Considering Commonwealth   2 comments

History shows that the Eisenhower administration delayed Alaska statehood in an effort to buy time for the Navy to strike commercially-viable oil in the Umiat area. Had that happened, I doubt Alaska would be a state today or we’d be half the size and there’d be a territory appended to us. It was to the United States government’s benefit to have Alaska as a territory when oil became big. But, no matter, Carter figured out how to get around that inconvenience, which is a later subject.

Claus Naske, Alaska’s premier historian, views the proposal to make Alaska and Hawaii commonwealths as another effort to derail statehood. I disagree. I think it was a thoughtful and educated discussion that would have been better for Alaska (and, possibly Hawaii) in the long-run. It was a debate drowned out by the statehood coalition, because it would have greatly benefited us at the expense of the federal government..

As a territory, Alaska wasn’t treated like previous territories. Our governor was appointed, not elected by popular vote. Our legislature was popularly elected, but powerless. It needed to get Congress’ approval for everything and more often than not, Congress said “no.” The federal government could and did dictate the speed limits in Anchorage and prostitution in Fairbanks. As abusive and intrusive as the federal government is in modern-Alaska, I can certainly understand why the former level of control irritated my parents’ generation. Territorial status was worse than statehood … but statehood wasn’t much better.

Commonwealth status would have changed everything and allowed Alaska true home rule. The commonwealth status would have made Alaska into a protectorate of the United States. We would have had full home rule while retaining a relationship with the “mother country.” Our relationship would have been similar to Australia’s with England. We would have retained many trappings of United States citizens, including our citizenship, but we would have gained control of our local politics, resources, waterways, wildlife, markets, etc. We might have had to pay for the military protection and diplomacy, but that wouldn’t have been a problem once we gained control of our resources.

National columnists such as Walter Lippmann and Richard Strout (The New Republic) favored commonwealth status and for a brief moment, Alaskans began talking about it. My mom, reading Strout’s Alaska and Hawaii in the New Republic as she drove north with her first husband and my brother, thought this made perfect sense. Joe Vogler later claimed he also thought it was a good idea at the time. Tom Snedden of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner at first favored this choice.

The federal government quickly fired back that Alaska and Hawaii didn’t have the commonwealth option because they were “organized territories.” Remember the times. Radio, newspapers and magazines were the information sources of the day. Alaska was geographically remote. Alaskans naively believed that the government would tell the truth. It turned out, the federal government lied. Alaska and Hawaii were considered unincorporated territories under the United Nations Charter, which mentions nothing about “organized territories.” The UN Charter says that non-self-governing territories have the right to self-determination (to remain a territory, become an independent nation, a state or a commonwealth/protectorate) and, as we will see later, that the governing nation has an obligation to fully inform the people of said territories of their options. The federal government did not fully inform Alaska of its options and, in fact, deliberately obscured the commonwealth option.

The brief discussion of commonwealth status didn’t sway the Alaska media boosters from their singular obsession with statehood. They were convinced that a vote in Congress was worth far more than control of our resources and full home rule. Those Alaskans favoring commonwealth could not grab a microphone and they didn’t buy ink by the barrel, so they couldn’t be heard over the Anchorage Times promises that Alaska would be admitted to the union as a full state with all the sovereignty enjoyed by any other state.

HAH! What a pretty dream! How is that working out for us? Fifty five years and we have a vote in Congress and two in the Senate, more than 60% of our land is locked up in federal control, we receive no benefit from it, we are increasingly losing control of our resources, our waterways, our wildlife management, etc.

Another series of Congressional hearings about Alaska’s situation instilled in many Alaskans an interest in more aggressive action. Such enthusiasm ultimately brought about the 1955 Alaska Constitutional Convention, held in the newly appointed “Constitution Hall” on the grounds of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. My dad attended as an assistant to one of the delegates. Senator Ernest Gruening delivered his galvanizing “Let Us End American Colonialism” address there. The convention received phenomenal national exposure and was praised by numerous journalists for its idealistic attention to “the good of Alaska” rather than partisan politics. The convention was an intensely emotional event for all involved, as passions about the future of Alaska ran strong and deep among convention members. In 1956, the resulting Constitution–which the National Municipal League called “one of the best, if not the best, state constitutions ever written” was overwhelmingly accepted by Alaskans. We’ll look at that later.

Another crucial maneuver toward statehood was the adoption of the Tennessee Plan, proposed by ex-Navy commander George H. Lehleitner. The plan, which had been used successfully by Tennessee, Michigan, California, Oregon, Kansas, and Iowa, involved electing a Congressional delegation without waiting for an enabling act from Congress. It was meant to be a show of political maturity. In the spring of 1956, Alaskans elected Ernest Gruening and William Egan as Senators-elect and Ralph J. Rivers (I met both of the last two men as a child and my parents rented Rivers home while he was in DC) as House Representative-elect. With support for statehood firmly established in Alaska, the stage was now set for reinvigorated efforts in the nation’s Congress. Egan, Gruening, and Rivers were received with much fanfare, but were not officially seated or recognized by Congress.

Working together with Delegate Bob Bartlett, the Tennessee Plan delegation lobbied hard in the Senate and the House. At the time, Congress was embroiled in the civil rights movement. All three delegates from Alaska were Democrats, so it was naturally assumed that Alaska would vote with the Democrats if admitted to statehood. Contrary to popular belief, Democrats were opposed to passing the Civil Rights legislation while Republicans were for it. Alaska’s delegation and those who traveled with them began lobbying behind the scenes. C.W. “Bill” Snedden, publisher of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and Bob Atwood, publisher of the Anchorage Times, were Republicans. The Democratic delegates spoke with Democratic Congressmen and hinted that Alaska would vote against civil rights legislation. The Republican advocates spoke with Republican Congressmen and hinted that Alaska would vote FOR the legislation. Bob Bartlett whispered in any ear that got near. Influential House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas, until the summer of 1957 a foe of Alaska statehood, changed his mind and promised to give the territory a chance to be heard. Rayburn, when asked about his change in view, answered “I can tell you in two words, ‘Bob Bartlett’.” He was referring to Bartlett’s assurances that Alaska would vote with the Democrats against civil rights if we were admitted to the union, but other Republican congressional members also had received similar assurances from Bartlett, Atwood and Snedden that we would vote with the Republicans for civil rights.

I don’t fault these men for their enthusiasm in pursuing what they thought was the answer to Alaska’s colonial servitude. Egan, Bartlett, and Rivers were friends with my Dad. Later, Bill Snedden and Mike Stepovich became family friends too. I know for certain their hearts were in the right place. I do fault them for not researching our options better. I fault them for drowning out a true debate on those options. Bob Atwood and Bill Snedden both had a hand in controlling the debate through their control of the media.

Alaska deserved better and we’re still paying the price.

Posted December 30, 2013 by aurorawatcherak in Alaska

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2 responses to “Considering Commonwealth

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  1. Reblogged this on The Political Chef™ Blog.

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  2. Well done

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