The Time the U.S. Tried to Buy Greenland

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Had a Cold War sales pitch worked out differently, Greenland just might have become an American territory.

In 1946, this Arctic island looked like red-hot real estate to Pentagon strategists. From her shores, spies could safely monitor Atlantic-bound Soviet vessels. Plus, stationed troops would likely spot any incoming missiles and warn the mainland from afar. Clearly, America needed to set up a few bases there.

But one minor problem presented itself: At the time, Greenland was a colony of Denmark and home to roughly 600 Danish citizens. Would the Danes mind parting with it?

Not if the price was right—or so thought the U.S. State Department.

“[There] are few people in Denmark who have any real interest in Greenland,” wrote European affairs official William C. Trimble. Future diplomat John Hickerson reported that “practically every single [department chief] … said that our real objective as regards to Greenland should be to acquire it by purchase from Denmark."

Shortly thereafter, an offer was made. At a U.N. meeting, Danish Foreign Minister Gustav Rasmussen met with James F. Byrnes—Truman’s Secretary of State—and discussed the subject. What happened next is unclear. Denmark’s government either formally rejected this bid or ignored it altogether. In any event, this effort failed, and the U.S. made no further attempts to acquire Greenland. However, thanks to a 1951 NATO treaty, American bases wound up getting built on the island anyway, one of which remains the nation’s northernmost:

But what if Byrnes’ offer had been accepted? Assuming Greenland ever became a proper state, it’d currently be both America’s largest (at 1.26 times the size of Alaska) and her least-populous (with a scant 56,370 residents). Nickname-wise, maybe we could go with “The Leif Erickson State.” Just a thought. 

This post originally appeared in 2014.