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Reading 2: The Cold War in Alaska
During the Cold War, Alaska was called the "Guardian of the North" and "Top Cover for America” because it was the first line of defense. The U.S. military realized Alaska’s strategic value during the era’s early years. The shortest and most likely route of attack from the Soviet Union was through Alaska. The Soviets could fly their fleet of bombers into the United States, using a route over the North Pole to drop nuclear weapons. The U.S. built a chain of radar stations in Alaska because of this danger. The radar could warn the United States about an incoming attack from the Soviet Union.
The military invested in Alaska’s defensive position. One defensive plan it installed in Alaska was the permanent radar system called the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line. The system cost hundreds of millions of dollars. It was built across Alaska and would be able to warn the United States of an attack. Other radar systems were built, too. These other systems included the White Alice Communications System and the Ballistic Missile Early Warning sites. They were built in the 1950s, when Alaska was still a territory. If any of these radar systems spotted an incoming attack that alerted Project Nike to fire the missiles that could bring down enemy airplanes. By the 1960s, the radar systems and Project Nike formed an important part of North America’s defense system.
The Nike-Hercules system was part of Project Nike. In 1955, the military decided to add the Nike-Hercules system to Alaska. Bases were built near Anchorage and Fairbanks to protect the cities as well as the Army and Air Force bases near these cities. Missile facilities were built in Alaska between 1957 and 1959, three of them near Anchorage, and five near Fairbanks. Site Summit in Anchorage protected Fort Richardson Army Base, Elmendorf Air Force Base, and the City of Anchorage. Fort Richardson and Elmendorf are now called Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. The other Nike bases near Anchorage were Site Bay, located across Knik Arm near Goose Bay, and Site Point, located near Point Woronzof.
Alaska was important to the United States during the Cold War and the Cold War was also very important to Alaska. The Cold War is the reason why many roads, railroads, and communities in Alaska exist today. The infrastructure that the military built in Alaska encouraged Americans from the Lower 48 to move to Alaskan cities. Private citizens and private industries invested more money in Alaska’s economy.
The military’s experience in Alaska helped private companies drill for oil, build on permafrost, and build big pipelines in Alaska. The leaders of the United States did not want the nation to rely on other countries for energy. Companies began to look for oil on Alaska’s North Slope. The lessons that the military learned about how to work and build in dangerous, cold climates helped oil companies drill for and extract the oil they found. What the military knew also helped companies build on permafrost, which is hard ground that stays frozen year-round and is difficult to build on. Companies had to know how to build on permafrost to build the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. The 800-mile-long pipeline carries oil from the North Slope to Valdez. Super tankers carry the oil from Valdez to refineries where it is made into different oil-based products, including gasoline. It is one of the world’s longest oil pipelines.
New roads, utilities, towns, and military bases also brought new people to Alaska. The government expanded its army forts and naval air stations. The world's longest airplane runway was built at Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks in 1946. Alaska’s population tripled between 1945 and 1970. It grew from 79,000 people to 220,000. The population also became more diverse. Military personnel and their families moved to Alaska from all over the United States. More than half of the population in some of Alaska’s remote communities worked for the military.
Alaska’s growth led to the territory becoming a state in 1959. Some long-time residents, businesspeople, members of Congress, and even President Eisenhower did not want Alaska to become a state. Political economist George W. Rogers wrote in 1962, "without the influx of new population and prosperity brought in by Military Alaska, it is doubtful that Alaska would today be a state."
All of these people brought a lot of money to Alaska. The military projects hired many local people as construction workers. The projects also brought soldiers to Alaska. All of these people spent money in Alaska’s shops and businesses. Businesses made more money. Oil companies and oil workers brought more money to Alaska in 1977. The Prudhoe Bay oil fields opened that year and the oil industry outdid the military in overall contributions to Alaska's economy and development. Military money continued flowing into the new state and the military presence remained important to Alaska’s economy into the 21st century.
Questions for Reading 2
1) What role did Alaska play in the United States' Cold War defense?
2) How did the Cold War change Alaska?
3) Why did people move to Alaska during the Cold War? Apart from being in the military, what other kinds of jobs do you think the newcomers worked? Why?
4) Do you think the defensive roles of Alaska have changed since the Cold War ended? Why or why not? What role in the United States' security do you think Alaska might play today?
Reading 2 was adapted from Siedler, W. J. (1996) February. The Coldest Front: Cold War Military Properties in Alaska. Draft. Office of History and Archaeology, Alaska Department of Natural Resources and United States Department of Defense Legacy Resource Management Program.