When German forces occupied Denmark in April 1940, Danish officials on Greenland turned to the United States for support. The result was a defense treaty signed by Danish ambassador to Washington Henrik Kauffmann but not by the Danish government. In the treaty, the Americans promised to defend and supply the island. In return, the Americans were granted the rights to establish military bases on the island. After 1945, the Danish government (which had finally ratified the treaty in May 1945) tried to persuade the Americans to leave Greenland. They were unsuccessful.
To the Americans, Greenland was of vital strategic importance. First, from a defensive perspective, control of the island could help deter attacks on North America. From the 1950s onward, radar systems in Greenland served as crucial elements in the American early-warning system (especially the radars established at Thule Airbase during 1958–1960 as part of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System). Second, from an offensive perspective, Greenland might serve as a base station for launching attacks. The establishment of a polar strategy from the early 1950s gave the U.S. bases in Greenland a new central role. From at least 1961, bombers carrying nuclear weapons in Operation airborne alert passed through Greenlandic airspace. Thule Air Base served as an emergency landing facility for this operation.
Following lengthy negotiations, in April 1951 Denmark and the United States agreed on a new treaty regarding Greenland. The new treaty granted the Americans control of certain defense areas, the most important of which became the Thule Air Base, constructed during 1951–1952. Furthermore, the treaty gave the United States full access to Greenland's airspace. In 1957, the Americans asked the Danish government whether it would accept the storage of nuclear weapons on Greenland. Acceding to such a request, however, would be against an explicitly stated Danish policy forbidding nuclear weapons on Danish soil. Still, Prime Minister Hans Christian Hansen responded positively, albeit in a vaguely worded and confidential letter known to only a handful of Danish politicians and civil servants. Recent research has shown that the United States stored nuclear weapons at Thule Air Base during 1958–1965.
For Danish authorities, however, the use of Greenland's airspace by American bombers posed a greater problem. According to official Danish interpretations, the Danish policy of banning nuclear arms on its territory also included the airspace in Greenland. When an American bomber carrying nuclear bombs crashed on Greenland in 1968, it created domestic problems for the Danish government and a crisis in Danish-American relations. Whereas American diplomats claimed that the 1951 treaty and H. C. Hansen's 1957 letter gave them the right to overfly Greenland with nuclear weapons, the Danes insisted that this practice had to end. Ultimately, the United States yielded to Danish pressure, and research has indicated that the Americans respected Greenland territory as a nuclear-free zone.
In Danish-American relations regarding Greenland, the native Greenlanders were reduced to powerless bystanders. This was manifestly demonstrated in 1953, when some thirty Inuit families were removed from their homes close to the Thule Air Base. Their protests and demands for remuneration were unsuccessful for more than fifty years, until a Danish court granted them compensation in 1999. In general, the powerlessness of the local population was compounded by the fact that Greenland was a Danish colony until 1953, when it became fully integrated into the Danish Kingdom. After 1979, when Greenland was granted home rule, foreign and security policies still remained in the hands of the government in Copenhagen. It was only after the end of the Cold War that the local Greenland government, Grīnlands Landsstyre, was granted direct input in such matters.
Klaus Petersen and Nils Arne Sīrensen
Danish Institute of International Affairs. Greenland during the Cold War: Danish and American Security Policy, 1945–68. Translated by Henry Myers. Copenhagen: Danish Institute of International Affairs, 1997.; Lidegaard, Bo. Defiant Diplomacy: Henrik Kauffmann, Denmark, and the United States in World War II and the Cold War, 1939–1958. Translated by W. Glyn Jones. New York: Peter Lang, 2003.; Thompson, Wayne C. Western Europe, 1995. Harpers Ferry, WV: Stryker-Post, 1995.