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6 April 2021

From the NS archive: The new geography

25 January 1947: The North Pole as the centre of the world.

By Eric Dancy

In the years immediately following the Second World War, as nations came to terms with the new realities, there was a great deal of questioning of the old geopolitical verities. In this piece from 1947, Eric Dancy looked at the very notion of how the world was seen in terms of geographical spheres of influence. The US, Russia, Great Britain and the rest still used the old binary “East/West” division where a new conception of the globe, with the North Pole at its centre, made far more sense. “The Pole,” said Dancy, “having only geographical position and no magnitude among the Powers, had no political axe but only the geographical axis to grind.” A polocentric globe would alter the structure of world trade and “compel the nations either to wage war for the control of the new structure, or to agree to subject its control to supranational government”. After six years of global war, there was no appetite for more of the same, so internationalism would win out: “The magnetic force of the Pole was now exerted politically.”

***

Future historians will distinguish the year 1946 as marking the “revolution in geography” which speeded the world’s conversion to an entirely new conception of itself, in a period comparable only with the Renaissance and the Great Discoveries. A chapter from a future history book might read something like this:

In 1946 the agonised globe, at last really aware that it was a sphere and not a cylinder, rolled over on to its equator, presenting to delegates at the first general assembly of the United Nations its cold northern face.

In that year, for the first time in history, representatives of the nations sat before a huge azimuthal projection of the Earth, including both hemispheres, the southern encircling the northern. Accustomed to maps in the classical Greek tradition, which Mercator had followed and adapted mathematically for mariners and discoverers in an expanding oecumene (habitable universe), they were awed in New York to see their own countries stretched “lengthwise” and twisted banana-wise to surround the North Pole, where there are no hours except according to national standards and the day itself is always yesterday or tomorrow. “Anyone would think,” a delegate was reputed to have remarked sardonically in French, “that we revolved around it.”

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The North Pole had now in fact become the centre of the Earth, and the Arctic the “middle sea”, replacing the classical Mediterranean. For reasons of climate, now equalised by aviation, and of commerce, the Earth had discovered not only its own shape, but a natural “centre” upon its own surface, belonging neither to “East” nor to “West”. Such was the logical consequence of the last of the Great Discoveries – that the Arctic was as navigable, by air, as the Atlantic or the Pacific, and that its conquest shortened by thousands of miles the direct routes between more distant points on the earth’s most habitable belt.

The traffic map of the future Northern Hemisphere, it was now realised, could take only the outline of a wheel with the Arctic as its hub. At the Pole itself the North-to-South great circles would intersect – such as the spokes connecting New York with Chungking and Perth, the rice route between Chicago and Calcutta, the “Magic Carpet” from Teheran to San Francisco, and the great panclimatic circular with its vital junctions, Cairo-Leningrad-Spitsbergen-North Pole-Alaska-Honolulu-Tahiti-South Pole-Capetown-Cairo.

The practical use of the azimuthal projection, polocentric or otherwise, was not new. The polar tangent had been used by explorers. During the Second World War, when US aircraft supplied Britain and Russia respectively across Baffin, Greenland and Alaska from Western Canada, convex segments of the Northern Hemisphere and polocentric azimuthals had been used strategically. They turned the stomachs of American Russophobes and Isolationists. The British Premier, Winston Churchill, did not like them, they offended his sense of East and West, which Mercator’s venerable longitudes, true to the compass and to the nautical tradition, sustained so admirably. Thinking at 90 degrees to Aristotle – whose hemispheres had been northern and southern, of which the southern was the more noble – Churchill preferred at military conferences to see as ellipses what the Americans and the Russians studied as gnomonic straight lines (flat equivalents of great circles). And at the end of the war, civil airlines had produced “national” azimuthals of their own, showing great circles radiating from their own main airports. A fine and decorative specimen of such a map, London-centred, was produced by the British cable concern, Cable and Wireless.

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In New York, in 1946, the case for standardising the northern polocentric projection, as best suiting universal diplomatic purposes as well as commercial, became evident. The North Pole, as a universal map-centre, commended itself to the nations for several reasons. For one, the Pole, having only geographical position and no magnitude among the Powers, had no political axe but only the geographical axis to grind. “Geography,” it was already said, “is future history”, and the “One Worlders” were not slow to point out to traditionalists that the empires themselves had been founded politically upon commerce and upon the structure of their communications which maintained it, the flag following trade. The new geography, they said, by altering the structure of world trade, would compel the nations either to wage war for the control of the new structure, or to agree to subject its control to supranational government. For another, the world’s new centre might as well be a sea and therefore international. The magnetic force of the Pole was now exerted politically.

At the conference itself the Arctic was but little discussed, although Molotov on an occasion, averting his eyes from the centre of the map, asked disingenuously why the Americans were showing so much interest in “those remote regions”, where, indeed, all contiguous nations were busy establishing meteorological and other bases. American strategists, more overtly than Norwegian or Russian, had referred to the Polar Circle as the centre of any future war, prophesying that, in its event, their continent would be “attacked from the air across the Arctic by atom bombs a thousand times more destructive than the Hiroshima bomb”. In 1946 the United States army was reorganising to meet the eventuality. The Russians and the Canadians, respectively, claimed all territories, discovered and undiscovered, in their own sectors of the Arctic.

The countries the most concerned, for their own reasons, with checking the alarm were the small countries of the European North, on their own 67 sector of the Arctic between the Canadian and the Russian. They were aware that the fact of their being populated would not prevent their occupation by the one belligerent, followed probably by the destruction of their cities by the other (“protection” and “liberation”) if war broke out between the resentful “East and West” – wherefore they encouraged the substitution of the Aristotelean “North and South” as geopolitical conceptions, King Haakon personally discouraging Winston Churchill from lecturing in Norway after his famous speech at Fulton. It was useless for them to form a local defence bloc, as for them there was no defence against the new weapons – and as for the rest of Europe it lay only to their south, parallel with the earth’s axis and on the site of Hitler’s ill-fated political “projection” of it. Lest a part of the world decide that there was more to be gained in any sense, or less to be lost, by war than by peace, the European North strove to create conditions in which the opposite could become true. They believed that the most urgent economic problem of the day was the restoration of world trade. Sweden and Iceland followed Norway and Denmark into the United Nations.

Sweden’s entry, coinciding with an important trade agreement with Russia – Sweden already had bilateral agreements with nearly every European country – increased Soviet confidence in that Western country. Moreover, towards the end of the year the Soviets, which had been excessively chary about entering into any international air agreement, relented specifically in the North European direction – to the gingerly extent to allowing the Swedish commercial airline to resume its service with Helsinki, to connect with the Helsinki-Moscow route. The indication, it could appear, was that Moscow measured the immediate importance of countries by the degree in which they were also esteemed by the “West”. At the same time, they opened discussions with the Norwegians for a reciprocal defence agreement resting on the use of Spitsbergen as a base.

More than most other countries in Europe, the Northern countries had for long enjoyed the confidence of the Americas. And in the aftermath of the war, while the communists made political progress elsewhere in Europe, the social democrats in the north, on the whole, maintained their position. The democratic North stood politically as well as geographically between the East and the West. For climatic reasons the Northern Mainland depended upon trade and therefore upon peace.

In Norway internationalism had become a creed. Norway had more tonnage in relation to its population than any country in the world, and was therefore more familiar with the “doctrine of the sphere”. The first secretary-general of the United Nations, “the world’s first citizen”, Trygve Lie, was a Norwegian, to which fact he owed his position at the helm, lest the ship of the World State encounter difficult diplomatic seas.

In the reshaping world the Danish part of Europe remained still by far the largest outside Soviet Russia, but the geographical crisis made the Danes for the first time aware of their size. Greenland had hitherto been an unimportant colony, maintained at a loss. It was now almost at the centre of the world, its east coast in particular affording possible sites for airfields and servicing stations. Iceland and Norwegian Spitsbergen, both more temperate than Greenland, and the Scandinavian mainland would provide other stages on routes from North America to most of Europe, the Middle East and part of China. Alaska would connect parts of North America mainly with the Far East.

Ultima Thule, at which the Romans had shuddered, had become the Icelandic Republic. The thermometer, destroying the Latin illusion, proved its temperature in the winter to be no colder than Milan. It produced grapes in greenhouses heated from bountiful hot springs, and satirists, divided into two schools. There were those who claimed that America, having been discovered by Leif Eiriksson, belonged to Iceland. The “liberal” school rejoined that Leif had lost his Icelandic nationality through long residence in Greenland, to which America therefore more properly belonged. They agreed, however, that the prevalence among the lower latitudes of the belief that Columbus, and not Leif, had discovered the Western Hemisphere was an illustration of the vanity and the historical dishonesty of southerners. The history of the world should be rewritten on the foundation of the story, not of Greece and Rome, nor even of more ancient China, but – for the sake of its importance to the future – of the land mass round the North Pole, cradle of seafarers and of spherical thought.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)