A few days ago, it emerged from the Wall Street Journal that the Trump administration was considering purchasing Greenland from Denmark. This, I initially found quite astonishing. But after thinking about what little I know of USA history this seems almost perfectly in line with America’s imperial history as well as Trumps megalomaniacal tendencies and real-estate background. America has been purchasing territory to incorporate into its empire almost since its inception.
The American Revolutionary War that overthrew the colonial oppressors of England would still have been fresh in the minds of the county’s leaders as they plotted the Louisiana Purchase. In 1804 the US government formally purchased Louisiana from France for $15,000,000. The purchase extended US territory across the Mississippi River by 2,140,000 square km.
Thomas Jefferson was President at the time and had planned to use much of the new territory to accommodate his idea for an Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River (this idea would be varyingly revised and pursued by Jefferson’s successors long after his presidency). After the purchase, the USA illegally negotiated with an unelected body of Cherokees from across Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and North Carolina to swap their land for that in the newly acquired territory. Those that refused were incarcerated hundreds of miles away in present-day Oklahoma. (This is one chapter, poorly and partly told of a long history of abuse of natives by the USA government)
A similar timeline happened to the Native Seminole populations after Florida was purchased from Spain in 1819. The price was $5,000,000. By the 1830s Congress had passed the Indian Removal Act. Treaties were then signed with some of the local Chiefs who agreed to move to Indian Territory in exchange for their land in Florida. Those that chose to remain were decimated by the US military.
In 1848 there was War with Mexico that resulted in the cessation of vast territories in the West for the price of $15,000,000. Not long after there was the Gadsden Purchase for more southwestern territory for $10,000,000.
In 1867 the USA negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia for $7,200,000. Alaska would remain a territory, rather than a state until 1959. This sounds like a trivial distinction, but the classification has real ramifications for governance of a territory. Territories are not afforded representation in Congress and their inhabitants are not always considered citizens of the USA, though are still subject to its legislation.
In 1898, the USA went to War with Spain (over what some have called a false flag attack on the USS Maine, but was definitely a case of Teddy Roosevelt seizing an opportunity for war). Spain was a faltering empire and had suffered insurrections in many of its colonies, notably for our current purposes, in Cuba and the Philippines.
An amendment passed by Congress to the declaration of war stated that the USA couldn’t annex Cuba as a result of the war, though it made no mention of the Philippines. At the end of the brief War, Cuba and the Philippines found itself at the behest of a new master, the USA, albeit through different means. In Cuba, the USA installed a provisional governor until ‘stable government’ could be formed (this was in order to maintain control without violating the war mandate). As a condition of receiving it’s own sovereignty (getting the USA to leave), the Cuban legislature had to write into law the USA’s right to invade their country if politics looked shaky. And, in 1903, to lease a small area of land indefinitely to the USA to function as a legal grey area for various purposes: Guantanamo Bay. For their first 30 years of Cuban independence, their constitution contained a clause that afforded the USA the ability to invade.
At the end of the war the USA also purchased the Philippines from Spain for $20,000,000. There were promises of statehood for the Philippines from the time the USA assumed control, but none were fulfilled until other great empires were being dismantled post World War 2 (1946). Until that time the Philippines was ruled as a colonial territory of the USA. The people there were not citizens and had no voice in Washington, though they were subject to Washington’s rule. Their resources were appropriated for colonial luxuries & grandiose architectural building projects over needed infrastructure, the English language was imposed upon them and rules were forced upon them. Filipinos were subjected to massacres in attempts to quell dissent, particularly in attempting to establish rule over Mindanao and Visayas (the two smaller islands of the Philippines).
Also in 1903 the USA signed a treaty with Panama for the indefinite lease of the Panama Canal Zone for $10,000,000 plus an annual $250,000. This was after encouraging a Panamanian Nationalist secession from Columbia (so there would be a Panamanian government to lease from). This is just one of the many forays into the Caribbean and Central America the USA would make in the early part of the 20th century. Between in 1903 and 1934, US troops had entered Cuba (4 Times), Nicaragua (3 times), Honduras (7 times), Guatemala, Panama (6 times), the Dominican Republic (4 times), Costa Rica, Mexico (3 times) and Haiti (twice).
Remarkably, during the 1903-1917 period the USA only annexed one piece of territory. It peacefully bought the US Virgin Islands from Denmark for $25,000,000. These were the last pieces of territory that the USA purchased from another sovereign government, which is interesting given that if the USA were to purchase Greenland, it would also be from Denmark.
Aside from it’s long history of buying land to expand its empire, the USA has also had a long history in the Arctic. Inside Greenland the USA has a military base and even once crashed 4 nuclear bombs, held in a B-52, into the landmass. The reason that Washington wanted to have a military presence here was because of its proximity to the Soviet Union, now Russia (allowing them to chuck missiles over the North Pole).
The arctic is also becoming more hotly contested commercially due to receding ice. Russia and China have begun to establish more bases in order to facilitate trade through routes that were previously impassable without ice-breaking escorts, leading western nations to try to establish some control over the area. China and Russia are also looking to extract fossil fuels from the arctic. Given that the region holds 15% of the world’s remaining oil, 30% of its natural gas and 20% of its LNG, it seems natural that the USA would want to assert itself over whatever areas over the arctic it could.
Looking at the history of land purchases by the USA, and the geopolitical importance of the arctic it seems that a purchase of Greenland wouldn’t be all that out-of-touch with its imperial nature. What would be interesting is the legal status that would be afforded the new territory, if a sale were to proceed. Would they be given statehood and citizenship from the get-go, since media attention would be directed to the purchase and welfare of the inhabitants? Or would they be forced to clear a set of obstacles to statehood before being allowed into the union? Or perhaps just left as an intentional legal grey area, allowing the USA to bypass its mainland laws and constitution?
By Nathan Booth
Most of this article was informed by the book How to Hide an Empire: A Short History of the Greater United States by Daniel Immerwahr