Greenland was Henrik Kauffmann’s triumph

Without a mandate from his home country, and quite single-handedly, a man struck a deal with the USA. This marked the beginning of ­an American presence in Greenland. The agreement was the Greenland Treaty from 1941 and the political rebel was Henrik Kauffmann. A highly dramatic game of diplomacy that now plays on the big screen in the movie “The Good Traitor.”

“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.

The battle to represent Denmark

Until the agreement was finalised, Kauffmann had to fight a fair few battles as not everyone agreed that he single-handedly should represent “the free and independent Denmark.” Amongst others were two Governors in Greenland, Eske Brun (Governor for North Greenland, living in Qeqertarsuaq/Godhavn) and Aksel Svane (Governor for South Greenland, living in Nuuk/Godthåb). They both felt that they had the legal right to negotiate Denmark’s interests in Greenland. On top of this their perception had the backing of the Danish Government.

For the very same reason the surprise and frustration was huge when the Greenland Treaty was publicised on April 9th. This was especially true for the Danish Government and the two Governors when they learned of Article X, which basically meant that the treaty could not be terminated. It was for this reason the USA was allowed to keep their military establishments in Greenland. It also had the right to veto all future plans to change this arrangement.

To Kauffmann, the Greenland Treaty was a personal triumph. Finally, the American Government recognised Kauffmann as the person representing “the interests of the free Denmark” as long as the country was occupied. Kauffmann’s new status with the Americans meant that he could now make agreements with the USA on behalf of Denmark – and consequently on behalf of Greenland. This was a status he kept until Denmark was again a free nation on May 5th, 1945.

U.S to Guard Greenland
Credit: Universal Newsreels, 12 April 1941

Remains of American WW2 bases in Greenland

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”.


about American military presence in Greenland

Today America only has one military base in the old Dundas area in northern Greenland. At Thule Air Base, US law applies. Previously, USA had nine bases in Greenland, the largest located in Narsarsuaq and Kangerlussuaq (both Atlantic airports). At both airports there are museums and objects showing the scale of the former American military presence.

Narsarsuaq Museum with items from American base “Bluie West One”. Photo by Peter Lindstrøm - Visit Greenland

Greenlandic marble in the Danish Embassy

After the end of WWII, Henrik Kauffmann built a new embassy in Washington where the foyer was laid with Greenlandic marble from Maarmorilik (meaning the place with marble). This is a mining city north of Uummannaq in the north west of Greenland.


Greenland’s relationship with Denmark

Greenland’s history is influenced by strong connections with Denmark. In 1953, Greenland changed its status from being a colony to a constituency in the Danish Kingdom . This marked the beginning of modern society in Greenland and from this stage until 1979 the Greenlanders fought to obtain more autonomy. A struggle, which was intensified in the 1970s and led to the introduction of Greenlandic Home Rule in 1979.

In the following decades, Greenland’s Home Rule took over the administration of areas such as health, education, social affairs and housing, which were formerly administered by the Danish state. The next goal for Greenland was to gain even more influence in their own situation, especially in relation to the large reserves of minerals in the Greenlandic underground.

This led to an agreement about Greenlandic Self Rule from June 21st 2009 (Greenland’s National day). In addition to taking control over mining and natural resources, Greenland also gained the right to take over administration of several other areas. This came with the condition, however, that Greenland would now have to finance these areas formerly funded by Denmark.

Greenland in The Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen. Photo by Visit Greenland

Greenland has now taken over the jurisdiction of a vast majority of administrative areas, with the judicial system being the largest exception. Foreign Policy and Safety are two areas that will remain in the control of Danish jurisdiction, according to the Self Rule agreement. However, the Itilleq declaration from 2003 ensures that Greenland will be heard in cases that relates to their interests.

Each year, Denmark transfers an amount of approximately four billion Danish kroners to subsidise Greenland. Additionally, Denmark funds the judicial system including the police, courts and correctional institutions.

For further reading: 

  • Defiant Diplomacy: Henrik Kauffmann, Denmark, and the United States in World War II and the Cold War, 1939-1958 (2003).
Martin Christiansen

Article by: Martin Christiansen

MA in Political Science and journalist is based in Nuuk and has worked many years in communication roles  at the Government of Greenland.