A History of Alaska, Volume II: Alaska On the Road to War


Nielson, Jonathan M. Ph.D., University of California, Santa Barbara


Author of *American Historians in War and Peace: Patriotism, Diplomacy, and the Paris Peace Conference, 1918-1919

The most significant military development to touch Alaska during the interwar years was the advent of air power, an innovation that completely altered Alaska's strategic position. Suddenly the world became smaller as areas once thought safely distant from potential enemies became vulnerable. Nowhere was this more evident than in the Pacific, whose countless islands became potential advanced air bases.

As air technology improved, the ability of long-range bombers and, by the 1930s, of carrier aircraft, to penetrate American airspace was a development of far reaching significance. While such warnings were largely limited to a handful of air-power advocates their vocal advocacy constituted nothing less than an “insurrection”, a revolution in military thinking fought against entrenched military conservatism, cultural aversion to change, fears of budget cuts, and War Department lethargy.

Indeed it was the air power crusader General Billy Mitchell who aggressively fought to convince the War and Navy Departments to embrace the new doctrine of offensive air power. Mitchell came to understand Alaska's strategic importance early on. Consequently, he saw the Aleutians as a vulnerability: if left unguarded Japan could “creep up” and, by establishing air dominance, take Alaska and Canada’s West Coast. But he also saw Alaska as a strategic base from which American planes could “reduce Tokyo to powder.” Prophetically, in 1923 Mitchell forecast precisely the military threat and strategic arguments that would shape military thinking almost twenty years later: “I am thinking of Alaska. In an air war, if we were unprepared Japan could take it away from us, first by dominating the sky and creeping up the Aleutians."

By the mid-to late 1930s military and civilian advocates of air power and more visionary strategists were beginning to make their voices heard in Congress and elsewhere, decrying Alaska’s military vulnerability. Between 1933 and 1944 no one was more adamant than Alaska’s Delegate in Congress, Anthony Joseph “Tony” Dimond, who challenged the nation to defend itself by defending Alaska. To Dimond, it seemed poor strategy to fortify one pacific base, Hawaii, while ignoring another, Alaska. Dimond’s campaign was strengthened by passage of the Wilcox Bill, sponsored by Representative J. Mark Wilcox (D-Florida), officially known as the National Air Defense Act. This truly significant legislation authorized the location and construction of military airfields throughout the United States as a general defense preparedness measure. Alaska was recognized as one of the nation’s six strategic regions, and two bases, one at Anchorage, the other at Fairbanks, were recommended in part, “because Alaska was closer to Japan
than it is to the center of [the] continental United States.”

Fortuitously for Alaska defense advocates, General Douglas MacArthur stepped down as Chief of Staff of the Army and was replaced by Major General Malin Craig in October 1935. Craig and Brigadier General Stanley D. Embick advocated a substantial reconfiguration of Plan Orange arguing that the Philippines presented an invitation to attack and should be “neutralized” in favor defending the “Alaska-Hawaii-Panama Triangle.” Both the Army and Navy were charged with defending Alaska as far west as Dutch Harbor, and the army pledged to mobilize 6,600 troops in Alaska within a month of attack by Japan. In contemplating the defense of Alaska the Army General Staff formulated five priority objectives: first, increase the Alaska garrison; second, establish
a major base for Army operations near Anchorage; third, develop a network of air bases within Alaska; fourth, garrison these bases with combat troops; and fifth, protect the naval installations at Sitka, Kodiak, and Dutch Harbor. Alaska was about to go to war.

American History, American Studies, Colonial Studies, Military History, Alaska, Alaskan History, Japanese History, Political Science, US Politics, Public Policy, Statehood, Western Settlement, World War II, Naval History, Aviation History
Release Date: 
March 1, 2018
Hardcover: 978-1680530599
Trim Size: 
6 x 9

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