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The Far North

ISSUE:  Spring 1943

Alaska Under Arms. By Jean Potter. The Macmillan Company. $2.00. Siberia. By Emil Lengycl. Random House. $375. Greenland. By Vilhjalmar Stefansson. Doubleday, Doran and Company. $3.50. Canada Today and To-morroiv. By William Henry Chamberlin. Little, Brown and Company. $3.00. The Unguarded Frontier. By Edgar W. Mclnnis. Doubleday, Doran and Company. $3.00.

Talk of world federation grows apace; events themselves, however, may be favoring the so-called Pan-movements on a continental scale. National boundaries are losing their old meaning; whichever form of federation eventuates must accentuate this trend. Since one may assume that the centers of power in the new federations will be located in the warmer temperate and sub-tropical zones, the clash between nationalities which has plagued mankind for centuries is likely to be further complicated by a clash between peoples of widely different climatic temperaments.

Northern peoples have ever been a problem to the peoples of the warmer regions, where the great world cultures have arisen. This is particularly illustrated by the impact of northerners upon cultures of the Mediterranean basin. None of the great world cultures have arisen in the north. Few revolutions of note have taken place there; the pressure of Nature, the need for planning in order to survive, seem to have developed in northern peoples a greater capacity for peaceful adaptation to each other, for compromise and co-operation. It is not for nothing that “co-operative movements” have been more successful in northern countries: Scandinavia and Canada.

Northerners seem to lose this talent on entering the warmer zones, where they have given new violence to the upheavals which distinguish these regions. In glacier fashion they have driven down, and like glaciers have dissolved eventually, though not without influencing the temperature considerably. Their traits are revealed in the Italian sculptures and paintings of the Middle Ages. Here are f angelic faces of Norman, Scandinavian, and German young sters flanked by the much more purposeful features of the Captains of the Condottieri, mercenary military companies of that time.

Economic pressure in the temperate zone, persecution of one sort or another, and missionary impulses have joined to lead large groups of people to migrate north—French and British to Canada, Russians to Siberia, Americans to Alaska. There these groups tend to acquire the characteristics and the temperament that predominate among northerners; the culture they take to the new environment then develops along the more conservative lines underlying the original culture to the south. The problem of bringing peoples of widely different climatic temperaments into an harmonious group is one of the most difficult confronting us. Several books of recent publication relating to the northern regions of the globe might be expected to throw light on these complicated problems.

Jean Potter’s “Alaska Under Arms,” finished the day the Japanese attacked the Aleutians, tells us nothing about Alaska under arms. The Censor must have laughed when he “approved” publication of the book. The author is uncritical; and though fortified by a tour of Alaska, she seems insufficiently equipped to elucidate the problems of boreal warfare, or those which the development of a new American frontier brings to the fore.

Emil Lengyel’s books have been so severely criticized on the score of glaring inaccuracies, numerous perversions of fact, and groundless generalizations that perhaps the reviewer, seeing their flow uninterrupted, should fall upon the publisher. This, however, together with appropriate comment on the ramifications of the publishing world would tax the strength of a crusader; it remains to fall upon the book “Siberia,” and to state that it is an idle and superfluous appendage to the subject of that country.

Russians, in so far as Siberia is concerned, seem to be attempting what Americans accomplished in their march across this continent, though fitfully, with long periods of sloth and indifference. Yet, as Lengyel himself records, they have shown in the past elemental and incomprehensible outbursts of energy. The anatomy and physiology of these outbursts—part of the Russian psychology—are as much of a puzzle to Lengyel as to other outsiders. Lengyel seldom misses a chance to exalt whatever the Soviets have done in Siberia or elsewhere, and to debase anything and everything pre-Soviet.

This much is certain: a terrific force is being generated in Siberia through one of these dynamic surges which periodically takes possession of the Russian people. This in all probability is also the factor behind their magnificent battle against the Germans rather than an unexampled willingness to die for Soviet ideology. Russians were willing enough to die when Napoleon invaded the country; the Czars, too, must have had something to offer.

Vilhjalmar Stefansson’s personal knowledge of the Arctic region is beyond dispute. But his “Greenland” is perhaps the least interesting book he has ever written. Obviously put together in great haste, it is wordy, filled with confusing digressions and with venturesome speculations as to what might have happened to Greenland since the dawn of history. His chapter on “Strategic Importance” adds but little to the subject. Yet it should be immediately recorded that he has rendered invaluable service to our own professional strategists. An exception to the above is to be found in the chapter on “Administration and Development.” This is a clear, lively account of the enlightened policy Denmark has followed in Greenland. The Eskimos have been effectively protected from the evils of civilization; the country has been tightly closed to all excepting a few carefully chosen Danes, American business men, and explorers; in the meantime Denmark has profited heavily by exploiting the natural resources of the country. Can it be that in the problem of administering colonial territories, an enlightened policy is allied or consonant with shrewd business acumen?

William Henry Chamberlin’s “Canada Today and Tomorrow” is a “quickie,” the result of “several months” visit to Canada last year, and of subsequent study of books. Yet it renders a valuable service. With the talent of the American reporter on the loose, Chamberlin bluntly records “Its (Canada’s) major internal problem is the deep racial schism between its English-speaking and its French-speaking citizens,” and confirms this by “The plebiscite has demonstrated what every realistic observer of Canada knew, although the fact was often covered up by euphemistic phrases. Canada is a house divided.”

The conflict between French and British in Canada has continued unabated since the Conquest nearly two centuries ago; its origin lies in the events which preceded the Reformation and resulted in a Christendom sharply divided into either religious sects or modern nationalities; its subsequent course must be traced through the labyrinthine developments of the Western World acting upon French Canadians, who have refused to abandon basic medieval ideology as their guide in life. The problems engendered by a war have always exacerbated this conflict. To analyse the Canadian situation adequately requires a life-time of study, and close intimate contacts over the same period of time with the two peoples. Mr. Chamberlin does not possess these requirements; his attempts at analysis leave much to be desired from any point of view concerned; in many instances he has relied upon stereotyped judgments that have helped so greatly to aggravate the conflict. Nevertheless, he has assembled a large number of surface facts regarding Canada, and is to be commended for venturing open-mindedly into a field filled with pitfalls for the outsider.

Edgar W. Mclnnis’ “The Unguarded Frontier” is told from the Canadian Tory point of view. It assumes the justice of Tory policy, it takes pot shots at Imperial authorities when in the past these have not been conservative-imperial enough, it is marked by sharp moralizations on American behaviour, and it defends the deportation of Acadians by denouncing them in such new-fangled terms as “fifth columnists.”

Otherwise, this is old-fashioned history, and as such is likely to be warmly disputed pro and con by chroniclers whose tendencies are those of political pamphleteers rather than of historians. The book is mainly concerned with the political aspects of boundary disputes since 1814; these are recounted in detail that exaggerates them far beyond due proportion. Mr. Mclnnis rightly recognizes Canada’s “inability to influence imperial policy.” But nowhere does he tell us clearly that the essential play in these disputes was between the United States and Great Britain, that wild talk on each side of the frontier served as natural smoke-screen behind which the negotiators in authority settled these questions, and that in the negotiations Great Britain played a role dictated by enlightened liberalism; this last largely because of infinitely larger commercial and imperial interests at stake elsewhere. By such circuitous routes, local harmony is sometimes achieved. The absorbing story of the decisive part (behind the scenes) played by financial and industrial interests in the rapprochement between the three countries concerned is a closed book to Mr. Mclnnis. These interests do not recognize borders in their search for profit; whatever criticism may be visited upon them, they have, in innumerable instances, tipped the scales in favor of peace as against the inclinations of politicians; and it is in terms of their activities that the real story of the unguarded frontier will some day be told.


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