SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Alaska for Greenland?

The US considered it  after WW II


August 20, 2019
Tuesday PM

(SitNews) Ketchikan, Alaska - Even 80 years after the United States purchased Alaska from Russia it still wasn't sure what to do with The Last Frontier.

The cost of maintaining its "territorial colony" in the north was high and many in the Federal Government considered it unlikely that Alaska would ever be able to economically support itself, let alone get enough population to support statehood in the vast territory.
In 1938, members of the Roosevelt administration pondered making a part of Alaska - Sitka and Baranof Island - a homeland for Jewish refugees from Europe. The plan, first proposed by Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, was studied and then considered for a couple of years, but never approved, primarily because of opposition from Jewish organizations in the United States.  The proposed Alaskan colony was the basis for Michael Chabon's 2007 novel "The Yiddish Policeman's Ball" which imagined what would have happened had a large number of Jewish refugees immigrated to Alaska.

jpg Aerial view of Prudhoe Bay

Aerial view of Prudhoe Bay
The US once proposed trading a section of the northern Alaskan coast for areas in Greenland that the military considered necessary. The Alaska area that would have been traded included Barrow and Prudhoe Bay.
Creative Commons

 Then, when the Cold War began to heat up shortly after WW II, the Truman administration looked at bolstering North America against a perceived threat from the Soviet Union. Some people in the United States saw the vast island of Greenland as a bulwark against the "Red Menace."
Initially in the 40s, according to a 1991 story in the Copenhagen newspaper Jyllands-Posten, the US proposed trading a section of the northern Alaskan coast for areas in Greenland that the military considered necessary. The area that would have been traded included Barrow and Prudhoe Bay. Although some in the administration believed there were potential oil reserves in the area, some just the saw area as an ungovernable Arctic wasteland.

jpg Utqia?vik, previously known as  Barrow

Utqia?vik, previously known as  Barrow
Credit: Jessica K Robertson, U.S. Geological Survey. Public domain.
September 2008

 Part of the negotiations were over who would "own" any oil found in the region. According to the Danish newspaper, Denmark would have owned the oil, but would have been required to sell it to the United States.
Fortunately, the "oil reserve" faction won out and was rewarded when the largest oil field in North America was discovered at Prudhoe Bay 20 years later. (1967)

jpg Church of Hvalsey Nordic Ruins on Greenland

Church of Hvalsey Nordic Ruins on Greenland
Public Domain - Creative Commons

But back in 1946, the US government was still interested in Greenland - which has been a part of Denmark since 1814 and is semi-autonomous under the Denmark monarchy. After the land swap went nowhere, the US proposed buying parts of Greenland for $100 million in gold bullion, according to documents in the National Archives accessed by Jyllands-Posten. 

According to a 1991 story from the Associated Press, the proposed purchase of parts of Greenland first came up in November of 1945.

Then In April of 1946, State Department official John Hickerson attended a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and learned that the military felt "that our real objective as regards to Greenland should be to acquire it by purchase from Denmark."

″The committee indicated that money is plentiful now, that Greenland is completely worthless to Denmark (and) that the control of Greenland is indispensable to the safety of the United States,″ Hickerson said in a memo in the National Archives.

jpg Ships at the Port in Greenland.

Ships at the Port in Greenland.
Public Domain - Creative Commons

In his memo, Hickerson said he told the Joint Chiefs that he doubted the Danes would actually sell any of the island, despite the fact that only about 600 Danes lived in Greenland at the time. But William Trimble, a state department expert on Northern European Affairs took a different tack in a different memo, that is also preserved in the archives.

″In the final analysis, there are few people in Denmark who have any real interest in Greenland, economic, political or financial,″ Trimble wrote. Trimble was the one who had suggested a land swap involving specific military base sites in Greenland and much of the land in the Point Barrow district. Trimble noted that the Greenland sites would be ″valuable bases from which to launch an air counteroffensive over the Arctic area in the event of attack.″

In June of 1946, Secretary of War Robert Patterson  wrote a memo to the state department noting that ″it might be a good idea to take prompt action toward securing from Denmark (even to the extent of purchasing the entire island, if necessary) the military rights which have been outlined by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.″
Secretary of State James Byrnes then made a specific offer to Gustave Rasmussen, the Danish Foreign MInister in December of 1946.

″Our needs ... seemed to come as a shock to Rasmussen, but he did not reject my suggestions flatly and said that he would study a memorandum which I gave him,″ Byrnes reported in a telegram that is also in the archives.

That is where the trail ends. There is nothing in the archives that indicates if the Danes made a formal response or a counter proposal.

jpg Tasiilaq, Greenland.

Tasiilaq, Greenland.
Public Domain - Creative Commons

But within a few years, the United States did sign a defense treaty with Denmark and, as part of that treaty, was granted two Air Force bases, Thule and Sondestrom, on the island

The Thule base was built in 1952, originally as a refueling base for long range bombers. In 2019, Thule is a ballistic missile early warning site and a satellite telemetry station. The Sondestrom base is a support base for Thule.

So the word that President Trump recently floated the idea of purchasing Greenland for strategic purchases, harkens back to earlier efforts to secure the giant, ice covered island, efforts that would have irrevocably changed the future of Alaska.



Editor's Note:

In 2019, the Washington Post estimated the purchase price of Greenland would fall between $200 million and $1.7 trillion, with a middle estimate of $42.6 billion.


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Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
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