The extent and strength of the North Atlantic subpolar gyre (SPG) changed rapidly in the mid-1990s, going from large and strong in 1995 to substantially weakened in the following years. The abrupt change in the intensity of the SPG is commonly linked to the reversal of the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) index, changing from strong positive to negative values, in the winter 1995/96. In this study we investigate the impact of the initial SPG state on the subsequent behavior of the SPG by means of an ocean general circulation model driven by NCEP-NCAR reanalysis fields. Our sensitivity integrations suggest that the weakening of the SPG cannot be explained by the change in the atmospheric forcing alone. Rather, for the time period around 1995, the SPG was about to weaken, irrespective of the actual atmospheric forcing, due to the ocean state governed by the persistently strong positive NAO during the preceding seven years (1989–1995). Our analysis indicates that it was this preconditioning of the ocean, in combination with the sudden drop in the NAO in 1995/96, that lead to the strong and rapid weakening of the SPG in the second half of the 1990s. This hypothesis explains the diverging evolution of the strength of the SPG and the atmospheric forcing (winter NAO) after 1995, as has been suggested recently.