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The Northward Course

ISSUE:  Winter 1944

The northern scene is still clouded. Over the islands and coastlines of the Arctic the fog hangs densely. And above all there is the spiritual fog, the cloud of suspense, and the quiet before the storm that since Pearl Harbor has weighed heavily upon our minds. Whenever imagination turns to this war theater, which has not yet seen decisive battles, we become aware of the North as the scene of fateful events in the making. But this consciousness of the North as a pivotal sector of America’s political geography is of a recent date. Only in the last few years a thorough reorientation and revaluation of our geographical vision has been taking shape. The North is coming into focus. We begin to realize now, in the birth pangs of a new global view, that of all regions on earth, it is the North where our geographical knowledge and our ability to apply it to politics and strategy has revealed the most shocking gaps.

We speak of today, somewhat prematurely, however, as an “air age,” and we take pride in being able to think in terms of an “air-age geography.” Distance has achieved a new meaning, and time has become its new measure. In this conception of an air-age geography, the North and its Polar skyways appear in a new and startling light. Anne Lindbergh’s phrase, “You fly north to the Orient, not west,” has become, with all its implications, a truism today.

However, in all our fashionable enthusiasm for the new “aviation geography,” many of us jump from one generalization and false absolute to another. Brought up in a world of insular isolation, with its main orientation to the Atlantic and to Great Britain, we have thought (or rather felt instinctively) in terms of a sea-power age when attempting to apply geographical fundamentals to foreign policy. Since the First World War we have become aware of the struggle between land power and sea power. However, so rapid was the revolutionary change that transformed the face of the world, covering it with a steadily growing net of railroads and highways, only to be followed in quick succession by the miraculous rise of air power, that most of us have not had time to readjust our world view. When our generation, born in a seafaring world, decided to leave the rowboat geography behind and to exchange it for the new airplane geography, we skipped the automobile and railroad geography of the land-power age.

We have not realized, until very recently, the fact that the new air age cannot be grasped without a thorough knowledge of the factors which led to the tremendous increase of land power in general and to the significance of certain land masses neglected in the sea-power age. These land masses and the power based on their possession have become the prerequisites for the rise of air power, land-based air power, in our days. Since 1904, when Sir Halford Mackinder gave before the Royal Geographical Society in London his classical address on “The Pivot of History,” the awareness of the role which land power and certain inland regions have assumed in our phase of the Industrial Revolution has directed the thinking of political geographers and of statesmen in Central Europe. In Germany, Mackinder’s ideas kindled the flame of geopolitics and of “Haushoferism” and had a far-reaching effect on political planning and strategy. We have been told so many myths as well as truths about this kind of geopolitics that the sudden interest in the enemy’s geography can be explained only by the fact that many of us had the guilty feeling of school boys caught napping during an elementary geography lesson.

It has been often overlooked that the power politics of Haushoferism (Germany must rule the land masses of the Heartland; then she will rule the world) had several serious shortcomings. One of the decisive flaws of German geopolitics concerns the North and the role of the United States and Canada as northern Powers. Haushofer and the other German generals followed too closely Mackinder’s concept of an outer crescent of insular lands of which the Western Hemisphere was a part. This was indeed the inevitable world view if we looked at the globe through the glasses of Mercator. And even Mackinder, in spite of his prophetic vision, saw the world as Mercator had seen it. The small crude map accompanying his paper on “The Pivot of History” was a Mercator projection and it served perfectly the purpose of showing the insular Powers, with the United States and Australia in the same boat, as mere satellites on the outer crescent surrounding the “World Island.” We find this map reprinted many times in Haushofer’s writings. In Germany, this map has made history.

But the far northern latitudes are represented most un-realistically on the Mercator world map. The Polar regions do not appear on it; they are on the Mercator projection at infinity. The relation of North America and Asia remains obscure and, moreover, it is falsified. The failure to understand the shortcomings of Mercator has prevented, in Germany, the growth of a geopolitical vision that would perceive Eurasia and North America as an almost continuous transcontinental bloc: flanked by the United States, Canada, and the U. S. S. R., this immense continent holds the inner lines and bends the Axis Powers to the outer crescent.

This blunder of German geopolitics might well prove fatal to Hitler’s Germany. Yet the vast majority of our amateur strategists are still unaware of this fateful German blunder. They do not recognize it because of one of the most frequently quoted fables of our time, the fable of Germany’s superior air-age geography. A recent article in Harper’s, written by a geography professor, may serve as an example. It begins with the following amazing statement: “The airplane has created a new geography of the world. Axis leaders knew this several years ago and have been taking advantage of it, but few Americans are yet really aware of it.” Fortunately, the Axis leaders did not know it “several years ago,” and to say that “few Americans” are yet really aware of it is correct only if one considers the fact irrelevant that these “few” include this country’s military leadership.

One of the elementary and vital realities of the second World War concerns the fact that it is being fought on the northern half of the temperate zone that lies in a circle around the Arctic. The main Powers in our day are northerly, with the land masses of Europe, Asia, and North America grouped around a sea which can truly be called the “Arctic Mediterranean.” Vilhjalmur Stefansson called it that twenty-two years ago, when he prophetically described a map of the Arctic arena as follows:

“A map giving one view of the northern half of the northern world shows that the so-called Arctic Ocean is really a Mediterranean sea like those which separate Europe from Africa or North America from South America. Because of its smallness, we would do well to go back to an Elizabethan custom and call it not the Arctic Ocean but the Polar Sea or Polar Mediterranean. The map shows that most of the land in the world is in the Northern Hemisphere, that the Polar Sea is like a hub from which the continents radiate like the spokes of a wheel. The white patch shows that the part of the Polar Sea never yet navigated by ships is small when compared to the surrounding land masses. In the coming air-age, the . . . Arctic will be like an open park in the center of the uninhabited city of the world, and the air voyagers will cross it like taxi riders crossing a park. Then will the Arctic islands become valuable, first as way stations and later because of their intrinsic value—minerals, grazing, fisheries. . . .”

Some—and not the least important—of Stefansson’s visions have become realities today; others are still in the lap of the future. However, it is time for us to free ourselves from seeing the Arctic through a haze of romance instead of realizing that it is a very commonplace country. The main obstacle to the development of the North is analogous to our feeling about the prairies of Canada and the Western United States early in the last century. Thus a psychological barrier of lore and myths about the Arctic has prevented mankind and in particular the peoples of the United States and of Canada from grasping the meaning of the North as an integral part of their political and economic sphere.

Among the misconceptions of the North are many that today we consider almost naive in the light of the lessons this war has taught us most recently. Yet these myths, closely interlinked, have been a “Maginot Line” barring the march of our imagination and action northward. There is the idea that it is dreadfully cold there at all times of the year, that the Arctic lands are nearly everywhere devoid of vegetation, that the Arctic is, generally speaking, devoid of animal life. There have been, for a long time, basic misconceptions about climatic conditions, particularly the supposed prevalence of fog over the Polar seas, misconceptions which stood in the way of our early realization of the Polar regions as a pivot zone in aviation. And there are finally certain mystical ideas about the Arctic which in all their haziness have been among the main psychological reasons for the general misconceptions of the North: the idea, as Stefansson has written, “that there is a peculiar death-like stillness most or all of the time, that the polar night has a dreadfully depressing eifect on the human spirit, but that there is a certain fascination about the North which either in spite of its terrors or even because of them entices men of a peculiarly heroic mold into this dreadful region, there to suffer and if need be to die in the cause of science.”

It is of considerably more than academic interest to compare the atmosphere in which public reaction in this country toward the Arctic was moulded by such misconceptions during the last decades, with the psychological factors prevailing in the other great country to which the North meant a vital problem in a new and shrinking world, the U. S. S. R. The attitude of the Soviets toward the Arctic differs strikingly from the reactions in the United States and in Canada, mainly, I think, because of the fact that many of those who later became the leaders of Soviet politics had been exiled to Siberia. Among them was Stalin, who had lived in northern Siberia long enough to acquire a thorough understanding of its climate and its resources. The happy recollections of the North which, for instance, permeate Lenin’s diary added a sentimental factor in favor of a positive appraisal of the Arctic regions as an integral part of the Soviet empire. Thus Stalin and others when they came into power were in a much better position to establish a realistic Arctic policy than those statesmen whose delight in warm-water cruising had formed subconsciously their geopolitical views.

For the last few centuries, and especially in America, our attention has been centered upon the proposition that “Westward the course of empire takes its way.” It has indisputably taken a westward course during the last few centuries. But it is equally indisputable and more significant that northward the course of civilization has been taking its way. Such was Stefansson’s vision more than twenty years ago. A prophet from the Arctic wilderness, he added:

“We have not come to the northward limit of commercial progress. There was many a pause but no stop to the westward course of empire until we came to the place where East is West. In that sense only is there a northward limit to progress. Corner lots in Rome were precious when the banks of the Thames had no value; the products of Canada were little beyond furs and fish when the British and French agreed in preferring Guadeloupe. But values have shifted north since then and times have changed. Times will continue to change. There is no northern boundary beyond which productive enterprise cannot go till North meets North on the opposite shores of the Arctic Ocean as East meets West on the Pacific.”

To many of us predictions of this kind appear fantastic even in the light of the accelerated pace of development in the American North, which so rapidly has become one of the pivotal zones of the war. While we realize the impact of the northern skyways, many of our best-informed students of international relations still refuse to see in the American North a future center of population gravity and economic activity. But Stefansson is not alone in his positive appraisal of the North. To name only one, a prominent geographer in Canada, Griffith Taylor, goes so far as to speculate that the agricultural and industrial potentialities of Alberta lend some support to the view that Calgary may surpass Ottawa, and even some day rival London as a focus of the Empire.

At a time when our main interest is centered on a new aviation geography and its global skyways, we do well to remember that it would be a serious mistake to limit our interest to those realities of the North which are paramount for aeronautical problems and to stop at viewing the land regions of our northern territories merely in terms of the military strategy of this war and highway construction. Again the Soviet example of the development of her Siberian regions can teach us important lessons. What has been achieved here in the last decades in the effort to open new agricultural and industrial centers aided by railroads and the development of navigation on the Siberian rivers and on the Arctic sea route comprises a chapter of history yet to be written. But the very fact that about seven million people have settled in Siberia in the last thirty years proves that the colonization of the Soviet North is one of the great historic achievements of our age. It might well be that the future will see a parallel mobilization of America’s vast resources in our own northern sector. There is the much-disputed project of reindeer breeding on a large scale, the development of forestry products and mineral resources of which petroleum (drilled on the Norman Wells oil field since 1919) has achieved primary importance—all this based on and linked with the utilization of river systems (Mackenzie, Yukon, Liard), and the improvement of land communication (Alcan Highway). The developments which are definitely under way in the U. S. S. R. and which are of immense importance for her future relations with her Asiatic neighbors are being paralleled by similar measures, however slowly progressing, in this country and in Canada. These trends reveal a parallel march northward of the centers of civilized population in Siberia, the United States, and Canada. It is doubtful whether our North and Canada’s will become, like Siberia, an area for colonization of surplus populations. Alaska’s population total, in 1939, of 72,500 shows the very difficulties with which large-scale plans for settlement in the American Far North have to struggle. Any attempt at estimating saturation populations for undeveloped areas is doomed to remain speculation. But it is no mere speculation to assume that important districts in Alaska and northern Canada are almost ideally fitted for colonization by settlers who are accustomed to similar surroundings.

The answer to this and many other questions will remain guess work for years to come, but so far as the general approach is concerned, there can be no doubt that a new politico-geographical vision of the Polar Mediterranean has established itself firmly. It is indeed “Our Sea,” surrounded by the land masses of Europe, Asia, and North America (as Europe, Africa, and Asia are grouped around the other Mediterranean that Mussolini once called Mare Nostrum). If we transpose this vision to a map, it would appear clearly on a north-polar version of a great circle chart. With its great circle projections, this is the kind of map the aviator needs. To him the idea of our Polar Mediterranean is familiar. To many navigators and to those who have grown up in the shadow of the Mercator projection (with the poles at infinity) this vision has appeared strange and almost inconceivable not so long ago. In terms of flying, the grouping of the nations around the Polar Mediterranean reveals the elementary truth that the direct route between any of these nations is in some northerly direction; on the cylindrical Mercator world map (with the poles lost in its open ends) the logical flight direction is seemingly east or west. The emphasis on the northward course towards the Polar Mediterranean is a practical step in a direction which the majority of us have only been willing and able to follow after the events of this war have taught us an iron lesson; today we begin to rid ourselves of old-fashioned (yet yesterday’s) west-east relationships. They have dominated our geographical and political imagination until we now begin to appreciate the importance of the course northward. We can speak without exaggeration of an Arctic Revolution in our day.

It is not the first time that the North has been in the limelight of American geopolitics. A daring yet only partly successful attempt was made to turn American destinies northwards when William Henry Seward, Secretary of State in Lincoln’s Cabinet, pleaded that we needed Alaska to rule the North Pacific and should buy it from Russia; and that we needed Greenland and Iceland to dominate the North Atlantic and should buy them from Denmark.

Indeed, it took a long time for the American people to realize the pivotal importance of America’s northern borders for the future of this country. Even now the hour is too early to state that this realization will remain alive. The real task will begin when the fighting has stopped and the battle to win a lasting peace is shaping. Then the struggle for the North will enter into a new and decisive phase. It will be a dangerous and a most difficult task. For “the North,” Stefansson wrote, “is only one case of the general principle that man finds it easier to change the face of nature than to change his own mind.”


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