Despite President Trump's Recent Offer, the U.S. Has Tried to Buy Greenland Before

Sitting in a strategic place within the Arctic Circle, Greenland is and has long been a purchase target for the United States.
Marcia Wendorf

Those of us who live in the U.S. are used to flights of fancy from our president, Donald Trump, so no one thought much about Trump's offer in August 2019 to buy the island of Greenland from Denmark.

The response from both Denmark and Greenland was overwhelmingly negative, with the Premier of Greenland, Kim Kielsen, and the Prime Minister of Denmark, Mette Frederiksen, weighing in.

Everyone, from the previous Danish Prime Minister and leader of the opposition, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, to the far-left Red-Green Alliance, to the far-right Danish People's Party all rejected the sale. Frederiksen attempted to set Trump straight by saying, "Greenland is not for sale. Greenland is not Danish. Greenland is Greenlandic".

What most people don't know is that the U.S. has actually tried to buy Greenland several times before.

Greenland's history

Greenland was first inhabited by Viking colonists, and in 1261, they accepted Norwegian rule. Around 1400 CE, the "Little Ice Age" caused temperatures in Greenland to plummet, crops failed and the colonies disappeared.


In 1537, Denmark and Norway joined together and formed Denmark–Norway, which was also known as the Dano–Norwegian Realm, the Oldenburg Monarchy, and the Oldenburg realms. The new entity included the Kingdom of Denmark, the Kingdom of Norway, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, the Duchy of Schleswig, the Duchy of Holstein and the Danish West Indies.

Colonists returned to Greenland in 1721, and in 1775, Denmark-Norway declared Greenland a colony. In 1814, the Treaty of Kiel transferred Greenland from Norwegian rule to that of Denmark.

U.S. explorer Charles Francis Hall was the first to set foot in northwest Greenland when he visited during the Polaris Expedition from 1871 to 1873.

The purpose of the Polaris Expedition was to reach the North Pole, and it came on the heels of British naval officer Sir William Edward Parry, who had reached 82° 45' N in 1827. The Polaris Expedition reached 82° 29' N by ship, which was a record at the time.

Polaris Expedition - 1871
Polaris Expedition - 1871, Source: Taubman Museum of Art/Wikimedia Commons

In 1916, the U.S. had bought the Danish West Indies from Denmark for $25 million in gold and renamed them the U.S. Virgin Islands. Abbreviated the USVI, they are a group of islands and cays located in the Caribbean to the east of Puerto Rico.

The USVI consists of three larger islands — Saint Croix, Saint John, and Saint Thomas — and 50 smaller islets and cays, covering approximately 133 square miles (340 sq km).

Denmark was willing to let go of its territory because its trade in rum and sugar had dropped precipitously, and it was becoming expensive to govern from Denmark. On the eve of World War I, America was concerned that a German invasion of Denmark would lead to the Germans taking control of the islands, which were not far from the Panama Canal.

The terms of the sale, besides the $25 million in gold, included a U.S. declaration that stated that the U.S. would "not object to the Danish Government extending their political and economic interests to the whole of Greenland."

The formal transfer of the islands took place on April 1, 1917. Just five days later, the U.S. declared war on Germany.

The U.S. tries to buy Greenland

The first time the U.S. tried to buy Greenland was in 1867. U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward was fresh off purchasing Alaska from Russia, and he considered buying Greenland and Iceland, saying they were "worthy of serious consideration."

Alaska purchase - 1867
Alaska purchase - 1867, Source: Emanuel Leutze/Wikimedia Commons

In 1910, the U.S. Ambassador to Denmark suggested swapping the Philippine island of Mindanao for Greenland and the Danish West Indies. The thinking was that Denmark could then trade Mindanao to Germany for Northern Schleswig. Nothing came of the proposal.

On April 9, 1940, Germany invaded Denmark, giving it a possible claim to Greenland. The U.S. responded by sending Coast Guard personnel to Greenland who had been designated as "volunteers" so as not to violate U.S. neutrality.

Following WW II, during the Cold War, U.S. strategic bombers were flown to holding points and expected to remain there for long periods of time. Often, this left them with barely enough fuel to make it back to their home bases.

To remedy this situation, the U.S. set about creating refueling bases all over the world, and due to its location within the Arctic Circle, the most strategic location was Greenland.

Greenland's strategic location
Greenland's strategic location, Source: Roke~commonswiki/Wikimedia Commons

A trove of documents

In the early 1990s, documents were discovered in the U.S. National Archives that show that in 1946, the U.S. offered Denmark $100 million in gold for Greenland. However, this was not the original offer. That offer was to swap oil-rich land in the Point Barrow area of Alaska for parts of Greenland.

Under that proposal, the Danes would have received the rights to any oil discovered, but they would have had to sell it to the U.S. 21 years later, in 1967, the largest oil strike in U.S. history was made in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, 200 miles east of Point Barrow.

Today, Point Barrow's oil is part of the U.S. National Petroleum Reserve, which is held for U.S. national defense.

The files in the Archives showed that in November 1945, Senator Owen Brewster, R-Maine, was quoted as saying Greenland was "a military necessity." If the name Owen Brewster sounds familiar, it's because Brewster was a character in Martin Scorsese's 2004 film The Aviator, which starred Leonardo DiCaprio as aviation pioneer Howard Hughes, and Alan Alda as Brewster, who was a thorn in Hughes's side.

In April 1946, U.S. State Department official John Hickerson said in a memo that, "... Greenland is completely worthless to Denmark (and) that the control of Greenland is indispensable to the safety of the United States."

Hickerson went to say that he doubted Denmark would be willing to sell the 844,000-square-mile ice-covered island, which is 50 times larger than Denmark itself. In 1946, only around 600 Danes lived on Greenland.

On May 24, 1946, the assistant chief of the State Department's division of northern European affairs, William C. Trimble, noted that Greenland offered "valuable bases from which to launch an air counteroffensive over the Arctic area in the event of an attack." It was Trimble who came up with the idea of swapping the Point Barrow area for parts of Greenland.

By June 20, 1946, U.S. Secretary of War Robert Patterson wrote to Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson, saying that "it might be a good idea to take prompt action toward securing from Denmark (even to the extent of purchasing the entire island, if necessary) the military rights which have been outlined by the Joint Chiefs of Staff."

The U.S. pulls the trigger

On December 14, 1946, Secretary of State James Byrnes made the offer to buy Greenland to Danish Foreign Minister Gustav Rasmussen, who was visiting New York.

In a memo, Byrnes wrote, "Our needs ... seemed to come as a shock to Rasmussen, but he did not reject my suggestions flatly and said that he would study a memorandum which I gave him."

The Archives don't contain any response made by the Danes to Byrnes's offer, and in 1951, Greenland officially became part of Denmark after two centuries as a colony. In 1979, Greenland was granted home rule, but foreign and defense affairs are handled by Denmark.

Thule Air Base - Greenland
Thule Air Base - Greenland Source: USAF/Wikimedia Commons

In 1951, the U.S. launched Operation Blue Jay, which was the code name for the building of Thule Air Base in Greenland. Situated midway between Moscow and New York, Thule tracked Soviet submarines in what's known as the GIUK gap. This is an acronym for the naval chokepoint formed by Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom.