Joseph Luns

His Excellency
Joseph Luns

Joseph Luns in 1979
5th Secretary General of NATO
In office
1 October 1971  25 June 1984
Preceded by Manlio Brosio
Succeeded by The Lord Carrington
Member of the House of Representatives of the Netherlands
In office
11 May 1971  1 October 1971
In office
23 February 1967  5 April 1967
In office
3 July 1956  3 October 1956
Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands
In office
2 September 1952  6 July 1971
Serving with Johan Beyen (1952–1956)
Prime Minister Willem Drees (1956–1958)
Louis Beel (1958–1959)
Jan de Quay (1959–1963)
Victor Marijnen (1963–1965)
Jo Cals (1965–1966)
Jelle Zijlstra (1966–1967)
Piet de Jong (1967–1971)
Preceded by Johan Beyen
Succeeded by Norbert Schmelzer
Personal details
Born Joseph Antoine Marie Hubert Luns
(1911-08-28)28 August 1911
Rotterdam, Netherlands
Died 17 July 2002(2002-07-17) (aged 90)
Brussels, Belgium
Nationality Dutch
Political party Catholic People's Party
Other political
Roman-Catholic State Party
Spouse(s) Lia van Heemstra
(m. 1939–1990; her death)
Children Huib
Alma mater University of Amsterdam
(Bachelor of Laws, Master of Laws)
Leiden University
(Bachelor of Laws)
London School of Economics (Bachelor of Economics)
Occupation Politician
civil servant
Religion Roman Catholicism

Joseph Marie Antoine Hubert Luns (28 August 1911 – 17 July 2002) was a Dutch politician and diplomat of the defunct Catholic People's Party (KVP), now merged into the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA). Luns was one of the most popular Dutch politicians of the time, famous for his dry wit and ready puns. He survived a total of eight cabinets and stayed in office nineteen years continuously, becoming the longest-serving Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2 September 1952 until 6 July 1971. He retired from Dutch politics and became the 5th (and also longest-serving) Secretary General of NATO for 13 years from 1 October 1971 until 25 June 1984.


Early life

Luns was born in a Roman Catholic, francophile and artistic family. His mother's family originated from Alsace-Lorraine but had moved to Belgium after the annexation of the region by the German Empire in 1871. His father, Huib Luns, was a versatile artist and a gifted educationalist who ended his career as professor of architectural drawing at the Delft University of Technology.[1] Luns got his secondary education in Amsterdam and Brussels. He opted to become a commissioned officer of the Dutch Royal Navy but registered too late to be selected. Therefore, Luns decided to study law at Amsterdam University from 1932 to 1937.[2]

Like his father, Luns demonstrated a preference for conservative and authoritarian political parties and an interest in international politics. As a young student he positioned himself on the political right, favouring a strong authority for the state and being of the opinion that socialism, because of its idealistic ideology, had fostered the rise of fascism and nazism. Luns himself had been a silent member of the National Socialist Movement in the Netherlands (NSB) but left in 1936 before this party chose a strongly anti-Semitic course.[3]

His choice for a diplomatic career was inspired by his father. He joined the Dutch Diplomatic Service in 1938 and, after a two-year assignment at the Private Office of the Foreign Minister, was appointed as attaché in Bern (Switzerland) in 1940. In late 1941, he moved to Lisbon, Portugal. In both countries, he was involved in assistance to Dutch refugees, political espionage and counterintelligence. In 1943, he was transferred to the Dutch embassy in London. Ambassador E. Michiels van Verduynen discovered Luns's great affinity for the political element in international affairs and entrusted him with important files on Germany, which Luns handled with great skill.[4]

In 1949, Luns was appointed as deputy Dutch permanent representative to the United Nations. He worked closely with his new chief, Von Balluseck, a political appointee without diplomatic experience. After the Netherlands became a member of the Security Council, he temporarily chaired the Disarmament Commission. Luns was sceptical of the importance of the United Nations for international peace, believing it at times to be more like a forum for propaganda than a centre for solving international conflicts. Still, he thought that it was worthwhile to keep the UN in shape because it was the sole international organisation which offered opportunities for discussions between all states.[5]

Minister of Foreign Affairs (1952–1971)

Because of the tenacity of the Dutch Catholic People's Party to occupy the Foreign Ministry after the 1952 elections, Luns entered Dutch politics as the favourite of its political leader Carl Romme. His co-minister was Johan Willem Beyen, an international banker not affiliated to any political party but the protégé of Queen Juliana. The two ministers had a completely different style of operating and clashed repeatedly on policy even before the end of 1952. However, they accommodated and avoided future conflicts by a very strict division of labour. Luns was responsible for bilateral relations, Benelux and international organisations. After the 1956 elections, Beyen left office and Luns stayed as Foreign Minister until 1971 in both centre-left and centre-right governments. Bilateral relations with Indonesia and the Federal Republic of Germany, security policy and European integration were the most important issues during his tenure.

Luns (right) with Ion Gheorghe Maurer in 1967 in Romania.

Atlantic co-operation was a fundamental aspect of Luns's foreign policy, and Dutch foreign policy in general. Luns believed that Western Europe could not survive the Cold War without American nuclear security and so he promoted strong and intensified political and military co-operation in NATO. Luns accepted American leadership of NATO as such but expected better co-operation between the United States States and its allies since, he thought that the United States too often acted independently of its allies, particularly in decolonisation issues.[6] Luns could also be critical of US foreign policy, and, in bilateral relations, he defended Dutch national interests strongly and expected American support in the bilateral difficulties with Indonesia.

In 1952 Luns expected to improve relations with Indonesia without transferring the disputed area of West New Guinea to the former colony. By 1956, however, this policy had proved ineffectual, but Luns and the Dutch government were still determined not to transfer West New Guinea to the Republic of Indonesia. When, in 1960, it became obvious that allied support for this policy, particularly from the United States, was waning, Luns tried to find an intermediate solution by transferring the administration of the territory to the United Nations, but that attempt to keep West New Guinea out of Indonesian hands failed as well. After difficult negotiations, the area was finally transferred to the Republic of Indonesia in 1963 after a short interim administration of the UN. Despite his personal anger over this outcome, which was considered a personal defeat by Luns, the foreign minister still worked to restore relations with Indonesia in the aftermath of the West New Guinea problem.

Luns was more successful in the normalisation of the bilateral relations with West Germany. Luns shared Dutch public opinion in demanding that Germany recognise the damage it had caused during the Second World War, and so a mea culpa required. He demanded that before any negotiations on other bilateral disputes could start, the amount of damages to be paid to Dutch war victims had to be agreed upon. During the final stages of the negotiations on bilateral disputes between the two countries, Luns decided to come to an arrangement with his German colleague on his own accord. He made concessions and so the Dutch parliament threatened not to ratify the agreement. With the full support of the government however, Luns was able to overcome the crisis.[7]

European integration was permanently on Luns's political agenda. Beyen had introduced the concept of the European Economic Community. In March 1957, Luns signed the Treaties of Rome establishing the EEC and Euratom. Although he preferred integration of a wider group of European states he accepted the treaty and defended the supranational structure it was based on. The endeavours of French president Charles de Gaulle to subordinate the institutions of the Six to an intergovernmental political structure, could count on strong opposition from Luns: such plans would, in his view, serve only French ambitions of a Europe independent of the United States.

Initially, Luns stood alone and was afraid that Franco-German co-operation would result in anti-Atlantic and anti-American policies that harmed the interests of the West. He made British membership of the European institutions conditional for his political co-operation. Gradually his views on Gaullist foreign policies were shared by the other EEC members and they joined Luns in his objections. Two of De Gaulle's decisions stiffened the opposition: his denial of EEC membership to the United Kingdom in January 1963 and France's retreat from the integrated military structure of NATO in 1966. Luns played a vital role in the negotiations unwinding French participation and continuing its political membership of the Alliance. By then, Luns had internationally established his reputation as an able and reliable negotiator and was seen as an important asset in London and Washington. After the retreat of De Gaulle in 1968, the EEC Summit of The Hague, in December 1969, ended the long crisis of the EEC integration process, opened the way to British membership and agreed on new venues for political co-operation, a common market and monetary union.

Throughout his years as Dutch foreign minister, Luns had gained an international status uncommon for a foreign minister of a small country. He owed this to his personal style in which duress, a high level of information, political leniency and diplomatic skills were combined with wit, gallant conversation and the understanding that diplomacy was a permanent process of negotiations in which a victory should never be celebrated too exuberantly at the cost of the loser.

NATO Secretary-General (1971–1984)

In 1971, Luns was appointed as NATO Secretary-General. At the time of his appointment, public protests against American policies in Vietnam were vehement throughout Western Europe and among European politicians the credibility of the American nuclear protection was in doubt. Though there were initial doubts about his skills for the job he soon proved that he was capable of managing the alliance in crisis. He regarded himself as the spokesman of the alliance and he aimed at balancing the security and political interests of the alliance as a whole.

Luns was in favour of negotiating with the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact members on the reduction of armaments if the Western defence was kept in shape during such negotiations. European members of NATO, according to Luns, should understand that the United States carried international responsibilities while the latter should understand that in-depth consultation with the European governments was conditional to forging a united front on the international stage, which could be accepted and endorsed by all members of NATO.

US-Soviet negotiations on mutual troop reductions and the strategic nuclear arsenal caused severe tensions. Luns convinced American leaders that it undermined the credibility in Western Europe of their nuclear strategy by neglecting European fears of a change of strategy which would leave Europe unprotected in case of a Soviet nuclear attack. The modernisation of the tactical nuclear forces by the introduction of the neutron bomb and cruise missiles caused deep divisions. In the end, Luns succeeded in keeping NATO together in the so-called Double-Track Decision of December 1979.[8] The deployment of these new weapon systems was linked to success in American-Soviet arms reduction talks.

It was also the duty of the Secretary-General to mediate in cause of conflicts within the alliance. He was successful in the conflict between Great Britain and Iceland, the so-called Second Cod War not by pressuring the Icelandic government to end its aggressive behaviour against British trawlers but by convincing the British government that it had to take the first step by calling back its destroyers to open the way to negotiations. Luns failed however in the conflict between Greece and Turkey over the territorial boundaries and Cyprus. Lack of co-operation on both sides made Luns unable to mediate or advise on procedures to find a way out.

Between 1964 and 1984 he participated in every annual conference of the Bilderberg Group.

Late life

Luns retired as Secretary-General in 1984, staying in office for a full 13 years. Because of the changes the 1960s and 1970s had brought to Dutch society and culture, the strongly conservative Luns decided not to return to his home country but instead settled in Brussels to spend his remaining years in retirement.[9] Luns died at 90.



  1. Kersten, A.E., Luns. A political biography. Amsterdam 2010 p.26-28
  3. Kersten, A.E., Luns. A political biography. Amsterdam 2010 p.42-44.
  4. Kersten, A.E., Luns. A political biography. Amsterdam 2010 p.67-72.
  5. Kersten, A.E., Luns. A political biography. Amsterdam 2010 p.83-87.
  6. Until 1962, Luns was notorious for his highly critical statements on the US's Indonesian policy, Kersten, A.E., Luns. A political biography. Amsterdam 2010 p.620
  7. Kersten, A.E., Luns. A political biography. Amsterdam 2010 p.128-132
  8. Kersten, A.E., Luns. A political biography. Amsterdam 2010 p.592
  9. Kersten, A.E., Luns. A political biography. Amsterdam 2010 p.611
  10. Kersten, A.E., Luns. A political biography. Amsterdam 2010 p.448-449
  11. Presentation of the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Further reading

Government offices
Preceded by
Johan Willem Beyen
Minister of Foreign Affairs
Succeeded by
Norbert Schmelzer
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
Manlio Brosio
Secretary General of NATO
Succeeded by
The Lord Carrington
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