(H)our History Lesson: Alaskan Statehood and the Cold War

Site Summit, looking east at missile launch area under construction Photo from National Register collection, originally U.S. Army photo
Site Summit, looking east at missile launch area under construction Photo from National Register collection, originally U.S. Army photo.


Cold War History is often focused on military stand offs in foreign countries. In this lesson, students explore one of the impacts of the Cold War on the people of the United States and the conversation about who is an American by examining the historical debate about whether to grant Alaska statehood.

This lesson was adapted from the Teaching with Historic Places lesson plan “Alaska’s Site Summit: Cold War Defense and its Legacy in the North.” For more resources, view the full lesson plan.

Grade Level Adapted for:

This lesson is intended for middle school learners but can easily be adapted for use by learners of all ages. Activity 3 is intended for 10th grade learners and above.

Lesson Objectives

  1. To explain the significance of the Cold War in Alaska’s relationship with the rest of the United States

  1. To identify contemporary arguments for and against Alaska’s statehood

  1. To evaluate how military concerns and national defense impact who belongs as part of the United States of America.

Inquiry Question

How do we determine what people and places belong as part of the United States? Is it enough to feel American, even if you are not entitled to all the rights of citizens?

Locating the Site

Map 1: Nike-Hercules Missile Sites in Alaska.

Nike Sites in Alaska.

(Image courtesy U.S. Army)

Nike sites were anti-aircraft missile bases that protected the United States during the Cold War with Russia. Nike bases were built in rings around areas that needed protection, like military bases and big cities.

Questions for Map 1

1) Find Alaska on a world map. What countries is it close to? What strategic role would Alaska play in a war between the United States and Russia?

2) Why do you think the Alaskan Nike sites were built in Fairbanks and Anchorage?

3) How might new military bases near a city affect the community? What may have changed for Anchorage and Fairbanks to have the bases so close?

4) What effects do you think the Cold War may have had on Alaska and Alaskans?

Background Reading

During the Cold War, Americans called Alaska 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 1957 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 could warn the United States of an attack. The U.S. built other radar systems in the 1950s, when Alaska was still a territory. If any of these radar systems spotted an incoming attack, they alerted the Project Nike missile system to fire on enemy airplanes. By the 1960s, the radar systems and Project Nike formed an important part of the United States' defense system.

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 were built. 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. Lessons the military learned about how to work and build in dangerous, cold climates helped oil companies drill for and extract oil. Military experience also helped companies build on permafrost, which is hard ground that stays frozen year-round. Companies had to know how to build on permafrost to build the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System.

New roads, utilities, towns, and military bases also brought new people to Alaska. The government expanded its army forts and naval air stations. 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 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 Background Reading
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) According to the background reading, what is the relationship between the Cold War and Alaska statehood?

Background reading 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.


Activity 1:
In small groups, ask students to read the 4 sources on Alaska statehood. They may want to divide up the documents. Have them look for and share reasons for and against statehood for Alaska. They may take notes in a chart like the one below:

Arguments for Statehood Arguments Against Statehood

Document A:
Letter, response from the President to Sen. Henry Jackson, March 31, 1955  [DDE's Records as President, Official File, Box 630, OF-147-D-1 Alaskan Statehood (2); NAID #12010352]

Dear Senator Jackson,

...The admission of the Territory of Alaska to statehood, the principle of which I have in the past publicly supported, has a number of troublesome aspects. Among these is the problem to which your letter principally refers—that of providing adequately for our national defense needs.

You are aware, of course, of the tremendous strategic importance of this region to our nation’s defense. Our military programs and plans oriented in this region and to the threat facing us there are premised upon full freedom of Federal action both for defense and for peacetime policing action.

Conversion of the Territory to a state cannot but raise difficult questions respecting the relationship of the military to the newly constituted state authority. Neither the nation nor Alaska could afford any impairment of the freedom of movement of action by our forces in the large areas of this critical region. In the present state of world affairs, I believe that it would be imprudent to effect so fundamental a readjustment unless a formula can be devised and approved by Congress which will adequately meet these defense needs.

--President Dwight Eisenhower

Document B:
Frank W. Vaille. “Alaska Statehood Seen Risky with U.S.-Red Tension” The Nome Nugget May 19, 1954 pg. 3

Washington – Speaker of the House Martin (R-Mass) said Tuesday he now considers statehood legislation to be up in the air at this session of Congress. ...He said he is not opposed to the idea of granting statehood to Alaska when he feels the territory is ready.

“I have nothing but the best of good will for Alaska,” he declared. “I think it is the right that they should seek statehood.”

“I don’t believe, however, that Alaska is developed enough, that it has enough people or wealth enough for statehood at this time.” Martin suggested also that “it might be hazardous to give statehood to Alaska with the present tenseness between Russia and the United States.” Noting that Alaska lies “right in the path” of potential aggression, he said he felt the United States could move into Alaska more quickly “if it didn’t have to deal with state authorities.”…

Martin also said he feels too many of Alaska’s voters are employed by the federal government. He said it wouldn’t be a good thing to have two senators and a representative “looking hungrily toward a bureaucracy” on which much of Alaska’s development would depend.

Document C:
“Introduction of the ‘Alaska-Tennessee Plan’ Senators to the United States Senate. January 14, 1957 (Congressional Record- Volume 103, 1957 pgs 466-469)

Senator Richard Neuberger (OR-D): Today the United States is doing a great deal of preaching about democracy to the people overseas. Some of our preachment has been directed to the British Empire, urging that it grant dominion status or self-government to some of its possessions.

On several occasions I have been in the vast Yukon Territory. On one of those occasions, Mrs. Neuberger and I were in the company of a famous officer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He mentioned to us the fact that we Americans talk a great deal of democracy. ...Then he called attention to the fact that just across the line, in Alaska, 200,000 Americans did not have any actual voting representation at all in the Capital at Washington, D. C. Then he said, "What do you Americans have to say about that?"
Of course, we had very little to say about it, because the facts were accurately stated.

Senator Wayne Morse (OR- I): ... As a Representative of a great State on the Pacific coast ... I believe we should also be concerned about Pacific problems. I happen to believe that probably nothing we could do would contribute more to strengthen American Interests in the Pacific than would statehood for both Alaska and Hawaii.

Mr. President, I also wish to point out, as was stated earlier today, that the admission of Alaska and Hawaii would be a very good answer to some of the vicious propaganda we hear from the Communist segment of the world with regard to our allegedly not living up to our professions about first-class citizenship. I believe that the admission of Alaska and Hawaii to statehood would answer that kind of vicious propaganda which Russia so improperly spreads in those areas of the world where the fight for freedom must still be won.

Document D:
William Egan et al “Petition to the President and the Congress of the United States” University of Alaska, December 9, 1957

By referendum, by repeated memorials adopted unanimously by our Territorial legislature, and by acclamation, Alaskans have declared their desire for statehood at the earliest possible moment and for the enjoyment of the right of freemen to govern themselves.

Alaskans have demonstrated throughout their long period of tutelage in Territorial status their adherence to the principles upon which the Government of the United States was founded. Our population, resources, wealth, and will are sufficient to support and merit statehood. We have demonstrated our ability to govern ourselves by excellent administration of limited powers that have been given to us, and by writing a State constitution which has been unanimously praised as a model document by all authorities who have studied it.

As Alaskans, we point out that citizens of our Territory carry the full Federal tax burden without enjoying voting representation in Congress. Therefore, we are inflicted with taxation without representation, which our forefathers found so distasteful....

We point out that our citizens have proven themselves to be loyal Americans by reason of their unswerving devotion to the United States, their willingness to meet all Federal tax obligations and their eagerness to offer their blood in America's wars. Citizens of Alaska are, in the main, United States born people who have migrated north to help conquer a frontier, and by so doing have lost the precious rights of American citizenship.

We submit that it is against the principles of democracy and the spirit of our Federal Constitution for the United States to maintain a people in a permanent colonial status.

  • WILLIAM A. EGAN, President, Alaska Constitutional Convention.


After students have read the documents, thinking about the arguments for and against statehood, ask them to think about the role the Cold War and Alaska’s geographic location played in whether or not it should be made a state.

Four corners: Have student go to a corner of the room representing their point of view. Once they’ve picked a corner, have students discuss their position (in groups or as a class).

  1. Alaska should be a state because of Cold War considerations

  1. Alaska should be a state despite Cold War considerations

  1. Alaska should not be a state because of Cold War considerations

  1. Alaska should not be a state despite Cold War considerations

Activity 2:

Alaskan Natives are a large and diverse part of Alaska’s population. You may invite students to re-read the Background Reading. What role do Native Alaskans play in the reading? Why do students think that is?

Now read (or listen to) Native Alaskans reflecting on the debate about statehood for Alaskan Public radio fifty years later.

Source: “AK: Native Perspectives.” APRN Public Radio. November 1, 2008. Audio Link:

[Unknown interviewee]: The original Alaska constitution was really good because it said leave native lands to native people for further decision by Congress. I thought that was good. Obviously the ANSCA [ Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act] screwed that up.(ANSCA ended Native land claims in Alaska and divided the state into 12 districts, each led by a for-profit Native corporation.)

Liz Cheney Medicine Crow (Tlingit, First Alaskans Institute): You know when you go and stop by someone’s house, and it’s as if you’re interrupting them. You knock on the door and they open it and they kinda give you this look and they’re like “oh hey what’s going on?” And [you say] “oh I’m just coming to say hi, to see what’s going on” [They respond] “oh, uh, come on in, come on in.” And you get the feeling that you interrupted something you shouldn’t have. You have that coldness somehow come over you. So you make your polite goodbyes and you get out of there as soon as you can. I think that’s the feeling some Alaska natives might have when they go to the capital building in Juno and or when they try to connect with in the state as a government. When you feel unwelcome, how often do you go back?

My sense is and from listening to the people in my community and my elders, there was a disconnect, a disenfranchisement of Alaska natives in direct connection to Alaska statehood and how it came about. And I think that to some degree today we are not visible to the state of Alaska. Our tribes do not have any official recognition. The state has gone back and forth depending on who the executive is and we still have a relationship that is not quite functional.

Don Mitchell (Historian, former general council Alaska Federation of Natives): Certainly, what is in the Alaska Statehood Act ... is ambiguous in terms of preserving Native land rights. They still to this day do not have a firm position as to whether or not that ambiguity was cupidity [greed] or stupidity. It is ironic that the guy who argued about... Native land claims in Alaska statehood is Ernest Gruening, whose solution to all that is to get rid of Native land claims and be done with it. Zero. Goose egg. He was probably the leading proponent of that privately. And he got that put into a number of the early statehood bills on the sly. But I’m satisfied that Bob Bartlett thought that was unfair to screw the natives. If Bob Bartlett had been aggressive about it in the way Gruening was, …. my guess would be the House Bill could have easily had a section in it that was the equivalent of the section Gruening snuck in the Senate Bill back in 1950. In which case there never would have been a native claim in Alaska.

Reading Questions

  1. How involved were Alaskan natives in the decisions about statehood? Do you think they were involved as much as they should have been?

  1. How did decisions about statehood impact Alaskan natives? Are there other impacts that weren’t mentioned in the interviews that should be considered?

  1. Is this in keeping with the arguments and circumstances in favor of statehood in previous documents? What does it say about Alaskan statehood and belonging in the U.S. that many Native Alaskan’s feel this way?

Activity 3:
Have students read the following excerpt from a persuasive speech in favor of Alaska statehood from one of its leading advocates, Ernest Gruening. As students read, have them annotate direct quotes from the Declaration of Independence, references to the Declaration and references to America’s Revolutionary War Period. Students should think about how these historical references support Gruening’s argument for statehood. As an additional challenge, they may also note who is included and excluded from Gruening’s advocacy.

Excerpt from “Let Us Now End American Colonialism” by Ernest Gruening, in an address to the Alaska Constitutional Convention on April 11, 1955.

...For our nation was born of revolt against colonialism. Our charters of liberty--the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution-- embody America's opposition to colonialism and to colonialism's inevitable abuses. ... It is natural and proper that American leadership should lend such aid and comfort as it may to other peoples striving for self-determination and for that universally applicable tenet of American faith--government by consent of the governed...

...Let us look still further in the Declaration of Independence:

"He has affected to render the military independent and superior to the civil power."

Is there much difference between this and the recent presidential declaration that the defense of Alaska, that is to say the rule of the military here, could be better carried out if Alaska remains a Territory?

One could go on at length drawing the deadly parallels which caused our revolutionary forefathers to raise the standard of freedom, although, clearly, some of the other abuses complained of in that distant day no longer exist.

But Alaska is no less a colony than were those thirteen colonies along the Atlantic seaboard in 1775. The colonialism which the United States imposes on us and which we have suffered for 88 years, is no less burdensome, no less unjust, than that against which they poured out their blood and treasure. And while most Alaskans know that full well, we repeat:

"To prove this let the facts be submitted to a candid world."…

... "All the rights, advantages and immunities of citizens of the United States" would entitle us to vote for President and Vice-President, to representation in the Congress by two Senators and a Representative with a vote...Obviously we have neither the vote, nor the representation, nor the freedom from restrictions.

We suffer taxation without representation, which is no less "tyranny" in 1955 than it was in 1775. Actually it is much worse in 1955 than in 1775 because the idea that it was "tyranny" was then new. Since the Revolutionaries abolished it for the states a century and three-quarters ago, it has become a national synonym for something repulsive and intolerable.

We are subject to military service for the nation--a privilege and obligation we accept gladly--yet we have not voice in the making and ending of the wars into which our young men are drafted. In this respect we are worse off than our colonial forefathers. King George III did not impose conscription upon them. They were not drafted to fight for the mother country. Therefore there was no revolutionary slogan "no conscription without representation." But it is a valid slogan for Alaskans today.

Reading Questions:

  1. How does Gruening use founding document to support his argument? Is this an effective strategy given the time period and his purpose for writing?

  1. What other rhetorical strategies does Gruening use? How effective are they?

  1. Do you think the comparison between the U.S. in 1776 and Alaska in 1957 are accurate? Are there any places where Gruening is exaggerating to support his point?

Students can use this as inspiration for their own writing. What issue or cause could you draw parallels with the Revolution and founding of America? Write a brief persuasive speech like Gruening advocating for your position using the ideals laid out in the founding of the United States. How has the U.S. lived up to its promised values and how is there still work to do?

Extension Activities:

  1. Research: Using school databases and reputable online sources, students should investigate how their state came to be part of the United States. Questions to investigate include: How did your state become part of the United States? What arguments did people make that it should belong in the country? What were the arguments against? What were the roles of different demographic groups like Native Americans?

  1. Research: What role did your state and community play in the Cold War? Was there a military base like in Anchorage or Fairbanks? Did a certain industry in your community change because of the Cold War? What changes were made to civic organizations or education in response to the Cold War?

  1. Debate: There are still territories in the US today. Have students research one of the US territories (Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands and U.S. Virgin Islands) or Washington D.C. Have students answer similar questions to those around Alaskan statehood: What role does this territory play in the United States? How do the people contribute to America? Do people there want to be a state? Are there disadvantages to the territory achieving statehood? You can hold a debate in the classroom about whether to admit the territory, like Congress did about Alaskan statehood. Or, have students write a persuasive speech or op-ed for or against statehood for the territory of their choice.

Additional Resources
National Park Service

Site Summit is a preserved Cold war-era Nike-Hercules missile installation near Anchorage, Alaska. The missile site was built in response to advances in Soviet technology. It supported the overall defense of the United States and brought military and civilian staff to the base.

Dwight D. Eisenhower Archives

This archive has digitized several key documents and pictures relating to the debate about Alaska statehood. Explore the collection specific to statehood or use it to expand to more documents about the Cold War.

There Are Two Versions of the Story of How the U.S. Purchased Alaska From Russia

William Iggiagruk Hensley’s article offers a native perspective on Alaskan history from Russian colonization through the US purchase to statehood. A good read for more background information.

This lesson was researched and written by Alison Russell a NCPE intern with the Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education. 

Last updated: March 29, 2023