NORAD The Beginning

Brian D. Laslie, Ph.D.

It is always treacherous to ask a historian when an event began or ended. “It depends” will likely be the answer. Take, for example, the beginning of World War II. Americans might use the date December 7, 1941. Many in Europe would say September 1, 1939, or even January 30, 1933, when Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. Again, “it depends” largely on where and when an event began for “us.”  

The same is true for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). NORAD’s official birthday is May 12, 1958, the date the United States and Canada exchanged diplomatic notes and officially created NORAD. The truth is that NORAD had already been protecting the two countries and was conducting this mission for eight months when the two leaders signed the agreement.

The post-World War II environment and the rise of the Cold War dictated a united defense between Canada and the United States to protect both nations against a possible attack from the Soviet Union. While the United States had the lion’s share of offensive capability, Canada’s vast northern regions provided the means to detect and respond effectively against an incoming attack. Neither country had the ability to defend against an attack alone.

By 1957, the details had been worked out, and the top defense officials in each nation approved the formation of the “North American Air Defense Command.” Canada and the United States announced in August that year that the two nations planned to cooperate on air defense. The military wasted no time in making this proposed cooperation an operational reality. Official operations began on September 12, 1957, at Ent Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado, after U.S. Air Force Gen. Earle Partridge, commander of the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD), issued the stand-up order. Partridge’s message read: “Announcement is made of the establishment of the North American Air Defense Command … effective 12 September 1957 as a Combined Command for the air defense of the continental United States, Canada, Alaska and the Northeast Area.” The date is historically significant. As Joseph Jockel, author of Canada in NORAD, 1957-2007: a History said: “NORAD became what its prime creators in the United States Air Force (USAF) and Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) originally wanted it to be: namely, just a practical and useful continental air defense headquarters.”

Ent provided the ideal location. Already the home of CONAD and its subordinates, including USAF Air Defense Command (ADC), the base was situated near the center of the country. Partridge, who was already the ADC and CONAD commander, also became the first commander in chief of NORAD, and the senior Canadian RCAF official, Air Marshal Roy Slemon, who had been the key Canadian delegate in most of the cooperation talks, became deputy commander. 

Partridge enlisted in the U.S. Army at age 17 during World War I, serving in Europe and at the Battles of Meuse-Argonne and Saint-Mihiel before returning home and attending West Point. He earned his wings and went on to attend and instruct at the Air Corps Tactical School prior to World War II. He eventually served as the deputy commander of the 8th Air Force in 1944 during World War II. He later served as commander of the 5th Air Force during the Korean War and as the commander for the famed Far East Air Force, making him one of the few Air Force officers to have served in all three conflicts. He was one of the cadre of air power practitioners who came of age in the interwar years and applied this knowledge in World War II.

Slemon, the first Canadian deputy of NORAD, joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1922. During World War II, Slemon was a senior staff officer of the No. 6 Bomber Group and ended the war as deputy air officer commander in chief of the RCAF Overseas. After the war, he went on to be air officer commanding Training Command. When he became deputy commander of NORAD in 1957, he was the only member of the RCAF’s “originals” still serving on active duty. Much of his early flying career included years mapping the vast reaches of the Canadian North and the sub-Arctic. Few men could say they understood the North as Slemon did.  

These two officers, Slemon and Partridge, represented the perfect pairing to head the Air Defense Command and ensure the safety of the two countries in subsequent years.

Eight months after operational establishment of the command, on May 12, 1958, the two nations announced they had formalized the cooperative air defense arrangement as a government-to-government binational defense agreement that became known as the NORAD agreement. That is why the May 12 date represents the official NORAD birthday as opposed to the September 12 date, which represents more the innovative spirit and “can do” attitude that both militaries often apply to problem solving.

Dr. Brian D. Laslie is the deputy command historian for U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command.