Stepping Stones to Nowhere: The Aleutian Islands, Alaska, and American Military Strategy, 1867-1945

Article excerpt

Galen Roger Perras

Vancouver: UBC Press, 2003, xiv, 274pp, $85.00 cloth (ISBN 0-7748-0989-2), $25.95 paper (ISBN 0-7748-0990-6)

Deeds and dreams of empire have a way of persisting even in the face of cold facts. And where could those facts be colder than in Alaska? Even as the overly practical dismissed the Russian fire-sale of 20 June 1867 that gave the United States "Seward's Icebox" (in honour of Secretary of State William H. Seward) for the piddling amount of $7.3 million, those concerned with the strategic side of the colonial vocation saw Alaska--and more specifically its Aleutian Island chain--as a logical perch from which the American eagle could begin the tedious business of keeping the planet well ordered. Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan fought the first battle of Pearl Harbor in 1911, arguing that the nation's Pacific fleet ought to be based at Kiska Island. Needless to say, Mahan and Alaska lost out to Hawaii on the grounds, ironic given later events, that the Aleutians were too close to the Kuriles and thus too vulnerable to a Japanese sneak attack. Twenty-four years later, in 1935, Brigadier General William "Billy" Mitchell of the Army Air Service came out of retirement to inform Congress that Alaska's importance could not be exaggerated: "Air power can neutralize anything standing still or moving on the surface of the earth or water... [and] Alaska is the most central place in the world for aircraft.... [H]e who holds Alaska will rule the world, and I think it is the most important strategic place in the world" (p 30).

This rule-the-world rhetoric suggested the dream of empire. The title of Galen Roger Perras's book suggests that the deeds of empire were a bit more mundane for the simple reason that no strategic thinker's map could make Alaska and its Aleutians anything but stepping stones to nowhere. For a brief period during World War II, Billy Mitchell's prophecy did appeared to be unfolding--principally because the Japanese appeared to share the same Alaskan delusion. In June 1942, seven months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese troops seized the Aleutian island of Attu and held it for eleven months until American troops took it back in a bloody three-week battle. A major theatre in the North Pacific appeared certain thereafter as some 35,000 United States soldiers and sailors set their sites on a second Aleutian island held by the enemy. But when this force arrived on Kiska, they discovered that the Japanese had evacuated. …