General Lauris Norstad helped engineer World War II victories for American air forces in Africa, Europe and Asia from 1942 to 1945. As Supreme Allied Commander in Europe from 1956 to 1963, he faced an even more dangerous challenge—the very real threat of nuclear holocaust.
Lauris Norstad was born in Minneapolis to a Norwegian immigrant Lutheran minister and his wife on March 24, 1907. His father, Reverend Martin Norstad, moved his family to Red Wing in 1910 when he became pastor of St. Peter’s Church. As a student at Red Wing Central High School, Lauris built a strong academic and athletic record.
Based on this record, Norstad won appointment to West Point in 1926. He graduated four years later. A December 1957 TIME Magazine cover story on Norstad provided a description from his cadet days. It still fit him at age fifty. TIME described him as six foot one inches tall, 142 pounds, with wavy blond hair and a pointed jaw.
He was commissioned a second lieutenant of cavalry after graduation but quickly transferred to the Army Air Corps. He became a fighter pilot and was stationed in Hawaii from 1932 to 1936. He met Isabelle (Helen) Jenkins during his tour and they were married in 1935. During the same period, Norstad moved up in rank.
Japan’s sudden attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, put America on war footing. Army Air Corps commander General Henry “Hap” Arnold chose Captain Norstad to be a top aide. From there, the Minnesotan made a meteoric rise through Air Corps ranks. He served as a planner in Washington D.C., Africa, Europe and Asia during the war. At the end of the fighting, he held the rank of major general. Norstad’s superiors and the nation’s allies considered him one of America’s more gifted military leaders.
In 1947 Lieutenant General Norstad became acting Vice Chief of Staff in the newly independent Air Force. Three years later he commanded all U.S. Air Forces in Europe. A full general by 1956, he became commander of all North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in Europe. The Cold War, a post-World War II struggle for dominance between the United States and the Soviet Union, was heating up. NATO, a group of fifteen European countries, allied with the U.S. The United States held a leading position in the organization. The Soviets led the Warsaw Pact, a group of Eastern Europe nations. Each side eyed the other warily. Both controlled nuclear weapons.
General Norstad’s military force consisted of 5,000 aircraft and about thirty combat divisions. The total mobilized armed strength of NATO countries included 3.5 million men, 10,000 combat aircraft, and nine aircraft carriers. Then, in October 1957, the Soviet Union used a powerful missile to launch Sputnik. It was the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth. The United States and its NATO allies feared the Soviets would soon be able to install nuclear weapons on such guided missiles. That kind of weapon would be able to reach any spot in the world.
The Cold War continued heating up. America’s own missile program produced weapons that matched or surpassed those of the Soviets. Both sides added powerful jet and turbo-prop bombers and missile-carrying submarines carrying nuclear weapons. American cities, and those of its enemies, were now only minutes away from destruction. In Europe, Norstad deftly handled the military and political aspects of his high-pressure job.
In 1961 East Germany, a Soviet ally, cut off East Berlin from West Berlin by building a wall between them. A war over this division seemed possible. Norstad’s poise during this dangerous time helped ease the crisis. Nonetheless, differences with President John Kennedy’s administration sped Norstad’s decision to retire in 1962.
Before Norstad could step down, Kennedy changed his mind. With the 1962 Cuban missile crisis looming, Kennedy asked Norstad stay on as leader of NATO. Norstad said he would, and he held office until the danger passed. He retired in 1963 and soon became president of Owens-Corning International, a Fortune 500 company and leader in glass fiber technology.
Republican Party leaders considered General Norstad as a presidential candidate in 1968, but he had little interest. He died at age eighty-one on September 13, 1988.
Buckley, Thomas C. Lauris Norstad: From Red Wing to Paris. Red Wing, MN.: Goodhue County Historical Society, 1990.
Jordan, Robert S. Norstad: Cold War NATO Supreme Commander, Airman, Strategist, Diplomat. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000.
Lauris Norstad Oral History
Oral History Collection, Goodhue County Historical Society, Red Wing
Description: Lauris Norstad interview with Janette Musty, November 9, 1977.
Isabelle Norstad Oral History
Oral History Collection, Goodhue County Historical Society, Red Wing
Description: Isabelle Norstad interview with Janette Musty, November 9, 1977.
“NATO: The View at the Summit.” TIME December 16, 1957.
Pace, Eric. “Lauris Norstad Dies at 81; Former NATO Commander,” New York Times, September 14, 1988.
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. “Remarks of the President Upon Presentation of the Distinguished Service Medal to General Lauris Norstad in the East Room.” January 9, 1963.
Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1965.
Minnesota State Centennial Commission. International and Distinguished Guests files, 1956–1958.
State Archives, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Files relating to the work of the international guest program, chaired by former U.S. Ambassador to Denmark Eugenie Anderson, which sought to involve dignitaries from outside the U.S. in statehood centennial activities. The files also contain information on distinguished American guests, including Allied Powers in Europe supreme commander General Lauris Norstad.
In 1956, Lauris Norstad is promoted to full general and given command of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops during the height of the Cold War.
Lauris Norstad is born in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The Norstad family moves to Red Wing, Minnesota where Lauris later becomes an outstanding high school student and athlete.
Norstad enters the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Now a commissioned second lieutenant, Norstad enters the Army Air Corps.
Norstad marries Isabelle (Helen) Jenkins
America enters World War II and Captain Lauris Norstad becomes a staff officer for General Henry Arnold, Air Corps commanding general.
Norstad’s meteoric career takes him to American theaters of war in Europe and Asia where he proves an outstanding strategic planner and finishes the war with the rank of major general
General Norstad becomes Director of Plans and Operations for the War Department’s General Staff.
He begins serving as Acting Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force.
Norstad becomes Commanding General of U.S. Air Forces in Europe.
¬General Norstad takes the full-time role of Deputy Commander for Air to the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR).
Until 1963, Norstad is Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR, NATO) and Commander in Chief of the U.S. European Command, Paris, France.
Norstad retires and, as a civilian, becomes president of Owens–Corning International.
Lauris Norstad dies.