The U.S. Military as Geographical Agent: The Case of Cold War Alaska*

By Hummel, Laurel J. | The Geographical Review, January 2005 | Go to article overview

The U.S. Military as Geographical Agent: The Case of Cold War Alaska*


Hummel, Laurel J., The Geographical Review


At the beginning of World War II, Alaska's mostly primary-sector economy shifted dramatically when the territory was catapulted to strategic importance in the Pacific theater as both an air-corridor connection to the Soviet Union, then a U.S. ally, and key terrain that needed to be kept out of Japanese hands. Defense expenditures in Alaska totaled more than $1 billion between 1941 and 1945 (USARAL 1969). At the end of the war, defense spending pushed Alaska into a period of uncertainty. Alaskans had little confidence that the main prewar extractive industries, especially mineral mining, would recover in time to prevent economic malaise and massive out-migration (Whitehead 1998). Forestry, fishing, and mining had been shut down during World War II, from the diversion of male labor, interruption of normal trade and manufacturing patterns, and, in the case of gold mining--a significant part of the mining industry at the time--the War Production Board order that closed down all gold-mining operations in the country.

But the enormous military undertakings in Alaska during the cold war ensured Alaska's future and set the stage for statehood, which otherwise would likely not have occurred until the discovery of oil on the North Slope in 1968. According to the Alaska historians Claus Naske and Herman Slotnick, "the Cold War rescued Alaska from economic depression and obscurity" (1987, 131). The buildup was conditioned by the quickly changing international security picture, the national strategies that addressed it, and rapid technological changes. It brought immediate and enormous transformation to Alaska in many tangible and intangible ways. In terms of construction and infrastructure expansion, the military investment peaked early in the cold war, during what one observer dubbed "the frantic fifties" (Woodman 1999, 109). This discussion focuses on the U.S. military's role as a powerful geographical agent between 1945 and 1959, the year of Alaska's entry into the union as the forty-ninth state. The degree of military influence remained very strong throughout the cold war period, and even in the post-cold war epoch the military continues to rank among Alaska's top employers and is the major conduit for federal spending in the state (Case 1999; Goldsmith 2000; Fried and Windisch-Cole 2002; Haycox 2002; Schell 2002).

THE ORIGINS OF THE COLD WAR AND ALASKA'S EMERGING ROLE

At the close of World War II, the Soviet Union moved quickly to neutralize Germany and transform central Europe into a buffer zone against the West by establishing pro-Soviet regimes in Eastern Europe (Walker 1994). Although the cold war began as a confrontation of conventional military forces in Europe, it evolved into a global contest of strategic nuclear arms as the Soviet Union began rapid development of nuclear weapons, long-range bombers, and missiles in response to forward deployment of U.S. B-29 "atomic bombers" (Ambrose 1993; Hoffecker and Whorton 1995). The August 1949 detonation of the first Soviet nuclear bomb, followed by the Communist takeover of mainland China, created enormous domestic political pressure on the U.S. military to reassess earlier estimates that the Soviet Union would not be able to launch a successful attack with nuclear weapons and long-range bombers until 1955. The administration of President Harry Truman responded with National Security Council Resolution 68, calling for a peacetime military mobilization to meet the rapidly increasing international threat (Schaffel 1991). The invasion of South Korea by Communist forces in 1952 provided further incentive to step up military preparations. The United States embarked on a hasty and major expansion of conventional as well as strategic nuclear forces around the world (Ambrose 1993) and on development of new strategies for detection, interception, retaliation, standoff, and showdown against the "Red Menace." Alaska figured prominently in those defense plans.

With the Soviet Union defined as the primary enemy, Alaska gained strategic significance because of its location (Denfeld 1996). …

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