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Wanna Buy Greenland? The United States Once Did

May 2, 1991

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The United States in 1946 proposed to pay Denmark $100 million to buy Greenland after flirting with the idea of swapping oil-rich land in Alaska for strategic parts of the bleak Arctic island, documents in the National Archives show.

The $100 million was to be in gold. And even though the sale did not go through, the United States ended up with the military bases it wanted anyway.

Discovery of the documents, which have been declassified since the early 1970s, was first reported Sunday by the Copenhagen newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

One alternative that was discussed was for the United States to trade land in the Point Barrow district of Alaska for those portions of Greenland that the United States considered of military value.

Under this plan, the Danes would have received the rights to any oil discovered in the district and would have had to sell the oil to the United States.

The richest oil strike in U.S. history was made in 1967 in the Prudhoe Bay area, 200 miles east of Point Barrow. The Point Barrow area now is part of the National Petroleum Reserve, which are oil fields reserved for national defense.

The proposed purchase apparently first came up in November 1945, when Sen. Owen Brewster, R-Maine, said American military and naval authorities favored it and he considered it ″a military necessity.″

In April 1946, State Department official John Hickerson attended a meeting of the planning and strategy committee of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and reported that ″practically every member ... said that our real objective as regards to Greenland should be to acquire it by purchase from Denmark.″

″The committee indicated that money is plentiful now, that Greenland is completely worthless to Denmark (and) that the control of Greenland is indispensable to the safety of the United States,″ Hickerson said in a memo.

He said he told the committee that he doubted the Danes could be induced to sell the 844,000-square-mile island in the North Atlantic.

In a follow-up to this memorandum on May 24, 1946, William C. Trimble, assistant chief of the State Department’s division of northern European affairs, suggested that the United States offer $100 million in gold for the island.

He said only about 600 Danes resided in Greenland. In more recent years, there have been an estimated 10,000 Danes and 44,000 Inuit, or Eskimos.

″In the final analysis, there are few people in Denmark who have any real interest in Greenland, economic, political or financial,″ Trimble said.

He said it had been suggested that territory in the Point Barrow district be ceded to Denmark in return for strategic portions of the island, but he doubted the Danes would be more receptive to this than to an outright purchase.

He said purchase of Greenland would give the United States ″valuable bases from which to launch an air counteroffensive over the Arctic area in the event of attack.″

On June 20, 1946, Secretary of War Robert Patterson weighed in, writing to Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson that ″it might be a good idea to take prompt action toward securing from Denmark (even to the extent of purchasing the entire island, if necessary) the military rights which have been outlined by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.″

Acheson replied that the State Department was aware of the importance of Greenland, but he didn’t say anything about a purchase.

Secretary of State James Byrnes made the offer to visiting Danish Foreign Minister Gustav Rasmussen in New York on Dec. 14, 1946, according to a telegram from Byrnes to the U.S. Legation in Copenhagen.

After discussing other security arrangements for Greenland, Byrnes said he told Rasmussen that perhaps an outright sale to the United States ″would be the most clean-cut and satisfactory.″

″Our needs ... seemed to come as a shock to Rasmussen, but he did not reject my suggestions flatly and said that he would study a memorandum which I gave him,″ he said.

The Archives file containing the Byrnes memo did not contain any indication of whether the Danes responded or simply let the matter die.

Greenland was made an integral part of Denmark in 1951 after two centuries as a colony. In 1979, the island was granted home rule, but Denmark retains control of foreign and defense affairs.

The U.S. Air Force currently maintains two bases in Greenland, Thule and Sondestrom.

Construction of the Thule base in 1952 was made possible by a defense treaty signed by the United States and Denmark in 1951. Originally designed as a refueling base for long-range bombing missions, it has been a ballistic missile early warning site and satellite telemetry station since 1961. Sondestrom’s mission is in support of the base at Thule.