Frontier Engineering: From the Globe to the Body in the Cold War Arctic

By Farish, Matthew | The Canadian Geographer, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Frontier Engineering: From the Globe to the Body in the Cold War Arctic


Farish, Matthew, The Canadian Geographer


Introduction

   The route they would take would bring them first to
   the Great Whale River, to visit one of the Mid-Canada
   stations. From there, they would hop to the great
   Thule air base in Greenland manned by the USAF, to
   a distant-early warning station at Frobisher Bay, on to
   another U.S. air base at Point Barrow, Alaska. One leg
   of the trip would bring them to the USAF-RCAF's
   guided missile range at Churchill, Manitoba, then to
   the Canadian Army's Arctic training grounds, also
   near Churchill. It promised to be an unusual journey
   (Holliday 1957, 26). (1)

In January 1949, Isaiah Bowman--the distinguished geographer, political advisor and President Emeritus of John Hopkins University (see Smith 2003)--delivered the opening address at the fifteenth annual meeting of the American Society of Photogrammetry. He spoke on what was surely a popular and pertinent topic, 'Geographical Objectives in the Polar Regions'. Although typically wide ranging, Bowman's speech repeatedly returned to the importance of the scientific comprehension of polar environments, particularly the North American Arctic. As Bowman put it, '[s]urvey, survey, and survey may be said to be the three basic requirements of present-day polar research, and we do not restrict the word to cartography'. Viewing and traversing the Arctic from multiple perspectives, he added, 'will give us better maps or maps where none exist', and the observations produced from this fieldwork would be 'an inexhaustible spring of inspiration for the mathematical, physical, and biological syntheses that are the foundations of scientific system and law, that is, constantly improving generalization' (Bowman 1949, 9).

Bowman was no Arctic expert, but his equation of fieldwork with the ability to generalize must have struck a powerful chord with the northern scholars in attendance, as well as with those generally familiar with the course of recent Arctic research. His speech arrived in the early stages of an extraordinarily intensive period of North American polar scholarship. This was a highly coordinated effort unprecedented not only in scope but also in geopolitical significance. As the text accompanying a new 1949 National Geographic map of the Arctic put it, 'the Northlands' were still 'gradually revealing their secrets to man' (1949a, 7). (2) The degree of strategic interest in the Arctic had increased rapidly during World War II, with Japanese attacks on the Aleutian Islands and the establishment of 'staging routes', cutting northwest and northeast across the Arctic, for transport of aircraft to Britain and Russia. Perhaps the most obvious indication of the shift in attention was the demand for maps oriented towards the North Pole, a pre-war, air-age cartographic style appropriated after 1945 to demonstrate the surprising proximity of the Soviet Union. North America was suddenly, in the parlance of the period, 'wide open at the top' and had to 'push out there for our defense' (1947, 7; Office of Armed Forces Information and Education 1958, 3). As the geographer Stephen Jones put it, '[a]ir power and atomic energy have thrown a spotlight on the Arctic regions' (1948, 1). Air Force General Hap Arnold was blunter: 'If there is a Third World War the strategic center of it will be the North Pole' (quoted in Stefansson 1950, 391). (3)

Just over a year after Bowman's speech, M.C. Shelesnyak of the ONR drafted a paper titled 'The Arctic as a Strategic Scientific Area'. (4) A seminar series on 'Problems of the Arctic' run jointly by the Arctic Institute of North America (AINA) and the Bowman School of Geography at Johns Hopkins University was the occasion for presentation. Shelesnyak's thesis was that 'the Arctic region allows for the conduct of scientific research in a manner which permits the securing of objects of a campaign (scientific research) for fuller understanding of natural and social phenomena'. He was fond of military imagery in his published descriptions of the ONR'S northern research initiatives, but this was a far more direct version. …

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