Tag Archives: Canada

The Northwest Passage: It’s On! (Again…)

NASA image of the Northwest Passage

At that ambiguous turn in periods from the Late Medieval to the Early Modern, Europe was broadening its horizons in a way that only the Vikings had approached previously.  The Italians dominated the Mediterranean; the Spanish the central and southern Atlantic; the Portuguese the Indian Ocean.  In northern Europe, France, England and the Dutch wanted in on the game.  Once the whole global idea started to set in for the wider European set, it became clear to many in these northern countries that logically a northwest passage should exist to link northern Europe to the lucrative markets in the Far East.

Many tried.  All failed.  Some survived, but many did not.  Emerging from the medieval world’s Little Ice Age, ice blocked the route from the northern Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean through the Arctic north of modern-day Canada.  Those who ventured out were motivated by adventure, wealth, prestige and royal charters.  This failure led to the French demise in North America since they chose not to pursue colonization as fully as did the English (and the Spanish to the south).  Their leave-[little]-trace approach to colonization of their New World holdings, reinforced by the lack of a northern trade route enabled England, fresh off the colonization of Ireland, to overwhelm them.  Unlike the French, the English would build a formidable Navy unhindered by the obvious obstacles: a) its northerly position and b) its distance from the obvious trade routes to the East.

The need to get from North America’s east coast to the Pacific more efficiently remained relevant.  This is obvious by America’s interest in the Panama Canal.  In the first couple decades of the 20th century (1904-1914), America invested millions of dollars and (estimated) over 30,000 lives (lost) in building the Panama Canal.  (For more information on the Panama Canal visit the Canal de Panama website with English translation.)  Western Civilization may have advanced since the Age of Discovery, but shipping remains as essential now as it ever has been–and, likely more so than it ever was.

With the dual advents of the Cold War and the nuclear submarine, movement in Arctic waters–or, more accurately, under Arctic waters–actually turned the region into a pretty warm zone.  In fact, the Arctic was arguably the hottest point outside of actual war zones in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan–perhaps even hotter than outer space during the Space Race!  Of course, this was due to simple geographic proximity during the Cold War’s bipolar chess match.

Now, once again, nations are competing for the Northwest Passage.  Today, the major players are Canada and the U.S. with a few other competing claims.  There are also pressing concerns by Inuit cultures who have long lived in the region and are somewhat better recognized today than during the period of European “Discovery“.  Other than the nationalities represented and their existing establishment in the New World, the competition has changed very little in the intervening years since the Age of Discovery.  Is this evidence of that period ushering in the modern era?  Is it proof of the relevance history has in current affairs?  Is it yet another opening for social, economic and political discussions of trade or environment?  Yes.

Check out the links below for more on the development of the issue and the history of the fabled passage.

Map of the Northwest Passage from Princeton online exhibit (link below)

Of Maps and Men: In Pursuit of a Northwest Passage (Princeton online exhibit)

Arctic Passage (NOVA)

Canada boosts claim to Northwest Passage (Financial Times)

Arctic nations agree steps to boost cooperation (Reuters)

Northwest Passage (Forbes)

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Reflections on the American Historical Association Annual Meeting, 2

I loves sports!  I am a huge football and ice hockey fan!!  So, I was thrilled to attend the following workshop in preparation for my Sports in America special topics history class at The Community College of Baltimore County.

The Hynes Convention Center where the AHA 2011 conference was held (and where an exceptionally irritating fire alarm interrupted the session I am describing in this post)!

Cold War Sport in Global Context

Winning the Cold War in East Asia: Sport and Regionalism, Sandra Collins, California Sate University at Chico

Home and Away: East Germany and the 1972 Olympics in the Age of Ostpolitik, Christopher Young, University of Cambridge

The Soviet-Canadian Rivalry and a Japanese Battleground: Canadian Hockey Professionals Meet the Soviets, 1970-77, John A. Soares, Jr., University of Notre Dame

This was a fantastic workshop based on the premise that sports during the Cold War were not merely symbolic but deliberate tools in diplomacy, control and, as Soares described it, clearly identifiable victories and losses.  Collins evaluated the IOC’s political maneuvering in Asia and the clear absence of its supposed political neutrality.  Young looked at the GDR and its involvement in the 1972 Olympic Games (although I confess one of the most interesting features was the poll of GDR youth in evaluating national vs German success in the Games).  Soares presented (through fire alarms, believe it or not . . . poor Bobby Hall . . . being disrespected in Boston!) on the intentional use of ice hockey by the Candians in the Cold War diplomacy and international competition.

Collins (author of the book, The Missing Olympics) discussed the IOC’s lack of neutrality in Asia during the 1960s, banning certain countries from participation.  This prompted the founding of the Games of the Newly Emerging Forces (GNEFO) out of Indonesia.  These games were aimed at those countries in Asia and Central/South America who were blacklisted by the IOC precisely for political reasons.  Whereas the Olympic Games were heading to Japan in 1964, GNEFO was being held in defiance in 1962–the IOC banned any country that participated in the ’62 GNEFO from the ’64 Japanese games.  South Korea withdrew from GNEFO and Japan, in seeming defiance, sent a B-squad.  (It was suggested that this might have been a determined effort to distance Japan from its internationally enforced relationship with Taiwan.)  Clearly, this active involvement in international politics on the part of the IOC.  (Inspired by this talk I found this 1963 Sports Illustrated article covering GNEFO.)

Young is a scholar after my own heart (although much more accomplished and knowledgeable) who is actually a medievalist, doing sports history for the joy of it!  For the purposes of my brief post, I choose to focus on two points from his larger presentation–one from his paper and one from the comments and questions afterwards.  One of the most interesting aspects from this discussion was his summary of the opinion polls that the GDR took from their youth–the category of youth who were not on board with the government were categorized as those “not yet disposed” to support the government!  In these polls, a hypothetical handball tournament was suggested among the USSR, East Germany, West Germany and Denmark and the youth were asked which teams they would support.  Whereas East Germany won by a landslide and the USSR came in second, the West came in at a very close third.  Polls also revealed a great deal of animosity for the individual GDR athletes, despite the universal support for the GDR teams.  Citizens of the GDR reveled in the success of West Germany during the Olympics, as well.  Young concluded that the support for athletic representation was not necessarily support for the regime.  In response to a the commentator and a query from the audience, Young also discussed gender during the Olympics and the preparation for those Olympics.  The GDR recognized the rise of female participation in the Olympics and deliberately sought to dominate in this arena.  Of course, this policy led to the tainted metals won by the steroid-juiced athletes in 1972.

During the Cold War, the competition to demonstrate the superiority of these opposed ways of life and governance spawned many “cultural exchanges” that were intended to out-do and create dissension among the various populations.  Soares demonstrates the deliberate use of ice hockey by the Canadians to fight these cultural wars.  Ice hockey, in particular, is uniquely appropriate for this discussion, Soares explained, because all the relevant powers played it, it was a team sport and the diplomats considered it one of their weapons.  There was deliberate discussion about utilizing ice hockey instead of ballets and symphonies to win the war for the people’s sympathies.  The Canadians boycotted the Olympics for many years, offended by the farcical claim of communist and socialist countries that they were sending teams of amateurs in compliance with the rules.  Ice hockey was also an important link between Canada and Japan in their attempts to build diplomatic ties independently of the U.S.

Of course, this is a brief summary of larger discussions and contexts, but it shows not just the legitimacy of considering sports in the Cold War, but the actual necessity of it!

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