The anti-statehood faction had a powerful hold in the Territory, and might
have quelled the issue were it not for two especially vigorous pro-statehood
advocates, Ernest Gruening and E.L. "Bob" Bartlett.
Between 1943 and 1953, Alaska's governor (Gruening), the delegate
to Congress (Bartlett), Robert B. Atwood, publisher of the Anchorage Times, and a cross-section of the territory's established
business and professional men and women engineered numerous legislative efforts
to achieve statehood for Alaska. Gruening was frustrated by the fact that after
three decades under the American flag, Alaska was still without adequate roads,
airfields, tuberculosis hospitals, and dependable shipping at reasonable cost.
What was more, the aboriginal rights issue had not yet been settled, and
homesteaders were not yet legally able to acquire land from the federal
government. He felt that the only tools by which Alaskans could amend their
plight were two United States senators and a Representative in the House, each
with a vote.
The Alaska Statehood Committee was formed in 1949 to intensify efforts toward
statehood, calling on national and labor organizations, newspaper editors, and
state governors to support and publicize Alaska's situation. 1949 was a
watershed year for the statehood movement, as it received growing attention both
in Alaska and in the nation at large. A bill for statehood passed the House by a
vote of 186-146 early in 1950, but was killed in the Senate by a coalition of
conservative Republicans and southern Democrats, backed tacitly by President
Eisenhower. This coalition wanted to preserve the tenuous Republican majority in
Congress, and opposed Alaska's entry into the Union for fear that its
congressional voice would be Democratic. The Korean War, which began in June of
1950 and lasted into 1952, effectively put concerns about Alaska statehood on
the back burner.
The New York Journal-American put the situation dramatically:
wants statehood with the fervor men and women give to a transcendent
cause. An overwhelming number of men and women voters in the United States
want statehood for Alaska. This Nation needs Alaskan statehood to advance
her defense, sustain her security, and discharge her deep moral
Such enthusiasm served as a counterweight to the typical arguments made
against Alaska statehood: non-contiguity with the rest of the country, lack of
population, inadequate political maturity, and meager financial resources.
Senator Butler and five members of the Senate Interior and Insular Affairs
Committee decided to hold hearings in Alaska on a statehood bill; they wanted to
hear the "reaction of the "little people" of Alaska. The Butler committee heard
testimony in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and Ketchikan. The visit of Butler's
committee brought together many Alaskans sympathetic to the statehood cause, and
popular publicity movements such as "Operation Statehood" put increased pressure
on Congress for Alaska statehood. Women in the committee, for example, made
artificial bouquets out of the Forget-me-Not, Alaska's official flower, and
mailed them to members of Congress prior to the consideration of statehood
legislation. The citizens of Alaska sent Christmas cards to friends in the
contiguous U.S. which urged: "Make [Alaskans] future bright/Ask your Senator
for statehood/And start the New Year right." Members of Congress could no longer
invoke "lack of public interest" as an argument against Alaska Statehood.
President Eisenhower, in his 1954 State of the Union address, requested the
immediate admission of Hawaii into the Union but did not mention Alaska. The
editor of the Washington Post wrote of a "murky cloud of politics" surrounding
such a position, as it was becoming evident that the Republican administration
thought Hawaii would come into the Union as a Republican state, while Alaska
would come in favoring the Democrats. Eventually the Senate put together a
combination statehood bill, which provided for the admission first of Hawaii and
then of Alaska. This bill immediately became the centerpiece of Congressional
partisan wrangling. Operation Statehood swamped the White House with telegrams
asking for "statehood now." A delegation of Operation Statehood's members flew
to Washington, D.C. to meet with President Eisenhower, and they made a dramatic
impression. John Butrovich, a Fairbanks insurance agent and senior Republican in
the territorial legislature, told Eisenhower:
|We feel that you are a
great American. But we are shocked to come down here and find that a bill
which concerns the rights of American citizens is bottled up in a
committee when you have the power to bring it out on the House floor.
Eisenhower reddened as Butrovich banged his fists on the Chief Executive's
desk to emphasize his dissatisfaction. The President denied that any
partisanship played a role in the Alaska statehood issue and assured the members
that Alaska statehood posed many problems which needed attention. He was most
likely concerned, however, with preserving the narrow Republican margin in
The next effort to derail the statehood cause came in the form of a Senate
proposal to make Alaska and Hawaii "commonwealths" of the U. S., with elective
governorships. But the interest of the people of Alaska was not swayed from
statehood. Another series of Congressional hearings about Alaska's situation
instilled in many Alaskans an interest in more aggressive action. Such
enthusiasm ultimately brought about the 1955 Constitutional Convention, held in
the newly appointed Constitution Hall on the grounds of the University of
Alaska-Fairbanks. It was here that Senator Ernest Gruening delivered his
galvanizing Let Us End American Colonialism address. The convention received
phenomenal national exposure and was praised by numerous journalists for its
idealistic attention to "the good of Alaska" rather than partisan politics. In
1956, the resulting Constitution1
- which the National Municipal League called
"one of the best, if not the best, state constitutions ever written" - was
overwhelmingly accepted by Alaskans.
Another crucial maneuver toward statehood was the adoption of the Tennessee
Plan, proposed by George H. Lehleitner, an ex-Navy commander. The plan, which
had been used successfully by Tennessee, Michigan, California, Oregon, Kansas,
and Iowa, involved electing a Congressional delegation without waiting for an
enabling act from Congress. In the spring of 1956, Alaskans elected Ernest
Gruening and William Egan as Senators-elect and Ralph J. Rivers as House
Representative-elect. With support for statehood firmly established in Alaska,
the stage was now set for reinvigorated efforts in the nation's Congress. Egan,
Gruening, and Rivers were received with much fanfare, but were not officially
seated or recognized by Congress.
Working together with Delegate Bob Bartlett, the Tennessee Plan delegation
lobbied hard in the Senate and the House. Influential House Speaker Sam Rayburn
of Texas, until the summer of 1957 a foe of statehood, changed his mind and
promised to give the territory a chance to be heard. Rayburn, when asked about
his change in view, answered "I can tell you in two words, 'Bob Bartlett'."
With regard to Alaska's economic base, the discovery of oil in
the late summer of 1957 helped the territory leap the final hurdle toward
becoming a state. The presence of oil in commercial quantities just outside of
Anchorage started an oil rush throughout the Kenai Peninsula. As
Alaska's immense wealth of resources was finally realized, Congress was quickly
convinced to disregard past arguments against statehood.
On the night of June 30, I958, the United States Senate, by a
vote of 64-20, assured the admission of the Territory of Alaska into the Union
as the 49th state. The Act touched off a gigantic celebration that extended from
Anchorage to Point Barrow and all points in between, as well as southeastern
Alaska. Huge bonfires had been prepared, and the moment the word was received,
they were kindled by jubilant crowds. Bands, speeches, parades, fireworks,
shouting and dancing in the streets were all part of the joyous demonstrations
that lasted through the night and well into the next day. On August 26, in the
heaviest election turnout in Alaska's history, her people voted five to one in
favor of statehood.
AT LAST..."YOU'RE IN NOW!"
With sectional conflicts breaking down and
the power of the Democrats diminishing, Congress reconvened in January 1958 to the sounds of President
Eisenhower fully endorsing Alaska statehood for the first time.
The Senate, which had before it both its own version of the statehood bill
and the House version, passed the House version at the urging of Delegate
Bartlett by a 64-20 margin. The House then passed the bill by a vote of 210-166.
New York Representative Leo W. O' Brien, when asked about the almost miraculous
materialization of needed Congressional support for the statehood bill,
considered a key factor to be the friendship so many lawmakers felt for Bob
Through the combined efforts of Ernest Gruening,
Bob Bartlett, and many other unacknowledged Alaskans, the statehood cause was
finally victorious. On January 3, 1959, President Eisenhower
declaration, which made the territory of Alaska the 49th state. She
became the first new state admitted to the Union since 1912. The headline in the
Anchorage News read "IKE SAYS: YOU'RE IN NOW!"
The new 49-star flag, to become official on July 4, was unfurled immediately
after the President signed the documents.
Proclamation 3269 Admission of the
State of Alaska into the Union1 and
Executive Order 107982 Flag of the
United States are published in the Federal Register (24 F.R. 79 and 81,
That same day, William A. Egan, born and
raised in Valdez, became Alaska's first governor.
view a copy of the original Statehood Act,
Historical Government Documents.
Executive Order 10798 is an
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