Monday, April 29, 2013

Let’s Trade: Mindanao for Greenland

Here’s an interesting tidbit for those who, like me, enjoy doing what-ifs about history. I just learned that Denmark apparently made an offer to the US in 1913 to trade Greenland to us for Mindanao.

Here’s the story as reported in The New York Times on 29 November 1913:

Plan to Give Greenland to This Country in Return for the Island of Mindanao.


Empire, It Is Thought, Might Accept One of Philippine Group in Exchange for Schleswig Province.

BERLIN, Nov. 28.—From quarters sufficiently authoritative to withstand the inevitable "official denial," news has just reached THE NEW YORK TIMES correspondent of an interesting political project which, if carried out, would simultaneously alter the maps of Europe, America, and Asia. It concerns a three-cornered exchange of territory between Germany, Denmark, and the United States.

The most important phase of the proposed "deal" concerns Germany's cession of part of Schleswig-Holstein to its former Danish owners. The transfer, as planned by the distinguished and influential Danes who evolved and formally submitted the scheme to the United States Government, would take place in the following ingenious way.

The United States, in return for Greenland, would give Denmark the Island of Mindanao, one of the most important of the Philippine group. Greenland, it is represented by the Danes, is capable of becoming "a second Alaska."

The arrangement would simultaneously confer Denmark's right to transfer Mindanao to Germany in return for Schleswig, which includes the Danish provinces conquered by Prussia and Austria in 1864.

My information is not clear on this particular point, but evidently the Danish promoters of the transaction have canvassed the situation sufficiently to think that Germany might regard an extensive foothold in the Philippine Islands as a quid pro quo for the surrender of the Danish sections of Schleswig-Holstein.

Germany might welcome a larger place in the Far Eastern sun than her present base at Kiau-chow, but it is a grave question if she would regard Mindanao as adequate compensation for a territory bought, like Alsace-Lorraine, with German lives.
As an aside, Kiau-chow, mentioned in the last paragraph, is today known as Jiaozhou, and is the location of the Tsingtao brewery – the source of China’s best (or at least best-known) beer. The Germans, as you might guess, founded the brewery.

So what might have been the outcome if this deal had gone through?

I can imagine the Danes, looking back later, being really angry, because they were given most or all of the land they wanted in Schleswig at the end of World War One. They might reasonably have said then, “Damn, if we had just waited five years, we’d have Schleswig and still have Greenland, too!”

Germany was forced to give up all its colonies as a result of the Treaty of Versailles, so Mindanao probably would have been given back to the US. Which would mean the US made out like bandits, getting Greenland pretty much for free.

What would have happened to Greenland under US rule? It would probably have a naval base or two today. There is an air base at Thule, and there were others in the past. During World War Two, the US took over Greenland (with the assent of the Danish government-in-exile), and if my memory is correct (I can’t find anything on-line to confirm it) used it as a base for protecting convoys in the North Atlantic.

There was a second shot at this, by the way, since the US offered to buy Greenland for $100 million in 1946, but Denmark turned us down.

Probably Greenland would have been developed a bit more by the US, but thus far (as far as I know) there’s no evidence of great natural resources, so probably things would still be rather basic there. Mostly the people fish.

The most likely outcomes for Greenland politically (in descending order of likelihood) would seem to be:
  • A US possession/territory – with some degree of self-government, similar to Guam or the Virgin Islands
  • A US commonwealth – similar to Puerto Rico
  • Independence – presumably the US would give Greenland full independence if the people wanted it, as it has been offered to Puerto Rico.. The question would be, with a population of only 56,000 people, if it is capable of sustaining itself independently (today about half the budget comes from Danish government handouts)
  • Statehood for such a small population would be pretty much out of the question, I think

But what about Mindanao? That could be a lot more complicated, depending on who grabbed it during and/or after WW1. My guess above was the US, as the possessor of the rest of the Philippines, and as the former owner up to just a few years previous.

But what if, at the start of the war, the British, based in the nearby Malay States, had taken possession of the island? The US, as a neutral at that point, would have found it legally difficult to act against a German colony, but Britain could do so, and likely would. At the end of the war, they would probably have been unwilling to give it up, and might have argued (quite logically) that Mindanao, being almost wholly Muslim at the time, fit much better with what is today Malaysia than with the Christian islands of Luzon and Visayas.

In the Treaty of Versailles, Japan was granted all of Germany’s Pacific and Asian possessions north of the equator (such as Kiau-Chow as mentioned above, Saipan, and a few other islands). On that basis, Mindanao would have been given to Japan, which could have had interesting consequences in WW2. Had Japan started the war with such a large base of operations so near Australia and so near the oil of the Dutch East Indies, the Pacific War might have been considerably complicated for the Allies.

If Japan had possessed Mindanao since the end of WW1, what would have happened to it after WW2? That's a tough one. Could it have been reunited with Luzon and the Visayas and granted independence as part of the Philippines in 1946? Perhaps, but at that point it would have been separated from the rest of the country for more than thirty years, and would be culturally even more different than it had been earlier. Would it be an independent country today? Would it perhaps have chosen to join Malaysia in the early sixties?

Bonus facts: Greenland is really three islands under the ice pack. I guess we’ll have to wait for Global Warming to melt it all in order to find out for sure. Also, the weight of the ice pack is so great that it has caused the land in the center of Greenland to sink down to 300 meters below sea level.

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