THE consciousness that the far north is an area of great strategic importance to the United States is no longer limited to the small group of men who began to listen to Vilhjalmur Stefansson's gospel of the "northward course" more than twenty years ago. These men did not then pretend to be advancing thoughts which were entirely new. They aimed at a rebirth of the visions which led William Henry Seward to purchase Alaska in the middle of the nineteenth century and made him wish to secure America's position in the North Atlantic through the purchase of Iceland and Greenland from Denmark. For a long time the concept of the American Far North had little effect on our foreign policy. But airmindedness has brought about a revival of Seward's ideas and has given them wide popularity and a new meaning. It is no longer necessary to deplore the lack of a national awareness of the north, but rather to warn against over-enthusiastic generalizations which threaten to cloud realities. The strategy of this war has accelerated the pace of Arctic progress, but there are certain barriers raised by nature against the development of this area; and political realities set limits to the possibilities of an American march northward.

Iceland is today an outpost of our strategic system as a result of agreements which are clearly understood as having only temporary validity. There is no warrant for our looking upon her bastions as an automatic part of our permanent defense position. The relationship of Greenland with the United States creates a comparable situation there. What, then, are the specific conditions in these zones with which our need for military security in the northern sector and for the development of commercial air transportation in the north must be harmonized?


Iceland is a vital link in the relations of North America and Eurasia. From her shores much of the North Atlantic can be controlled. The effort to transform the island into a great naval base, undertaken jointly by the United States and British Navies, reflected its geographic and strategic importance. Since then the ports of Iceland, which do not freeze in winter, have played a paramount rôle in the lend-lease operations between this country and the U.S.S.R. via the Murmansk route; they have also made it possible for convoys sailing to the United Kingdom to be well protected during the first long reach of their voyage, which comprises more than two-thirds of the crossing.

The island is also of great importance in air communications. Several of the vital great circle air routes from American and Canadian airfields to the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom are dependent upon bases in Iceland. Air power based in Iceland not only controls communications via these routes and dominates the sea lanes in the North Atlantic, but also controls the air bases and weather observation stations in Greenland. This war has taught the British and ourselves that Iceland must remain forever an integral part of the mutual defense system of the two countries and must never be permitted to fall into the hands or under the influence of a potential enemy.

As was noted above, the agreements with Iceland by which the United States has protected her interests in the North Atlantic are, however, emergency measures strictly limited to wartime. After the war they will have to be replaced by new arrangements. In these, the American desire for absolute security will be only one factor. By a process of compromise we shall have to bring that factor into harmony with another of equal significance: the intention of the Icelanders to guard the sovereignty of their republic.

Before examining the question of Iceland's political objectives, we should note a relevant economic fact. In normal times, Iceland's economic relations with Europe are much more important to her than her trade relations with the United States and Canada. After the war, commercial air traffic will tend to bring the United States and Iceland closer together. But the bulk of her trade will, as in the past, continue to be with Denmark, Great Britain and Spain. Before the war Denmark and Great Britain sold her the most goods. Spain took more of her products than any other country, absorbing one-third of her exports, with Norway, Sweden and Portugal next in order.

Iceland's pivotal location and her close ties with Europe and with all the Powers in the North Atlantic make it impossible to appraise her rôle in world politics and strategy merely from an American point of view. The arrangements in the North Atlantic must of necessity be international. Their form will be determined, to a considerable extent, by Iceland's own foreign policy.

The events which gave Iceland her present status in the family of sovereign nations and shaped her present relations with the Anglo-American Powers make it plain that the people of Iceland are resolved to remain a sovereign nation. Iceland has been preparing for sovereignty since December 1, 1918, when, by the "Law of Union," she gained independence from Denmark. During the period when she was a daughter-nation of Denmark, her position in regard to the mother country was even stronger than that of the Dominions of the United Kingdom toward Great Britain under the Statute of Westminster. The kingship of Iceland, held by the King of Denmark, was not subordinate to the kingship of Denmark. The Union Act, moreover, provided for the eventual termination of this allegiance. After December 31, 1940, both Denmark and Iceland were free to demand a plebiscite to determine the final relations between the two nations.

The invasion of Denmark by Germany accelerated Iceland's aspirations for complete independence. On April 10, 1940, the Althing, Iceland's 1010-year-old General Assembly, declared that the King of Iceland was unable to execute his royal power and that the Icelandic Government was, therefore, for the time being to be entrusted with the royal prerogative. One year later, the Althing passed a resolution in which it announced that a republic would be declared as soon as the Union Act expired. The four political parties -- Conservative, Progressive, Communist, Social Democrat -- which support a non-political government, voiced by joint statement their opposition to a renewal of the union.

On May 24, 1944, the people of Iceland decided in a referendum to sever all ties with the Danish Crown. The voters were asked whether they were in favor of the abrogation of the Union Act, and whether they approved of the bill for a republican constitution. The referendum brought 98 percent of the electorate to the polls, and showed that 70,725 voters were for severance of all political ties with Denmark and only 370 against it; 69,048 were in favor of the republican constitution, 1,042 against it, and 2,550 cast votes that were declared invalid. On June 17, 1944, the republic was formally proclaimed, and as the republic's first President the Althing named Sveinn Björnsson for a one-year term. The new republic was immediately promised recognition by the United States. Iceland has so far carefully avoided any declaration by which she could be classified as being either part of Europe or of the western hemisphere. She desires above all to be looked upon as the Republic of Iceland in the North Atlantic.

From the time American troops took over the protection of the island on July 7, 1941, following the occupation by the British and Canadians in May and June 1940, the United States supported Iceland's movement for independence. A Presidential message to Congress of July 7, 1941, deserves to be noted for its outline of the obligations of the United States toward Iceland. "The United States," said President Roosevelt, "cannot permit the occupation by Germany of strategic outposts in the Arctic for eventual attack against the western hemisphere. We have no desire to see any change in the present sovereignty of these regions. . . . Assurance that such outposts in our defense frontier remain in friendly hands is the very foundation of our national security. . . . [We] have given the people of Iceland the assurance that the American forces sent there would in no way interfere with the internal and domestic affairs of that country, and that immediately upon the termination of the present emergency all American forces will be at once withdrawn, leaving the people of Iceland and their government in full and sovereign control of their own territory."

The intention of the Icelandic people to preserve their newlywon independence needs to be emphasized, since it is overlooked in many plans for her future which others propose. Iceland, "kingpin of the Atlantic," is certainly not for sale. If there ever was a possibility that the United States could buy Iceland from Denmark, as Seward hoped, it obviously no longer exists. The suggestion has been made that Iceland would serve her interests best after the war by applying for statehood in the American Union. This idea is even more fantastic. It is also said that she could choose a middle way to safety by placing herself under the protection of the Monroe Doctrine. If Iceland identified herself with the American republics she would thus join the family of nations which by the Act of Havana are pledged to defend the territorial integrity or the political independence of every American state. It is also argued that Iceland might become a member of a Scandinavian union, on the assumption that a commonwealth of Scandinavian nations may be set up. But none of these possibilities seems likely in the light of Iceland's actions and of the psychology of her people.

Icelanders believe that the policy of the United States toward all the smaller countries is a guarantee of their own future as a sovereign nation. This policy was clearly outlined in the Presidential message to Congress of April 9, 1940, after the fall of Denmark. Mr. Roosevelt declared at that time that "if civilization is to survive, the rights of the smaller nations to independence . . . must be respected by their more powerful neighbors." These principles were reiterated at Teheran and strengthened by the fact that Britain and the U.S.S.R. joined the United States in assuring Iran (a geopolitical keystone like Iceland) that her sovereignty and territorial integrity would be safeguarded. It is true that an interpretation is sometimes placed upon these statements of principle which seems to imply that small nations deserve and have been guaranteed immunity from the forces which make for change in the present world, simply on the ground that they are small, and regardless of whether they are willing to observe the obligations for sensible and coöperative behavior which will determine the future security and well-being of nations both large and small. But there is no danger that Icelanders will take any such extreme position.


One particular proposal for incorporating Iceland's strategic advantages in a program of American security deserves special analysis. Those who advance it usually proceed from the thesis that the United States should establish herself in positions from which her power can be used as a direct leverage upon the nations of the Old World. In furtherance of this objective it is argued that American naval and air bases in Iceland and Greenland would be more advantageous to us than alliances with Great Britain and the Soviet Union. To anchor American power in Greenland and Iceland would, it is reasoned, give us the strength necessary to "make possible an equilibrium of power" among the United States, Great Britain and the U.S.S.R.[i] This goal, we are told, can be achieved in the same manner by which our power has been extended to the Bahamas and South America -- that is, by the leasing of land for bases but without the assumption of sovereignty over the leased territory.

Recommendations of this kind embody a point of view which looks beyond the problems of a limited regional sphere. They reflect a world-wide program, and a philosophy of power politics for the United States. The aims of such a philosophy were candidly expressed by the late Nicholas J. Spykman when he suggested the permanent establishment of new bases by the United States in the transatlantic and transpacific zones "in order to bring her power closer to the area where it may be exerted." Only by establishing effective bases within striking distance of the "rimlands," Spykman maintains, would this country be able to control the balance of power in Europe and Asia, as he believes we must do.

In the opinion of the writer, the simple and sufficient objection to such a program is expressed by the old adage that "more than one can play at that game." How can we doubt that other Great Powers would organize their spheres of influence in similar terms if confronted with an American foreign policy of this kind? Prime Minister Smuts expressed an attitude corresponding to that of Spykman's when he urged Britain to draw within her orbit the small democracies of western Europe, to counterbalance the growing might of the United States and the Soviet Union. And it is not difficult to imagine the reaction of the U.S.S.R. to such schemes in strategically important regions of eastern Europe, the Middle East, the north Pacific, and the Arctic. Her geographical position would enable her to establish new bases more efficiently and threateningly than could any other of the United Nations. Of one thing we may be certain: "United Nations" will quickly become an outmoded term if each Great Power pursues such a program.

If we leave the realm of generalizations on power politics and examine instead the realities in a given case, Iceland offers a good illustration of some of the immediate difficulties of such a policy. Signing a lease is an act of contract. The United States cannot lease land from Iceland without Iceland's consent. (That we had built the bases which we wished to acquire permanently would make no difference in this respect.) But the Republic of Iceland will have no desire to be used as a pawn in the balance-of-power game of the Great Powers. Nor will she be interested in playing one Power against another. In neither case would the odds favor her welfare. It is unlikely that Iceland would collaborate in a scheme which aimed at the expansion of American military power and which did not provide for participation or consent by other of the United Nations.

The compromise between the valid interests of the small nation, Iceland, and the equally valid interests of the United States cannot be reached through bilateral pacts. Harmony can be found only in agreements of a wider scope.

Iceland is the pivot of only one of several zones in which the United Nations must control strategic bases, if a stable new order is to be built. If it were possible to internationalize such bases all over the world, or to bring them under the trusteeship of the United Nations family, Iceland could not refuse her coöperation. She could not oppose a program which included her bases in a world-wide organization to preserve peace, but which did not violate her territorial integrity. Under such a program those nations whose interests are paramount in a given area would be mainly responsible for the military protection of such bastions. A regional trusteeship for Iceland might embrace the United States, Canada, Britain, Denmark (Greenland), and possibly Norway (Spitsbergen). Whether or not the U.S.S.R. participated would perhaps depend largely on whether arrangements were made for a corresponding internationalization of zones which the Soviet Union regards as vital for her security.

It is obvious that problems of the use of Iceland's bases for commercial aviation are closely linked with the military question, although such military pacts as are made will not necessarily cover questions of landing rights and landing fields in Iceland for commercial air services. The present air bases in Iceland may or may not be considered suitable for commercial aviation; for reasons of security the common use of these bases by military and commercial craft may be undesirable. Our air transportation industry looks upon Iceland as a keystone in its system, however. The cheapest air route from the United Kingdom to North America would run by way of Glasgow to Iceland (920 miles), Greenland, Newfoundland (distance Reykjavik-Botwood 1487 miles), or via Labrador (Goose Bay). A skyway proposed by Northeast Airlines, Inc., linking Boston with Scandinavia and the Soviet Union touches the southern tip of Greenland, Reykjavik, the Faroe Islands (though that seems an impractical base, as the Faroes have about the worst weather in the world), Oslo, Stockholm, Leningrad and Moscow.

The development of Iceland's landing fields as part of a net of global skyways depends also on the solution which the United Nations find for the riddle of the freedom of the air. Iceland will be a partner in the coming discussions on that subject, and there is no reason to doubt that she will subscribe to the principles which are laid down. The question of internationalization of ground facilities in Iceland is a crucial one for all governments and private enterprises which plan to operate postwar commercial air transport. Iceland figures importantly in the request by 18 American airlines that "airports and bases throughout the world financed in whole or in part with United States funds be made available to American flag carriers on a non-exclusive basis." If the "closed sky" principle is generally abandoned, Iceland will not oppose the "innocent passage" over her territory by American carriers or their use of her landing facilities for purposes of fueling and repair. The answer to this question, as to all other problems discussed above, lies in an agreement by all the Powers concerned.

Neither in the realm of military strategy nor that of commercial aviation will Iceland become some sort of an American dependency. The questions which are raised by an attempt to forecast her future status illustrate one of the truly significant facts which the events of this war have made plain: the peoples of certain pivotal areas cannot survive in independent isolation, yet these areas are too important to many nations to make it possible for any one powerful neighbor to treat them as its dependencies. In the literal sense of the word they must become the bases -- the foundations -- of a new international organization which will some day transcend the era of nationalism and imperialism.


The problems of Iceland cannot be separated from those of Greenland. Strategically, the islands are a unit. At the nearest point, Greenland's island-continent of 736,518 square miles is only 180 miles distant from Iceland. We have been brought up to think of Greenland as the easternmost outpost of the western hemisphere and of Iceland as the westernmost part of Europe. But the northeastern tip of Greenland is actually more easterly than any spot in Iceland. Iceland can be characterized as an offshore bastion of Greenland, which protects her ice-free harbors in the south as well as the weather stations which are so essential in our air operations over northwestern Europe. Thus Greenland and Iceland together form the nucleus of America's northern security zone, which protects the approaches from the north and east and balances Alaska on the west.

Like Iceland, Greenland looms large in plans for northern air transportation. The most direct routes from the cities of western North America to the capitals of western Europe and of Russia lead across southern Greenland. On the other hand, climatic conditions and the lack of populated centers within the Arctic Circle (Murmansk, with a population of 117,000, is the only exception) will for a time prevent the extensive use of skyways over northern Greenland. The importance of these northerly routes is, however, gradually increasing. "Direct routes linking important centers across the Arctic might be justified despite the lack of important cities in between. . . . There will undoubtedly be a substantial amount of commercial operation over northerly routes within a decade or so after the war. This development is bound to have an important effect on the orientation of our national interests." [ii]

The Greenland of tomorrow, with its fleet and air bases, weather and radio stations and great circle skyways, will little resemble the Greenland which Seward dreamed of adding to an American empire. After Seward's day, the United States acquired indefinite rights in Greenland, as a result of Robert E. Peary's and A. W. Greeley's expeditions, but they were surrendered to Denmark in 1916 in connection with the purchase of the Danish West Indies. President Wilson, pondering the possibility of a German victory and German expansion in the Caribbean, was determined to obtain the strategically important Danish Caribbean islands. To speed up the transfer of the Danish West Indies to the United States, he overruled Secretary Lansing's Open Door proposals for Greenland. To Wilson the danger of German expansion took the form of a threat against the Panama Canal Zone; the possibility of a German threat from the north did not even occur to him.

Admiral Peary was strongly opposed to our retreat from Greenland. "Greenland's possession by us," he wrote, "will be in line with the Monroe Doctrine. Will turning Greenland over to Denmark mean our repurchase of it later?" Another world war was needed to make us realize the weight of Peary's question. Greenland was remembered when hasty schemes were devised by those who believed that America's isolation could be maintained behind a far-flung Maginot Line of our own. On April 19, 1939, Senator Lundeen introduced a resolution in the Senate advocating the purchase of the island. And there were also irresponsible demands for annexation. But when the problem was seen in its true light and the United States acted to make Greenland an integral part of her security system, there was no more talk of purchase or annexation. As in the case of Iceland, the protective occupation of Greenland was wisely made, not as a step in a new American imperialism in the Arctic, but in harmonious coöperation with the directly interested United Nations.

The "Agreement relating to the defense of Greenland" was signed on April 9, 1941, by the Secretary of State and the Danish Minister, Henrik de Kauffmann. This agreement, as well as statements released by the President and the State Department, leave no doubt that the United States explicitly recognizes Danish sovereignty over Greenland. The President pointed out that the Danish Government could not at present "act in respect of its territory in the western hemisphere, but we propose to make sure that when the German invasion of Denmark has ended, Greenland will remain a Danish colony."

Greenland's international status thus rests on two pillars. One is Denmark's sovereignty in Greenland. The other is the recognition, by both the United States and Denmark, of the fact that Greenland is within the area of the Monroe Doctrine. In order to protect the status quo in the western hemisphere, the United States has acquired the right "to construct, maintain, and operate such landing fields, seaplane facilities, and radio and meteorological installations as may be necessary." These facilities must be made available to the airplanes and vessels of "all the American Nations" for purposes connected with the common defense of the western hemisphere.

A comparison of the arrangements made with Greenland and Iceland shows that the United States subscribes in both cases to the principle of full recognition of the established sovereignties of the smaller nations in the northern sector. There is a difference between the two agreements, however. In his message to Congress of July 7, 1941, President Roosevelt declared that immediately upon the termination of the "present international emergency" all American forces will be at once withdrawn from Iceland. The Greenland Agreement opens the door for negotiations regarding the future of Greenland. It is specified that the pact "shall remain in force until it is agreed that the present dangers to the peace and the security of the American Continent have passed. At that time the modification or termination of the Agreement will be the subject of consultation between the Government of the United States and the Government of Denmark."

The postwar development of the two islands can also be expected to follow different courses, conditioned by physical differences between Iceland and Greenland and differences in their populations. The Republic of Iceland has a population of 120,000; her citizens are proud of her cultural and political traditions. The colony of Greenland has 500 Danes and 18,000 natives. The provisions of the Greenland agreement indicate that its parties are responding, not only to the interests of the United Nations as a whole, but to the immediate interest of the United States in a Greenland located within the area subject to the Monroe Doctrine. The United States and Denmark concur in the opinion that Greenland is so important a part of this country's security belt that no potential foe of the United States may ever be permitted to occupy territory on any part of the island.

In its dealings with both Denmark and Iceland the State Department has shown that it is thoroughly aware of certain intangibles of international politics which must determine the relations of a Great Power with the smaller nations. A Denmark bleeding from the wounds of war would little appreciate an American offer to purchase Greenland, even if this colony is more of an economic responsibility to Denmark than an asset. It is reasonable to believe that the emergency agreements between the two nations have paved the way for a permanent solution which will satisfy the interests of both parties. Greenland is so vast that defense measures undertaken by this country can be continued without interfering with the administrative interests of Denmark. Denmark's economic interests can be fully safeguarded. The United States will not interfere with Denmark's cultural policies toward the native population. No conflicting interests of importance exist between the two nations. Nor should a source of conflict arise from their mutual dealings with Iceland in the organization of America's Arctic and sub-Arctic defense belt.

The stage is set, in Greenland and Iceland, for the United Nations to organize their program for the enforcement of world peace. The considerations which will determine Iceland's future part in a world-wide organization of commercial skyways, air bases, and weather stations hold true for Greenland as well. Denmark will be a partner in international agreements which will establish new concepts of international law for air transport in general and for aviation in the Arctic in particular.

American foreign policy has steered a cautious course northward. Action which seemed at first dictated merely by the needs of military strategy has gradually become the basis of a more stable peacetime structure. Now Iceland and Greenland may be the testing ground for international coöperation on a larger scale.

[i] Nicholas J. Spykman, "The Geography of the Peace," New York: Harcourt, 1944, p. 58.

[ii] W. A. Burden, Under Secretary, Department of Commerce, in "Compass of the World," by Hans W. Weigert and Vilhjalmur Stefansson. New York: Macmillan, 1944, p. 146.

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  • HANS W. WEIGERT, recently Professor of International Relations at Trinity College and a member of the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh; author of "Compass of the World" (with Vilhjalmur Stefansson) and several other volumes
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