“No One Thinks of Greenland:” US-Greenland Relations and Perceptions of Greenland in the US from the Early Modern Period to the 20th Century

  • Ingo Heidbrink
Keywords: Greenland, USA, World War II, Cold War, International Relations


The history of US-Greenland relations and the perception of Greenland in the US is a near complete historical desideratum with only few works dealing with the subject at all and those publications covering mainly the few well-known historic events. Neither US nor Danish or Greenlandic historians have dealt with the perception of Greenland in the US from Early Modern to today in its entirety.

The article provides an overview of the history of perception of Greenland in the US and the bilateral relations of these countries from Early Modern to today, but more important also asks the question why this subject has been largely ignored. 

The title of John Griesemer’s novel “No one thinks about Greenland” is used as a parable to describe these reasons and the attitude of the US and US foreign policy towards Greenland. Furthermore, it is analyzed, why the US tried purchasing Greenland several times and why certain groups in the US had an interest to keep the US-Greenland relations in the shadows. It is also described how not purchasing Greenland made perfect sense for the US and generated a political vacuum on the island, that provided some unique opportunities for the US military. Throughout history it remained true that nearly nobody in the US thought about Greenland, resulting in a unique history of bi-lateral relations.

Author Biography

Ingo Heidbrink

Ingo Heidbrink is a German maritime and polar historian and Chair & Professor at the Department of History, Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA (USA). After his studies at the Universities of Hamburg and Bremen he worked with various maritime museums in Germany, prior to accepting a professorship at ODU in 2008. He is an internationally renowned expert for fisheries / whaling history and economic history of the polar regions. Besides being President of the International Maritime History Association, he is Expert Member of the International Polar Heritage Commission and was for two terms guest-professor at Ilisimatusarfik, the University of Greenland.


"Account of the Greenlanders, Their Habitations, &C. From Crantz's History of Greenland." The New York Magazine, or Literary Repository 3, no. 3 (1792): 165. http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=789332472&Fmt=7&clientId=3505&RQT=309&VName=HNP.

"Coca-Cola Comes to Greenland." Nunatsiaq News (Iqaluit). Aug, 20, 2004, 2004, https://nunatsiaq.com/stories/article/coca-cola_comes_to_greenland/.

"Conclusion of the New Description of Greenland." The American Magazine and Historical Chronicle 1 (1744): 359. http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=834454692&Fmt=7&clientId=3505&RQT=309&VName=HNP.

"Courtship in Greenland." Flag of Our Union 24, no. 18 (1869): 280. http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=776992092&Fmt=7&clientId=3505&RQT=309&VName=HNP.

"Cryolite - Aluminum Minerals." Scientific American Vol. VIII., no. 23 (1863): 362. http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=164236801&Fmt=7&clientId=3505&RQT=309&VName=HNP. https://doi.org/10.1038/scientificamerican06061863-362b

"Discoveries in Greenland." Army and Navy Chronicle 7, no. 6 (1838): 88. http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=792305062&Fmt=7&clientId=3505&RQT=309&VName=HNP.

"Dress of a Greenland Bell." Harper's Bazaar 2, no. 30 (1869): 475. http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=753055142&Fmt=7&clientId=3505&RQT=309&VName=HNP.

"Greenland." The United Brethren's Missionary Intelligencer, and Religious Miscellany; Containing the Most Recent Accounts Relating to the United Brethren's Missions among the Heathen; with Other Interesting Communications from the Records of that Church 3, no. 9 (1830): 428. http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=559659652&Fmt=7&clientId=3505&RQT=309&VName=HNP.

"Icy Waters Patrolled." The Science News-Letter 49, no. 12 (1946): 182-82. https://doi.org/10.2307/3922600

"Quaker Evangelists Going to Greenland." New York Evangelist 35, no. 19 (1864): 6. http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=846034442&Fmt=7&clientId=3505&RQT=309&VName=HNP.

"Traditions of the Esquimaux." The Ladies' Repository; a Monthly Periodical, Devoted to Literature, Art and Religion 29 (1868): 116. http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=1592985012&Fmt=7&clientId=3505&RQT=309&VName=HNP.

Bailey, Thomas Andrew. A Diplomatic History of the American People. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1980.

Beukel, Erik, Frede P. Jensen, and Jens Elo Rytter. Phasing out the Colonial Status of Greenland, 1945-54 : A Historical Study. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen, 2010.

Crantz, David. The History of Greenland Containing a Description of the Country, and Its Inhabitants: .... By David Crantz. Translated from the High-Dutch, ... In Two Volumes. London: Brethren's Society for the Furtherance of the Gospel among the Heathen, 1767.

Dick, Lyle. "Robert Peary's North Polar Narratives and the Making of an American Icon." American Studies 45, no. 2 (2004): 5-34.

Dongen, Jeroen van. Cold War Science and the Transatlantic Circulation of Knowledge. Leiden: Brill, 2015.

Dunbar, M. J. "Greenland During and since the Second World War." International Journal 5, no. 2 (1950): 121-40. https://doi.org/10.1177/002070205000500203

Dyer, Brainerd. "Robert J. Walker on Acquiring Greenland and Iceland." The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 27, no. 2 (1940): 263-66. https://doi.org/10.2307/1896815

Friedman, Norman. The Fifty-Year War: Conflict and Strategy in the Cold War: Naval Institute Press, 2007.

Griesemer, John. No One Thinks of Greenland. New York: Picador USA, 2001.

Heinrich, Jens. Eske Brun Og Det Moderne Grønlands Tilblivelse 1932-64: Ph.D.-Afhandling. Nuuk: Ilisimatusarfik, 2010.

Henderson, Bruce B. True North: Peary, Cook, and the Race to the Pole. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005.

Holtzman, Abraham. "Empire and Representation: The U. S. Congress." Legislative Studies Quarterly 11, no. 2 (1986): 249-73. https://doi.org/10.2307/439878

Hough, Peter. International Politics of the Arctic : Coming in from the Cold. New York: Routledge, 2013. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203496640

Jacobsen, Marc, and Sara Olsvig. "The History of the United States' Securitizations of Greenland." In Greenland in Arctic Security: (De)Securitization Dynamics under Climatic Thaw and Geopolitical Freeze. Edited by Marc Jacobsen, Ole Wæver, and Ulrik Pram. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, forthcoming.

Jakobsen, Aviâja Rosing, and Jens Heinrich. Sorsunnersuaq Kingulleq Nunarpullu = Anden Verdenskrig Og Grønland. Nuuk: Nunatta Katersugaasivia Allagaateqarfialu, 2005.

Juel, Knud. "The Thule Episode Epidemiological Follow up after the Crash of a B-52 Bomber in Greenland: Registry Linkage, Mortality, Hospital Admissions." Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 46, no. 4 (1992): 336-39. https://doi.org/10.1136/jech.46.4.336

Kane, Elisha Kent. Arctic Explorations : The Second Grinnell Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin, 1853, '54, '55. Philadelphia: Childs & Peterson, 1856.

Lidegaard, Bo. I Kongens Navn : Henrik Kauffmann I Dansk Diplomati, 1919-1958. København: Samleren, 1996.

Loukacheva, Natalia. The Arctic Promise : Legal and Political Autonomy of Greenland and Nunavut. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007. https://doi.org/10.3138/9781442684874

Marquardt, Ole. From Sealing to Fishing : Social and Economic Change in Greenland, 1850-1940. ReykjavÌk: North Atlantic Fisheries History Assoc.

Mettele, Gisela. Weltbürgertum Oder Gottesreich : Die Herrnhuter Brüdergemeine Als Globale Gemeinschaft 1727-1857. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2009.

Myers, Henry Allen. Greenland During the Cold War : Danish and American Security Policy 1945-68. Copenhagen: Danish Institute of International Affairs, 1997.

Neuman, Scott. "No Joke: Trump Really Does Want to Buy Greenland." NPR. 2019. Accessed 15 Nov. 2021, 2021. https://www.npr.org/2019/08/19/752274659/no-joke-trump-really-does-want-to-buy-greenland.

Nielsen, Kristian Hvidtfelt, and Henry Nielsen. Camp Century : The Untold Story of America's Secret Arctic Military Base under the Greenland Ice. New York: Columbia University Press, 2021.

Novak, Thaddeus D., and P. J. Capelotti. Life and Death on the Greenland Patrol, 1942. Gainesville, Fla.: University Press of Florida, 2005.

Ostrom, Thomas P. The United States Coast Guard in World War Ii : A History of Domestic and Overseas Actions. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2009.

Pedersen, Nikolaj. The Iceman That Didn't Come : "Project Iceworm" and the Search for a Nato Deterrent, 1960-1962. Aarhus: Institut for Statskundskab, Aarhus Universitet, 2005.

Pedersen, Nikolaj. "The Iceman That Never Came." Scandinavian Journal of History 33, no. 1 (2008): 75-98. https://doi.org/10.1080/03468750701449554

Peirce, Benjamin Mills, and United States Department of State. Report on Resources of Iceland and Greenland. [Washington?]: U.S. G.P.O., 1868.

Richardson, L.N. A History of Early American Magazines, 1741-1789: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1931.

Rink, H. Danish Greenland: Its People and Products. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1974. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt1w1vkxx

Schreiber, Melody. "Greenland Pm Calls for Closer Us Ties in Washington Visit." ArcticToday. 2022. Accessed 9.9.2022. https://www.arctictoday.com/greenland-pm-calls-for-closer-us-ties-in-washington-visit/?wallit_nosession=1.

Sharp, Isaac. "Narrative of Isaac Sharp's Visit to Greenland in 1864." Friends' Review; a Religious, Literary and Miscellaneous Journal 19, no. l (1865): 6. http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=1115755472&Fmt=7&clientId=3505&RQT=309&VName=HNP.

Skarstein, Frode. ""A Cursed Affair"-How a Norwegian Expedition to Greenland Became the Usa's First Maritime Capture in World War Ii." Polar Research 26, no. 2 (2007): 181-94. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-8369.2007.00019.x

Sørensen, Axel Kjær. Denmark-Greenland in the Twentieth Century. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum, 2009.

Sullivan, Helen. "Us No Longer Wants to Buy Greenland, Blinken Confirms." The Guardian. 2021. Accessed 9.9.2022. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/may/21/us-no-longer-wants-to-buy-greenland-blinken-confirms.

Tilley, John A., and United States Coast Guard. The Coast Guard & the Greenland Patrol. [Washington, D.C.]: [Coast Guard Historian's Office], 1992.

Torres, G. E., ed., Project Crested Ice. Kirtland, New Mexico: U.S. Air Force, 1970.

Ulbak, Kaare, ed., The Thule Accident : Assessment of Radiation Doses from Terrestrial Radioactive Contamination. Copenhagen: National Board of Health, 2011.

Walsøe, Per. Goodbye Thule : The Compulsory Relocation in 1953. Copenhagen: Tiderne Skifter, 2003.

Ward, Robert De C. "A Cruise with the International Ice Patrol." Geographical Review 14, no. 1 (Jan) (1924): 50-61. https://doi.org/10.2307/208354

Weiss, Erik D. "Cold War under the Ice: The Army's Bid for a Long-Range Nuclear Role, 1959-1963." Journal of Cold War Studies 3, no. 3 (2001): 31-58. https://doi.org/10.1162/152039701750419501
How to Cite
Heidbrink, I. (2022). “No One Thinks of Greenland:” US-Greenland Relations and Perceptions of Greenland in the US from the Early Modern Period to the 20th Century. American Studies in Scandinavia, 54(2), 8-34. https://doi.org/10.22439/asca.v54i2.6739