Published Date

August 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 20: What Has Alaska to Offer Postwar Pioneers? (1944)

In the next generation, Alaska will be called upon to play a key role as a focal point for world airways and as a vital military and naval bastion. Alaska is a key to the defense of the United States and Canada and to our own military security.

A straight line drawn through St. Paul or Minneapolis to Tokyo cuts through the heart of Alaska. The air route between Chicago and Chungking via Alaska is 4,300 miles shorter than the San Francisco-Hawaii-Manila route. Already in military use is a United States-Moscow airway via Alaska. The time is probably not far distant when direct hops can be made from Fairbanks over the North Pole to London, Stockholm, and Paris. An international highway, which runs from South America to Alaska, offers a combined land and air route for the Latin American countries, the United States, Canada, and Alaska, and an air route on to USSR, the Orient, and Europe. An extension of the Alaska Highway from Fairbanks to Nome is within the realm of possibility. Lying in narrow Bering Strait, Big and Little Diomede Islands bring Asia and America only 3.5 miles apart. A ferry system, or perhaps a bridge, could link South America with Europe via Siberia.

At present, however, no highway exists from Fairbanks to Nome, and the Alaska Highway from Canada, built by a miracle of engineering in 1942, traverses unoccupied territory and is as yet little more than a rough service road linking a series of airports. Needed for the adequate development and defense of Alaska, some experts say, is a railroad to supplement sea steamship lanes and the Highway, capable of moving from .the States to Alaska 1.0,000 tons per day. Others, however, question the dollars-and-cents value of such a railroad. A survey for such a project, which would link the Canadian National Railway to the Alaskan Railroad, has already been completed.

In the face of enthusiasts’ dreams of Alaska as a key point on world airways, linked with the rest of the United States by highways, airways, and railroads, Alaska’s rich present seems modest indeed. Maska, occupying a geographical position on the American continent roughly equivalent to that of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark, and with an area exceeding these countries combined, supports a population of less than 100,000 as compared with their 17,000,000.

There is an excess of shipments out of Alaska over shipments into the Territory. In 1940 Alaska shipped to the States commodities valued at $59,000,000, receiving commodities valued at $48,000,000 in exchange. The balance of $11,000,000 was small as compared with other years. In the 1930’s over a ten-year period Alaska shipped to the States 63 per cent of its total trade and received back from the States 37 per cent. Salmon and gold together accounted for 22 per cent of the value of the goods shipped out of Alaska.

Some of the keys to Alaska’s future, as discussed by economists, are:



Alaska today produces only about 2.5 per cent of the food it eats. With a larger farming population and a good development of modern agriculture, it is estimated that the Territory could raise one-third or more of the total food requirements of 90,000 residents—although certain types of food, of course, would always have to be imported. A local market amounting to several million dollars a year already exists.


It is estimated that southeastern Alaska could support a pulp and paper industry producing about one million tons a year. This would support about 35,000 people at a good standard of living and add a third major industry to the two present ones of fishing and mining. Lumbering and wood processing could be further developed. A growing industry is entertaining, sheltering, and transporting Alaska’s visitors and local vacationists. Water power is available in great quantity for future industries in many areas. A possibility for future generations is bringing together Alaska and British Columbia coal, iron, and limestone to supply the Pacific coast with the iron and steel it lacks today.


Predictions as to the number of visitors to Alaska in the years after the war are still largely in the realm of crystal gazing. If the Alaska Highway is ever conditioned for ordinary passenger traffic—not a likely prospect in the immediate future—many thousands of visitors might tour overland to Alaska each season. Other visitors will come by steamship and air line. In recent peace years, Alaska’s white population almost doubled in summer with the addition of tourist traffic. If this trend continues or increases, transportation systems within Alaska will have to be enlarged, modernized, and the rates made cheaper.


Alaska’s dependence on extractive industries has made it rely on outside capital, with absentee ownership, for development of industry, transportation, and services. Comparatively few funds are “plowed back” into local development. Alaska’s governor has urged a revision of the tax structure.


While Alaska can probably never be as thickly populated as its Scandinavian counterparts, all observers agree that the Territory could comfortably support a much larger population than that of today. The real wealth of Alaska, and its real future, will lie not in its fish, minerals, animals, soil, or forests, but in its people—Americans who are Alaskans today and those who will become Alaskans tomorrow.

In addition to the problems discussed above, there are a number of others which lie in the political domain to be settled only by public discussion and legislation. Will means of transportation developed in wartime, such as the Alaska Highway, and military equipment—tractors and bulldozers, for example—be put to peacetime use? Or will they be written off as war costs and left to decay? Will the coastwise shipping acts and customs regulations be amended to reduce the barrier between Canada and the United States? What proportion of the cost of maintaining international airways and highways will be borne by the governments concerned? Will immigration to Alaska from Europe be encouraged, and from what countries? What special provision will be made for servicemen wishing to settle in Alaska? What will be land leasing and homesteading policies? Will large military and naval installations be maintained in Alaska? How can Alaska progress toward statehood and economic self-sufficiency without losing safeguards against dangerous depletion of her resources?

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