America Is Back—but for How Long?
Political Polarization and the End of U.S. Credibility
WE CANNOT rule out the possibility that Japan's present war against China may grow to involve the Soviet Union and even perhaps Germany. In that event there will come into play a new geopolitical factor which has improved Russia's strategical position in comparison with what it was in 1905 and in 1914. The Soviet Government's recent rapid development of navigation in, aviation above, and industrial enterprise along the shores of the Arctic Ocean has partly solved the age-old and crucial problem of Russia's precarious access to the great outside world. The fact gains additional importance from the circumstance that transportation is still the weakest wheel in the Russian war machine.
Only in the last few months has the world begun to be conscious of Russia's energetic efforts to push open her frozen window in the North and develop a Polar Empire. This consciousness has come largely from Soviet flights across the North Pole and the establishment of a permanent floating weather station in the center of the Arctic. But though these are spectacular they nevertheless are comparatively small parts of the whole vast scheme of expansion in the Far North.
Other items obviously of greater importance are: the regular annual operation of the new shipping route along the North East Passage, with the help of four main ice-breaker bases and a fleet of over one hundred Arctic airplanes; the sinking of nickel mines and oil wells in Northern Siberia (to mention only the most significant industrial enterprises in the Polar regions); the organization of heavy transport on the rivers Ob, Enisei and Lena, with ports and provision for the exchange of loads in their estuaries (Novy Port, Igarka and Tiksi respectively); and the establishment of a chain of independent coal and oil refuelling bases for water vessels and aircraft. In other words, the "backyard of Asia" is about to become the front porch of a newly oriented "Arctic-conscious" Russia.
"Glavnoe Upravlenie Severnovo Morskovo Puti," the Central Administration of the Northern Sea Route, was set up as an independent government department under Professor Otto Schmidt and made directly responsible to the Council of Peoples Commissars. It has an exclusive charter to develop all of the Union's territory above the 62nd northern parallel, an area of 10 million square kilometers. Everything in this region is under Glavsevmorput's jurisdiction -- transport by sea, river and air; industry; town building; reindeer breeding; wireless and meteorological services; native education; scientific study of the earth, the flora and fauna. The peoples of the North are the subject of study in two special university-like institutions: the Institute of the Peoples of the North and the Arctic Institute, both in Leningrad. Last year Glavsevmorput had already spent an equivalent of $1,000,000,000 on its activities, while 40,000 men and women, a regular army of invasion against the Arctic, were on its payroll. Russians like to call this enterprise a modern socialist equivalent to the East India Company. Undoubtedly in scope and achievement it is the largest systematic pioneering organization in the world today. Nor can it be denied that its value to the Russian nation will be at least as great in peacetime as in war. If as expected it makes the vast natural riches of Siberia more easily accessible and exploitable, both for the Soviet Union and for the world, its historic consequence will be very great.
At this particular moment, however, the military implications of these vast developments command even closer attention than the economic. Let us picture Russia in the hypothetical but not impossible case of a conflict with both Germany and Japan.
One of the first things that would happen immediately after the outbreak of hostilities would undoubtedly be a German blockade of Leningrad and a Japanese blockade of Vladivostok. After recent experiences in the Mediterranean, the Black Sea ports could hardly be cited as a safe outlet for Russia to the rest of the world. Coöperation between Russia's European and Far Eastern fleet would become impossible. Imports of commodities and war material from the major industrial countries would be out of the question. Two war fronts, roughly five thousand miles apart, would remain linked by just one railway line, almost hopelessly overburdened even by peacetime requirements and easy for a few Japanese airplanes to put out of action at more than one point along the Siberian border.
Russia would thus be bottled up on three sides: west, south and east. But in the north -- and there only -- there is an independent, continuous and all-Russian coastline, unassailable by anyone. It is icebound for the greater part of the year. But during
three months -- or somewhat more, depending on climatic cycles and the increasing efficiency and experience of Arctic craft -- navigation has been proved possible in four consecutive seasons. This ocean link from Murmansk to the Bering Strait is valuable from three major points of view: (1) warships can be brought from European to Far Eastern waters, and vice versa; (2) products of the more highly organized industries of European Russia and agricultural commodities from Siberia can be exchanged; (3) supplies, so far as permitted under existing political and commercial relations, can be brought in from the United States, Canada and South America.
Furthermore, all the year round, unlimited air squadrons produced by the warplane factories in the Moscow region and the Ukraine can be flown out to the Far East via the north coast and across the Polar Sea. This route is not only somewhat shorter than the line along the Trans-Siberian Railway but is entirely out of the reach of any enemy. The question of submarines travelling below the frozen surface of the Arctic Sea during the cold season has not yet been mentioned officially by anyone in the Soviet Union. But there are indications that serious attention is also being paid to this scheme, originally devised for exploration purposes by Sir Hubert Wilkins.
I had an opportunity to visit some of the new centers in Arctic Siberia not long ago. I saw Murmansk, where naval dockyards of considerable capacity are nearing completion. These, I am convinced, will soon become the main naval base for the Russian fleet in Europe. Thanks to the Gulf Stream, Murmansk is ice-free all the year round even though it lies well within the Arctic Circle, whereas Leningrad is blocked for a few months every year. From the tip of the Kola Peninsula ships can reach the Atlantic without having to run the triple gauntlet of the Finnish Gulf, the Kiel Canal or the straits between Germany and Denmark, and the English Channel. During the summer, the Pacific Ocean can be reached eastwards by a route that is almost half the distance by the two alternative ways, i.e., by the Panama Canal or the Red Sea; and in those two cases many zones of foreign influence would have to be crossed. Communication with Leningrad from Murmansk can be established "from within" through the recently completed Baltic-White Sea Canal. The depth of this Canal has never been officially announced, though Murmansk is already the head station of the Northern Sea Route. Murmansk is provisioned with coal for supplying ships as well as the railway down to Leningrad. This coal comes from Spitzbergen, where the Soviet Government operates mines under concession from Norway.
My visit also took me to Igarka on the lower Enisei, a town with a population varying by seasons between 14,000 and 20,000, possessing a permanent harbor with mechanized loading machinery, lumber mills, power plants, theaters, hospitals, schools and agricultural plantations. Situated 400 miles upstream, and about 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle on perpetually frozen tundra soil, Igarka is the main center for the export of Siberian timber. Logs are rafted down towards it during the summer, cut up in the following winter, and shipped off, mostly in British tramp steamers, in the subsequent months of August and September. In wartime Igarka could be used from July to October for load exchange between vessels coming from Europe through Archangel or Murmansk and river craft coming from Central Siberia, thereby supplying and draining the area between Novo Sibirsk and Irkutsk. Novy Port serves a similar purpose for the area of the Ob, the rich wheat district of Western Siberia, the coal and steel combines of Kuznetsk, and (via the Turksib Railway) the cotton fields of Central Asia. Tiksi on the estuary of the Lena would be used as entrepot for transports coming in through the Bering Strait and going out from the whole Lake Baikal and Yakutia region -- incidentally affording a safe route for exporting the vastly increased gold production of that district.
I also saw Dickson Island, off the mouth of the Enisei; Matochkin Strait on Novaya Zemlya; the mining district of Dudinka-Norilsk on the western side of the Taimyr Peninsula, and Nordvik, the oil and salt center, on the eastern side. Dickson Island is the main wireless exchange of the Arctic, center for the whole network of Polar radio stations, able to contact by short-wave telephony any major town between Moscow and Vladivostok. There were also under completion at Dickson Island spacious coal storage establishments and bunker-provisions for ice breakers and merchantmen. Matochkin Strait is one of the three gateways to the Polar basin for all craft coming from and going to European waters and serves as the basis of action for ice breakers which convoy shipping caravans through difficult spots on the Northern Sea Route.
The Dudinka-Norilsk region is of importance because the Norilsk mountains contain rich coal, iron, copper and nickel deposits. The latter are particularly valuable, since nickel is one of the few metals of which, so far as is known, the Soviet Union possesses only small resources. A narrow-gauge railway has been constructed between Dudinka, which lies on the Enisei, and Norilsk, seventy miles east of the river shore, thereby linking the mining district directly to the Northern waterway system. Its coal, situated as it is almost at the center of the Northern Sea Route, will also be of good use to shipping on that route and on the Enisei, saving cargo space to steamers calling at Igarka or on through passage over the whole route. Finally, Nordvik, apart from supplying salt to the potentially vast North Siberian fish-canneries, has oil deposits right on the shores of Yakutia, thereby providing refuelling opportunities for Diesel-driven ocean vessels and aircraft operating throughout the Arctic. Machinery and personnel to lay out plants and operate the Arctic oil field were sent out to Nordvik last year.
My trip by air over part of the network of Arctic Siberian airlines afforded a good opportunity for study at first hand both of the ground organization and the personnel of pilots and mechanics. These are specially trained for Arctic conditions and form a separate force from other Soviet air men. All the machines regularly employed in the Far North are equipped with floats and skis. The air bases are on the rivers, the seacoast and on lakes, since climatic conditions make the construction of landing grounds for the summer extremely difficult. In winter, landings are made on the ice. The flight of the ANT 25 in the summer of 1936, under the command of Chkalov, who also led the first flight from Moscow to California, demonstrated the practicability of non-stop flights across the Arctic Ocean from Moscow to the Far East, via Franz Josef Land, Nordvik, and Yakutia. This airplane landed at Nikolaevsk on the Amur River 56 hours and 21 minutes after leaving Moscow. The North Pole flights have shown since then that the machine has a radius of action of almost 8,000 miles, proof of the correctness of Chkalov's assertion that he could have flown on directly to Tokyo. And the flight was 200 miles shorter than if Chkalov had taken the route along the railway line, where at least for the last third of the flight he would have been continuously within the range of foreign aircraft. There are numerous air bases, along the coast and inland throughout Arctic Siberia, all of them equipped with radio stations, meteorological observation posts, some of them with repair shops, and staffs of trained mechanics. Other flights from California up the American West Coast across the Bering Strait and then along the Northern Sea Route have demonstrated the possibility of flying planes purchased in the United States to the Far Eastern territories. Here again the route is one that would be safe from enemy interference. The same would naturally apply to trans-Polar flights.
Even more important, however, is the development of the Arctic in view of the possibility that war supplies might be imported from America to the Soviet Far East, following the west coast of the United States and Canada and then through the Bering Strait to the mouth of the Lena. Even if the American Neutrality Law in its present form were enforced, Soviet steamers could call at American west-coast ports to load supplies, could then navigate northward (within the three mile limit if need be), and could then slip through the Bering Strait without having ever for one moment to incur the risk of interception by enemy warships. Bering Strait and the region south of it can be easily controlled by a very small Soviet force. Navigation beyond it depends entirely on the continuous help, guidance and advice of the Soviet wireless stations and the air scouts that map the route through drifting ice floes by flying ahead of the caravans and the ice breakers that clear passages through blocked areas. It would be entirely impossible for any intruder to make headway in these waters.
Certainly the opening up of the Far North does not compensate Russia completely for its treatment at the hands of her stepmother, geography. The sea route is navigable for only three or three and a half months each year. Even then, the process is costly and laborious. But this route does under the given circumstances afford a partial solution of a crucial problem. And appraised in connection with the general gains that will accrue to the nation from the successful progress of colonization in the Polar regions, one could not write that the strategic advantages are being bought too dearly.