Alaska Asks — What is a Colony?   2 comments

Again, this is the continuation of a speech given by Ernest Gruening at the Alaska Constitutional Convention 1955, what some have called Alaska’s Declaration of Independence. I tend to see it as just cutting one set of bonds to wrap ourselves up in another set of bonds, but that’s another argument.


Let Us End American Colonism – Part 3

But that is only a small part of the evidence of our colonialism under the American flag. Let us submit more facts to a candid world.
First, let us ask, what is a colony? And let us answer that question.

A colony has been defined in a standard college text-book by a Columbia University professor as “a geographic area held for political, strategic and economic advantage.”

That, as the facts will show, is precisely what the Territory of Alaska is–“a geographic area held for political, strategic and economic advantage.”

The maintenance and exploitation of those political, strategic and economic advantages by the holding power is colonialism.

The United States is that holding power.

Inherent in colonialism is an inferior political status.

Inherent in colonialism is an inferior economic status.

The inferior economic status is a consequence of the inferior political status.

The inferior economic status results from discriminatory laws and practices imposed upon the colonials through the superior political strength of the colonial power in the interest of its own non-colonial citizens.

The economic disadvantages of Alaskans which in consequence of such laws and practices redound to the advantage of others living in the states who prosper at the expense of Alaskans–these are the hall-marks of colonialism.

Let us take a look at these hall-marks of colonialism deeply engraved on the policies of the United States in Alaska in the field of transportation. Transportation is the key to almost all development. None have demonstrated this better than have the Americans within the non-colonial areas of their 48 states where transportation of every kind–railways, highways, airways–have linked, built and developed a dynamic domain of continental dimensions.

First, let us scrutinize sea-borne transportation. It was, for seventy-three years, until 1940, the only form of transportation between Alaska and the states. Alaska suffers a unique discrimination in maritime law.
Thirty-five years ago the Congress passed a merchant marine act which is known officially as the Maritime Act of 1920. In Alaska it is referred to as the “Jones Act,” after its sponsor, the late Senator Wesley L. Jones of the state of Washington. The act embodied a substantial modification of existing maritime law. It provided that goods shipped across the United States, destined either for the coastal ports of the Atlantic or Pacific or for shipment across those oceans to Europe or to Asia, could use either American or foreign carriers. The foreign carriers principally involved were Canadian.

For example, a shipper from the Atlantic seaboard or from the industrial cities of the middle west of products destined for points to the west could ship these across the country wholly on American railroads or on Canadian railroads, or partly on either.

And when these goods arrived at their Coast destination, he could send them across the Pacific in either American or foreign vessels, or southward in either. But at that point in the legislation, creating this new beneficial arrangement, two words had been inserted in Article 27 of the Act. Those two words were, “excluding Alaska.”

Now what did those two words signify? They signified that Alaska, alone among the nations, or possessions of nations, on earth, was denied the advantages afforded all other areas. The same discrimination, obviously, applies to products shipped from Alaska.

What was the purpose of this discrimination? Its purpose was to subject Alaska to steamship service owned in the city of Seattle. Senator Jones no doubt assumed, and correctly that this would be most helpful to some of his constituents there, as indeed it proved to be, but at the expense, the heavy expense, from that time on, of our voteless citizens of Alaska.

This was in 1920. Under the limited self-government which Congress had granted Alaska through the Organic Act of 1912, more limited than had been granted any other territory, Alaska was still a youngster. Nevertheless, the fifth Territorial legislature meeting the next year, 1921, protested strenuously against this specific and flagrant discrimination, and ordered the Territorial Attorney-General to take the matter to court. The Territorial legislators believed, and so expressed themselves, that this new legislation enacted by Congress at the behest of Senator Jones of Seattle, was in violation of the commerce clause of the Constitution, which forbids discrimination against any port of the United States.

The case came to the Supreme Court of the United States on an appeal from a decree of the United States District Court dismissing the suit brought by the Territory and by an Alaskan shipper, the Juneau Hardware Company, which sought to restrain the Collector of Customs in Alaska from confiscating merchandise ordered by the hardware company and others in Alaska from points in the United States shipped over Canadian railroads, through Canadian ports and thence to Alaska by Canadian vessels, or merchandise to be shipped from Alaska to the United States in like manner.

In pleading the cause of the Territory, Alaska’s Attorney-General John Rustgard argued that both the Treaty provisions and the specific extension of the Constitution to Alaska by the Organic Act of 1912 rendered the discriminatory clause unconstitutional. It looked like a clear case.

The Government–our government–which was defending this discriminatory maritime Act, was represented by the Solicitor-General of the United States, the Honorable James M. Beck of Pennsylvania.
Let the candid world note well the language of his argument:

“The immunity from discrimination is a reserved right on the part of the constituent states … The clear distinction of governmental power between states and territories must be constantly borne in mind … If the fathers had anticipated the control of the United States over the far-distant Philippine Islands, would they, who concern the reserved rights of the states, have considered for a moment a project that any special privilege which the interests of the United States might require for the ports of entry of the several states should by compulsion be extended to the ports of entry of the colonial dependencies … ?”

Let the candid world note that the case for the United States was presented on the basis that discrimination against a colonial dependency was proper and legitimate and that “any special privilege” required in the United States would supersede any obligation to a colonial dependency. The colonial dependency involved was and is Alaska.

Mr. Justice McReynolds, in rendering the decision of the court, declared:

“The Act does give preference to the ports of the States over those of the Territories,” but, he added, the Court could “find nothing in the Constitution itself or its history which compels the conclusion that it was intended to deprive Congress of the power so to Act.”

So it was definitely established by the highest court of the land that Congress had discriminated against Alaska, but that, since Alaska was a colonial dependency, such discrimination was permissible and legal.
Every plea by our Alaska legislatures over a period of 35 years to rectify this grave and unjust discrimination has been ignored by successive Congresses. They have “refused assent” to every attempt by Alaska’s delegates to secure remedial legislation.

Now the question naturally arises whether this discrimination imposed by the legislative branch of the federal government, approved by the executive branch, and sanctified by the judicial branch, was to prove to be more than a mere statement of the legality of such discrimination. Was it more than a mere affirmation of the subordinate and inferior status of Alaska’s colonials as compared with the dominating and superior status of the American citizens of the states? Did this discrimination also carry with it economic disadvantages? Indeed it did.
Several private enterprises in Alaska were immediately put out of business by the action of Congress in 1920 even before the Supreme Court upheld the legality of that Congressional action.

A resident of Juneau had established a mill to process Sitka spruce. He was paying the required fees to the Forest Service and had developed a market for his product in the Middle West where it was used in airplane manufacture. He was shipping it through Vancouver, where it cost him five dollars a thousand to ship by rail to his customers.

The “Jones Act” automatically compelled him to ship his spruce boards by way of Seattle. Here he was charged eleven dollars a thousand, as against the five dollars he had been paying, plus some additional charges, which totalled more than his profit. In consequence his mill was shut down and a promising infant industry, utilizing an abundant but little used Alaskan resource was extinguished. Not only did the “Jones Act” destroy this and other enterprises, but prevented still others from starting and has prevented them ever since. If anyone doubts that political control of the Territory through remote forces and absentee interests does not cause economic damage to the people of Alaska he need but look at the working of the maritime legislation directed against Alaska and Alaska only.

Its immediate effects were to more than triple the cost of handling Alaska freight in Seattle on purchases made in Seattle, as compared with Seattle-brought cargoes destined for the Orient. Alaska’s delegate, at that time, the late Dan Sutherland, testified that the Seattle terminal charges on shipments to Hawaii or Asia were only thirty cents a ton, and all handling charges were absorbed by the steamship lines, the result of competition between Canadian and American railways and steamship lines. But for Alaska, where Congressional legislation had eliminated competition, the Seattle terminal charges on local shipments, that is to say, on goods bought in Seattle destined for Alaska, were one hundred percent higher, or sixty cents a ton wharfage. So Alaskans paid $1.10 a ton for what cost Hawaiians and Asiatics thirty cents a ton-nearly four times as much.

This was by no means all. On shipments anywhere in the United States through Seattle, and destined for points in the Pacific other than Alaska, the total handling charges were only thirty cents a ton wharfage, and all other costs were absorbed by railroad and steamship lines. But for identical shipments consigned to Alaska, an unloading charge of sixty-five cents a ton was imposed, plus a wharfage charge of fifty cents a ton, plus a handling charge from wharf to ship of sixty cents a ton. These charges aggregated over five times the cost to a shipper to other points in the Pacific, and had to be paid by the Alaska consignee or shipper, and of course ultimately by the Alaskan consumer.

These damaging figures were presented by Delegate Sutherland at a public congressional committee hearing and made part of the official printed record. No attempt was made by the representatives of the benefitting state-side interests, either then or later, to explain, to justify, to palliate, to challenge, to refute, or to deny his facts.

If there is a clearer and cruder example of colonialism anywhere let it be produced! Here is a clear case where the government of the United States–through its legislative branch which enacted the legislation, the executive branch, through the President, who signed it, and the judicial branch, which through its courts, upheld it–imposed a heavy financial burden on Alaskans exclusively, for the advantage of private business interests in the “mother country.”

Nor is even this by any means all on the subject of railroad and steamship discrimination against Alaska, and Alaska alone. In addition to all the above extortions against Alaska’s shippers, suppliers and consumers–the direct result of discriminatory legislation –all the railroads of the United States charge a higher rate, sometimes as much as one hundred per cent higher for shipping goods across the continent, if these goods are destined for Alaska.

There is a so-called rail export tariff and a rail import tariff, which apply to a defined geographic area with exceptions made for other areas, which penalizes Alaska and Alaska alone.

Please note that the service rendered by those railroads, for the same distance, is exactly the same, whether the article to be shipped goes ultimately to Alaska or elsewhere in the Pacific or whether it stays on the mainland of the United States. But the charges for Alaska, and Alaska only, on that identical article, for identical mileage, and identical service, are specifically higher, sometimes up to one hundred per cent higher.

This abuse, as well as the others dating from the Jones Act have been the subject of unceasing protest from Alaskans. Alaska’s legislatures have repeatedly memorialized the Congress and the federal executive agencies asking for equal treatment. Again and again have Alaska’s delegates sought to have the discriminatory clause in the maritime law repealed. But each time the lobbies of the benefitting stateside interests have been successful in preventing any relief action.

How powerful these lobbies are and how successful they have been in maintaining these burdensome manifestations of colonialism may be judged from the unsuccessful efforts of the late Senator Hugh Butler of Nebraska to get the discriminatory words “excluding Alaska” stricken from the Act. He introduced a bill for that purpose.

In a speech on the Senate floor on December 4, 1947, he denounced “the discrimination against the territory in the present law”, that is the Maritime Act of 1920, and urged that there was “need for the prompt removal of that discrimination if we are to demonstrate that we are in earnest in our determination to promote the development of Alaska.”
In a subsequent communication to Senator Homer Capehart, who was then chairman of a sub-committee on Alaska matters of the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce to which Senator Butler’s bill was referred, Senator Butler specified the character and extent of the abuse which Alaska was suffering, saying:

“Today after 27 years of operation under the Jones Act of 1920, the carriers have failed to establish satisfactory service. . . . The Territory is still without adequate transportation to meet its needs. . . . Most Alaskan coastal towns are not connected with the continental United States, or with each other, by highway or rail. Accordingly they have been at the mercy of a steamship monopoly of long duration. There could be no competition from rail or bus lines which would compel better services or lower rates. American steamship lines have not been able or willing to meet Alaska’s transportation requirements. The service has been infrequent and the rates exorbitant.”

This caustic language was Senator Butler’s. And his testimony and vigorous denunciation are highly significant, not merely because he was very conservative, but because for the first fourteen years of his Senatorial service he was a bitter opponent of statehood for Alaska, a stand which made him the beau ideal of the anti-statehood elements within and without the Territory. He professed conversion to statehood for Alaska in 1954 only a few months before his death. He was still an unqualified opponent of Alaskan statehood when he issued this devastating indictment of the maritime transportation in 1947 and 8.
After going into further detail on the injurious effects on Alaska of the Jones Act, and the fact that most of the “merchandise . . . food products . . . and other commodities” shipped to Alaska were “an exclusive Seattle prerogative,” Senator Butler continued:

“The passage of this amendment to the Jones Act could well mean the difference between the slow, continued strangulation of Alaska’s economy, and the full development of the Territory’s vast potentialities.”

Senator Butler then spoke of the discriminatory rates in favor of canned salmon, which industry, he pointed out, likewise centered in and around Seattle, saying:

“The people of Alaska have long been subject to higher rates than has the salmon industry, for general cargo. These higher rates are, in fact, a decree penalizing the resident Alaskan for living in Alaska; the lower rates are, in effect, a decree requiring the Alaska resident to make up for whatever deficits accrue from the costs of shipping canned salmon and salmon-cannery needs….The strangling provisions of the present laws would be eliminated by the enactment of S. 1834.”

S. 1834 was Senator Butler’s bill to remove this manifestation of colonialism.
And Senator Butler concluded:

“The development of Alaska would be accelerated, and justice would be done to those permanent residents of our northwestern frontier, who have, for so many years, struggled valiantly against discouraging circumstances to develop that area.”

Despite Senator Butler’s powerful position as the Chairman of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs when his party controlled the Congress, this legislation failed. It did not even come out of committee. Eight more years have passed since that time; the tragic situation as far as Alaska is concerned, in its key transportation, has further deteriorated. Steamship freight rates have continued to go up and up, far above the levels that Senator Butler termed “exorbitant.”

Invariably, whenever the operators announced another rate increase, the Alaska territorial authorities used to request the maritime regulatory agency to secure an audit of the company’s books in order to demonstrate that the increases requested where justified. But almost invariably the increases were granted without such audit and often without question. It may well be asked whether, if Alaska were not a colony, but a State, its two Senators might not be reasonably effective in at least securing a demonstration from the carrier that its financial situation justified the rate increase demanded and promptly acceded to by the federal maritime bureau.

But actually, if Alaska were a State, the whole discrimination in the Jones Act would go out of the porthole. Alaska would then get the same treatment in the transportation of freight that is accorded to every other area under the flag and to foreign countries. But as a colony it gets no consideration in this matter either from the legislative branch, the Congress, or from the executive branch, in this instance the Federal Maritime Board, successor to other agencies similarly subservient to the vested interests within the colonial power.

The net result of those cumulative charges–50 to 100 per cent higher railroad freight rates to Seattle, higher unloading and transfer charges in Seattle, higher wharfage and higher longshoring charges, and finally higher maritime freight rates to Alaska ports–all higher than anywhere else for any but Alaskans, has been and is greatly to increase the cost of living in Alaska. This in itself has been and continues to be a great hindrance to settlement and permanent residence in Alaska, a heavy burden on private enterprise in Alaska, a forecloser of new enterprise, and obviously a great obstacle to development.

How absurd in the light of these facts–and others similar to be submitted to our candid world–is the allegation of the small minority of Alaskans and of others “outside” that we are not ready for statehood. How shall we get readier with these handicaps? How can we cope with what conservative Senator Butler described as “the slow, continued strangulation of Alaska’s economy, ” if the throttling grip of colonialism is not loosened?

To complete the maritime picture, beginning last year all passenger travel on American boats has ceased. The Alaska Steamship Line has eliminated it. This is a blow to an infant and potentially great industry in Alaska, the tourist industry, which four years ago the Alaska 1961 legislature sought to develop by establishing the Alaska Visitors’ Association, financed jointly by territorially appropriated and publicly subscribed funds.

One postscript remains on the subject of maritime transportation before we pass on to other of Alaska’s colonial disadvantages. Though it is invariably pointed out by Congressional opponents of statehood that Alaska is a non-contiguous area, separated from the main body of the 48 states by some 700 miles of foreign territory, or 700 miles of either international or foreign coastal waters, the United States persists in maintaining the coast-wise shipping laws against Alaska. Their removal would make a steamship line eligible for the subsidies which American flag ships in the European, African or Asiatic trade receive. That might, were Congress sufficiently interested, induce some competition in the Alaska steamship trade from other American carriers. That the imposition of the coast-wise shipping laws is not a necessary corollary to being a colony, is proved by the fact that the United States has suspended the coastwise shipping laws for the Virgin Islands. But it has declined to do so for Alaska.

2 responses to “Alaska Asks — What is a Colony?

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  1. I agree, one set of bonds for another.


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