“Essentially it’s a large real estate deal,” said American President Donald Trump in August 2019, when he commented on his wish to purchase Greenland. The offer obviously raised a lot attention around the world – not least in Greenland. The answer was prompt from Greenland’s Prime Minister Kim Kielsen: “Greenland is not for sale, but we are open to negotiate further collaboration between two equal nations.”
The American interest in Greenland is however not new. During the Second World War (1939-1945), USA signed the Greenland Treaty, granting them access to establish military bases in Greenland. As payment, the United States had to provide aid to Greenland and maintain the status quo for the duration of the war. The Achilles heel of the treaty from a Danish-Greenlandic perspective was the infamous Article X (10), which gave the United States the right to veto all future adjustments to the treaty.
This article has tormented the relationship between the United States, Denmark and Greenland – and today the article is still subject to debate. Especially after the Second World War the treaty was cause for diplomatic headaches between the USA on the one side and Denmark-Greenland on the other side. No agreement to change the treaty was reached until 1951 and there were still no alterations to Article X. Later several additions were added to the treaty, with the latest being the Igaliku Treaty signed in a South Greenlandic settlement in 2004.
Greenland was important to the USA
But why did Denmark (Greenland) agree to the treaty in the first place if Article X was so hard to accept? The answer is Henrik Kauffmann. He was the Danish ambassador in America and arrived in Washington just before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.
When Denmark was occupied by Nazi Germany on April 9th, 1940 it was the end of a free and independent Denmark. According to Kauffmann, he had to represent and negotiate in the interest of Denmark as the Danish Government’s ability to manoeuvre had been immobilised by the German occupiers. This was a perception not shared by the American Government who still considered the Danish Government their negotiation partner at that stage.
During the Danish ambassador’s many meetings with central figures in the American administration he discovered that Greenland gave him access to represent Denmark in America. There were primarily two reasons for this: Greenland’s strategic location and cryolite (used to melt aluminium during World War II) from Ivittuut, a settlement in South Greenland which is uninhabited today.
Firstly, the centre of American foreign policy was the so-called Monroe Doctrine (running from 1823 to 1947 where it was replaced by the Truman Doctrine). In brief it stated that North and South America should be free of foreign, and not in the least European, political interference. The Doctrine said that North and South America were within the American sphere of interests. This also included Greenland, as the country – according to the Americans – is part of North America. And at this time Nazi-Germany had an interest in East Greenland, which was a concern to the Americans.
Secondly, the Americans needed aluminium, which was essential to any production of arms at the time. For the same reason there was a large export of the valuable material from the settlement Ivittuut to Philadelphia in the USA.
Diplomatic drama becomes a movie
Back then as it is today, it is unheard of that a diplomat can make far-reaching agreements without the acceptance of the country he represents. On the other hand, the drama offers the main ingredients for the plot of a diplomatic thriller. Not least when you add a flamboyant man of the world and daredevil, who knew how to carry himself amongst the elite and how to get creative to achieve his goals. The movie premiered on August 13th, 2020 and is called “The Good Traitor”.
BONUS INFO 1
Greenland’s relationship with Denmark
For further reading:
- Defiant Diplomacy: Henrik Kauffmann, Denmark, and the United States in World War II and the Cold War, 1939-1958 (2003).