Proposals for the United States to purchase Greenland
Since 1867, the United States has considered, and made, several proposals to purchase the island of Greenland from Denmark, as it did with the Danish West Indies in 1917. While Greenland remains an autonomous territory within the Kingdom of Denmark, a 1951 treaty gives the United States much control over an island it once partially claimed.
- 1 Background
- 2 Proposals
- 3 Previous acquisitions of Danish territory by the United States
- 4 American goals of acquisition
- 5 See also
- 6 References
Early history of claims on Greenland
In 1261, the Norse colonies in southern Greenland accepted Norwegian overlordship. While these colonies later died out in 1400s, Norway's territorial claims to the area were not abandoned and continued to be asserted by Denmark-Norway after the union of the Danish and Norwegian realms in 1537. Beginning in 1721, missionaries and traders from Denmark-Norway began recolonizing southern Greenland. In 1775 Denmark-Norway declared Greenland a colony. Along with all other Norwegian dependencies, Greenland was formally transferred from Norway to Denmark by the Treaty of Kiel in 1814, and Denmark began trying to colonize all of the island in the 1880s.
The United States also had a strong claim on Greenland. Much of it was unexplored when the treaty was signed. American Charles Francis Hall was the first to see northwest Greenland, during the Polaris Expedition, and Robert Peary claimed much of the north. When the United States wanted to purchase the Danish West Indies during World War I, Denmark required the country recognize the Danish claim over the whole island. United States Secretary of State Robert Lansing did so in 1917, and American opposition prevented an attempt by the United Kingdom to secure a right of first refusal should Denmark ever decide to sell.
Lansing's declaration was an exception to the Monroe Doctrine opposing expansion of European colonialism in the Western Hemisphere, and influenced other countries. In 1919 Denmark asked other nations to recognize its sovereignty. Canada advised Britain to do so in 1920, while reiterating that Britain should be consulted before any sale; France, Japan, Italy, and Sweden had no reservations. Denmark formally declared sovereignty over all of Greenland in 1921. Norway renewed a claim to Erik the Red's Land in 1931, but two years later the Permanent Court of International Justice ruled against the country, finding that the claim had been transferred to Denmark in 1814.
Peary opposed the United States giving up its claim to Greenland, believing that doing so violated the Monroe Doctrine. He wanted to purchase the island for mineral wealth and to avoid foreign bases that would, as air and sea technology improved, threaten his country. During World War I the United States decided that obtaining the Danish West Indies to defend the Panama Canal was more important, but in the 1920s General Billy Mitchell, advocating for expanding American air forces, wanted American bases on Greenland and Iceland.
By the early 1940s the government agreed about Greenland's importance to the Arctic policy of the United States. Before World War II, the island was part of RAINBOW 4, a contingency plan to deal with a siege of North America in which the United States was simultaneously attacked from every direction by every great power. In RAINBOW 4, American forces would preemptively seize all Dutch, Danish, and French possessions in the western hemisphere – including Greenland – and garrison them to form a defensive perimeter around the United States.
During World War II, the German invasion of Denmark on April 9, 1940 gave that country a strong legal claim on Greenland. Because of its proximity to mainland North America and being the only known significant source of cryolite, and German attempts to use the island during the North Atlantic weather war, the United States for the first time applied the Monroe Doctrine on European colonies in the North Atlantic Ocean. The US landed United States Coast Guard personnel from USCGC Northland, under arms, in Greenland to hold the territory for the United States. Prior to landing, the Coast Guardsmen were formally discharged from service and reconstituted as a force of American "volunteers" to create a legal fiction that would avoid charges of an American invasion of the country, the U.S. being neutral at the time and the Danish government-in-exile not having agreed to the landing. The Danish government later agreed to the official entry of United States forces into Greenland, and the United States Army occupied the island in 1941.
In 1946 the Joint Chiefs of Staff listed Greenland and Iceland as two of the three essential international locations for American bases. During the creation of NATO, the two islands were seen as more important to American and Canadian defense than some Western European countries. As Denmark is unable to defend an ice-covered island 50 times larger than itself, in April 1951 the country and the United States signed a treaty which gave the latter exclusive jurisdiction over a number of defense areas within Greenland. Denmark recognized that without the agreement Greenland would become closer to the United States anyway, whether as a nominally independent country or with a Puerto Rico-like affiliation. The Pentagon told President Dwight Eisenhower that the Danes were "very cooperative in allowing the United States quite a free hand in Greenland". A Danish scholar later wrote that his country's sovereignty over the island during the Cold War was fictional, with the United States holding de facto sovereignty.
In Operation Blue Jay the United States built Thule Air Base in northern Greenland, which it has maintained since; the base is midway between Moscow and New York. Thule once employed more than 1,000 Greenlanders and had almost 10,000 American personnel as one of about 50 American bases on the island, performing duties such as tracking Soviet submarines in the GIUK gap. United States interest in Greenland abruptly declined after the Cold War, however; since 2004 Thule has been its only base, with a few hundred Americans.
Post-Cold War American disinterest in Greenland reportedly disappointed many Greenlanders. China is the largest outside investor; the island exports more to China than the United States, and more delegations have visited China than the United States. Chinese imports of Greenlandic fish were the bulk of their $126 million in trade in the first seven months of 2019.
The island is still important to American and NATO security; Walter Berbrick of the Naval War College said in 2019, "Whoever holds Greenland will hold the Arctic. It's the most important strategic location in the Arctic and perhaps the world". The United States, Russia, and China increased their attention to Greenland and Arctic geopolitics in the early 21st century. In 2017, the Danish government declined a proposal from a Chinese mining company to purchase an abandoned naval base on Greenland over concerns the arrangement would hurt relations with the United States. When Greenland's prime minister flew to Beijing to ask for financial assistance to build two airports, the United States persuaded Denmark to instead provide kr. 1.6 billion. In 2018 China announced its Polar Silk Road strategy, associated with the Belt and Road Initiative. That year the Americans reestablished the United States Second Fleet, responsible for the North Atlantic; Berbrick proposed basing the fleet in Greenland, and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy John Rood signed an agreement to invest in dual-use infrastructure. Henrik Breitenbauch of the University of Copenhagen said that the agreement, which Greenland welcomed, was part of increasing American emphasis on defending North America.
The island is an autonomous territory within the Kingdom of Denmark. As of 2009[update] Greenlandic independence is possible at any time based on Danish law; with Greenland Home Rule, elected leaders decide most internal affairs. Denmark controls foreign affairs and guards sea borders, while the United States controls external defense; under the 1951 agreement it pays no rent for bases, and has almost complete authority within "defense areas" Denmark and the United States agree to within NATO. American forces and civilians have free access to and between defense areas, and can freely fly over the island; Denmark has little ability to act in Greenland where United States national security is involved. The American presence benefits Danish civil authority over the island, however, and allows the country to spend less on NATO while avoiding having foreign troops on Danish soil. Greenlandic governments have stated their intention to join NATO as an independent country.
As of 2019[update] Denmark subsidizes Greenland with kr. 4.3 billion annually, up from kr. 3.6 billion in 2009. About two thirds of Greenlanders support independence, but most do not believe that it is viable without the Danish subsidy. The island, three times the size of Texas, has vast natural resources, including uranium, rare-earth minerals, and estimated 50 billion barrels of offshore oil and gas. Greenland has only one operating mine and little infrastructure, however; it has one commercial international airport, and no roads connect the 17 towns. Although Denmark has relinquished control over raw materials to the island, a 2014 report stated that replacing the subsidy would require 24 large projects each costing kr. 5 billion, one opening every two years. As no investors existed for such projects, the report by 13 scholars said that Greenland would remain dependent on the Danish subsidy for at least 25 years to maintain its welfare system.
Denmark was reluctant to pay for the airports because it sees the island seeking investment as preparing for independence. Although Greenland gives it a role in the Arctic—Denmark is a member of the Arctic Council, and as one of the five littoral states, a signatory to the Ilulissat Declaration—fewer government officials have Greenlandic knowledge, and Danish companies and investors have little presence, although one fifth of Greenlanders live in Denmark. Icelandic scholar Gudmundur Alfredsson, one of the authors of the 2014 report, said that it overemphasized Greenland's membership in the Danish kingdom. He said that the island should consider Denmark one of several competitors, and that the United States or Canada might provide more funding.
In 1867, United States Secretary of State William H. Seward who had, that year, negotiated the Alaska Purchase from the Russian Empire, considered the idea of United States annexation of both Greenland and Iceland an idea "worthy of serious consideration". Seward commissioned a report (A Report on the Resources of Iceland and Greenland, Peirce 1868), but made no offer.
A proposal for acquisition of Greenland was circulated within the United States Government in 1910 by United States Ambassador to Denmark Maurice Francis Egan. As suggested by Danish friends of Egan, the United States would trade Mindanao for Greenland and the Danish West Indies; Denmark could, in turn, trade Mindanao to Germany for Northern Schleswig. Denmark regained Northern Schleswig from Germany after the German defeat in World War I following the 1920 Schleswig plebiscites.
In 1946, the United States offered Denmark $100 million in gold bullion for Greenland. The planning and strategy committee of the Joint Chiefs of Staff determined that acquiring the island was vital to the United States; while "practically worthless to Denmark", it would allow staging areas from which to launch military operations over the Arctic Circle against America's adversaries. Secretary of State James F. Byrnes made the offer on December 14, 1946, in a memorandum delivered to Danish foreign minister Gustav Rasmussen when he visited Washington.
The memorandum described the American position on what to do about an informal agreement made in 1941 by Danish Ambassador to the United States Henrik Kauffmann to station United States forces on Greenland. It suggested three alternatives: Two variations on the 1941 agreement—A 99-year lease on the existing American bases there, or the United States wholly taking over the defense of the island—or the purchase of Greenland. The United States preferred to purchase and believed that doing so was best for Denmark, as it would prevent criticism of American bases on Danish soil and save Denmark the cost of supporting Greenland.
The memorandum surprised Rasmussen. Rumors at the time stated that the United States wanted to purchase Greenland, but the Danish government's position was that the US would withdraw its troops, based upon language in the 1941 Kauffmann agreement that it remained in force "until agreement has been reached that current threats to the peace and security of the American continent have ended". The Danish government understood that the threats were the world war; it did not know that the U.S. understood this to include postwar threats from the Soviet Union as well.
Rasmussen declined all three options, and returned to Denmark. He told United States Ambassador Josiah Marvel, "[w]hile we owe much to America I do not feel that we owe them the whole island of Greenland". Reporting on the military's interest in purchasing it, Time in January 1947 stated that Lansing had erred in relinquishing the American claim to "the world's largest island and stationary aircraft carrier". The magazine predicted that Greenland "would be as valuable as Alaska during the next few years" for defense. Time observed that despite national pride "Denmark owes U.S. investors $70 million" while the country had a shortage of dollars, and rumors in Copenhagen stated that the price for the island would be $1 billion, or almost four times Denmark's aid from the Marshall Plan.
There have been rumours in the newspapers about America wishing to acquire Greenland. King Dollar is, so to speak, about to become a major factor in all areas. I am not aware of any approach concerning the purchase of Greenland, but assume that it is a given that we will not embark on anything in that respect. Should the Greenlanders desire another relationship or secession, that would be another matter, but in this respect there can be no question of any form of financial transaction.
Rasmussen responded in the debate that the idea was absurd, and declared Denmark unwilling in any way to cede sovereignty over Greenland. The West Indies were only an investment to Danes, but from the Danish Golden Age of the 19th century they saw Danish overseas colonies in the North Atlantic, including Greenland, as part of their Viking history and national identity. The island was for Denmark similar to the British Raj for the United Kingdom, and Danes felt a paternalistic, "White Man's Burden"-like responsibility for its people. While Greenland did not contribute to the Danish economy, Denmark planned to expand trade and resource extraction there..
Rasmussen did not expect the American offer because of duplicity by Kauffmann, who with a friend at the United States Department of State advocated for an American presence in Greenland while not fully informing the Danish government. Kauffmann had minimized in his reports the importance of proposals of a takeover or purchase in the U.S. House of Representatives, saying that the idea was considered ridiculous by the U.S. government, when in fact it was not. He had also not conveyed important parts of a 1945 American proposal to keep its bases on the island after the war. Rasmussen visited Washington in 1946 expecting to annul the 1941 agreement, not understanding because of Kauffmann's duplicity why nothing had happened with the Danish government's previous overtures in that regard.
By offering to purchase Greenland, the United States told Denmark that it was not likely to ever leave. Denmark would not fully understand for another decade the island's strategic importance to the United States. The Danish government's own outlook on national security was more parochial, and did not extend to viewing Greenland as a part of that. In the meantime, the legal status of the 1941 arrangement was unsettled, with the United States still pressing for purchase and Denmark rejecting the offer, leaving matters at the status quo ante until the 1960s.
After the change of government in Denmark in November 1947, the new government of Hans Hedtoft continued and expanded Kauffmann's strategy of duplicity. To the Danish public, it maintained that the United States would withdraw from Greenland as expected. To the United States it stated that its own private position was that the American presence would remain. Its own private position was to persuade the United States to withdraw. Kaufmann likewise continued with his own personal agenda. However, the Danish government was not duplicitous on one point: That it was not going to outright cede Greenland to a foreign power.
Marvel told Rasmussen that he should not do anything that would lead to the disclosure of anything that had transpired in Rasmussen's meeting with Byrnes. The Danish government kept the American interest secret from the public, as part of its own strategy, The 1947 offer was classified until the 1970s when documents related to it were discovered by Jyllands-Posten.
By spring 1948 Denmark gave up on persuading the Americans to leave. Part of why the country joined NATO, Trade Minister Jens Otto Krag wrote in his diary, was that since "the USA's de facto partial occupation of Greenland (which we do not possess the power to prevent)" would cause the Soviet Union to see his country as an American ally, Denmark should benefit from the relationship. A scholar wrote in 1950 that, despite official denials of the rumors of an American purchase, because of Greenland's large expense to Denmark and strategic importance, "the potential sale of the island to the United States remains a distinct possibility". Some Danes hoped that as a NATO member the United States would discuss Greenlandic issues multilaterally, or vacate the bases as Denmark was an ally, but such did not occur. The April 1951 agreement between Denmark and the United States—which finally ended the 1941 agreement—stated, however, that it would remain in force as long as the NATO treaty did.
American president Donald Trump discussed the idea of purchasing Greenland with senior advisers. Administration staff members reportedly discussed expanding the American partnership with the island, including a possible purchase; one official stated that the United States can subsidize Greenland for much more than Denmark can.
When the Wall Street Journal reported on Trump's discussions in August 2019, Premier of Greenland Kim Kielsen, Greenland's Minister of Foreign Affairs Ane Lone Bagger, the Greenlandic representatives in the Parliament of Denmark, Prime Minister of Denmark Mette Frederiksen, previous Prime Minister of Denmark and de facto leader of the opposition coalition Lars Løkke Rasmussen, and members of other parties, from the far-left Red–Green Alliance to the far-right Danish People's Party all rejected a sale. Statements ranged from simple diplomatic comments that "Greenland is not for sale" to strong refusals calling the idea of a sale of Greenland and its people "completely ridiculous". Some politicians suggested that Trump's proposal to buy Greenland had to be a joke. Frederiksen said "Greenland is not for sale. Greenland is not Danish. Greenland is Greenlandic".
On 20 August 2019 Trump canceled a planned state visit of the United States to Denmark over Frederiksen's remarks rejecting the possibility of a sale. The cancellation came shortly after Carla Sands, the American ambassador, had tweeted that "Denmark is ready for the POTUS @realDonaldTrump visit! Partner, ally, friend" and reportedly surprised the Danish government; according to the New York Times, Denmark was bewildered by the news. The Danish government quickly communicated to the United States its support of American policy, including in the Arctic; the following day, Frederiksen invited "stronger cooperation" with the United States on Arctic affairs. Later that day, American secretary of state Mike Pompeo phoned the Danish foreign minister Jeppe Kofod, praising the Danish–American cooperation in the Arctic region, including Greenland, and the alliance between the two countries. Both also confirmed their intentions of strengthening the cooperation in the region.
A diplomat in Beijing said that Trump was likely thinking of China when he offered to purchase Greenland. The president's interest showed that "the United States does not intend to leave ... which Greenland can do nothing about. Neither can Denmark" since 1941, Bo Lidegaard said. "That's just how it is in a world where ultimately the strongest are the ones to decide", with China and Russia worse alternatives, he added. Andreas Bøje Forsby of the University of Copenhagen said that Trump's interest was "a very clear signal to both China and Denmark that Greenland is part of an exclusive American strategic zone". Admiral Nils Wang, former head of the Royal Danish Navy, said "Trump's approach may be wacky but it does send a serious message to Russia and China — don't mess with us on Greenland. This is a complete game-changer". The United States consulate in Greenland, closed in 1953, will reopen in 2020, increasing American influence on islanders.
Because Greenland can declare independence, it can affiliate with the United States. "The only way Trump would be able to buy Greenland would be to give them an offer they couldn’t turn down", Ulrik Pram Gad of Aalborg University said. Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen of the Royal Danish Defence College predicted difficult negotiations for Denmark. He expected the island to seek diplomatic and financial benefits from Denmark and the United States, and Greenland and the United States possibly trying to negotiate bilaterally without Denmark. Islanders could use the possibility of American affiliation when negotiating with Denmark, said Thorsten Borring Olesen of Aarhus University. Poul Krarup, editor-in-chief of Sermitsiaq, said that the American interest started a new domestic debate that might result in the island becoming more autonomous or independent from Denmark. He said that Greenlanders do not want to sell to the United States but want to cooperate as an equal partner, suggesting that Trump visit the island instead of Denmark to negotiate. While a majority of Greenlanders prefer Denmark to the United States, most prefer the latter to China. Another Greenlander hoped that Trump's interest would cause Denmark to "wake up and show Greenland some respect. A lot of Danes think everyone here is just a drunk Inuit. But now that America wants to buy us, maybe they can see there is much of value here". A third said that "for hundreds of years [Danes] earned many, many billions of kroner from Greenland" while neglecting Greenlanders, and hoped that the American attention would give them more power when negotiating with Denmark.
Krarup said that Greenlanders Trump offended with his offer were also angry at Denmark for discussing Greenland without them. While Trump needed to "change [his] attitude", Krarup hoped that the president's interest would change the island's political situation. Among Greenlandic politicians, Folketing MP Aaja Chemnitz Larsen said that the Danish government was already treating her island differently because of Trump. Frederiksen's "Greenland is not Danish. Greenland is Greenlandic" statement was, Gad said, the first time a Danish prime minister said that the island had some control over foreign or security issues. Pele Broberg of Partii Naleraq stated that with the American interest "we now have a real alternative to" the Danish subsidy and disinterest in Greenlandic independence. While rejecting a purchase, he proposed that the island begin the process in Danish law of becoming independent, and negotiate directly with the United States for American military and financial support. Steen Lynge of the Democrats agreed, stating that Greenland should use Trump's offer to become independent of the Danish subsidy. Tillie Martinussen of the Cooperation Party disagreed with replacing the Danish subsidy with another country's, and warned of risks to the island's education and health care with an United States affiliation. Describing Broberg's proposal as inappropriate, Siumut stated that Greenland needed to become independent without any subsidy, and that the island should cooperate more with Denmark and the United States. The Atassut Party said that remaining within the Danish Kingdom was preferable, with the subsidy, other Danish assistance, and Folketing representation among benefits Greenland would lose with an American affiliation. Søren Espersen of the Danish People's Party called Broberg naive for wanting to leave the kingdom, stating that "the United States will swallow Greenland in a single mouthful" after independence and would not replace the Danish subsidy. Former foreign minister Martin Lidegaard of the Danish Social Liberal Party also advised against Greenland negotiating for an American subsidy, as "the United States is not a type of nation that gives something for free". Aqqaluk Lynge—former head of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference—opposed affiliating with the United States, describing the offer as an attack on Danish sovereignty and Greenlandic independence.
Greenlanders hoped that the publicity from Trump's interest would increase outside tourism and investment. Krarup said that the president had "done us a service; he has made Greenland known throughout the world. The best advertisement we could get". The island needs American investment and subsidy for airports, roads, and United States air routes, Krarup said, which would also make Greenland more independent from Denmark. After the president joked that he would not build a Trump Tower there, Nordic travel agencies saw significantly more interest in tourism in Greenland; Krarup said that Greenlanders enjoyed the joke and interpreted it as Trump saying that he does not want to destroy Greenlandic culture, many responding on social media with "Make Greenland Great Again". Greenland's tourism bureau listed Trump's offer and previous American interest in the island on its Website.
Martin Lidegaard, Weekendavisen, Breitenbauch, and Hans Mouritzen of the Danish Institute for International Studies were among those who said that Trump forced Denmark to not ignore Greenland as usual, and imagine the two apart. Kielsen and Frederiksen likely will support additional American bases; Breitenbauch said that because the United States is his country's most important security partner, he described as a nightmare for Denmark the possibility of Trump demanding it choose between fulfilling the Wales Summit Declaration of defense spending as 2% of GDP, or keeping Greenland. Whether the island is independent or affiliated with Denmark or America, Breitenbauch said, the United States would continue military supremacy and to restrict foreign investments that affect national security.
In 1939 United States Secretary of State Cordell Hull's staff advised him to not offer to buy Greenland. United States Secretary of War Harry Woodring said that the island was too far from American sea or air routes.
During the 1970s Vice President of the United States Nelson Rockefeller suggested buying Greenland for mining. The proposal was first publicly reported in 1982 by Rockefeller's speechwriter Joseph E. Persico in his book The Imperial Rockefeller.
Previous acquisitions of Danish territory by the United States
American goals of acquisition
An acquisition of Greenland by the United States would make the U.S. the second-largest nation in the world by land area, after the Russian Federation. It would be the single-largest territorial acquisition in American history, slightly larger than the Louisiana Purchase.
Purchase price estimates of Greenland
In 2019, the Washington Post estimated the purchase price of Greenland would fall between $200 million and $1.7 trillion, with a middle estimate of $42.6 billion. The lower figure was based on an inflation and size-adjusted valuation of what the United States paid for Alaska, and the higher figure based on a price-to-earnings ratio of 847, which the newspaper said might be justified based on future valuations of its mineral deposits combined with the possibility that it might become a residential destination due to the effects of climate change. FT Alphaville estimated a $1.1 trillion price for the territory. Its sum-of-the-parts analysis valued potential oil fields at $300 to 400 billion, rare-earth minerals at $500 to 700 billion, and real estate at $200 to $220 billion. The newspaper wrote that the US has "a history of accretive land acquisitions", with a 7.1% internal rate of return for the Louisiana Purchase, 7.4% for Manhattan, and 9.0% for Alaska. 24/7 Wall Street estimated a purchase price for Greenland of $533 billion, using Wyoming as a comparable. "If the United States wants it for the strategic value of its property, both on land and offshore, and to project military power, the answer is that a value of $500 billion is not overly rich", 24/7 Wall Street concluded.
- Hans Island – a Greenland island subject of an ongoing territorial dispute between Canada and Denmark
- Territorial expansion of the United States
- 51st state#Greenland
- List of territory purchased by a sovereign nation from another sovereign nation
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