This is an essay I wrote a few years ago & updated. Who says History can’t be goofy? It all depends on how you look at it.
Fire and Ice
(Or, Who Says History Can’t be Goofy?)
(More Or: Iceland, the 49th State? One Politician’s Lonely Crusade)
I went on a Quest recently, trying to find out why Bertrand Gearhart wanted Iceland admitted to the Union. I stumbled upon Congressman Gearhart while reading John Toland’s Infamy, wherein Toland recounts some of the many investigations into the Japanese “surprise” attack on Pearl Harbor. Amid describing events that took place around WWII, Toland introduces Mr Gearhart with an apparently offhand line that is magnificent in its weirdness, saying that Gearhart’s “chief claim to fame was advocacy of Iceland as the forty-ninth state.” Now, Toland is a fine writer, but proclaiming that the man wanted Iceland as a state and then sailing straight back to Pearl Harbor simply will not do. I had never heard of Bertrand Gearhart, but he immediately acquired a misty, Quixotic stature in my mind; Iceland?
I was reading Infamy in the first place because history fascinates and sometimes alarms me. I began to get a broad view of history around the time I heard Santayana’s “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It was only later that I ran across Henry Ford’s assertion that “history is more or less bunk,” and Henry never had a chance. Those who doubt Santayana’s insight might cast their minds to a certain event which occurred just after the beginning of the 21st century in New York City, and which was the second devastating attack on mainland America where, once again, we were caught with our pants down. Even more died on 9/11 than the 2,403 who lost their lives at Pearl Harbor almost exactly sixty years earlier.
Although these dreadful events reinforce Santayana, his dictum is less dire (and more entertaining) when the issue of statehood is considered. Another state added to the Union is not only innocuous, but the likelihood of Iceland being that state is infinitesimal. However, I can’t get Gearhart’s crusade out of my mind . . . Iceland?
Why Iceland? To an arcanophile, that tidbit is as irresistible as free crack to an addict. The obvious reason is strategic, but that’s simply dull. I imagined numerous fantastic explanations but set out to see if I could uncover any actual facts. Mr Toland researched an astonishing amount of material while writing Infamy, including (apparently) reading the entire Congressional Record from 1941-1946 plus all thirty-nine volumes of the congressional committee’s report on PH, thus proving that he’s far more stalwart than I. I decided that if it came to that, I’d stick with imagination. The notion of the state of Iceland seems tailor-made for fancy, anyway.
I learned a few other things about Mr Gearhart in Infamy; he was a Republican US representative from Fresno, California, and served on the 1945 bipartisan congressional committee which investigated whose fault it was that the Japanese caught the Americans napping and bombed the bejeezus out of Pearl Harbor. Revisionist historians assert that Roosevelt knew Pearl Harbor was about to get its clock cleaned and kept mum as a guaranteed way of blasting Americans out of isolationism and into World War II. Before the attack on Pearl, more than half of all Americans, including Bertrand Gearhart, wanted nothing to do with the war. Most changed their minds by December 8 but they wanted to know who to blame for the worst disaster in US Naval history. Early official reports faulted Army and Navy brass in Hawaii. The congressional committee, in a show of the unity which characterizes politics in any era, produced two separate reports with conflicting conclusions. Until the last minute, Mr Gearhart sided with the Republicans, who held those in Washington most responsible. Then he jumped ship and signed the Democrats’ report, which basically made scapegoats of the Pacific commanders. This last minute change of allegiance disappointed me greatly, for I side with the Revisionists and wanted Mr G to stand firm. Toland briefly explains that Gearhart probably switched sides for political reasons, but says no more about that remarkable statehood issue. Iceland?
Congressman Gearhart’s abrupt reversal struck me as a bit cowardly, perhaps, but this did not deflect me. My curiosity was blazing, although not to the extent that I was willing to leave the house, so my next stop was the Encyclopedia Britannica which resides in my computer. It knew even less than I about Gearhart, having no entry on him at all. Onward then, to that snarled tangle of information, misinformation, and trivia, the Internet. Oh Bertrand, wherefore didst thou advocate Iceland?
Trolling a search engine with “Bertrand Gearhart” netted a surprising number of hits including, inexplicably, a book about J Edgar Hoover which contained no mention of Gearhart whatsoever. While poring through this text I learned that the FBI once installed a bug in a Mafia man’s bathroom and perforce recorded hundreds of hours of flushes and flatulence. This side trip threatened to derail my primary side trip, but I hauled myself back to the point. The point being, of course, Iceland.
As Toland implied, Iceland’s champion was not the most prominent politician in America. On other web sites, I learned that Gearhart was born in Fresno in 1890, his birth not heralded by a bright star in the East. He was educated without ostentation in Fresno. As he grew to manhood, Bert —I feel as if I’m on a first name basis with him by now— compiled honors quietly, as befits a budding legend: he passed the California bar in 1913; he was a second lieutenant in the 609th Aero Squadron in World War I; he was elected by Fresnovians in 1935 to the first of his seven terms as their US Representative.
My vote for Bert’s chief mundane claim to fame would be his leadership of the crusade in 1938 to have November 11, Armistice Day (later Veterans Day), declared a national holiday. I wager that not only did veterans and their families outnumber supporters of Icelandic statehood, but that they outnumbered the population of Iceland itself. This clearly indicates that Bert heard the siren call of Cause more than once.
Despite considerable time clawing through the J-trap of trivia that is the Net, I found no mention of Bert’s Icelandic enterprise. I suspect, of course, that his real reason concerned Iceland’s strategic position in the middle of the North Atlantic. But this is too banal, and I prefer to think that maybe he liked the idea of another tiny state to offset his behemoth home state of California. At the time, Iceland covered 39,698 square miles (it grew to 39,699 when a volcano erupted and formed the island of Surtsey, in 1967). It could fit inside Ohio with room left over for Delaware. I wondered if Bert was a fan of spas when I learned that Iceland has more hot springs and volcanic vents than any other country. Most of the island is covered with glaciers, cold volcanic rock, hot volcanic rock, volcanic pools, cooling lava, and bogs. Perhaps Bert had tired of the lush agriculture of his district and wanted to get away from sugar beets and raisins forever.
And what about the Icelanders? I couldn’t discover if they even knew about this US. statehood notion. Iceland had an uneasy, subordinate relationship with Denmark from 1904 until 1944, similar to Northern Ireland’s with England, albeit with more snow and fewer bombs. Icelanders were probably fed up with being ruled by a far country, although if the US took over Icelanders could at least console themselves that they were controlled by a country larger than they. Iceland was introduced to the American way of life in 1941 when a US military force of about 60,000 moved in. Was Bert convinced Icelanders wanted to trade their cod nets for zoot suits and Tarzan films?
Perhaps Bert was intrigued by the blond Nordic types that dwelt amid the fire and ice. He clearly was not a fan of almond-eyed, dark haired people, at least not if they were Japanese. In 1945, near Fresno, nineteen Nisei (second generation, American-born Japanese) were victims of arson and what would today be called drive-by shootings. The attacks heaped injury upon insult, for the victims were among the more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans —most of them US citizens— just released from internment camps. Gearhart apparently had little sympathy; he was quoted in a Watsonville (CA) newspaper as saying “The situation rests with the good judgment of the Japanese. As long as they are there, their presence will provoke incidents.” In other words, if they don’t want to be attacked in their homes, they should move. I suspect some politicians today would say the same of people of Middle Eastern origin if not for the constraints of political correctness. Maybe Bert spoke as he did because of the tenor of the time. Maybe he looked to a land whose people were the veritable antithesis of Asians; Iceland.
In addition to its xenophobia, Bert’s quote is notable for its near miss in stringing all three homophones of “there” in a row. However, Bert’s frisky facility for grammatical gamesmanship is not at issue, but his apparent yen for the physiological antithesis of Asians. His clear, vengeful racism threatened to raise the quease factor so high that I thought of dumping Bert into one of those volcanic vents. But I tried to forgive him, forget this vile aspect of his character, and return to more pleasant and less realistic realms.
Perhaps ice-eyed, flaxen haired maidens haunted Bert’s dreams; long, lean Valkyries with fierce blood in their veins. Perchance he dreamed of a snow-complected woman whispering in his ear, her breath hot as a volcanic vent but much better smelling, husky Viking voice drawing out the words until the sound passed from the susurration of skates on ice to the hiss of boiling blood, “Speak to me of Fresssssno.”
On the other hand, maybe Bert, knowing of FDR’s penchant for hot springs, wanted to open a resort for politicians so he could parboil Democrats.
I like to think of Bert as a complex figure, striving valiantly to wed an ice-scrimmed hunk of lava to the United States. I was deeply disappointed by his eleventh hour willingness to barbecue the Hawaiian officers and by his unabashed racism toward American citizens of Japanese descent. Perhaps he sacrificed Admiral Kimmel, General Short, and Japanese-Americans in order to get reelected; I hope he wrestled mightily with his conscience, weighing these dreadful actions against the good he could do as a Representative, things like Armistice Day and planting the Stars and Stripes on a volcano. Every legendary hero needs an hideous flaw or two. Hercules killed man-eating birds and performed the greatest feat of stable mucking ever, but he also killed his wife and children. Jason retrieved the golden fleece, but he ditched his wife for the daughter of a king so hung up on municipal nit-picking that he sentenced a woman to death for burying her brother (who was dead at the time). The truly great seem often to be tainted with the truly awful.
Bertrand Gearhart died in 1955, with state number forty-nine still unnamed (Alaska and Hawaii both got the nod in ’59), so he may have continued to nurse hope. I have decided that I don’t want to know what Bert had in mind. I want to invent reasons from the absurd to the ridiculous, especially when history repeats its grimmer moments and I need mental escape. I’ll picture Bert on a cinder cone in Valhalla, sporting an “I like Ice” button, wreathed in steam and draped with a Varga girl Valkyrie, holding proudly an American flag with forty-nine stars. A small windmill, although not generally associated with Iceland, would not be out of place.