One immediate, if ironic, consequence of the German invasion of Norway and Denmark in April 1940 was a short-lived diplomatic spat between the United States and Canada. The tension stemmed primarily from misapprehensions in both North American countries over what should be done about Greenland, the Danish colony whose political and legal status had suddenly been placed in question by the German move. The spat subsided almost as quickly as it had flared, but not before triggering some surprising and intemperate remarks on the part of a few high-ranking American policymakers. The quarrel largely took place out of public view, and it has remained more or less obscure to the present time. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this northern dust-up was the manner in which its eventual resolution (along American lines) became stylised as a signal instance of bilateral harmony. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, speaking in the House of Commons in February 1941, expressed his satisfaction with the handling of the Greenland affair, remarking that the ‘cooperation which has taken place thus far has been of real advantage to both countries’.1 This roseate view was reflected a few years later when a leading Canadian political scientist wrote of the Greenland affair that ‘the Dominion worked in close cooperation with the United States’.2 If the Greenland incident really did represent an instance of close cooperation between the two countries, then it was only in a Pickwickian sense. The reality is that Ottawa and Washington were each pursuing their own interests, as well as labouring under a set of significant misperceptions. In the following section, I provide a brief sketch of the onset of the dispute. Following that, I examine the two countries’ respective interests.
Alarm in Ottawa, consternation in Washington
The German move into Norway and Denmark on 9 April 1940 not only signalled the end of what Americans had taken to calling the ‘Phoney War’, but also brought the European fighting potentially closer to Canadian shores than it had theretofore been. On the day of the Nazi incursion into Scandinavia, Prime Minister King cabled the Dominions Secretariat in London about his concern over ‘reports of enemy ships heading in direction of Iceland and Southern Greenland’.3 The worry was that Germany, having overrun Denmark, would seize by right of conquest the Danish possessions of Iceland and Greenland. This worry spurred decision-makers in Ottawa to begin planning the pre-emptive occupation of the latter island.
‘Occupation’ might be too grandiose a word to describe what Ottawa actually intended to do. The pre-emptive strike would be launched by a tiny force of no more than 50 officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), supported by the Coast Guard vessel N. B. McLean. The objective would be to seize and hold the towns of Ivigtut, Godhavn and Godthaab.4 Needless to say, the planners were anticipating little if any German opposition to the occupation. What would come as a surprise, however, was the opposition stemming from another quarter, Washington. To be sure, planners in Ottawa, as well as British officials, realised that America’s reaction to the pre-emptive strike was going to have a critical bearing on its chances of success. It was precisely with the aim of determining Washington’s position that Britain’s Ambassador to the United States Lord Lothian paid a visit to the State Department on 12 April to sound out Secretary of State Cordell Hull. The latter told the ambassador that Greenland was within the purview of the Monroe Doctrine, that the US recognised the sovereignty of Copenhagen over it and that there could be absolutely no question of its being transferred to a third party. Lothian closed the interview with the observation that the matter could be worked out ‘without friction or serious discussion’.5
That was undoubtedly Lothian’s wish, but he would soon make it impossible for it to become realised. Four days after his meeting with Hull, he was quoted in the New York Times as saying that ‘if Britain decided that Greenland should be occupied to forestall a German move the undertaking would be carried out by Canada in order to avoid complications under the Monroe Doctrine’.6 The ambassador would soon be complaining that he had been misquoted; whether he had been or not is unclear, but he was clearly upset by the story in the New York Times. Canada’s Ambassador to Washington Loring Christie informed Ottawa that Lothian was ‘quite chastened and nervous as a result of his press statements’.7
Although Lothian may genuinely have been seeking to placate the United States, he managed to alienate not only it, but also Canada, by his remarks. Nevertheless, officials at the Department of External Affairs, especially Under Secretary O. D. Skelton, remained convinced that Washington was ‘definitely sympathetic’ to the idea of a Canadian occupation of the Danish possession, although matters had hardly been helped by Lothian’s public comments, which to Skelton constituted ‘one of the most incredibly stupid and embarrassing interviews ever … by a public representative’. Nevertheless, Skelton could relate to Prime Minister King that the State Department was satisfied with Ottawa’s protestations that ‘Lothian had not been authorized to speak for Canada’.8
But the State Department was not amused; nor did it ‘sympathise’ in the slightest with the Canadian plan. On 19 April, the department’s political adviser, James C. Dunn, informed Christie that the United States could not support, for several reasons, any Canadian move into Greenland.9 By contrast, the British were growing ever more insistent that something be done to safeguard Greenland, and that it must fall to Canada to do so. Adolf Berle, the Assistant Secretary of State, had never been a great admirer either of Britain or of Canada’s continuing links to it (the nature of which never were clear in his own mind), and he threw himself into the brewing controversy with zeal. In early June he administered a very undiplomatic tongue-lashing to some British and Canadian diplomats who he suspected (wrongly) were still pushing for an Anglo-Canadian incursion into Greenland: ‘I told both … the Britisher and … the Canadians that Cecil Rhodes had been dead a long time and even if alive, Greenland was hardly a place for his talents.’10 As early as mid-April, Berle’s ire began to rise in response to talk (genuine, this time) of Canadian pre-emptive action, and he became particularly annoyed to learn, the morning after Dunn’s meeting with Christie, that the RCMP had ‘sent word, through the FBI, to know if we objected to their sending a force to Greenland to find out what was going on. I think the Royal Mounted should mind its own damned business, and let the governments settle high policy’.11
Berle did not always mince his words on the Greenland matter. And while his language might have been strong at times, his words reflected what really was a significant difference in the respective interests of the North American neighbours as they contemplated the future of the Danish possession. They also reflected some profound mutual misperceptions, derivative of those interests, to which I now turn. One of the American interests, as officials both in Britain and in Canada would discover to their surprise, would have a strong Asian component.
Canadian and American interests in comparative context
On the face of it, Canada appeared to have the greatest stake in Greenland. To begin with, at the moment the Germans launched their spring offensive of 1940, Canada had already become a belligerent in the war. The United States, meanwhile, continued to imagine it could remain outside the European struggle and concentrated its security attention southward in the western hemisphere, from which direction many American officials thought trouble would come in the event the Germans won the war. A McGill University professor of law accurately summed up the American perspective at this time, when he noted that as Washington saw matters, the ‘chief menace to North American security is not the possibility of a direct attack by a non-American power. It is rather that some non-American power or combination of powers might use a South American base as a jumping-off place for an attack on North America’.12
From the US point of view, the security situation in the northern part of the western hemisphere looked relatively benign: Canada enjoyed the protection of the British fleet as a safeguard against any German assault, and it was regarded (correctly) as being a well-run polity, hence not one likely to be ‘destabilised’ by the kind of Nazi subversive activities American officials were constantly looking for, and sometimes finding, in so many Latin American lands. This is not to say that Americans universally subscribed to the view that Canadian security could be taken for granted; indeed, just one month after the war began, one American senator was moved to proclaim that unless Hitler was stopped by the European democracies, he would transform Canada into an ‘armed camp of Hitlerites, with a Siegfried line on our northern border from ocean to ocean’.13 Remarks such as these notwithstanding, most American officials regarded Canada as a haven of stability compared with nearly all the rest of the hemisphere, and it was to the south, not the north, that they turned their anxious gaze.14
Canadian security officials could not afford to adopt such a blasé approach to the north in general and to the future of Greenland in particular. In the first place, there was the matter of arranging protection for the cryolite mines at Ivigtut (today’s Ivittuut), on the south-western coast of that giant island. The Ivigtut mines were the world’s only commercially exploitable sources of natural cryolite, a mineral used in the electrolytic refining of aluminium. Although natural cryolite has since been displaced by synthetic cryolite, in 1940 much of North America’s aluminium output remained dependent upon the relatively inexpensive (compared with the synthetic) natural cryolite.15 Canadian production was of critical importance to the Allied war effort, with Canada alone accounting for 80 per cent of the Commonwealth’s entire aluminium output in 1940 – a fact of considerable relevance to the British interest in Greenland. In early April, Fraser W. Bruce, an official of the Aluminum Company of Canada (Alcan), signalled his company’s Greenland apprehensions in a letter to Norman Robertson, First Secretary in the Department of External Affairs: ‘As Norway has also been invaded, and Great Britain and France have relied on Norwegian smelters for a considerable tonnage of aluminum, the importance of Canadian aluminum production, and, consequently, Greenland cryolite, cannot be stressed too strongly.’16
Apart from cryolite, Greenland was considered vital to Canadian interests for defensive reasons: it simply lay too close for comfort to Canadian territory, in an age in which technology was rapidly shrinking distances and hurdling climatological barriers. For this reason alone, Greenland could not be allowed to fall into German hands. Although Vincent Massey, High Commissioner in London, did not believe there was much likelihood of a German attack on Greenland, Prime Minister King thought otherwise. He thus instructed Canada’s ambassador to Washington, Christie, to bring the Americans up to speed on Canadian views, by meeting with Secretary of State Hull to apprise him of Canadian apprehensions that Germany might set up an air base on Greenland. Canada was contemplating a pre-emptive strike of its own to prevent such a scenario.17 That Germany was not about to build a landing strip in Greenland is beside the point: what matters in international relations is the perception of reality, not the reality itself, and there were more than enough reasons for Canadian officials to indulge in a bit of worst-case analysis. When national security is thought to be at stake, even slight reason can be ‘reason enough’.
Moreover, exploration in Greenland during the 1930s had led geographers to revise earlier assessments of the island as unsuitable for aviation, commercial or military. According to the revised thinking, as expressed in an April 1939 Foreign Affairs article written by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Greenland was deemed ‘suitable for flying’. Not only that, but with its massive ice cap (1,500 miles long and 600 wide), the island ‘forms a continuous and nearly perfect emergency landing field’.18 While it would not be until the Cold War that Greenland began to emerge as an important strategic interest for air forces (especially the US Air Force, which constructed its northernmost base at Thule following the Second World War), it was obvious even in 1940 that the island’s days of being isolated from air communications were ending. Furthermore, as Stefansson would write a few years later, Greenland was not going to be useful only for emergencies; given proper compaction of the layer of snow that sits atop the ice sheet, ‘you will surely have a surface not merely hard but also thick enough to take bumps from the wheels of even the heaviest bombing planes’.19
A third Canadian interest in Greenland soon developed: prestige. Once it became obvious that the United States was hardly going to applaud a Canadian pre-emptive strike on Greenland, Ottawa found itself on the horns of a dilemma. How was it to avoid losing face and not bow to Washington’s demands that it not ‘meddle’ in Greenland’s affairs, while at the same time finding a way, effectively, to go along with American preferences? That the British were urging Canada to take military action did not help matters. By the end of April, some three weeks after the onset of the affair, the question of prestige had moved to the forefront of Canadian concerns. Hugh L. Keenleyside, a counsellor to Skelton at External Affairs, stated on 30 April that ‘our primary purpose [concerning Greenland] is, of course, to protect the interests of the Canadian government through the maintenance of Canadian prestige, the establishment of Canadian security, and the provision of cryolite supplies for Canadian industry’.20
To understand why those Canadian interests needed protection, we now have to examine what America’s stake in Greenland was during the spring of 1940. In large part, it was the United States’ initial failure to take action to protect the cryolite mines, coupled with its vocal disapproval of Canada’s plan to implement pre-emptive measures, which led to the bilateral dispute over the island. American behaviour was conditioned by a different set of factors from those that were prompting Canadian decision-making, but Washington was, in its own way, as constrained by external political forces as was Ottawa.
To begin with, there was the Monroe Doctrine, by which the United States decreed that no ‘non-American’ power had a right to undertake military interventions anywhere in the western hemisphere. Although Canada was considered a friendly enough power in Washington, it was also, by dint of its relationship with Great Britain (not terribly well understood in the United States, or for that matter even in Canada), possible to regard it as a ‘non-American’ power.21 Thus, when Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, the view in the State Department was that Canada was automatically going to be at war, too, because of its membership in what was still being called, in some circles, the ‘British Empire’. Certainly this is how the State Department’s most militant officer on the Greenland file, Adolf Berle, thought (and Berle was someone who thought he knew it all, not just on matters related to Canada). ‘The law was’, the Assistant Secretary had written in early September 1939, ‘that when England was at war Canada was at war. Sir Wilfred [sic] Laurier had said so, twenty-five years ago; and the Attorney General of Canada had ruled so, very recently. Canadian neutrality was equivalent to secession.’22 As things transpired, the ‘law’ was that when Canada declared itself to be at war, it would then be at war, and this did not occur until a week after the British declaration.23 Still, Berle may have captured the spirit, even if he missed the letter, of the law; there really was no question in Mackenzie King’s mind, after 1937, that should Britain enter another European war, Canada would be at its side.
State Department uncertainty over the exact ‘American’ status of Canada was accompanied by a great deal of certainty as to where Greenland fit into the western hemisphere. And if anyone was in doubt about it, there was the Under Secretary of State, Sumner Welles, to remind them in early April 1940 that as far as Washington was concerned, Greenland was indeed a hemispheric land.24 This, in turn, meant that, in the event intervention in Greenland proved necessary, it would have to be a strictly American affair. To be clear, deeming it such an affair meant, in theory at least, that any so-called American country – even Bolivia – would be justified in involving itself in Greenland’s affairs, according to the norms of the inter-American system that had been evolving under the aegis of Washington. Realistically, of course, only the United States was going to be in a position to ‘sort out’ Greenland. And while in a very short time, by August 1940, Canada would become a formal ally of the United States upon the signing of the Ogdensburg Agreement and the creation of the Permanent Joint Board on Defence (PJBD), and thus would arguably bind itself to upholding the Monroe Doctrine,25 this was still in the future when the Greenland flap was at its peak of intensity. The spring of 1940 remained a time during which it was relatively easy for State Department officials to regard Canada as a ‘non-American power’.26 In Ottawa that spring, policymakers assumed not only that Canada was as ‘American’ a power as any other, but that the United States would actually prefer that it occupy Greenland.
And this gets us to the Asian dimension. For no matter how the Monroe Doctrine and Canada’s relation to it were being interpreted, the United States understood that it had an even more important interest to protect in the Greenland affair – an interest located not in the north, but halfway around the planet. The most important reason for American opposition to a Canadian pre-emptive move into Greenland was the deep-seated concern that whatever Washington did in the matter would not be seen by any other state as establishing a precedent for potential action of its own. If Washington gave the green light to Canada’s moving into Greenland, how would it be able to oppose some other country’s pre-emptive move into a European power’s colonial possession, should such a power find itself conquered by Germany?
One did not require too much imagination to fill in the specifics that underlay the problem of precedent-setting – and the same concern about a precedent being set with Asian implications has featured more recently in American diplomatic behaviour in respect of another northern issue within the western hemisphere (namely, the legal regime that is to govern the Northwest Passage). In the Greenland case, it was obviously Japan upon which American sights were set. Specifically, the United States was afraid that Japan might follow a Canadian example and occupy in its own right a colonial holding of a country overrun by the Nazis. Although by April 1940 the Germans had not yet attacked the Netherlands, few observers of international relations were predicting that the country would long remain free of the Nazi yoke. By the same token, there were few who doubted that one of the possessions most desired by Japanese imperialists was the Netherlands East Indies. After the war was over, Cordell Hull would recall the reason for his and his department’s opposition to Canadian plans to occupy Greenland: ‘What we had in mind was the necessity to avoid any precedent that might give Japan an excuse to seize the Netherlands East Indies if Holland were invaded by the Germans.’27
The Canadians were aware of this American concern. As early as 19 April, James Dunn had informed Loring Christie that the Japanese ‘analogy’ was what was driving his government’s opposition to Canada’s Greenland planning. Nor was it just a Canadian move into Greenland that was at issue; the United States itself was afraid to bring Greenland into a protective embrace (though it later would do just that) for fear of how the Japanese might interpret it. The Japanese, reasoned Dunn, would not care whether it was Ottawa or Washington that gave them a legal basis for taking over the Netherlands East Indies. Dunn did say to Christie that his government was equally concerned about the cryolite mines, but it could not afford to take any drastic steps to protect them. He assured the ambassador that Washington would find a way to assure the uninterrupted supply of the mineral.28 At the end of the month, Prime Minister King travelled to Warm Springs, Georgia, to visit President Roosevelt. The Prime Minister was surprised to learn how much the President knew about Canadian planning regarding Greenland, and Roosevelt reiterated that the last thing he wanted was for any ally to intervene in Greenland, thereby giving the Japanese reason to think they might do the same in Southeast Asia. King assured his host that Canada had no intention of landing a force in Greenland.29
Conclusion: from one precedent to another
Following some high drama in late spring 1940, when it appeared to Berle, at least, that the Canadian ‘invasion’ of Greenland was back on, the Canada–US dispute over this northern territory would finally end, and in such a way that it could be passed off as having represented healthy ‘cooperation’ on the part of the North Americans. Hitler never did get as far as Greenland (and almost certainly never even intended to), the cryolite continued to flow to aluminium producers in North America (Alcan and Alcoa) and, in a final twist, Canadian military personnel even ended up using facilities on Greenland’s soil, built by the United States and nominally under the ‘sovereign’ control of a provisional Greenland government recognised by Washington as the legitimate guardian of Danish interests, until such time as Denmark could be liberated.
But there was one lasting legacy of this tempest in a northern teapot, and it concerns the impact of the Asian ‘analogy’. For though many things changed in the ensuing decades, one thing did not: Canada–US diplomatic relations in the north continued, in part, to be influenced by American worries about setting an unhelpful ‘precedent’ that could come back to haunt US interests in Southeast Asia. In this later instance, it was the status of the Northwest Passage and not Greenland that served as the bone of contention between the two countries.