Alaska: “The Most Important Strategic Place in the World,” Part II

IN HIS LAST PUBLIC APPEARANCE BEFORE HE DIED, William “Billy” Mitchell (1879-1936) testified before a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. It was 1935. The U.S. was in the grips of the Great Depression. Mitchell recalled how, as a young Army officer, he helped string a telegraph wire across the wilds of Alaska. Based upon his knowledge of the distant territory, Mitchell pleaded with Congress to recognize the importance of Alaska:

“I believe that in the future,” said Mitchell, “whoever holds Alaska will hold the world. I think it is the most important strategic place in the world.”

Strategic or not, Congress did not act on Mitchell’s advice about Alaska. In 1935, there were millions unemployed in the U.S. Vast swaths of industry were idle. The national economy was in shambles. The world trading system was broken. Congress had other priorities. It took World War II, the Cold War that followed and much in the way of technological advancement to define the position of Alaska on the strategic ladder.

Strategy and Planning — Hope and Possibility

Yes, it took decades for people to begin to appreciate the strategic importance of the roof of the world. But as any good Navy planner can tell you, strategy must follow logistics and not vice versa. Also, strategic planning is what is called “iterative.” That is, planning must evolve over time. Planning always has to take into account how things are changing. “The plan” must adapt to one’s goals and resources. What do you want? How are you going to get it? What do you need along the way?

Strategic planning — certainly as a tool of national policy — is effective only if it can help a leader or commander distinguish quickly between mere hope and real possibility. This is particularly the case when the onset of crisis or the outbreak of conflict crystallizes the circumstances. Then and there, “the plan” meets up with reality. As German Gen. Helmuth von Moltke said long ago, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” But as U.S. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower said, as if to explain the point, “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.”

The Tyranny of Distance

Today, three generations later, there is no question that Billy Mitchell was a visionary in his view of Alaska. Yes, Alaska is an unsinkable aircraft carrier at the center of gravity of the Northern Hemisphere. Alaska is a large and rugged landmass between two oceans. Alaska sits atop the polar axis of three continents. Using a “great circle” route, you can go places from Alaska. And from Alaska — especially with air power, and particularly today — you can make things happen. Or you can prevent other things from occurring. You can shape events. So Mitchell saw the distant future correctly when he testified to Congress in 1935 about Alaska. But how was his close-up vision?

Well, visionaries are not necessarily clairvoyant. Mitchell’s role as a partisan advocate of air power apparently led to him to overstate the near-term strategic case for Alaska. Was Alaska “strategic” in 1935? Not in the short or medium term. In 1935, effective air power had a combat radius of perhaps 500 miles. Even by 1941, when the U.S. entered World War II, the best U.S. bombers could deliver a payload to a distance of 1,000 miles or so. These distances were meaningful if you were planning operations in Europe or East Asia and using airfields within those ranges. But 500- and 1,000-mile numbers were simply lost in the vastness of Alaska. (They still are, truth be told.) So when he testified to Congress in 1935, Mitchell was offering strategic hope. But the realities of the aircraft industry back then did not match Mitchell’s words with the possibility of effectiveness.

In other words, Alaska is and has always been held captive by the tyranny of distance. From the standpoint of space and time, Alaska is far away and it takes a long time to get there. Contrary to what Mitchell was saying, in the 1930s and early 1940s, Alaska was all but irrelevant as a springboard for air power (and sea power, as well). Even if one considered the possibility of a distance-saving “great circle” route of sailing or flying to the Far East, the Alaska route was relatively insignificant. The climate along the route is horrible most months. The infrastructure is sparse at best and useful only after making a large investment in bases and logistics. And the endpoints of the northern track are the relatively undeveloped areas of Northeast Asia and Japan, or the almost unpopulated and brutally cold Arctic.

It is no surprise to learn that in 1939, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall wrote to President Roosevelt that “Defense of the extreme North Pacific is not a major anxiety of the War Department.” And historian Edward Miller’s monumental book, War Plan Orange: The U.S. Strategy to Defeat Japan, 1897-1945 , concluded that “In both Plan Orange and World War II, mainland Alaska was strategically insignificant.”

Geology and Strategy

But let’s not be too hard on Billy Mitchell. He made a critical point about Alaska over the long term. Alaska was “strategic,” but it was a strategic importance that was far beyond the realm of air power and the capabilities of the day. When Mitchell testified before Congress in 1935, he spoke as a retired military man and active air power advocate. There is little doubt that Mitchell said what he knew and what he certainly believed about the future.

But there was much more to know about Alaska, and even in 1935, there were people who knew it — at least in rough outline. Many people, for example, knew in the 1930s that Alaska held large resources of gold and other minerals, as well as vast stretches of coal and timber. And a good number of serious students had a broad understanding of Alaska’s mountains, volcanism and seismic belts. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) had worked in Alaska for many decades, including studying the mysterious and stark Arctic mountain system called the Brooks Range and its adjacent North Slope. (The Brooks Range was named in 1925 by the USGS in honor of Alfred Brooks, chief USGS geologist for Alaska from 1903-1924.) In the middle of Alaska, the breathtaking Mount McKinley and the surrounding spellbinding Denali were also well known. McKinley and Denali were even tourist destinations — albeit only for the well-heeled who could afford to travel to such a distant locale.

But did such a broad understanding come with enough credibility to drive national strategy? Put another way, did Alaska offer mere hope to the strategic planner? Or did Alaska offer real possibility? To the trapper or prospector, the place has always offered hope. But to the strategist and planner, Alaska’s possibilities lacked both definition and development. There was barely a working coal mine in Alaska, and only one single-track railroad from Seward on the southern coast to Fairbanks in the interior. For all intent, there was no road system in Alaska. From the standpoint of geology and buried resources, the explorers and scientists had barely scratched the surface of Alaska.

By contrast, as far back as the 1930s, most regions of the lower 48 states had been mapped with some degree of accuracy. Most of the obvious resource prospects — those of any note — were picked over by prospectors, if not university-level scientists. One old Harvard professor once joked to me that every road cut in New England has been the subject of at least two master’s theses. And in Europe, by comparison, there has not been a new mineral district discovered since the days of the Roman Empire.

But in the 1930s, there were still parts of Alaska that no human being — native or not — had ever seen. So when Mitchell discussed the strategic importance of Alaska in 1935, he spoke in broad, futuristic geographic and geopolitical terms — “great circle” thinking by a forward-looking student of air power. In Mitchell’s vision, aircraft that did not yet exist would fly from Alaskan bases that had not yet been built.

Time, Investment and Discovery

But you take your advocate as you find him, right? Mitchell was an air power man, not a geologist. Thus, Mitchell did not address the point that the energy and mineral resources of Alaska offer strategic significance of their own. And paralleling the development of air power, the development of the resources in Alaska could occur only after much time and significant investments had run their course.

In 1957, 22 years after Mitchell testified to Congress, Richfield Oil Co. discovered large hydrocarbon reserves in Alaska’s Cook Inlet, on the Pacific coastline. A decade after that, in 1967, Arco discovered immense oil and gas resources two miles beneath Prudhoe Bay, on the North Slope and at the edge of the Arctic Ocean. Forty years after the North Slope discovery — and after tens of billions of dollars invested in the search — the energy and mineral resources of Alaska are far better known. Today, these resources of Alaska are a key part of the strategic resource reserve of the U.S. Still, though, there are large areas in Alaska that have barely been touched by modern techniques of mapping and analysis. There is much left to learn about Alaska. There is far more to discover.

One thing is certain today, however. Alaska is strategic. Billy Mitchell had it right.

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King

February 14, 2008