American military forces in Europe continue to shrink and will, over the next few years, shrink to 30,000 troops. That’s a tenth of what it was when the Cold War ended between 1989 (when most communist governments in East Europe collapsed) and 1991 (when the Soviet Union dissolved). But the American troops won’t completely disappear and most Europeans want it that way. The American troops are hostages, to help keep the peace in a part of the world that has brought us some of the most destructive wars in history. While the Russians complain that the continued presence of U.S. forces in Europe is a threat to Russia, most Europeans have a more justifiable fear of Russian aggression. The Europeans pick up most of the cost of keeping the American troops there and it’s not a bad place to be stationed for a few years.
All this began after 1952 (when the occupation of Germany ended). In 1945 there were three million American troops in Europe. In the next few years that was reduced by over 90 percent. The Cold War began in 1948, but the forces in Europe did not grow much until the 1950s.
The American troops in Europe grew to include two corps and over six divisions (18 combat brigades), plus thousands of warplanes and helicopters and hundreds of ships. During the Cold War there were over 300,000 U.S. troops in Western Europe, now it's about 40,000 and headed for 30,000 in five years. Most of the American units in Europe are being disbanded with some others, mostly combat units, being sent back to the United States.
While disturbing to the Russians and reassuring to European politicians, the reduction of U.S. forces in Europe has been particularly good news for people who run military museums. The dwindling U.S. forces in Europe are abandoning bases that contain an enormous quantity of museum-grade military artifacts. There since World War II, American military units casually preserved many historical items. For example, the first U.S. M-4 tank to break into Bastogne during the December, 1944 Battle of the Bulge was found (by checking vehicle serial numbers) to have been sitting in a U.S. base, as a nameless World War II monument, for over fifty years. Many similar discoveries have been made and military historians, and the army brass, are making the best of the situation. Europeans are glad to help the Americans bring back artifacts that will remind the folks back home of the long history of U.S. military involvement in Europe. It’s feared that without preserving those memories the Americans will revert to their traditional isolationism.
A good example of all this is found in how the museum of an American armored division in Europe was moved back to the United States. The U.S. Army 1st Armored Division managed to establish a museum in Europe with many of the artifacts its members had collected while in Europe. Although the 1st Armored left Europe in 1946, and only returned in 1971, it was able to collect nearly 3,000 items (including 140 tanks, artillery, and other vehicles) for their museum in Germany. Many other units that were there between World War II and today, collected historical artifacts and used them to decorate their bases or just hang on a wall (in a club or headquarters).
All of the 1st Armored has returned to the United States over the last few years and the museum went with it. Established in 1963 in Europe, the museum moved around a bit and now is in Fort Bliss, Texas. The 1st Armored collection is only a fraction of the artifacts found throughout U.S. military bases in Europe. Many of these bases have already been closed. Some artifacts were sold, some were given away or lost. It's an enormous chunk of U.S. military history and much of it is in danger of being lost forever.