Historical Summary: USA – Denmark – Greenland
By the editorial staff of fairjewelry.org
The United States extended territorial claim to northern Greenland based upon the expeditions to the North Pole by American engineer, Robert Peary between 1898 and 1909. American influence in the northernmost region of Greenland began then and continues, uninterrupted to this day at the US air base in Thule, locally known as Qaanaaq, (pronounced “Kay-Nak”). In 1909, Denmark, which then controlled southern Greenland, had no plans to establish a Danish colony at the “top of the world”.
The United States relinquished its sovereign exploration claims to Greenland, originally descending from the Peary expeditions, on 25 January 1917 in conjunction with America’s purchase of the Danish West Indies, now known as the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Wilson administration was preparing to enter World War I and wanted to establish a base on the Virgin Islands to protect the Panama Canal and Caribbean shipping from U-boat attacks. The sale was a matter of heated debate in Denmark. American concessions on the Greenland issue were meant to smooth things over with opponents of the sale. Great Britain and Sweden concurred with the American decision not to oppose the extension of Danish sovereignty to the whole of Greenland but Norway was not swayed.
The most abrupt change in the history of Greenland occurred when the Germans occupied Denmark during the Second World War. Hendrik Kauffman, the Danish Minister to Washington, was called in for consultation the day following Germany’s invasion of Denmark, 10 April 1940. The Minister accepted the American assertion that Greenland was a part of the North American continent and subject to the Monroe Doctrine. President Roosevelt now had a pretext for intervening without declaring war. The President proclaimed Greenland’s freedom from German control a vital American interest. The first U.S. Consul General to Greenland, James K. Penfield, was appointed a few weeks later. The United States eventually built three major air bases on Greenland that were critical to winning the air war over Europe. During the war years, Greenland was an independent sovereign country with close ties to the United States.
German troops remained in control of Denmark until May 5, 1945. American troops remained in Greenland after the war and the United States offered Denmark US$ 100 million in gold to buy Greenland. This shocked the Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Gustav Rasmussen, who declared that “Greenland was not for sale!”. The Danes requested a revision to the terms of the Hull Kauffman Agreement in May 1947 by which time the Americans had fully realized Greenland’s value as a base of operations and key to its nuclear defense strategy during the Cold War. Negotiations drug on until 1951 when a new agreement governing the presence of American forces in Greenland was signed. That same year, 1951, in Operation Blue Jay the United States Air Force finished full construction and final armament at its northernmost base in Thule.
The United States promoted the dissolution of Greenland’s colonial status, and in 1948 the Danish Government established a commission to study Greenland’s future. Regarding the mixture of religious missionary zealotry and secular colonial monopoly practiced in Greenland by the Dansk for nearly three centuries, the U.S. Commander at Narsarsuaq air base in 1948 remarked of the legacy of Danish imperialism:
“They had absolute power over the local people and the culture. They had language power. They had political power. They had racial power. They had the power to send you to hell. There was nowhere for victims to turn.”
That same year, 1948, Danish Prime Minister Mr. Hans Hedtoft visited Greenland to charge local provincial councils with deciding their relationship to Denmark. The Greenland Commission’s findings resulted in a liberalization of trade and tourism regulations beginning in 1950. In 1951, the local provincial councils voted to “connect Greenland with its motherland as part of the Kingdom of Denmark”. Lobbying by the Danish Monarch swayed the tide of public opinion. Under a new Danish constitution, Greenland was made an integral part of the Kingdom, and allocated two elected representatives in the lower house of the Danish parliament, on 5 June 1953.
Greenland struggled with modernization under reinstated Danish rule. Danish newspapers frequently portrayed Greenland as a “Sodom and Gomorrah”, holding the world’s record in alcohol abuse and venereal disease, illegitimate children, murder and suicide. Racial discrimination from colonial times persisted. Danish employees in Greenland were paid more than the local citizens under the “birthplace criterion” (Native Greenlanders are paid 15% less than people from outside Greenland doing the same job). The colonizers based their livelihood on trade with the indigenous people as an underpaid workforce. Teaching and speaking the native language of the Inuit, known as Inuktitut, was forbidden. The disappointment of the native Greenlanders was intense and home-grown political parties formed as a protest to promote equal rights and independence. Greenlanders struggled at provincial council levels for two decades to achieve some measure of self determination.
Greenland was finally granted limited Home Rule in 1979 with a promise of devolution to full independence by the year 2000. Missed deadlines and postponed benchmarks delayed the arrival of nationhood. The discovery of offshore oil and gas in the Davis Strait further complicated the situation. Now the discovery on Greenland of gold, platinum, diamond and ruby clearly focuses the drive towards independence around the question of property rights to Greenland’s underground mineral wealth. In late 2007, Greenland’s Premier, Mr. Hans Enoksen, announced 21 July 2009 as Greenland Independence Day, although there is strong opposition in Copenhagen against this sentiment, rooted in the desire for control over natural resources.
America’s operation of the Thule air base was renewed and extended for another 25 years by lease agreement with the Greenland Home Rule Government as signed by Colin Powell and Josef Motzfeldt on behalf of Greenland in 2004. For Greenlanders, the door to America has now opened wide beginning in 2006 with Air Greenland’s twice-weekly scheduled summer flights between Baltimore and Kangerlussuaq. The opening of the “Door to Baltimore” coincides with growing interest by the North American public in global climate change, as well as in the social and environmental conditions of the arctic. Of particular concern to the American government and to concerned American citizens are the basic human rights of the native Greenlanders, which are ultimately tied to their quest for freedom as a separate and independent country.