Secondary Source: “Overcoming the Arctic in Cold War Alaska”

Farish, Matthew. “The Lab and the Land: Overcoming the Arctic in Cold War Alaska.” Isis 104.1 (2013): 1-29. 

Entry by Molly Finlayson

In anticipating the necessity of future Arctic warfare with the Soviet bloc, the United States military feared that its forces would be put to significant disadvantage by the extreme weather conditions of the north. Military leaders were especially concerned about soldiers’ issues with morale and “cold injuries” (9). In the late 1940s, immediately following the end of the Second World War, the Alaskan territory saw the establishment of several new military bases and government-funded research laboratories. In his article, “The Lab and the Land: Overcoming the Arctic in Cold War Alaska,” Matthew Farish examines the history of military-sponsored scientific experiments in Alaska during the Cold War. Though about an obscure and long-isolated part of North America, Farish’s article relates to several key themes in the history of Cold War science. These include government funding for science with emphasis on military application, the militarization of previously non-military-related matters, and the suspension of ethical considerations in the name of national security.

During World War II, the Manhattan Project’s remarkable effectiveness was due to the involvement of US military funding, which allowed scientists to work collaboratively on a larger scale than ever before. After WWII, in part as the legacy of the Manhattan Project and further fueled by Cold War pressures, military and government funding for scientific research continued to grow, in hopes that similarly spectacular results would follow. The research conducted in and on the Alaskan territory was a product of this new mentality and organizational structure. There, scientists funded by organizations including the US Air Force, the US Army, and the National Academy of Sciences worked on projects across a variety of disciplines with the aim of inventing technologies to help soldiers survive the cold (11). Some of these technologies took chemical form, such as pills that in 1957 the New York Times reported as capable of “increas[ing] resistance to cold,” though these were never implemented on a large scale (quoted in Farish, 22). Other cold-weather equipment innovations included clothing designed to keep soldiers warm, like a “walk-around sleeping bag” (18; see image below). Scientists also conducted human experiments involving Inuit test subjects in order to determine physiological factors in cold-resistance and thereby inform their technological developments (2).


The enormous military technology development effort had broadly militarizing effects in Alaska. The territory was not alone in this regard: many aspects of civilian life worldwide became highly militarized during the tense Cold War period. A popular example of this is the do-it-yourself bomb shelter movement, encouraged by President Kennedy, which moved the Cold War front into American domestic spaces. Farish, in his article, highlights the Cold War militarization of the territory of Alaska, which included that of climate and geography, economy, and native bodies.

For the military, Alaska served as a synecdoche for the entire Arctic, portrayed as “an excessively… dangerous… natural realm that confronted soldiers who were expected to live and fight across its expanses” (5). Farish takes considerable issue with this generalization that Alaska was overall a “hostile environment distinct from the more comfortable south,” as he views it as both an untrue construction and the basis for the racial injustices and financial excesses which there took place (Ibid). In addition to its real and imagined value as an Arctic research subject, the territory’s proximity to Japan and the Soviet Union and location “near the center of the earth’s landmass” earned it further status as the “most important strategic place in the world” in the eyes of some air power strategists even as early as 1930 (10; 9).

This fixation and resulting significant military involvement changed forever the territory’s history. The Alaskan economy, stimulated by the “huge infusion of military money,” grew at an average rate of $250 million annually between 1949 and 1954 (10). For this reason, a guide to Alaska published in 1961 declared: “almost everything the state has today it owes to military spending” (as quoted in Farish, 4). Further, Alaska became a state in 1959 because of its perceived value as an enormous and “permanent military defense perimeter” against the Soviet Union (Ibid). Whatever benefit or development Alaska’s militarization may have brought to the territory, however, these changes proved disruptive for Alaskan “Eskimo” inhabitants, as they restricted native mobility and necessitated rapid adjustment to modernization (11).

Farish highlights further racial issues in Alaska’s militarization as he spends a significant portion of his article discussing scientists’ decades-long study of native Alaskans or, as they were then called, “Eskimos.” Eskimo physiology was a central focus of study for the Air Force. Though by 1952 researchers had concluded “there are no racial differences between the Eskimo and the whites in heat production,” Alaska’s military scientists nonetheless persisted in their studies with categorization of Alaskan natives as fundamentally “other” (17). At their most controversial, such experiments on the Inuit included dangerous injections of iodine-131, which were tracked to provide data on the effects of radiation (26). These were performed without adequate consent on the part of the natives, as some subjects were deceived into believing the injections were medical treatments. During the Cold War, ethical considerations in experimentation were more than once suspended in the name of top prioritization of national security. This was the same mentality that the CIA used to justify Operation Midnight Climax, which exposed unsuspecting test subjects to hallucinogens without their consent.

Countless features of the US military’s scientific focus on the Alaskan territory saw parallels elsewhere in Cold War America. Most significantly, these included military involvement in scientific research, militarization of civilians and the environment, and the justification of unethical human experimental practices. All were indirectly brought about by the tensions inherent in Western-Soviet relations during the 1950s and 60s. Farish’s article’s subject matter also holds relevance in the 21st century, as contemporary scientists and governments continue to view the Arctic as both a mysterious frontier worthy of further scientific study and a potentially contentious area to be claimed by competitive polities.

This entry was posted in Alaska, Human experimentation, Militarization, Science in the United States. Bookmark the permalink.

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