"Rediscovery" of Alaska


By DR. RUTH GRUBER, Field Representative, Department of the Interior, Washington, D. C.

Delivered at the New York Herald-Tribune Forum, New York City, November 16, 1943

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. X, pp. 181-184.

I'M very happy to be here tonight, being first an alumnus of the Herald-Tribune and secondly an alumnus of the New Jersey Federation of Women's Clubs.

The most important fact in geography and history that we have learned from the war is the fact that Alaska is only fifty miles from Siberia. Primitive man knew that when he first came to America from Asia by way of Alaska. We have rediscovered the crossroads. We have learned again that the shortest and most logical route between America and Asia is not across the ocean but directly across Alaska. Geography is Alaska's sinew of war.

Her location on the globe will make her grow as Asia grows, as Canada grows and as America grows. Alaska is our frontier to the post-war world, our key to the future. The Soviets are pushing industries and cities east of the Urals; Chinn is unifying itself; millions of Asiatic people, whose standards of living are rising, are going to demand American automobiles, American tractors, Kelvinators, Fuller brushes and Lux toilet soap. Alaska is the natural gateway to those markets.

Let me try to describe Alaska to you. It sits proudly on two oceans, the North Pacific and the Arctic, with the Bering Sea to link them. Behind it lies Canada; below it, in a straight line, lies Hawaii; before it lies Siberia. It is so enormous that if you put a map of Alaska on a map of the whole United States, you will find that the body of Alaska covers the entire Middle West; southeastern Alaska would reach to Georgia, and the long tail of the Aleutians would sweep out to California.

Alaska seems to have a chunk of everything American. Are you from Iowa? The interior has flat land and fertile valleys. Are you from the forest lands of Oregon? Southeastern Alaska is an almost uncut primeval forest. Are you from Los Angeles? Alaska has plenty of mist. New Jersey? The mosquitoes in Alaska are as big as Army bombers, if you believe the soldiers who have fed them blood. Planes alonecan trek through time and squeeze these distances, and when you fly over sections of the highway and coast, when you see below you flowing rivers of ice, and fields of glaciers, you feel, well, almost as though you were flying over the first day of creation.

Alaska has suffered from its own picturesqueness. Travelers have come back to us telling not of the schools, not of the university and the excellent churches, but of the wild noman's-land of Eskimos and igloos, a land stuck like a legendary ice cream cone with ice on too and nothing on bottom. Actually, most of our Alaskan Eskimos don't even know how to build a snowhouse. They live in wooden houses or sod huts; and they are probably tuning in right now to the Herald-Tribune Forum.

Tuxedos and Highballs

The other half of the population is made up of Americans of all races who came yesterday or forty years ago, who speak English with all accents, including the Scandinavian, who drive Buicks and Fords, who play ping-pong and bridge, who have a delegate in Congress, elect their own Legislature, drink highballs and Coca-Colas, and wear more evening clothes in a year than most people in New York wear in a lifetime.

Alaska is no Paradise on Earth. Neither is it Hell Frozen Over. It is a big land and it is an empty land. In all that geographic vastness, in a land with summers that are hotter than Florida's and winters that are cold, there live only 80,000 civilians; rust about the number who watch a single football game on Saturday.

Tomorrow, I think, the story will be different. There is a new challenge in Alaska, and throughout the nation there is a new dream. Each week we in Washington receive hundreds of letters from men and women, telling us that they have heard about Alaska, that the thought of it has gotten into their blood, that they want to go North to homestead, to farm, to teach school, to open grocery stores and bakery shoos, to work in beauty parlors and on the Alaska railroad. Thoce letters, written not with cynicism or fear but with a clean and healthy optimism, are shining proof that the people, the good solid people, are looking to Alaska as one of the places where men and women of all races and creeds, coming home from a war that they have fought brilliantly, can help build a decent world.

The Soldier's View

You learn a good deal from soldiers living in Alaska. Those long evenings, sitting on bunks and trunks out there in the Aleutians, in the barracks of the men, we really let down our hair. Some of the men hated Alaska. Their remarks were devastating: "Why don't they sink Alaska?" "Why don't they give it back to the Eskimos?" "By golly, if the Japs take Alaska, it pretty well serves them right." Of course, good, healthy grousing is one of the characteristics of the American Army.

But many of the men had caught the spirit and freedom of the North. Alaska had taken strange hold. A soldier just back from two years in the territory came to see me the other day. "You remember how I hated it when you were there," he said. "I remember." "I've been home for three weeks and I've got a different angle on it now. Alaska is my self-assurance. Knowing that country is worth more to me than a million dollars in the bank. Every boy who's been up there feels that he can thumb his nose at the whole world. Alaska has shown us that there is a place where we can be more than just cogs in a great wheel.

For a long time Alaska has been called a man's country. I should like to change that, I should like to call it a woman's country. Here is where women can prove, socially and politically, that women can be leaders, just as men can be leaders, if they are given the chance. Women who go North hardly know the meaning of loneliness. Alaska is a good place for girls whose ego needs a little boost. Any girl suffering from a not-too-advanced spinsterhood might profitably trek northward. In fact, the farther North you go the more beautiful you become. A dance in a place like Dutch Harbor makes you feel like a cross between the Duchess of Windsor and Hedy Lamarr.

The United States Employment Service in Seattle has hundreds of jobs for women in Alaska who are not married to men stationed there. Everywhere you go in the Territory you hear the cry: "Send us people. Send us workmen. Send us women." The need for women is enormous. But only the strong and the courageous ought to go.

Life There Not Easy

There is a glamour in the North, but life is not easy. Many of the women who went to Alaska grow weary of the isolation, tired of chopping wood in the interior, and carrying umbrellas on the coast. Others grew sullen and bitter because they found not the human warmth and hospitality, not the greatness in emergencies of the small town, but its naked cruelty and its gossip. They left, hating Alaska violently.

A man, too, needs firm eyes and the will to withstand discouragement on the frontier. Alaska is no place for city or farm weaklings. Every farmer ought to have at least $3,000 to tide him over those first heart-breaking years when his land must be stumped and cleared, when his crops are uncertain, his roads unfinished, and his markets are unknown.

A workingman, even with a job waiting for him in Alaska, ought to have some money before he goes. Living costs are very high. Amusements are few.

But for men and women of courage, Alaska offers the same promise that America offered to the millions who were frustrated in Europe. What you need on the frontier, besides muscle and ambition, is imagination, a pair of rubber boots and a sense of humor. There was a construction worker and his wife whom I visited at a new naval air station. For years they had known only reverses. Now though they were middle-aged and had grown children, they had become twentieth century pioneers. They had bought some land facing a bay, and, until they could finish building their home, they were living in a tent, a Sears Roebuck tent. The woman had fixed that tent so that it was almost a work of art. She had hung it with pictures from magazines and with red pots from the five-and-ten. She baked the bread in a tiny oven; she hauled the water; she chopped the wood; she read by the uncertain light of a gasoline lantern. But she and her family were intensely happy; they were getting down to the roots of life again; they were lowering the barriers that cities and worries had created between life and themselves.

"Won Self-Respect Again"

"This tent." she said to me, "this beautiful bay outside our door! You know, it's all like something I used to dream about. When my husband comes home from the naval base we walk along the beach and pick up shells—imagine, at our age! It's really our first honeymoon. The depression had hit us hard. We were sick with worry over how to meet our bills—doctor's bills, store bills, grocery bills. We never caught up. Now, for the first time in our lives, we have money, we don't have to worry. We can go into any store and look around and say to ourselves: 'I can buy that, I can buy anything I want.'" She stopped for a moment. "But, more important than having money, we have won self-respect again. Alaska has given us back our dignity."

But not only the white people, but the Eskimos, the Indians and the Aleuts, who live along the Aleutian Islands, these three native groups, whose ancestral roots are in the soil and who make up almost half of Alaska's population, are helping us win the war and build the future. Their sons are in the Army.

Lieutenant Bertrand Leask, an Alaskan Indian boy, helped bomb and sink an Axis tanker in the Mediterranean. Their women are knitting and rolling bandages for the Red Cross. All of them are buying war bonds. When the Eskimo people of St. Lawrence Island, a village in the Bering Sea a bare twenty miles from Siberia, heard that we were giving 10 per cent of our income for war bonds they voted to give 100 per cent of their community funds.

Secretary of the Interior, Harold L. Ickes, who has jurisdiction over Alaska, has repeatedly told the natives that, unlike the minorities of Fascist Europe, the Indian need not die, he must not die, he must live. Our job, he has said, is to integrate the beautiful culture of our Alaskan peoples into the stream of our entire national life. Our policy is not to make museum pieces of them, but to help them through education and hospitals to become leaders of their own people, to help them to help themselves.

Those Eskimos in the North are among the most noble, the most happy, and the most dignified people with whom I have ever lived. All the native children attend government schools. I helped run one of those schools for a few days and have never seen children who were more hungry for information about the rest of the world. When I asked those children what they liked best to do, about 75 per cent of them said they liked best to read "Life" magazine. They get it once a year, twelve months' issues on one ship. The other 25 per cent liked to do fractions in arithmetic. Needless to say, I let them read "Life" magazine and then asked them to write what they had read. Almost every child in that room wrote about the advertisements. One child wrote—and I can think of no writer who has told that plot with such economy of words—"This is the story of a girl. She is waiting at the church. The groom has left her. She did not learn. She has bad breath."

Alaska, you can see, has its human resources, but they are overshadowed by the physical wealth of the land. Since 1867, when Seward bought it from the Russians for $7,200,000 after a game of whist, we have gotten a thousand times our investment; a billion dollars' worth of fish; a hundred million dollars' worth of fur; six hundred million dollars' worth of old; two hundred million dollars' worth of other minerals: copper, platinum, silver, iron, and now we are finding oil and tin.

In one forest alone, the beautifully named Tongass National Forest, there are about three million acres of salable timber. Some experts believe that the lumber industry in southeastern Alaska alone could give employment to about thirty thousand people.

You all remember the dust-bowl farmers who were sent by the government in 1935 to the Matanuska Valley. Perhaps you have been told that the experiment was a failure. It isn't true. For seven years the valley has been a laboratory demonstration in democracy. Seven years may seem long in the time of a newspaper, but they are short in a farmer's almanac Those seven years proved the two things that the experiment set out to prove: first, that farming is feasible in Alaska (most Alaskans knew this, but the nation didn't), and, secondly, they proved that you can take good farmers who have been living on sub-marginal land, give them new soil and new opportunity, and they will become citizens proud to raise their children in these United States.

Now I have some good news to tell you about these Alaskan farmers. This last summer the valley has grown to be more than a study in democracy. It has become a magnificent success. The valley's farmers earned more than a million dollars in dairy, meat and vegetables. They helped feed the local Army and civilian population at a crucial time when every ship to Alaska was needed for munitions and supplies to get the Japs out. They earned a quarter of a million dollars just in potatoes. In a national fair a few years ago, Alaskan potatoes took first prize. A home-steader this summer made $2,200 from a quarter of an acre of celery. Some of the farmers are earning $800 a month in milk and cream and butter.

More Expansion Ahead

Fishing is Alaska's most important industry, and it, too, can be expanded by extracting vitamins and using the byproducts of fish for fertilizer. The mineral possibilities of the country haven't been scratched; the fur industry can grow; power plants can electrify and industrialize whole sections of the North.

There is room, too, for small industries, both for export and for home consumption. There is room for small family unit sawmills, for arts and crafts with the label "Made in Alaska," tourist industries, hotels, auto camps, and so on. Alaska can become a great and beautiful playground.

But transportation is still the first problem of Alaska. I am convinced that Alaska's future lies in solving that problem of transportation. Her greatest promise lies in the air, as a terminal for the short air routes between America and Asia. We now have civilian and military airplanes latticing the whole territory. The war has taught us how to build airfields over night. The famous Alaska Highway now links Alaska through Canada to the States. That road is no Westchester Boulevard. For the most part it, is a good, graveled, twolane country road. It was built by white and Negro soldiers, and by construction workers who knew what they were building for. That's why they could break a 1,500-mile trail in nine months through muskeg and forests. They knew that this road would help win the war faster. They knew that it would service and fuel the short, safe, lend-lease airway to Siberia. They knew that after the Japs and the Germans were licked, this would become a great postwar road to new frontiers.

Natural Trade Gateway

We know now what explorers like Stefansson predicted i and what the pilots made real: that Alaska's future lies in the trade routes of peace as well as in the strategic routes or war. In a world shrunken by air transportation, Kamchatka is virtually at New York's back door. Alaska is the crossroads of that shrunken world. We have a great deal to learn from our neighbors across from Alaska. We need Soviet weather information to plot our weather maps. Weather is still pretty much of a military secret, but it is no secret that most of our weather in Alaska and in the North Pacific is manufactured in Siberia. The Arctic and Antarctic are the weather kitchens of the world. On the basis of weather information from stations in the Soviet Arctic a few of the Russian scientists are predicting the weather for their whole country a year in advance. I am revealing no military information when I tell you that we are establishing a network of weather bureau stations in Alaska which, I trust, will continue to gather and send national and international weather reports after the war. Remember, there are no politics in the weather.

You will hear many of our philosophers of despair wailing that frontier days are over, that the frontier spirit is an anachronism, and that, since we have not opened wide our doors to political refugees from Europe, we have, ipso facto, broken the frontier pattern which made us great. I believe that they are wrong. I believe that we are still a frontier people. We have not lost our virility, our love for fearless freedom. Alaska is our newest frontier, our newest rebirth, our newest responsibility.

But Alaska won't be populated by phrases. Good pioneers won't move northward because of slogans like "Short Cut to Tokio" and "Dagger to Japan." Alaska will have to prove that it has room for industrialists and managers, for risks capital and cautious capital, for farmers and laborers. What Alaska needs is families. It needs honest, hard-workings rugged men and the kind of pioneer women who helped to build the West. With such people, the nineteen-forty-niners can write a century of history.

Major Task Ahead

But they can't hope to find success the first year. It takes capital to make the industries pay. It takes labor to make them function. It takes government to subsidize transportation. It takes the right kind of publicity and it takes the right kind of sound, enthusiastic public opinion. The government can pour millions into Alaska as a springboard for war and as a crossroads for peace. But that money won't induce anybody to stay unless the whole nation, unless you and I, blast our ice and snow misconceptions and realize that Alaska can be opened successfully only by management, labor and government co-operating.

I can see airplanes flying regularly from Chicago through Alaska to Yakutsk, Moscow and cities in Europe, the way Wendell Willkie and Ambassador Joseph E. Davies flew home. I can see roads linking us with our next-door neighbors in Siberia and China. I can see many of you leaving your homes in New York and California and driving all around the world, by way of Alaska. I can see these roads through Alaska breaking through the race prejudices and the medieval fears that we have been taught about Asia and Europe, even as we have been taught them about Alaska.

I once visited a hut in Yakutsk, and one of the first songs they played for me was "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" I knew then that the isolation in the world had been broken by music. Now, with Alaska as a depot to the world. I can see that isolation broken by the strong cords of commerce and of friendship and of understanding.

This is no day dream. Was it a day dream when the first Colonists landed on Plymouth Rock and began to build their houses of logs? Was it a day dream when the pioneers went westward and dreamed of settlements in the Great Plains and the fertile valleys? Surely there was heartbreak. When, in all the wanderings of man on the face of this globe, has there not been heartbreak? In the opening of the West, historians tell us, about 50 per cent of the people turned back. In the opening of the North, we would have to expect at least the same proportion.

But if 50 per cent of the tens of thousands who have heard of Alaska, who have seen it under fire, and who think they want to live there, turn homeward, that will still leave thousands to build homes, to utilize the wealth and give their children the right to live with decency