Alaska Fights for Statehood

A New Yorker educated at Harvard University, ERNEST GRUENING spent twenty years in the field of journalism, first as a reporter and later as managing editor successively of the New York Tribune, The Nation magazine, and the New York Evening Post. Following that he served for five years as the first Director of the Division of Territories and Island Possessions, and in 1939 President Roosevelt appointed him Governor of Alaska. There for thirteen years he worked tirelessly in office, visiting many remote villages and gradually earning the respect and liking of the Alaska citizens. His book, The State of Alaska, was published in 1954, and now in the pages that follow he shows how long and for what causes we have neglected this valuable territory.



NINETY years ago, in the Treaty of Cession by which we bought Alaska from Russia, the United States pledged that “the inhabitants of the ceded territory . . . shall be admitted to the enjoyment of all the rights, advantages and immunities of citizens of the United States.”

The United States has not carried out that pledge. Alaskans, having unceasingly sought its fulfillment, or a substantial portion thereof, during the nine decades under the American flag, are now resorting to a procedure which was last invoked nearly a century ago. They are sending to Washington two Senators and one Representative, elected by Alaskans last October, to seek admission to the Congress.

The event will not be unprecedented in American history. In the past, five areas destined to become states of the Union have, in advance of action by the Congress admitting them to statehood, elected their Senators and Representatives and sent them to the national capital to request admission. Tennessee began it in 1796, followed by Michigan in 1835, by California — which had not even been granted territorial status — in 1849, by Oregon in 1858, and by Kansas in the years preceding its admission in 1861. In all five instances this tactic was, after varying intervals of time, successful. In every case it hastened the coming of statehood.

Alaska’s history has been one of neglect by a distant and uninterested federal government. Worse, it has been a history of continuing discrimination which makes Alaska today a flagrant example of colonialism. In the first seventeen years after the purchase Congress passed only two laws relating to Alaska. One extended the commerce and navigation laws and made Alaska a customs district. The other turned over the fur-seal fisheries of Alaska’s Pribilof Islands to the Secretary of the Treasury, who leased them as a monopoly to a private concern in San Francisco.

While four presidential administrations and eight Congresses came and went, it was not possible in Alaska for a hopeful settler to acquire title to a square foot of land. No pioneer could clear a bit of the forested wilderness and count on the fruits of his labor, or build a log cabin with the assurance that it was his. No prospector could stake a mining claim with security for his enterprise. Property could not be deeded or transferred; the lovelorn could not marry; no injured party could secure redress except by his own acts; crime could not be punished. This period — unique for any area under the American flag — has become known in Alaska as the “era of no government.”

Such authority as existed was exercised, without legal warrant, by the commanding officer of the troops stationed at Sitka. And when, in 1877, he and his troops were removed from Alaska to put down an uprising of the Nez Percé Indians in Idaho, there remained not even a semblance of government. Fearful of a similar uprising in Alaska, the white settlers appealed to their government in Washington for the dispatch of a gunboat to maintain order. When the federal authorities ignored repeated requests, the frontiersmen appealed to their neighbors, the Canadians, who complied. For months one of Her Majesty’s men-o’-war performed the function that it was the duty and obligation of a United States warship to perform. The incident was prophetic of eighty years of subsequent federal indifference to the Alaskans’ welfare. When an American cruiser ultimately arrived, the commander of that vessel, and his successors for four years, acted as Alaska’s chief executive, wilh no legal warrant whatever.

Finally, in 1884, Congress deckled to give Alaska a form of government, and adopted an Organic Act. It proved almost worthless. Application of land laws was specifically forbidden, thus preventing settlement. Grand and petit juries were not legally possible under it. The position of governor, a presidential appointee, was created, but he was given little authority and no means with which to function. Establishment of a legislature was denied. For the next fourteen years the reports and messages of five successive governors were urgent pleas to enact some body of workable law for Alaska. All in vain.

But in the late nineties Congress was roused from its thirty-year lethargy in regard to Alaska by the discovery of gold in the Klondike. When 60,000 Americans rushed northward and found no law to satisfy their needs, they began writing to their Senators and Representatives, and because they were still constituents — and therefore voters — their caustic letters brought action.

However, the new legislation, enacted at a distance of 5000 miles by men who had no firsthand knowledge of Alaska, proved largely inappropriate and unworkable. So there arose a demand for someone who could speak officially for Alaska, a voteless delegate, such as every other territory had had from its beginnings. But four Congresses debated this modest proposal without action. Not until 1906 was that office established.

Invariably in Alaska’s annals, such minor concessions as it has received from its federal overlords have been “too little and loo late.” Before long Alaska’s 60,000 inhabitants, a population doubled by the gold rush, felt that some form of self-government was long overdue. Their demand for a legislature, such as every other territory had had from its birth, was finally granted in 1912. It had taken forty-five years to accord Alaska the minimum of home rule to which every American community is entitled.

The Organic Act of 1912, although a substantial improvement over its unworkable predecessor —

the Act of 1884 - was still notable for the things it forbade Alaskans to do. The Alaska legislature was forbidden to enact any basic land laws - a lamentable omission in an area one fifth as large as the United States, consisting of large areas of public domain and crying for settlement. At the behest of the powerful canned-salmon lobby which has always fought and continues to fight, every increase in Alaskan autonomy, the management of Alaska’s natural resources, the fisheries and wildlife, was kept under federal control — a withholding not visited on any other American territory. Congress likewise retained control of the judiciary. Alaska’s lower-court judges, however, were not to he paid a salary, but were compelled to subsist on the fees they could collect from the Alaskan people — a source of revenue insufficient for all but five or six of those fifty-odd federal judicial officials. Alaskans were forbidden to create counties. There were numerous other prohibitions. In fact it was a far more restrictive Act than had been granted any other territory, including the Act given twelve years earlier to the newly annexed Territory of Hawaii.


WHEN the first legislature assembled in 1913 and found vast fields into which it was forbidden to tread, it memorialized Congress to enact obviously required legislation. It asked for revision of the land lawslaws adopted for the states half a century earlier and not suited to Alaska, and therefore impeding settlement. It asked for federal highway construction — an appropriate request in a region over 99.9 per cent public domain. It asked for an end to reservations and withdrawals which further impeded entry and settlement. It asked for action looking toward reasonable transportation rates. It requested that the lower-court judges — the United States Commissioners — be paid a salary. It requested transfer of the management of the fisheries to Alaska.

Over forty years later, not one of these requests, all reasonable, proper, essential to Alaska’s development, repeated by successive legislatures, and obtainable only through congressional action, had been granted.

But there was worse to come. New discriminations, which intensified Alaska’s colonial status, were to be imposed by the fedend authorities. The federal income tax, passed in 1913, included Alaska though it excluded Puerto Rico, which in addition received in its treasury all the excise taxes and customs receipts collected by the federal government. Alaskans neither sought nor wanted such favor, but they were shocked when they found that Alaska was excluded from the federal aid highway legislation enacted in 1916.

This highly important and beneficent legislation coincided with the development of the automobile and the consequent necessity to create a new, nation-wide transportation network. The Congress correctly foresaw that there would have to be a national system of highways of a uniform and reasonably high standard, and that this could be accomplished only by joint federal and state enterprise. So, by authority of the new Act, the federal government began appropriating vast sums to match funds provided by the states — no state receiving less than 50 per cent matching. But the western states, in which a varying proportion of land remains public domain, and therefore unavailable for tax revenue, receive a larger proportion of federal funds, based on a complex formula in which area, extent of public domain, population, and existing highway mileage play a part. Alaska — alone among the stales and territories — was excluded.

As a result Alaska, compelled to rely on its own revenues and parsimonious annual federal appropriations, has only a negligible road mileage. Virtually the only highway construction it has secured through the federal government has been that required for military purposes.

The discrimination in federal highway legislation has been further increased, currently, by Alaska’s exclusion from the mammoth superhighway bill sponsored by President Eisenhower during the 83rd Congress and revised and brought out in a different form in the 84th. There was a conflict of opinion between the President and Congress as to the method of financing: the President urged longterm bonding; the Congress preferred “pay as you go,” through higher taxes on gasoline, tires, trucks, and trailers. But in one respect executive and legislative branches agreed: while Alaska was to be excluded from participation in this measure’s benefits, it was to be included in the taxation. Thus every Alaskan will pay his share of the multibillion-dollar program for the benefit of all the states from Alabama to Wyoming, every time he stops for gas or buys a truck or a new tire.

Toward the close of the 84th Congress Alaska was finally included, but on a reduced and discriminatory basis, and only in a part of the federal aid highway legislation. An amendment by Senator Richard Neuberger of Oregon proposed that Alaska be included henceforth, but that in calculating Alaska’s quota of federal funds only half of Alaska’s area be counted. In return for this reduction — not applicable to any state or to Hawaii or Puerto Rico — Alaska would be allowed to use federal and its own matching funds for road maintenance as well as construction, a reasonable arrangement. But on motion of Senator Francis Case of South Dakota, Alaska suffered a further reduction, its share to be based on only one third of its area. That was the best deal obtainable for Alaska.

Small wonder that the comment forty years ago of Judge James Wickersham, one of Alaska’s earlier delegates, is still pertinent: “Alaska is only a redheaded stepchild in the national family, and the other children covet its estate and take it.”

The Congress imposed a similar exclusion on Alaska in maritime transportation four years after the initial exclusion of the territory from the Federal Aid Highway Act .

The Maritime Act of 1920, known in Alaska as the Jones Act, after its sponsor, the late Senator Wesley L. Jones of Seattle, Washington, provided a unique discrimination by the insertion of the words “excluding Alaska.”Under that law, all areas, foreign and domestic, were permitted to use interchangeably American or foreign rail or marine carriers to transport, freight across the country and beyond. Alaska, however, was forced to use the rail and shipping services in and out of Seattle only, and denied the more convenient and far less costly use of nearer Canadian ports. In consequence a number of budding industries in Alaska were put out of business, and their re-establishment or the creation of others has been foreclosed ever since.

The Alaska legislators deemed this discrimination violative of the commerce clause of the Constitution, which specifically forbids giving preference to one port over another. Therefore, when they assembled in 1921 for their fifth biennial session, they ordered the territorial Attorney General to take the issue to court. The Supreme Court, before which it finally came, declared that the action of Congress regarding Alaska in the Maritime Act of 1920 was clearly discriminatory, but that the Court could discover no prohibition in the Constitution of discrimination against a territory, and that the fathers, in drawing up the Constitution, did not visualize extension of its provisions “to the ports of entry of colonial dependencies.”

So the highest court of the land, the ultimate dispenser of “equal justice under law,”ruled that it is proper and legal to discriminate against a territory! And the Court’s language affirmed Alaska’s colonial status.

In that respect the Court was at least realistic. The Jones Act and its accompaniments of federal bureaucratic action have burdened all Alaskans with the highest freight rates in the world. Putting the entire population of a dependent area at an economic disadvantage for the profit of privileged groups in the “mother country,” which are able through their superior political power to have special benefits enacted into law — this is the quintessence of colonialism. The United States is guilty of it on many counts in Alaska.


FOR the last third of a century every Alaskan delegate has sought to rectify these discriminatory injustices. In virtually every Congress the delegate has introduced bills 1) to include Alaska in federal aid highway legislation; 2) to abolish the discriminatory language in the Jones Act; 3) to reform the land laws for Alaska to suit them to its needs; 4) to pay the lower-court judges a salary; 5) to transfer the management of the fisheries to the territory. Every one of these efforts, unremittingly sought for nearly two generations, has failed, except as above noted.

The federal land laws still make settlement of Alaska extremely difficult. Despite the protests of Alaskans, federal reservations and withdrawals total nearly a hundred million acres, an area larger than the state of Montana. Yet members of Congress opposing statehood have in debate reproached Alaskans for their “failure” to transfer more public land to private ownership.

Administration of justice, the cornerstone of a free society, continues to suffer gravely in Alaska. The lower-court judges are still unsalaried; the discredited fee system provides only one tenth of the judges a living wage. In the states the number of federal judges has been increased steadily to keep pace with population growth. But in Alaska the number of judges—and federal judges being the only judges that colony is permitted to have, their duties are more extensive than those of federal judges in the states - remains the same as it was fifty-eight years ago when the population was less than a third its present size. Every attempt to get Congress to give Alaska even one additional judge has failed.

Under the joint control of a politically potent absentee industry and a federal bureau which the industry dominates, instead of being regulated by it, Alaska’s greatest natural resource, and once the nation’s greatest fishery resource, the Pacific salmon, is being destroyed. The Alaska salmon runs reached in 1955 the lowest point in nearly half a century, although there was a slight upturn in 1956. President Eisenhower for three successive years has had to proclaim Alaska’s fishing communities disaster areas.

In neighboring British Columbia and in the states of Washington and Oregon the salmon industry is thriving and growing, despite the handicaps of power dams, pulp and paper mills, the sewage of large communities, and other accompaniments of modern industrial development which Alaska lacks, thereby illustrating the superiority of home management which Congress persists in not according Alaska.

Thus “a long train of abuses and usurpations" of their promised rights as Americans has led Alaskans to conclude that only statehood — and the equality it would bring — will satisfy their needs, end the injustices which they suffer, and validate the unfulfilled pledge of the Treaty of Cession to admit them to “all the rights, advantages and immunities of citizens of the United States.”

Those rights, advantages, and immunities would entitle them to vote for President and Vice President, which they cannot now do; to representation in the Congress by two Senators and a Representative, whom they do not now have; and to immunity from the legalized disadvantages outlined above.

The major party platforms have pledged statehood to Alaska - the Democratic in 1948 and both the Democratic and the Republican in 1952 and 1956. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, in a ringing public address in Denver in 1950, declared: “Quick admission of Alaska and Hawaii to statehood will show the world that America practices what it preaches.” But after taking the presidential office, he dropped espousal of Alaskan statehood and urged statehood for Hawaii only. This reversal Alaskans attribute to President Eisenhower’s close friend and trusted adviser, General Lucius D. Clay, chairman of the board of the Continental Can Company, one of whose principal customers is the Alaska canned-salmon industry.

In contrast to governmental opposition, public opinion in the United States overwhelmingly supports statehood for Alaska.

The failure of Congress and the President to act, not merely on statehood but on a variety of lesser measures, has led the people of Alaska to the point where, after ninety years of neglect, discrimination, and violation of platform pledges and of treaty commitments, they believe that patience has ceased to be a virtue. They know that they have long since demonstrated their readiness for statehood — that every congressional committee which has studied the question through extensive hearings has returned a favorable report. They point out that Alaska’s population of 209,000 is greater than was that of two thirds of the thirty-five states of the Union admitted after the original thirteen, at the time of their admission. Of this Alaskan population six sevenths originated in the forty-eight states — men and women of pioneer instincts who, following the oldest American tradition, moved westward in search of greater freedom and opportunity. The remaining one seventh, descendants of the aboriginal population, are no less worthy, no less capable of assuming the responsibilities of full citizenship.

Alaskans feel in their hearts that what progress they have made in Alaska — and il has been substantial has been made in spite of the federal impositions and largely because of the fiber and character of their fellow Alaskans, who brought to “the last frontier” the very qualities that have made America. They have now determined to do everything in their power to secure the validation of the most basic of American principles, that of government by consent of the governed.

Alaska’s Americans deeply feel that the great destiny of Alaska is to be not merely a bulwark of defense for the Western Hemisphere, but also — and perhaps even more important—a citadel of the American idea, a firm outpost of democracy most befittingly located in those distant northern latitudes once under Russian rule, and now within naked-eye view of the totalitarian tyranny of the Soviet police state. But they are no less deeply convinced that this challenging objective, to make Alaska a shining example of all that is best and attainable in our free society, can never be achieved while Alaska remains a colony. Moreover, they firmly believe that America’s leadership in the interest of peace is gravely jeopardized by the contrast between preachment and practice, and that the national interest will be served by validation through deeds of American principles and professions— specifically by the prompt admission of Alaska as a state of the Union.