The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
THE bottom quarter of our planet is its most lonely region, consisting largely of ocean areas and Antarctica. Until the end of the last century no human being, so far as was known, had set foot on the Antarctic continent. Today some ten nations have about 40 outposts in that area and the time has come when the great Powers must decide what is their interest in this little-explored land mass and what to do about it.
Most of the stations there were set up to carry out observations during the International Geophysical Year, which runs for 18 months until the end of 1958. Although the I.G.Y. is supposed to be purely scientific, it is possible that some of these bases, including those of the United States and the Soviet Union, may become permanent. The red flag flies over Mirny and several inland stations, while the Stars and Stripes has been hoisted over six United States bases.
The Antarctic sites to be manned by each nation were agreed upon at an international conference held in Paris in the summer of 1955. Many of the camps were placed in regions claimed by other nations. The Soviet stations are in what Australia regards as part of its Capital Territory--comparable to the District of Columbia. The United States bases are in areas claimed by Argentina, Australia, Britain and New Zealand. The American station at the South Pole in effect trespasses on the territory of all seven claimants, since all the claims converge there, like so many slices of pie.
The I.G.Y. expeditions to Antarctica, which are part of a coordinated study of the earth and its environment, have reminded the world sharply of the existence of this last unexploited continent. Its potentialities, in an era when atomic energy is bringing about revolutionary changes in our concepts, are still uncertain. It unquestionably has mineral resources of great value, if they can be found and extracted. It is of definite strategic importance, especially to our allies in the Southern Hemisphere. It holds scientific information, such as that sought in the I.G.Y., which should benefit all mankind. Finally it is seen by some as a potential proving ground for international coöperation that may be significant to a world on the verge of space travel.
The political history of Antarctica is remarkably brief. Discovery of the continent is claimed by each of the three major Powers in the world today. Admiral Bellingshausen, who commanded two ships of the Imperial Russian Navy, circumnavigated Antarctica during the year 1820-21. Although his voyage was important scientifically, the lands he reported sighting later proved to be insular. Nathaniel Palmer, an American sealing captain barely out of his teens, presumably saw the mainland late in 1820, but the British say that Edward Bransfield of the Royal Navy got there the previous summer.
Of the three, the British seem to have been the most clearly motivated by political ambitions. Drake Passage, around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America, linked the Atlantic and Pacific and hence was a key waterway in that period of rival empire-building. Bransfield was told to investigate the possibilities of colonizing the lands believed to lie south of this passage and was instructed to "display every friendly disposition" to the natives. Actually, of course, Antarctica has no native land mammals, two-legged or otherwise.
The question of discovery has been bitterly disputed but has little political importance, for title to the various sectors is more likely to be settled by occupation and the exercise of sovereignty. Not until 1908 did any nation officially claim part of the continent. In that year Britain followed up the work of Bransfield by proclaiming the sovereignty of King Edward VII over Palmer Peninsula. (Since the designation "Palmer" implies its discovery by the American of that name, the British call the 1,000-mile peninsula "Graham Land.")
Fifteen years later New Zealand's sovereignty was proclaimed over the Ross Sea Dependency, the sector which now includes Little America and the western fringe of Marie Byrd Land. This was followed in 1924 by a French claim to Adélie Land, whose coast had been sighted initially in 1840 by both French and American expeditions. Agitation for staking a United States claim led to a policy statement by the then Secretary of State, Charles Evans Hughes, which has been the basis of American policy ever since: "It is the opinion of this Department," he said, "that the discovery of lands unknown to civilization, even when coupled with a formal taking of possession, does not support a valid claim of sovereignty, unless the discovery is followed by an actual settlement of the discovered country."
This was followed, a few years later, by Admiral Byrd's first expedition to Antarctica, during the course of which he claimed for the United States a large part of Marie Byrd Land, but our policy of publicly making no claims and recognizing those of no one else has continued to this day. Since World War II it has been outdated through the establishment of permanent Antarctic bases by Argentina, Australia, Britain and Chile.
In 1933 Australia claimed almost half the continent and after the return of Byrd's second Antarctic expedition in 1935 there were renewed demands for political action by the United States. This led, in the spring of 1938, to a request by President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the State Department prepare a policy study on the question of United States' interests in both the Arctic and Antarctic. The task was assigned to Hugh Cumming, Assistant Chief of the Division of European Affairs.
Meanwhile Secretary of State Cordell Hull cabled our consulate in Capetown to brief Lincoln Ellsworth, who was about to sail on another of his Antarctic ventures, regarding actions that could be taken to strengthen the American position there. When, a few months later, Ellsworth made the first flight into the hinterland of the Australian sector, he dropped a copper cylinder containing a note claiming for the United States all inland territory within 150 miles of his route "so far as this act allows."
The State Department study, delivered to the President in January 1939, listed reasons why the United States should give serious consideration to the assertion of claims in both polar regions. These included the following: (1) The development of trans-arctic aviation. (2) Reports of valuable mineral and fuel resources in Antarctica. (3) The strategic interests of the War and Navy Departments. (4) Measures being taken by the Soviet, British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, French and Norwegian Governments to establish their polar claims more firmly. (5) The interest expressed a short time before by the German and Japanese Embassies in Washington concerning newspaper reports of possible United States' claims in Antarctica.
On January 7 the President initiated planning for what was to become the U.S. Antarctic Service. It was to carry out what, at that time, he described as annual colonization "at Little America and at the region south of the Cape of Good Hope (Queen Maud Land)." The bases were to be evacuated during the winter night.
A week later Norway laid claim to Queen Maud Land, the largest remaining slice of the pie. At that very moment an expedition sponsored by Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering was nearing Queen Maud Land to lay the basis for a claim by Nazi Germany.
Plans for the American expedition were hastened and the Monroe Doctrine was, in effect, extended southward. The President asked Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles to study the possibility of a joint claim of the entire sector south of the Americas "in behalf of, and in trust for, the American Republics as a whole." Although the United States might prove to be the only American state active in Antarctica, the work would be done on behalf of all and the region, if it proved valuable, could be managed by an inter-American governing body, he said. It was probably the first suggestion for international control of part of Antarctica. The sentiment in Washington was expressed by Secretary Hull when, on May 24, 1940, he said that "considerations of continental defense make it vitally important to keep for the 21 American Republics a clearer title to that part of the Antarctic continent south of America than is claimed by any non-American country."
It was decided that the United States would establish two year-around bases at opposite ends of the only remaining unclaimed sector. Their chief task would be to explore the intervening coast, depositing documents and hammering brass markers into mountaintops to be used, later, as support for a claim. The unclaimed region was larger than Alaska, with over 1,700 miles of coastline, but because of perennially dense pack ice off shore it proved impossible to place either of the two bases within its boundaries. West Base was established at Little America, 200 miles to the west in the New Zealand sector. East Base was set up on Stonington Island, 450 miles east of the unclaimed region.
Plans for continuing operation of the U.S. Antarctic Service bases were shattered by World War II. The season following their establishment, ships were sent to fetch the men who by then, as official government representatives, had ceremoniously raised the Stars and Stripes at six remote points in Marie Byrd Land. Even before they could be evacuated the harshness of war came close to the shores of Antarctica.
During the night of January 13, 1941, two Norwegian whaling factory ships, moored together, wallowed in the sea north of Queen Maud Land. While their crews slept, a strange ship materialized from the fog. A boarding party scrambled over bloated whale carcasses floating alongside and up a ladder onto one of the ships. Within a few minutes both vessels had been seized and by the next day the German raider Pinguin had captured a third factory ship and eleven catchers--a large part of the Norwegian whaling fleet.
German raiders seemed to appear from nowhere, preying upon Allied ships in the Indian Ocean and other southern waters, then vanishing when warships went in pursuit. Several hundred thousand tons of shipping were captured or sunk, including the Australian light cruiser Sydney. Mines laid in Australian waters sank the City of Bayville, first United States vessel to go down in the war. It was obvious that the Germans were using sub-Antarctic waters as a refuge for their raiders. Allied ships mined harbor entrances at the Kerguelen Islands, which later were found to have been the chief German rendezvous. H.M.S. Carnarvon Castle, an armed merchant cruiser, was sent to see if the Germans were using any of the many harbors in the vicinity of Palmer Peninsula. The British vessel found no sign of the Germans, but near the abandoned whaling station on Deception Island a bronze tablet was discovered, which had been set up a year earlier by Argentina, claiming all of Palmer Peninsula and most of the rest of Britain's sector.
Because of Perón's known sympathy for the German cause Britain decided to act swiftly. In what was known as Operation Tabarin, small outposts were secretly set up at Deception Island and at Port Lockroy on another island 220 miles further down the peninsula. Thus were established the first permanent bases within sight of the Antarctic mainland. Others followed, at Hope Bay on the continent itself, and elsewhere near the 1,000-mile peninsula.
In July 1947, Chile, which had also made a claim to this region, consulted with Argentina and the foreign ministers of the two countries declared their willingness to negotiate a settlement of their rival claims. They pointedly rejected British rights in the area. The decision of these two nations to set up their own bases led to the first displays of naval power in the Antarctic. Early in 1948 a large part of the Argentine navy, including two cruisers and six destroyers, steamed into Bransfield Strait and landed a detachment of men four miles from the British base on Deception Island. Only five Britons were on hand at the time, but London sounded a clarion call and soon a British cruiser and frigate arrived on the scene. The Argentine squadron had left, having established a rival station. Meanwhile, President Gonzalez Videla of Chile, with suitable pomp and band-playing, had landed at Cape Legoupil on Palmer Peninsula, where a base was established. He was the first chief of state to set foot on the continent.
Fearful that an Antarctic dispute would divert Western strength from the greater issues of the cold war, the United States proposed to the seven nations claiming Antarctic territory that there be "some form of internationalization." It was an idea which may have had its roots in President Roosevelt's prewar memorandum on joint action by the American Republics. However, the proposal was not warmly received by the claimants. And the Soviet Union, which did not receive the American note since it had made no claim, announced that, in view of early Russian exploration in the area and the Soviet Union's more recent whaling interest, it would not recognize any solution to which it was not a party. Although no action was taken on internationalization, three contenders--Britain, Argentina and Chile--agreed to issue statements in which each government declared that, during the coming year, it did not intend to make displays of naval strength in Antarctic waters. These declarations have been renewed annually.
The cold war by now had given special importance to the Arctic, which lay between the chief antagonists, and United States military leaders were interested in a large-scale military exercise in a polar area sufficiently remote from the Soviet Union to avoid charges of sabre-rattling. The answer was Antarctica. There was also a desire to keep alive the American political stake in that region. Thus, in 1946, was born the largest exploratory venture in history, Operation Highjump, in which aircraft from a sizable Navy task force photographed much of the continent. The confidential directive, issued to leaders of the task force and recently made public, set as one of its tasks "consolidating and extending United States sovereignty over the largest practicable area of the Antarctic continent." Similar instructions were given to the ships of Operation Windmill, which sailed south a year later, and to the task force which went south in 1955 in the first stage of Operation Deepfreeze. The chief purpose of the latter was to install United States scientific stations in various parts of the continent for the I.G.Y. Because of the desire for the coöperation of the Soviet Union and other participants in the I.G.Y., those in charge of the American scientific program frowned on the introduction of a political element. Hence, in the Operation Plan for the following season (1956-57), the strengthening of claims was omitted as an objective.
The second largest expedition to head for Antarctica as a prelude to the I.G.Y. was that of the Soviet Union. Although the Russians had been active in whaling north of the belt of pack ice that girdles the continent, this was their first exploratory expedition to Antarctica since the voyage of Bellingshausen. Their plans to send an expedition were made public at the 1955 preparatory conference in Paris at which it was agreed that the Soviet Union would occupy several sites in the sector claimed by Australia.
Thus, when the Russians, on February 14, 1956, hoisted their flag over Mirny to the booming of guns and their national anthem, the Australians had no cause for protest. Nevertheless they were soon expressing their concern, privately, at the seeming permanence of the Soviet installations on a continent which is less distant from Melbourne than the width of the Australian continent itself. Actually the prefabricated Soviet buildings resemble those at the seven American-built bases. They have to be solid to provide the necessary insulation and resist the winds of hurricane force prevailing in that region.
The extensive activities of the United States in Antarctica, including such unprecedented feats as the airlifting of a base to the mountain-ringed South Pole, 10,000 feet above sea level, have convinced many in the United States that it would be foolish to pack up and go home once the "Year" is over. The revolution in thinking brought about by the advent of atomic energy has also played a rôle. The new atomic-powered icebreaker being completed in the Soviet Union may be the first of a series of ships which can break a channel to any point on the coast of that continent. Atomic power packages are being developed which will largely eliminate the need for liquid fuels, constituting about 75 percent of the resupply cargo which must be carried to Antarctic stations and airlifted to remote camps such as that at the Pole.
New aircraft have brought this most remote of the continents within direct flying range. Development of the ideal vehicle for hauling cargo sleds across the hinterland ice sheet seems to be in the offing. Equipped with crevasse detectors, it would make possible safe travel in that hitherto perilous region. It has even been suggested that atomic energy could be used to melt off the ice cover where mineral resources lie beneath.
There has been a tendency, on the part of those who sought to overcome public apathy regarding the Antarctic, to overemphasize the known resources of the area. There has been talk of mountains of coal, of uranium and oil. Actually, with less than half of one percent of the land visited by surface parties, very little is known of the resources. A small vein of manganese ore was found early this year on an ice-free peninsula on the Wilkes Coast, suggesting the presence of rich mineral deposits in the area. Low grade coal has been seen at a number of points in the mountain system known as the Great Antarctic Horst, and this has led some to speculate that coal fields underlying the South Polar Plateau may be among the richest in the world. The mountains that extend for more than 1,000 miles along Palmer Peninsula are geologically an extension of the Andes, which are rich in gold, silver, tin and copper. Copper has been found in small quantities in the mountains west of McMurdo Sound. In fact it is reasonable to assume that a continent as large as Antarctica (far larger than Europe) has resources comparable to those of other land masses of that size. The problem is to find them and get them out at a cost which can compete with mining elsewhere.
Coal has long been mined at Spitzbergen in the Arctic. Lead ore, mined in Greenland, is stockpiled until ships, each summer, can breach the pack ice and haul it out. It is clearly possible that, at some point within the next century, reserves of some vital ore or fuel may become sufficiently depleted elsewhere to justify mining it in Antarctica.
From the geographical point of view this region does not approach the strategic importance of the Arctic, but unlike the ocean of drifting floes at the North Pole, it is a continent of such mighty dimensions that, even though largely ice-covered, it cannot be ignored. Its vastness provides a sanctuary from which aircraft could dominate the waters that, apart from the vulnerable Panama and Suez Canals, provide the only ready links between the Atlantic and Pacific and the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.
In little over one month, during Operation Highjump, the snowy surface of the 700-foot-thick floating ice sheet at Little America was so compacted by tractor traffic to and from the air strip that a twin-engined Douglas transport, taxiing over it on wheels, hardly left any tire prints. Attempts were then made artificially to compact air strips on the Greenland ice sheet and on at least one occasion this was so successful that what was then the Air Force's heaviest transport plane operated from it on wheels. Recent attempts during Operation Deepfreeze to do this at McMurdo Sound have failed, but if a reliable technique can be developed it will turn almost all of Antarctica into one vast potential airfield.
The chief strategic interest of nations down under, such as Australia, is to deny Antarctica to a hostile Power. The first military force to get ashore there would have a great advantage, for there are extremely few harbors. Almost the entire coast is made inaccessible, first by the offshore pack ice, and then by uniform ice cliffs that mark the margins of the continental ice sheet where it has slipped off the continent and become waterborne. There are virtually no invasion beaches.
It has also been suggested that, once ballistic missiles have sufficient range to reach any part of our planet, Antarctica would provide an advantageous base from which to launch thermonuclear weapons. Mobile launching sites would be hard to locate in that vast continent, yet a considerable part of the retaliatory power of the nation attacked might have to be devoted to destroying these sites at very little cost to the attacker. Even with manned nuclear airplanes, Antarctica might offer advantages as an air base over more populous areas.
Despite these considerations, the major Powers have not displayed any great interest in establishing a military foothold in the Antarctic. The Pentagon reportedly feels that its budget must be allocated to projects and areas closer to home. The Kremlin probably feels the same way. The Soviet and American expeditions are scientific and the Russians have displayed unusual openness in allowing an American observer to live at their headquarters in Mirny. A Soviet representative is stationed at Little America.
The stated justification for the vast sums spent by both Powers on their expeditions is the scientific knowledge which, it is hoped, will be gained. The clues which the Antarctic holds to the world's weather patterns and climate trends are of immediate importance, whereas the strategic aspects of the continent--though not negligible--are more remote.
Because Antarctic logistics and operations require long-range planning, the United States must decide soon what course it will follow in Antarctica once the unwritten I.G.Y. truce on political activity ends in December 1958. It cannot remain aloof, for we know now that any major Power can maintain bases in Antarctica indefinitely, the year round, for a variety of purposes, some of which may be inimicable to the United States and her allies.
There are three basic alternatives. One is for the United States to claim the sector which has not been spoken for. Another is some sort of joint claim, such as that envisaged by President Roosevelt in 1939. The third is a broader international solution, possibly involving the United Nations.
The disadvantage of the first is that it does not solve the problem of access to the unclaimed sector and does not clarify the status of the Soviet outposts. The inability of ships to reach the long coast of Marie Byrd Land has presented a problem to American policy-makers ever since the days of the U.S. Antarctic Service. Some of the most powerful icebreakers afloat--the U.S.S. Edisto, the U.S.S. Burton Island and the U.S.S. Atka--have tried in vain to do so. The only ship to succeed was the venerable U.S.S. Bear, wooden-hulled and one of the last U.S. Naval vessels to be propelled by sail. In 1940, which seems to have been a freak year, she sailed east from Little America inside the pack, which had been blown off shore, and made a landing on the ice shelf of the Ruppert Coast. The Atka might have been able to reach Thurston Peninsula in 1955 but had to turn back because of other commitments. Possibly the newer and more powerful U.S.S. Glacier will be successful some day, but the region remains traditionally difficult of access. Not until this year was a base established there --Byrd Station, which is reached by a 632-mile, crevasse-sliced highway from Little America.
The most obvious partner for the United States in a joint claim would be New Zealand. America's current operations in Antarctica have depended heavily on the coöperation of that island dominion. The maintenance base for the fleet of gigantic C-124 Globemasters which airlifted fuel, food and prefabricated buildings to the South Pole was placed at Harewood Field, near Christchurch, New Zealand. The Navy planes were based at another field near by. From there they flew into the Antarctic. Navy ships en route to Little America and McMurdo Sound almost invariably made their last call in New Zealand, which stands at the gateway to the Ross Sea.
Of the seven bases established by the United States, one, at Cape Hallett, is being manned jointly by men from the two countries. Both McMurdo and Little America are within the area claimed by New Zealand, but, apart from routine protests at the operation of United States post offices at Little America, the New Zealanders have not only been wholeheartedly coöperative, but have displayed hospitality that has left none of their American visitors unmoved.
This situation has led to discussion, by New Zealanders and Americans interested in the Antarctic, of various schemes for joint action in that region. For whereas the unclaimed sector which has been explored almost exclusively by Americans has proved inaccessible except via the New Zealand claim, the latter country does not have the resources to exploit her own sector. New Zealand's Dependency includes, at Marble Point on the west coast of McMurdo Sound, the best site for a major all-year airfield that has yet been found on the continent. It likewise boasts the chief mountain system, the Great Antarctic Horst, which stretches for 1,275 miles from Cape Adare to the point where it passes into the unclaimed sector. Valuable resources may be found in these mountains, especially where they front on the Ross Sea and hence are most accessible.
Among the schemes discussed on a non-governmental level has been a joint claim by both countries of the present New Zealand claim and the unclaimed sector. Another would be the ceding by New Zealand, in return for some American concession, of that portion of the Ross Ice Shelf on which Little America rests, plus the comparatively small land areas to the east of there. Yet another suggestion has been joint action by Australia, New Zealand and the United States to claim the areas already spoken for by the two Dominions plus the unclaimed sector.
A resolution, recently introduced in Congress, proposed United States sovereignty over the region between the 90th and 150th meridians, west. The 90th meridian is the boundary of the Chilean claim, whereas Britain's sector ends at the 80th meridian. To proclaim the Chilean line as the limit of American territory could be construed as support for Chile's claim, whereas use of the other border might be interpreted as favoring Britain.
All the present claimants are anxious to persuade the United States to thrust its finger into the Antarctic pie, since this would bring the might of the United States into the informal alliance that seeks to keep out unwelcome visitors. Australia is the most anxious in this respect. Australian concern at the presence of Soviet bases in what is considered a part of the Australian Capital Territory was reportedy expressed in strong terms to Secretary of State Dulles on his visit to Australia for the SEATO Conference in March of this year. Nevertheless, it seems generally agreed in Washington and in other Western capitals concerned that there should be no overt political action until the Russians have displayed their intentions in Antarctica. As one analyst of Western policy put it, "If we act now, they are sure to stay. Let us wait until the end of the I.G.Y. to see if they go home."
One of the arguments of present claimants against an international solution, with or without involvement of the United Nations, has been that it would "bring in the Russians." Now that the Russians are there, this reasoning is less valid. If they remain, after the end of the I.G.Y., no joint proclamations of sovereignty by the United States and its friends are likely to pry them loose.
This may ultimately prove the strongest argument for internationalization. India proposed that the United Nations General Assembly discuss such a solution at its last session, but the idea was shelved until the end of the I.G.Y. Success in this great experiment in international coöperation would certainly strengthen sentiment within the United Nations for such an approach to the territorial problem of Antarctica.
Likewise the only face-saving answer to the conflicting claims of Britain, Argentina and Chile may prove to be international. Such an idea has not been warmly regarded by the British Foreign Office. Nevertheless it appeals to those who, with Edward Shackleton, son of the man who blazed the trail to the South Pole, feel that such a step would be appropriate to a continent which is uninhabited and hence, in a sense, belongs to all mankind. This, he has written, would not betray the Antarctic heroes of the past, who "sought nobler goals than the mere expansion of national territory." International rule of this region on the fringes of our known world, he says, might even prove a useful rehearsal for the inevitable problem of sovereignty over the moon.
So novel--and so remote, geographically--is the problem of Antarctica's future that it has received comparatively little attention in the inner councils of the great Powers. If it cannot be solved on a national or regional basis, it will have to be dealt with either at a conference of all interested Powers or within the United Nations.