MANY thousands of years ago, when the oceans were shallower by several hundred feet because of sea water withdrawn to form the ice caps, Alaska, connected to Asia by a land bridge 500 miles wide at its narrowest, was one of the crossroads of the world. Westward across this bridge travelled the horses and camels which were to play a significant rôle in the history of Asia; eastward came the people who formed the aboriginal population of the Western Hemisphere. But the melting of the ice caps and the submergence of the bridge brought this two-way traffic to a halt. Alaska became one of the forgotten corners of the earth. Down to our own time the territory has been known but to a few people, and its furs, gold and fish have aroused only sporadic interest.

Alaska is near the center of the earth's land mass, which contains all the Great Powers and about 90 percent of the population. Now a global war, and the advent of the air age, have made it again one of the most important areas of the globe. Although the United States has been reluctant to admit its value, the war convinced Americans that their northern territory is not a worthless "lump of ice," nor even a land where adventure and the strenuous life will produce fortunes, but rather a contiguous part of their own country, strategically situated at the new air crossroads of the world. War did more in six years to awaken this new appreciation than did 50 years of devoted work by the apostles of the north. But though the strategic importance of Alaska is now readily admitted, and President Truman's recent recommendation of statehood for the Territory focussed attention upon it, little has been done to make use of the potentialities of the region.

Nearly everyone has seen one of the maps which superimpose Alaska upon the United States in order to demonstrate the size of the Territory: it is one-fifth as large as the 48 states together, and reaches on the map from Charleston, South Carolina, to Los Angeles. But it is more revealing to measure Alaska where she stands, or, if we are to slide her about, to do so in her own latitude. We may note that while Alaska is closer to Maine than is Eureka, California, it is only 56 miles from the Soviet Union, and 716 miles from Paramoshiri, the former Japanese naval base now held by the Russians. Ketchikan, Alaska, is several hundred miles closer to the Panama Canal than is Hawaii, and at the same time lies several hundred miles closer to Paramoshiri. Point Barrow, Alaska, is more than 200 miles closer to Berlin than is New York, and more than 500 miles closer to Moscow. The direct routes from the United States to the Orient pass over Alaska, and the Territory is nearer to the world power centers than is the United States proper. It is better located for the defense of the Panama Canal and the west coast than is Hawaii.

If we were to slide Alaska across the earth in her own latitude and set her down in the North Atlantic we would find that she stretches from Newcastle, England, to the airfield at Goose Bay, Labrador, and that her territory covers Iceland and southern Greenland. Alaska would not profit by the transposition, for without the warm Pacific currents her agricultural possibilities would diminish and many of her ice-free ports would be frozen for months. As things are, at any rate, her capital, Juneau, is in the same latitude as Dunbeath, Scotland; Anchorage, the same as Bergen, Norway; Fairbanks, the same as Risback, Sweden; and Amatignak, the same as Dunkirk, France.

Alaska is a land of geographical variety and, indeed, of vivid contrast. Through the middle, from the Bering Sea 1,500 miles to the Canadian border and thence 800 miles further into British Columbia, flows the Yukon, one of the longest navigable rivers in the world. To the north the Yukon is roughly paralleled by the Brooks Range, which begins in the Yukon Territory and extends toward the Bering Straits. This is the region of sparsest population and least development, and its climate varies from the intense summer heat and winter cold south of the Brooks watershed to the perennial cold of the tundras and the rolling prairies of the Arctic slope. Although largely unexplored, the area is known to be rich in mineral resources such as gold, tin, coal and oil, but its main industries now are fur-trapping, reindeer herding and coastal fishing. In the entire area there are no connecting highways; transportation is by means of airplane or dogsled.

To the south the Yukon is roughly paralleled by another mountain chain, the Alaska Range, which borders the North Pacific and finally swings out for a thousand miles through the temperate zone toward Japan. This is the area of greatest population, with fertile farmlands, rugged mountains, rolling prairies and tundra, and forests of giant spruce. The southern portion contains the only Alaskan glaciers. The climate ranges from the year-round moderate temperature and heavy precipitation of the area touched by the warm Pacific currents to the intense temperatures and slight precipitation of the interior. Served by only 500 miles of single-track railroad and about 3,000 miles of highway (about as much as there is in Rhode Island), it is rich in every type of resource from salmon to gold, from croplands to timber. The productive possibilities are enhanced by three features endemic to Alaska -- the permanently frozen substrata which prevent crop loss by drought, the long day of the growing season which induces cabbages, for example, to grow as large as medicine balls, and the ice-free condition of the long southern coast and the availability of deep-water harbors. It is estimated that three-quarters of Alaska's 80 billion board feet of marketable timber grow within two and a half miles of salt water. Her abundant wealth is not inaccessible.


Interest in the region was first displayed in the United States in the decade preceding the Civil War, when American expansionists sought to consolidate the whole continent under the aegis of the Monroe Doctrine. New England whalers, and several scientific parties, had become acquainted with the area and had spoken of it in glowing terms. In 1865 the North American Telegraphic Association, seeking to lay a cable to Europe, sent an expedition north to test the feasibility of a route across the Bering Straits, but this project was abandoned in 1867 following the successful laying of a transatlantic cable.

During the Civil War, Russia was the Union's most constant friend. At its conclusion, the Tsar, short of cash and overburdened with land, wished to prevent his Crimean enemy, England, from taking his undefended North American colony. Overtures were therefore made to the American Secretary of State and a clear title purchase was arranged for $7,200,000. Charles Sumner pushed the appropriation through the Senate, despite accusations of irresponsible extravagance, and the shrewd bargain was sealed. Seward renamed the country from the native word Al-ay-es-ka meaning "great land." It was popularly called Seward's Icebox and Seward's Folly, but Seward, an advocate of Manifest Destiny, was unperturbed. He spoke of assimilating the whole North American continent from the North Pole to the Isthmus into an American Union and, with strategic insight, envisaged an impenetrable defense ring circling through Alaska, Greenland and Panama. In a speech at Sitka in 1869 he foresaw the day when Alaska would join the Union "ultimately as a state or many states," and warned British Columbia not to interfere with Alaskan interests. But apart from occasional discoveries of ore, Alaska was forgotten until the feverish days of the '96 Gold Rush, when her modern era began.

Contemporaneously, the United States defeated Spain in a three-month campaign and became a World Power. Protection of the far-flung commitments resulting from that war required either a two-ocean navy, or means of shifting a one-ocean navy quickly from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The Panama Canal made the passage possible, and the Canal, guarded by bases in the Caribbean and Hawaii, became the fulcrum of our military policy and remained at the center of our military thinking until 1941, in spite of ominous indications that the policy did not fit the facts.

Meanwhile, American interest in Alaska waned, notwithstanding the dramatic Harriman project to build a railroad through Alaska, under the Bering Straits, and across Asia to Europe. Few American strategists kept sufficiently abreast of the new developments in warfare to perceive the necessity of moving the fulcrum of power northward. Among the few who did was the martyred prophet of the Air Force, Brigadier-General "Billy" Mitchell, who said, "I think it [Alaska] is the most important strategic place in the world. . . . In an air war, if we were unprepared Japan could take it away from us first, by dominating the sky and creeping up the Aleutians. . . . Japan might well seize enough of Alaska to creep down the western coast of Canada. Then we would be in for it." In the Four Power Pacific Treaty of 1921 we bartered our right to fortify the Aleutians for a promise from Japan that she would refrain from fortifying her Pacific islands, newly acquired under mandate.

Japan was aware of the strategic value of Alaska, and during the next 20 years, with little hindrance from the United States, explored its islands and coasts, assisted by Germans under Captain Fritz Wiedemann. After the Nazi nonaggression pact with Russia, other Germans helped Russia fortify the Kommandorskie Islands close to Attu, travelled through Alaska as "tourists," and, incidentally, listened to Nazi propaganda refer to Alaska as one of the great reserve territories of the Nordic race. Throughout all this Americans remained apathetic until, in 1942, the prophecies of General Mitchell began to be borne out and the awakening came.

Air warfare has in the last seven years exorcised the illusion of American isolation and shattered the traditional concept of oceanic security. "Security" now has meaning primarily in relation to defense against northern or trans-polar attack. Improvements in radar and instrument flying, coupled with the discovery that Arctic aviation is confronted with fewer natural hazards in the polar regions than further south, have prompted strategic study of the area. A base in the extreme north of Greenland would bring Moscow, Berlin and London within an identical 2,400-mile range. At the same time, an air base in this glacier-free part of Greenland could be coördinated with Alaskan fortifications only 1,700 miles away to intercept attacks from any possible enemy. However, since Greenland does not belong to the United States, the problem of protecting ourselves at that point is largely a task of the State Department. In Alaska, we can do what we wish; and the extent to which we develop its possibilities will to a considerable extent determine our security.

Northern warfare, especially in wilderness areas, presents a series of special problems. For a properly-equipped invader, winter is the most favorable season for attack, especially against an enemy unprepared in bases, equipment and supply lines. Flying conditions are at their best then, since there is a minimum of wing icing, and frozen lakes and rivers may be utilized as airfields and highways. The vast areas of muskeg are frozen solid to support ground operations, and the mosquitoes have disappeared. However, in the extreme cold men rapidly become exhausted, and casualties are greater than at any other season, since a wounded man freezes unless he is aided immediately. No fox-holes can be dug into the ground in the face of tank attack, nor can a mine field be effective against tracked vehicles when covered with 18 inches of snow. Strong reserves must be available.

Neither invader nor defender in Alaska, in its undeveloped condition, can expect to live off the land. Each must depend upon long supply lines, and for the invader, at least in the primary stages, this would require air supply, a factor which, in limiting his equipment to light tanks and artillery pieces, would place him at a temporary disadvantage. However, an invader would presumably make a well-planned surprise attack, using specially trained men. Seizing those bases best suited to his purpose, he would destroy all others, and bring up reinforcements until his position was consolidated. Then he would turn south. A defender would be in a hopeless predicament without air bases, adequate highways and railroads for supply, and a local economy to supplement military stocks.

Advanced and well-integrated air bases are the only successful defense against such an invasion. But unless these bases were constructed with a view to offensive purposes, they would, in the event of war, represent but a dispersion of forces and a waste of time and material. In the air age, offense is the only defense. According to General Spaatz, "Provided with bases close to the Arctic area, an enemy could attack the most important cities of the United States, and inversely, American bombing forces located close to the 65th parallel of north latitude could carry out reprisals of the same nature against the most important centers of population of any possible enemy."

Should Russia challenge the United States, it seems likely that the initial surprise attack would be delivered across the Arctic through Alaska, and be directed toward rapid destruction of our industrial centers. The lessons to be learned from the experience of Germany and Japan have, one imagines, convinced the Soviet dictatorship that our industrial power must be knocked out at the source if the U.S.S.R. is to have a chance of victory. Russia does not have a navy to launch a sea-borne invasion, nor do we have the numbers or strength to fight Russia on land in her own territory. Though the Soviet Union would make full use of its land power in Western Europe, and no doubt elsewhere, we could get at Russia only by air. Aerial combat would probably be decisive -- and it would center over Alaska.

The present condition of our defenses in Alaska is indicated by the Alaskan Command's bald prediction that one enemy battalion could take the territory with little effort. We have neither Navy nor Army combat units stationed there, and all of our bases suffer from a lack of communications and of readily available strategic materials, such as oil. The present population and economy are incapable of supporting a military establishment. It has been logically argued, however, that the situation would quickly be greatly improved were Alaska to be admitted as a state. Statehood would make her eligible under the Federal Highway Act for assistance up to $16,000,000 annually, as compared with her present expenditure of $1,000,000 for maintenance work. Under the Adams Act Formula of 1906 she would also receive $90,000 annually for agricultural experimentation, as compared with the present sum of $45,000. She could also expect to collect revenues from her present tax-free resources, such as the $55,000,000-a-year salmon industry; virtually no profits taken from Alaska are put back at the present time. With such funds for development, and with full representation in Washington, Alaska could hope to attract colonists in considerable numbers. Contrasted to our present method of allocating insufficient funds from the Army and Interior Department budgets, this would be an inexpensive way to prepare for the defense of the region.

Alaska today has a population of about 90,000. The territory could easily support a far larger population and might indeed contribute to the world's food supply. There are 300,000,000 acres of sub-Arctic tundra, a large part of them in Alaska, available to agriculture with a minimum of clearing, though of course communications by rail and road would have to be developed. Alaska's wide grazing lands, heavily covered with native grasses, grains, hay, root crops and other forage, in the Aleutians as well as on the mainland, can support numbers of sheep and cattle. Animals native to the north and requiring no stored winter fodder might be domesticated, as Vilhjalmur Stefansson has suggested. The Lomen Reindeer Company has produced millions of tons of a meat almost indistinguishable from beef.

Meanwhile, Russia is busily fortifying her Arctic areas, with especial emphasis upon the Chukotsk Peninsula region adjoining Alaska. In the fatuous days of the Russo-German nonaggression pact, Alaska's delegate to Congress, Anthony Dimond, warned that ". . . we are fully justified in considering all the military air bases and fortifications of the Russians in eastern Siberia and the Bering Strait region as having been established with a view to a possible conflict with the United States." German perfidy postponed any such use, but did not make it impossible forever. The strategic value of the Arctic has long been recognized by Russian leaders. The U.S.S.R. early conducted aerial polar explorations and has pushed a program of Arctic development which has resulted in the establishment of modern industries and a number of large cities, often built by slave labor. The Soviet Union has also pioneered in the use of a northeastern passage along the shores of the Arctic Ocean.

During the war we supplied our Russian allies with war planes ferried through Alaska and Asia. Soviet pilots and technicians became as familiar with Alaska as did our own soldiers, and toward the end of the war Soviet troops were practising amphibious landings in the Cold Bay region. The United States was never permitted to study Siberian topography and military organization in similar detail. We do at least know, however, that the Russians have airfields and port installations along the north coast of Asia, and that they operate the most northerly airline in the world west along the Arctic coast to Anadyr on the Bering Sea. At Shemya and other positions convenient to East Cape they have expanded the construction of powerful air bases which clearly show the extent to which the Soviets are committed to a polar strategy. The Russian demands upon Spitzenbergen, and overtures to Iceland, point in the same direction.


From these strategic considerations emerges the fact of our dependence upon Canada. To reach the Panhandle, and to go from there to northern Alaska, we must cross Canadian territory; and all air operations from Alaska circle over Canada. The interdependence of United States and Canadian interests has been recognized to the extent that Canada has retooled her war machine to coincide with ours, that military experts have been shared by the two countries, and that together they have carried on joint experiments in the north, such as Exercise Musk-ox.

Our purchase of Alaska, which met with the approval of the British Government, lengthened the border which we hold in common with Canadians by 1,400 miles. If there was apprehension in Canada, it was felt mostly by the Hudson's Bay Company which controlled the northwestern territories and opposed any development which might cause a scarcity of fur-bearing animals. Such worries were unfounded, however, because Alaska was promptly forgotten by the United States. So complete was our neglect that in 1868 the citizens of Sitka, fearing a native uprising, turned to Canada for protection after their appeals had been ignored in Washington. Canada sent a warship, which shamed us into belatedly sending one of our own. Later, the citizens of Valdez, in protest over lack of government representation, asked to be annexed to Canada. In 1887 a religious persecution prompted a Canadian minister to lead his native parishioners to Alaska where they founded the successful colony at Metlakatla. Such episodes caused no friction between the two countries, but the manner of the settlement of the poorly defined boundary between the Alaskan Panhandle and British Columbia in 1903 sharply offended Canadians. President Theodore Roosevelt was a great deal less than tactful in his announcement, in advance of the decision of the boundary commission, that he would not refer the issue to neutral arbitration. Lord Alverstone, the British member of the commission, voted with the Americans against the Canadians, and although the decision did indeed seem justly based upon the Russian title to the disputed territory, there was no mistaking the fact that British action throughout was prompted primarily by the desire to strengthen Anglo-American friendship. The episode had much to do with bringing to a head the Canadian demand for full control over the conduct of Canada's foreign relations, and the further development of Dominion status. There was a rather inglorious postscript to the affair in 1919, when an American colonial expert at the Peace Conference of 1919, George Beer, proposed to cede the Alaskan Panhandle to Canada in return for certain British withdrawals in the Caribbean. This brought American misunderstanding of the realities of Canada's foreign relations to a climax, but the flurry caused by the episode was short-lived, and heralded the advent of a more discerning attitude all around.

The outbreak of the Second World War, and the Japanese advance toward Alaska, suddenly awoke the United States to the need for a military supply road through Canada to our northern outposts. At first the Canadians balked at the idea of such a highway, for fear that unless we were active participants in the war we would not send out enough men to make sure that it could not fall into Japanese hands. Events reassured them, however, and the Alcan Highway was built, but not through the MacKenzie area, rich in natural resources, as the Canadian proponents of northern development had hoped. Instead it connected a series of air bases on the Northwest Staging Route and travelled over a rough terrain with little except scenic value.

The need to supply the highway with oil brought about some development of the capacities of the Norman Wells district, and led to the building of the inadequate Canol pipeline to Whitehorse. This, too, travelled over rough terrain instead of through the Yukon trough to Fairbanks, Alaska's communication center. The decision to pipe the oil south toward the United States rather than north toward our Alaskan airfields seems to have been dictated by interests not quite connected with winning the war against Japan or developing Alaska. Nevertheless, the initial steps of opening up the territory have been taken, and Canadians now look forward to the development of their northwest apace with Alaska's development. The community of interests seems likely to guarantee coöperation and continued friendly relationships between Canada and the United States.

Unfortunately, the theme to which any forthright analysis of Alaskan problems must return is the danger of an aggressive move by the Soviet Union in this region. Alaska's present feeble defenses offer unnecessary temptation to Soviet strategists. Granting statehood to the Territory is the best and least expensive method of strengthening the defenses of the area, but the process will take time. Two concrete steps which would guard the safety of Alaska, and give an impetus to its development as well, should be taken at once. The first is the concentration there of strategical and tactical combat air units, and of approximately two highly trained regiments of ground troops. The next is the construction of certain highways which are necessary for supply, in particular in the Fairbanks-Nome area, and the building of a railroad from Fairbanks to the States. The new economy of statehood, if granted, would then consolidate these defenses and provide us with a strong northern bastion. Nature offers many obstacles that we shall have to overcome if such a program is to be completed rapidly. But since there is every indication that Soviet Russia considers northern warfare feasible, they are a challenge that we must accept.

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  • JOHN J. TEAL, Jr., research student in Alaskan problems; during the war, Captain and Command Pilot in the 8th Air Force
  • More By John J. Teal Jr.