Alaska Statehood Buildup   5 comments

Historian Claus Naske divides the statehood movement in Alaska into two phases. I am not a fan, but he wrote the most accessible books on Alaska history. He has the naive notion that the federal government gave Alaska a gift in statehood and refuses to see that many of our current problems grow out of statehood.

First, between 1943 and 1953, Alaska’s governor (Gruening), the delegate to Congress (Bartlett), and a cross-section of the territory’s established business and professional men and women engineered numerous legislative efforts to achieve statehood for Alaska. Without popular support in Alaska, it was not going to happen. Alaskans were, for the most part, fed up with the United States. Gruening — a federal appointee — was frustrated by the fact that after three decades as an actual American territory, Alaska was still without adequate roads, airfields, tuberculosis hospitals, and dependable shipping at reasonable cost. Aboriginal rights issue had not yet been settled Homesteaders were not yet legally able to acquire land from the federal government. Gruening felt that the only tools Alaskans could use to end their plight were two United States senators and a Representative in the House, each with a vote.

Ah, starry-eyed dreamer! Or savvy politician working in the interest of the colonial masters.

The fact that a federal appointee believed that Alaska should become a state suggests to me that there was more at work than just an Alaskan perspective. Gruening’s federal handlers wanted Alaskan statehood … or at least the debate — for some reason and you need look no further than international law in 1946. The United Nations Charter mandated that the unincorporated territories of sovereign nations should be allowed self-determination.

Alaskans were fed up with the United States because of the way we had been treated. My mother lived in the Panhandle at the time and my father lived in Anchorage when he wasn’t in the Merchant Marines. Both said a majority of non-military Alaskans that they knew were so fed up that they referred to the United States as another country and an enemy one at that. We were ripe to choose to take our natural resource wealth and become a country all on our own. By shifting the dialogue to statehood rather than discussing becoming an independent nation or a commonwealth, the federal government obscured the fact that Alaska had choices under international law.

By ginning up that discussion and making it sound like the choice was only between remaining a territory or becoming a state, Gruening and his friends were able to control the debate. A 1946 referendum in favor of statehood led to the formation of the Alaska Statehood Association–an “ad hoc” group of “concerned” citizens — mainly people who were connected to people already waving the statehood banner. Meanwhile, Gruening lobbied hard in Washington with the members of the influential Senate Public Lands Committee, especially Senator Hugh Butler of Nebraska. Delegate Bartlett introduced a statehood bill in April, 1948 which was corralled in the Rules Committee by Senator Butler. It never came up for debate, but many Alaskans had testified to their desire for statehood, which may have actually been the expression of being fed up with being a colonial possession, and the interest of other Alaskans was aroused as the possibility of statehood became more plausible. Alaska voters decided that year to reform the territory’s tax structure to loosen the hold of the special interests. It didn’t work because the federal government didn’t want Alaska to control the special interests. Too many in DC were making too much money to change that system. Oddly, not much has changed.

The Alaska Statehood Committee was formed in 1949 to intensify efforts toward statehood, calling on national and labor organizations (which is how my dad, a union organizer home in Anchorage from the Merchant Marines, got involved in statehood initially), newspaper editors, and state governors to support and publicize Alaska’s situation. Gruening himself compiled a “committee of one-hundred” prominent Americans who supported Alaska’s aspirations, including Eleanor Roosevelt, actor James Cagney, Pearl S. Buck, John Gunther, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. 1949 was a watershed year for the statehood movement, as it received growing attention both in Alaska and in the nation at large. A bill for statehood passed the House by a vote of 186-146 early in 1950, but was killed in the Senate by a coalition of conservative Republicans and southern Democrats, backed tacitly by President Eisenhower. This coalition wanted to preserve the tenuous Republican majority in Congress, and opposed Alaska’s entry into the Union for fear that its congressional voice would be Democratic. The Korean War, which began in June of 1950 and lasted into 1952, effectively put concerns about Alaska statehood on the back burner.

The second, or “populist” phase in Naske’s analysis, involved the efforts of thousands of regular Alaskans to foment popular interest in the statehood drive. This had not been the default position of most Alaskans prior to 1950. It came about as a consequence of the growing media monopolization of the debate. The Anchorage Times and the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner could buy ink by the barrel and convince Alaskans, who had no other source of news, that this was the only option. The New York Journal-American put the situation dramatically:

Alaska wants statehood with the fervor men and women give to a transcendent cause. An overwhelming number of men and women voters in the United States want statehood for Alaska. This Nation needs Alaskan statehood to advance her defense, sustain her security, and discharge her deep moral obligation.

Naske might have believed that, but folks like my parents who lived here at the time were not all that convinced. At the federal level, media boostering such as this served as a counterweight to the typical arguments made against Alaska statehood: noncontiguity with the rest of the country, lack of population, inadequate political maturity, and meager financial resources. None of these should have been arguments for or against statehood. A reasonable discussion of all of our options should have informed the public debate.

Senator Butler and five members of the Senate Interior and Insular Affairs Committee decided to hold hearings in Alaska on a statehood bill; they wanted to hear the “reaction of the “little people” of Alaska. The Butler committee heard testimony in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and Ketchikan. The visit of Butler’s committee brought together many Alaskans sympathetic to the statehood cause, and popular publicity movements such as “Operation Statehood” put increased pressure on Congress for Alaska statehood. Women in the committee, for example, made artificial bouquets out of the Forget-me-Not, Alaska’s official flower, and mailed them to members of Congress prior to the consideration of statehood legislation. The citizens of Alaska sent Christmas cards to friends in the contiguous U. S. which urged: “Make [Alaskans] future bright/Ask your Senator for statehood/And start the New Year right.” Members of Congress could no longer invoke “lack of public interest” as an argument against Alaska Statehood.

In the meantime, most people in the Interior of Alaska were not convinced statehood was the answer. The United Nations Charter had given us another option, which had been discovered by the mayor of Anchorage who could assure it made the news. Many of my parents’ generation thought this was the way we should go … well, until Tom Snedden, publisher of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, became convinced for statehood, anyway.

President Eisenhower, in his 1954 State of the Union address, requested the immediate admission of Hawaii into the Union but did not mention Alaska. The editor of the Washington Post wrote of a “murky cloud of politics” surrounding such a position, as it was becoming evident that the Republican administration thought Hawaii would come into the Union as a Republican state, while Alaska would come in favoring the Democrats. Eventually the Senate put together a combination statehood bill, which provided for the admission first of Hawaii and then of Alaska. This bill immediately became the centerpiece of Congressional partisan wrangling. Operation Statehood swamped the White House with telegrams asking for “Statehood Now.” A delegation of Operation Statehood’s members flew to Washington, D. C. to meet with President Eisenhower, and they made a dramatic impression. John Butrovich, a Fairbanks insurance agent and senior Republican in the territorial legislature, told Eisenhower:

We feel that you are a great American. But we are shocked to come down here and find that a bill which concerns the rights of American citizens is bottled up in a committee when you have the power to bring it out on the House floor.

Eisenhower reddened as Butrovich banged his fists on the Chief Executive’s desk to emphasize his dissatisfaction. The President denied that any partisanship played a role in the Alaska statehood issue and assured the members that Alaska statehood posed many problems which needed attention. Naske surmised that Eisenhower was most likely concerned with preserving the narrow Republican margin in Congress, but more recent researchers have claimed that Eisenhower’s real concern was the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPRA), where the Navy was finding oil, but not enough to declare a third of the state as a federal petroleum reserve. He really wanted to do that and if the test wells near Umiat had produced just a little bit more oil, Alaska never would have become a state. It is known from Eisenhower’s memoirs that he favored an Alaska about half the acreage of what it is today and allowing the State of Alaska to control only a few hundred thousand acres of land. In other words, he favored giving us the title of state while keeping us on a colonial leash — which, hey, is what Carter managed to accomplish through the use of the Antiquities Act 30 years later.

Posted December 29, 2013 by aurorawatcherak in Alaska

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5 responses to “Alaska Statehood Buildup

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  1. Yes, for the Statehood vote, the military were encouraged to register to vote which had been prohibited before and if they did, they lost overseas duty pay, since they were then considered residents. Then, on election day, the military and voting aged dependents were bused to the polls and told to Help Alaska become a State. Instead of the three options that legally should have been on the ballot, there were only two. This was the basis of Joe Vogler’s fight with the Feds. The three options? Statehood, remain a Territory or become a Commonwealth.


    • For years, I looked at commonwealth like Pennsylvania, which is just a state, and I didn’t understand the “fuss”. Then I ran across an interview with the 1950s mayor of Anchorage, who was about the only one in the statehood era who was discussing commonwealth. I realized that the United States uses the term incorrectly. Under the UN Charter, a commonwealth is more like a full-fledged state.

      As a commonwealth, Alaska would not have had a vote in Congress, but we would have elected our own governor, our legislature would have become autonomous, we would have gained full control of our resources, waterways and wildlife, and our citizens would not have had to pay income tax. Alaskans would retain their American citizenship. The Commonwealth of Alaska would have had to work out some arrangement with the United States for military protection and diplomacy, probably something similar to the tariff system used in the early days of the nation.

      The federal government really stroked the “you wouldn’t have a vote in Congress” issue, but from a rational, hindsight view, what we would have gained was far more valuable to us than a vote in Congress.



  3. Hi aurorawatcherak. Here’s a little present for you and your blog: God bless you!


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