Alaska Statehood Achieved … Officially   Leave a comment

With partisan conflicts toward Alaskan statehood breaking down, Congress reconvened in January 1958 to the sounds of President Eisenhower fully endorsing Alaska statehood for the first time. The story of what swayed President Eisenhower involves publishers Bob Atwood and Bill Snedden, both Republicans, meaning numerous times with a group of GOP politicians, to assure them that Alaska would support the civil rights legislation. This coincided with the Navy’s decision to mothball the Umiat wells in the mistaken belief that Alaska did not have commercially-viable oil reserves. If they’d only looked a little bit harder ….

Bob Bartlett was aware that Alaskans were restless and also aware that another defeat in Congress would have the state’s population looking for another solution. Perhaps he knew that we might take a real look at commonwealth status if we had time to think about it. The Alaska delegation and those who traveled with them were certain that this was a last time shot at statehood, not so much because conditions were right in Congress but because Alaskans might lose interest — or revolt —  if told to wait again. Senator Lyndon B. Johnson assured Bartlett that the southern Senators would not filibuster the Alaska bill. Johnson’s was an important committee, yet Representative Howard W. Smith of Virginia, Chairman of the powerful Rules Committee, stepped in to obstruct the statehood bill. Life Magazine characterized Smith as a “Virginia gentleman whose impeccable manners include little real respect for either free enterprise or democracy.” Representative Thomas Pelly of Washington State demanded the right for his constituents to fish Alaskan waters on the same basis as residents. An amendment was subsequently drafted seeking retention of federal jurisdiction over Alaska’s fish and game resources until the Secretary of the Interior certified to Congress that the state met provisions for their conservation and nonresident access. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner responded to Pelly’s petulance by printing excerpts from Edna Ferber’s impassioned novel Ice Palace. The passages featured the character of Thor Storm, the grizzled Nordic pioneer, informing his granddaughter, Christine, about the legacy of Seattle and San Francisco cannery operators’ unmerciful exploitation of Alaska’s fisheries. Ferber’s book had sold well and widely, with such an educative effect on the nation’s populace that one critic was moved to refer to it as “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of Alaska Statehood.”

After some maneuvering, the effort to bypass Representative Smith’s Rules Committee succeeded when the Alaska Statehood Bill was brought up on “privileged status” by a roll-call vote of 217-172. The Senate, which had before it both its own version of the statehood bill and the House version, passed the House version at the urging of Delegate Bartlett by a 64-20 margin. The House then passed the bill by a vote of 210-166. New York Representative Leo W. O’ Brien, when asked about the almost miraculous materialization of needed Congressional support for the statehood bill, considered a key factor to be the friendship so many lawmakers felt for Bob Bartlett. According to Bill Snedden and others, the real miracle of passage involved a lot of back room politics and playing both sides against one another.

The Compact passed in July. A month later, Alaskans were presented with a plebescite ballot that gave us only an up-down vote — for statehood or against statehood. There was no discussion that we could become an independent nation and little discussion that we could become a commonwealth-protectorate. In fact, the federal government was adament that we could not become a commonwealth, even thought that was not in the UN Charter. The short time between passage of the Alaska Statehood Act and the election in Alaska meant that few Alaskans had actually read what they were agreeing to.

Furthermore, the military and their voting age dependents made up nearly half the voting population of the state and we now know that military commanders called meetings in the days before the plebescite and told their soldiers that they and their wives were to vote for statehood “or face disciplinary action.” The military in Alaska received extra pay for “overseas” duty, but prior to 1958 that was dependent upon their residence. If they registered to vote in Alaska, they lost their overseas pay. That was changed in 1958 in Alaska. Not in Guam or Puerto Rico. US military personnel there could not register to vote in local elections there and keep their overseas pay. Only in Alaska was the rule changed so that military personnel continued to draw overseas pay while being registered to vote in local elections. At Ft. Wainwright, the Army brought in busses and vans to assist the military and their voting-age dependents in reaching the polls. It is reasonable to assume that a strong plurality of the pro-statehood votes were the military and their dependents who were told how to vote under special circumstances.

It is not usual for an army of occupation to vote in a local election. Think about it as American soldiers voting in the German elections in the late 1940s and 1950s.

Statehood was, by 1958-59, a foregone conclusion. Whether it was good for Alaska or not was never the question. It turned out the Alaska Statehood Act didn’t exactly make us a grown up state, but how were Alaskans to know that when they were not permitted to read it before the election?

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