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Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor

The U.S. Joins the War

Nelson, 1943

The United States of America joined the war in December 1941. As the US Government undertook the defense of the continent, they identified a glaring gap on the northwest flank. Alaska, geographically part of the continent but effectively an American island, was cut off from the lower 48 states. A small military establishment had the formidable task of defending thousands of miles of coast line, including the Aleutian Island chain, whose end was much closer to Tokyo than it was to Seattle, Washington, the closest major American city.  A network of small airfields, the Northwest Staging Route, had been surveyed in the late 1930s and in 1941 began to operate as a delivery route for airplanes and air-borne supplies being dispatched to the USSR under the Lend-Lease Program. Lend-Lease allowed the United States to maintain its stance of official neutrality while providing war material to the Allied forces. Planes and other supplies were ferried across the continent to Fairbanks, Alaska, where Soviet pilots took over and flew the machines on to the Soviet Union (by the end of the war, the United States provided the USSR with close to 15,000 airplanes). Understandably, the government worried about the best means of protecting Alaska from Japanese attack, their concerns exacerbated by the possibility that a successful Japanese invasion of the territory (Alaska became a state in 1959) might well provide the enemy with a base for operations against the rest of North America.

American politicians faced a major dilemma. Canada, preoccupied with the war in Europe, was not overly concerned about the Japanese threat before the Pearl Harbor attack. They had built basic emplacements near Vancouver, Victoria, and a few other locations along the coast, but the military preparations in British Columbia were minimal and in the Yukon Territory non-existent.  The American public was uneasy. The stunning success of the attack on Pearl Harbor and war-time propaganda directed at the Japanese raised the frightening spectre of an assault on the west coast. At a time when the war was proceeding poorly on all fronts, and where a two-pronged Axis attack against North American seemed a possibility, the people of Canada and the United States sought reassurance. President F.D. Roosevelt decided to offer the needed reassurance by constructing a highway to Alaska, ostensibly to supply the American military effort in the area. The project enjoyed less than enthusiastic support among the American armed forces; the US Navy observed that most of Alaska’s population and the key military defenses were along the Pacific coast, far removed from the highway. They petitioned for additional ships to protect the Pacific Northwest. The US Army argued that the funds needed for a highway project would be better spent elsewhere and pointed out that the same highway built to defend the Northwest could, if the Japanese invaded Alaska, be used by them to attack the continental heartland.1

But President Roosevelt held firm. He and his advisors opted to proceed with the highway project, deciding at the same time to develop the oil fields around Norman Wells, Northwest Territories and to build a pipeline hundreds of miles across the sub-Arctic mountains to Whitehorse, where an oil refinery was to be built. These undertakings, combined with the reconstruction of the airfields of the Northwest Staging Route, became known as the Northwest Defense Projects, by far and away the most important of which was the Alaska (or Alcan) Highway. Historians have been puzzled by the decision of the Executive Branch to overrule the military advisors and to proceed with the military construction projects. In the context of the winter of 1941–1942, however, Roosevelt’s plan made considerable sense. After all, North Americans needed some sign that the continent was being defended against a fierce but largely unseen enemy. They needed to know that their government would spare no expense in protecting North America from Axis invasion. What better sign of American resolve than to tackle a huge challenge: building a highway across 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometres) of largely unmapped sub-Arctic wilderness in record time in order to defend against a possible attack. The military’s reservations were ignored; the public response to the announcement of the construction of the Alaska Highway was relief and excitement.

1 The best review of this contentious issue is found in M.V. Bezeau, “The Realities of Strategic Planning: The Decision to Build the Alaska Highway,” in Ken Coates, ed., The Alaska Highway. This issue is also explored in Ken Coates and W.R. Morrison, The Alaska Highway in World War II, Chapter 1. Prelude to the Invasion.

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