Accessible Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter July 10, 2013

Between Facts and Fiction: Greenland and the Question of Sovereignty 1945–1954

Thorsten Borring Olesen
From the journal New Global Studies


This article presents and discusses how the issue of sovereignty in and over Greenland was handled in the triangular relationship between the United States, the Danish government and the Greenlandic population during the early phase of the Cold War between 1945 and 1954. It highlights the complexity, ambiguity and asymmetry in the status and role of Greenland in a period which saw great transformation. Thus, this was a period when the USA attempted to buy Greenland, but had to contend itself with a new defense agreement in 1951 to replace the agreement negotiated 10 years earlier during World War II. Still the new defense agreement seriously challenged Danish sovereignty over the island. It was also a period in which the relationship between Greenland and Denmark was reconfigured, at the time called a “modernization,” to counterbalance both awakening Greenlandic national sentiments and the anti-colonial agenda and limitations put in place by the newly formed United Nations. The article argues that these transformations must be linked to the fact that two grand historical trends or structural changes within global history intersected and converged on Greenland, namely the Cold War clash between East and West and the global move towards decolonization.


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  1. 1
  2. 2

    “Greenland’s Raw Materials Potential and EU’s Strategic Needs.” Europa Press Releases Rapid, 13 June 2012. Available at

  3. 3

    This perspective is strongly highlighted by the recent yearly risk assessment report by the Danish Defence Intelligence Service, see Efterretningsmæssig risikovurdering 2012. Copenhagen: Forsvarets Efterretningstjeneste, 2012. Available at See also Petersen (2009).

  4. 4

    Cited in Viemose (1977, 73).

  5. 5

    For a detailed analysis of the sovereignty issue in the Danish–Greenlandic relationship in the period 1945–1954, see DIIS (2007). An English version of the report has been published as Beukel, Jensen, and Rytter (2010).

  6. 6

    The main accounts of the meetings between Byrnes and Gustav Rasmussen are found in “Referat af møde mellem udenrigsministeren, forsvarsministeren og de militære chefer” (Minutes of meeting between the Foreign Minister, the Defence Minister and the Chiefs of Staff), 2 January 1947, Archives of the Danish Foreign Ministry (UM) 8.U 66–67 in Rigsarkivet (RA). During this meeting, Rasmussen presented a detailed account of his conversation with Byrnes. For US accounts based on Byrnes’ impressions of the meeting, see “Telegram from Sec. of State to Embassy in Copenhagen, no. 924,” 24 December 1946, in RG 84 (postfiles), Top Secret Gen. Records (1947–1954, 1956), box 1, folder Telegrams 1947, file 824.5.Greenland, US National Archives and Record Administration (NARA). See also memo by H. Freeman Matthews to Mr. Secretary, including oral statement by Byrnes to Rasmussen 14 December 1946, in RG 59 840.20/1–17.47 (NARA). See also DUPI (1997a, 72ff).

  7. 7

    On the US strategic interest in Greenland, see Fogelson (1989); DUPI (1997a, 53–72).

  8. 8

    The background information for the following arguments related to the Danish non-sale of Greenland is found in Olesen and Villaume (2006).

  9. 9

    The one billion dollar figure is mentioned in a memo of an “off-the-record”conversation in the State Department between Kauffmann and Hickerson, Cumming and Cunningham, 6 June 1947, RG59 859B20/6–9.47 (NARA). Kauffmann continued as Danish ambassador to the US after the end of the war.

  10. 10

    On the economic aspects related to the ambition to modernize Greenland, see Sørensen (2006, 80–95) and DIIS (2007, 97–128).

  11. 11

    Cited in Sørensen (2006, 96). The ambivalence of paternalism versus modernism in Hedtoft’s views on Greenland is stressed in DIIS (2007, 107ff).

  12. 12

    One may of course speculate that in the event of a sale of Greenland to the US, Denmark would hardly have qualified for the Marshall Aid negotiated shortly after.

  13. 13

    Cited in Viemose (1977, 173).

  14. 14

    The Greenland issue in the UN is treated in great length in DIIS (2007, 129–293). See also Petersen (1975). On the judicial aspects of this issue, see Rytter (2008).

  15. 15

    Cited in Sørensen (2006, 109). Although the political agenda is somewhat different, today the former Chairman (until 2013) of the Greenlandic Self Rule, Kuupik Kleist, often presents the character of the historical links between Greenland and Denmark in discursive terms resembling those of Lynge, see Rosing and Kleist (2012).

  16. 16

    The 1951 Defence Agreement and its impact on the Danish–American relationship are treated in detail in DUPI (1997a, 127–70, 535–73).

  17. 17

    Quoted from “Agreement concerning the defense of Greenland,” reproduced in DUPI (1997b, 144–53). Quoted from pages 145–6.

  18. 18
  19. 19

    There was one major exception to this rule, namely when an American nuclear equipped B52 crashed off Thule Air Base in 1968. After a severe diplomatic crisis, the accident resulted in a supplementary agreement to the 1951 Defence Agreement banning nuclear weapons from Greenlandic territory in peace time. For more on this, see Olesen (2011).

  20. 20

    At the time of writing we witness what could be called a preview of this ordeal. To the concerns of many, the Greenlandic government is negotiating with a mining consortium backed by the Chinese Development Bank to open a huge iron ore mining facility. An extended Chinese involvement in Greenland will probably – sooner or later – clash with the Monroe Doctrine, see e.g., Fastrup and Jensen (2012); Jarlner (2012). See also Petersen (2009).

Published Online: 2013-07-10

©2013 by Walter de Gruyter Berlin / Boston