On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom
The year 1956 was formative in the history of Alaska. I recently bought a bundle of papers about Ernest Gruening from the autograph dealer Howard S. Mott of Sheffield, Mass. Gruening was territorial governor from 1939 to 1953. He wrote a letter on April 11, 1956 to the historian Mrs. John Allen Davis of Nantucket Island, Mass.
In the letter, he tells of the progress of the Alaska Legislature and the constitutional convention in drafting a new charter. It had to be approved by a vote of the people on April 24, 1956. Also to be voted on was a plan to elect two U.S. senators and one representative, even though we were not yet a state. This was called the Tennessee Plan because Tennessee had used it first to nudge Congress to approve statehood.
Also in the collection of documents is Gruening's keynote address to the constitutional convention at College in Nov. 9, 1955. The title of the speech was "Let us End American Colonialism."
In the recent 50th anniversary celebrations concerning the preparation and writing of the Alaska Constitution, it is sometimes forgotten that this was not just a sedate step in the path to a certain future. Statehood was not certain. We had been trying for a long time without success. So as much as a deliberate act of constitutional study and creation, the meeting of the delegates was a propaganda tool that along with the Tennessee Plan was used to energize the supporters of statehood and challenge the Congress to act. Those were uncertain times.
Gruening was a populist in the best definition of the word. He went on to serve in the U.S. Senate and with Wayne Morse of Oregon voted against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution that led to the major commitment of U.S. troops to Vietnam. His continued opposition probably led to his eventual re-election defeat by Mike Gravel.
On Nov. 9, 1955, Gruening gave a fiery speech defending the rights of Alaska's citizens before the constitutional delegates.
Let me quote his closing words.
"This constitutional convention is an important mobilization. But the battle still lies ahead, and it will require all our fortitude, audacity, resoluteness - and maybe something more - to achieve victory. When the need for that something more comes, if we have the courage - the guts - to do whatever is necessary, we shall not fail."
I would have loved to have been a reporter then, to rush up to the dais at the speech's conclusion to ask Gov. Gruening what would be "that something more."
Years later, when he became a U.S. senator, I'm sure he would have said it was only a rhetorical flourish.
But in my own memory of the times there was the realization that Alaska's territorial status was indeterminate and temporary, that to be "full citizens" there had to be in the political future "something more," if not a state, then even perhaps a nation.
Maybe that was what Gruening was thinking too.
I went out to his home at Eagle River to ask him to sign his new book, "The State of Alaska." I had been writing articles for the Juneau Independent (my editor was George Sundborg) criticizing the federal management of the fisheries, and even suggesting corruptive ties between the fish managers and the canned salmon operators. So perhaps for that reason he penned the following note:
"For Elton Engstrom Jr., who has already demonstrated his qualifications for leadership in the coming state of Alaska with the best wishes of the author Ernest Gruening, Eagle River Landing, Aug. 21, 1955."
Elton Engstrom is a lifelong Alaskan, retired fish-buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.