Alaska Demands Self-Determination   Leave a comment

This is Part 7 of Ernest Gruening’s “Let Us End American Colonialism” speech from the 1955 Alaska Constitutional Convention. In it, he referenced the American Declaration of Independence frequently, but at the end, he assured that Alaska had no desire to be an independent nation. This is why I am not a fan of Ernest Gruening, because this was Alaska’s opportunity to demand legitimate self-determination.

The people of 1955 could be forgiven for not recognizing their plight. They truly didn’t know all their options. Unfortunately, hindsight is 50-50 and we’ll be looking at some of the reasons why they should have stopped and wondered “Why the push for statehood?”

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How applicable to Alaska’s plight the words of the Declaration of Independence:

“In every stage of these oppression’s we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms. Our repeated petitions have been answered by repeated injury.”

Lest these frequent citations from the Declaration of Independence lead anyone to the conclusion that there are any among us who now desire our independence, let such a totally erroneous assumption be promptly corrected. We desire and demand an end to our colonialism. But we seek it through a re-affirmation in deeds for Alaska of the principles which launched the American experiment, and re-application of the practice that has been followed in 35 states.

We Alaskans believe–passionately–that American citizenship is the most precious possession in the world. Hence we want it in full measure; full citizenship instead of half-citizenship; first class instead of second class citizenship. We demand equality with all other Americans, and the liberties, long denied us, that go with it. To adapt Daniel Webster’s famous phrase uttered as a peroration against impending separatism we Alaskans want “liberty and union, one and inseparable, now and forever.”

But the keepers of Alaska’s colonial status should be reminded that the 18th century colonials for long years sought merely to obtain relief from abuses, for which they–like us–vainly pleaded, before finally resolving that only independence would secure for them the “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness,” which they felt was their natural right.

We trust that the United States will not by similar blindness to our rights and deafness to our pleas drive Alaskans from patient hope to desperation.

We have been challenged in the course of Congressional debates to show as a pre-requisite that admission of Alaska to statehood would be beneficial to the nation. That test was never applied to earlier territories seeking and securing statehood. But we gladly accept that challenge and willingly subscribe to it as a condition.

The development of Alaska, the fulfillment of its great destiny, cannot be achieved under colonialism. The whole nation will profit by an Alaska that is populous, prosperous, strong, self-reliant–a great northern and western citadel of the American idea. Statehood would automatically bring us far along that high road.

Nothing could more pathetically reveal the lack of understanding regarding Alaska, and the poor advice concerning Alaska that is given and accepted in the highest places, than the presidential pronouncement in the last state-of-the-union message.

“As the complex problems of Alaska are resolved that Territory should expect to achieve statehood.”

Bless us! The complex problems of Alaska are inherent in its territorial status; they are derived from its colonial status; they will be largely resolved by statehood and only by statehood.

As was promptly called to President Eisenhower’s attention this was like the old story of telling a youngster he must learn to swim before going into the water!

So we return to the proposition that America can scarcely afford to perpetuate its colonialism. Our nation is attempting to lead the world into the pathway of peace. No goal could be more worthy. But to lead effectively, it must not only practice what it preaches. It must carry out its solemn commitments. It can scarcely be critical of nations that break their pledges and break its own. It must first cast the beam out of its own eye before attempting to pull the motes of its neighbors’ eyes.

For the United States has pledged its good name and good faith in treaties and agreements far more recent than the Treaty of Cession of 1867. Not that our nation’s responsibility for not carrying out those original pledges in regard to Alaska is diminished by the passage of time. But there are recent and even contemporary commitments which demand fulfillment.

Article 73 of the United Nations Charter, dealing with non-self-governing territories–and that includes Alaska which must make annual reports to the U.N.–pledges the signatories:

  • “To the principle that the interests of the inhabitants of these territories is paramount,” and further pledges them
  • “To insure . . . their political, economic, social, and educational advancement, their just treatment, and their protection against abuses,” and, finally, and this is most pertinent, it pledges them
  • “To develop self-government, to take due account of the political aspirations of the peoples and to assist them in the progressive development of their free political institutions. . . . “

The United States pledged itself to that ten years ago. If the English language has not lost its meaning and the United States its integrity, it should some time ago have, and should now, in any event, “take due account of the political aspirations” of Alaskans and enable them to develop the self-government which they seek.

There is an even more recent commitment–the Pacific charter–signed a year ago, in which the signatory nations, including the United States, pledged themselves “to uphold the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples,” and to re-enforce that principle the signatories further pledged that they were “prepared to continue taking effective practical measures to insure conditions favorable to orderly achievement of the foregoing purposes,” namely self-government.

We are agreed that there is only one form of self-government that is possible for Alaska. And so we are drawing up the constitution for the State that we fervently hope will soon come to be. That hope, it is encouraging to note, is shared by the great majority of Americans. If our 88-year experience inevitably leads to strictures of the colonialism that has ruled us, let us remember that it is a course not sanctioned by American public opinion. The Gallup polls, which last recorded an 82 per cent support of Alaskan statehood, the endorsement of virtually every important national organization, demonstrate clearly that the forces in and out of government which would deny Alaska statehood–in fact the government itself–do not represent prevailing American sentiment.

It may be regrettable-or not-but every generation must fight to preserve its freedom. We have twice in a lifetime participated in our nation’s fight to preserve them. In Alaska we still have to win them.

This Constitutional Convention is an important mobilization. But the battle still lies ahead, and it will require all our fortitude, audacity, resoluteness–and maybe something more–to achieve victory. When the need for that something more comes, if we have the courage–the guts–to do whatever is necessary, we shall not fail. That the victory will be the nation’s as well as Alaska’s–and the world’s–should deepen our determination to end American colonialism.

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