceptions, and resource availabilities made NATO policymaking an endlessly complex process and even the Warsaw Pact process was less monolithic than NATO presumed during the Cold War.

Findings include:

  • U.S.-European conflicts over levels of national contribution to NATO defenses are as old as the Cold War and the heavy U.S. contribution in "advanced weapons systems" has always accounted for the element of "unilateralism" in U.S. policy.
  • During the early 1960s, NATO war plans involved "almost simultaneous launch of large-scale nuclear air strikes and missiles" and, according to Secretary of Defense McNamara, paralleled concepts of "strategic nuclear war." This emphasis upon the need for early use of nuclear weapons characterized NATO planning from the 1950s onward.
  • Differences between U.S. and West German intelligence during the 1960s on whether Soviet divisions were fully manned and equipped, how many were available, and whether divisions manned by satellite nations were reliable, with the Germans seeing a more powerful Warsaw Pact
    threat than the Americans (thus confirming a point made in Raymond Garthoff's memoirs that the U.S.'s "NATO partners" contributed to exaggerated estimates of Warsaw Pact capabilities).
  • The US and NATO Europe came to agree that a Soviet surprise attack was unlikely but disagreed on how to deter conflict, with the U.S. emphasizing non-nuclear war-fighting options to halt a Soviet attack in Europe, while the Europeans leaned toward the threat of massive retaliation to deter a Soviet attack.

The collection of records prepared by the Zurich-based PHP for the same website reveal greater policy input by Soviet allies than Moscow's dominance of the Warsaw Pact previously suggested.

Findings include:

  • after the 1968 Czechoslovak crisis, the Soviet Union found it in its interest to frequently consult with its allies about foreign policy,
  • the allies often used this opportunity to formulate their own policies that would not conflict with Soviet priorities,
  • détente and the "Helsinki process" provided the main impetus to the formation of the Committee of Ministers of Foreign Affairs, which evolved into the main forum of discussion and discord leading to the Warsaw Pact's final breakup,
  • the self-destruction of the Soviet system under Gorbachev prevented the transformation of the alliance from a military tool to a structure for political cooperation

The documents, introduced and annotated by Anna Locher of the Center for Security Studies and Conflict research in Zurich, originate from Czechoslovak and East German archives. The former were selected from the archives of the Czech Foreign Ministry by Petr Lunák, of the NATO Office of Information and Press. The latter, located at the former East German communist party archives in Berlin, appear courtesy of the Federal Archives of Germany, a member of the PHP network.

Visit the PHP website at to read the documents in the original with English summaries and to find out more about the PHP's other activities. The website is part of the International Relations and Security Network (ISN), operated by the Swiss Center for Security Studies and Conflict Research at ETH Zurich as a major Swiss contribution to NATO's Partnership for Peace.

For further information, contact:
Tom Blanton, William Burr, or Robert Wampler, National Security Archive
Anna Locher, Center for Security Studies and Conflict Research
Vojtech Mastny, PHP coordinator


Sponsored by the Center for Security Studies and Conflict Research of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich,
the National Security Archive at the George Washington University in Washington, DC,
and the Institute of Military Studies in Vienna
In association with the Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington, DC, Hannah Arendt Institute for Research on Totalitarianism, Dresden, Institute of Political Studies, Warsaw, Cold War Research Group, Sofia, Institute of International Relations, Prague, Cold War History Research Center, Budapest,
Affiliated with the Partnership for Peace