Antarctica -- Diplomats at the End of the World

Antarctica from space
Antarctica from space

Note: Our accounts contain the personal recollections and opinions of the individual interviewed. The views expressed should not be considered official statements of the U.S. government or the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training. ADST conducts oral history interviews with retired U.S. diplomats, and uses their accounts to form narratives around specific events or concepts, in order to further the study of American diplomatic history and provide the historical perspective of those directly involved.

The Antarctic Treaty, which was signed in 1959 and went into effect in 1961, stipulates that Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes and that "no new claim, or enlargement of an existing claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica shall be asserted while the present Treaty is in force." To ensure compliance, all areas of Antarctica, including the bases, are open for inspection at all times. Scientists conducting research make up the majority of the temporary population. While tourism is growing, few individuals get the opportunity to visit the frozen continent, although some Foreign Service Officers are able to travel there on official business.

In separate interviews by ADST, Bill Littlewood (interviewed in 2001); Theodore Sellin (2003); Michael W. Cotter (1998), Chief of Mission in Santiago, Chile from 1992 to 1995; and Morton R. Dworken, Jr. (2008) all discuss their various diplomatic encounters with the Antarctic. Read the entire account on 2015-09-03-1441288029-2060991-SouthPole200x200.jpg

LITTLEWOOD: [In September 1954] I found myself with a desk job. But I wanted field work. Oceanography, and later Foreign Service, is really the way to see other parts of the world. So I was needling my Division Director to put me back in the sea-going job. He said that we were starting to prepare for the "International Geophysical Year" [IGY, 1957-58] coming up. Everybody will remember that the IGY was when Sputnik went up.

The Antarctic program "Operation Deep Freeze" would be starting, as the U.S. had to find sites for the research bases that were going to be built there. The Navy (I was still working for the U.S. Navy), would be the one that did the ocean transportation, logistics and the operations. We would do an oceanographic program on the way down, there, and on the way back, because there were very little oceanographic data from the Antarctic areas at that time. We would have oceanographic teams on each of the four icebreakers.

What then happened was the Antarctic Treaty. Its purpose was to continue the great international scientific studies there that occurred during the IGY.

The Antarctic continent is the size of the United States and Western Europe together. I was in charge of planning where our teams would go. They had to go more or less where the icebreakers had to go, but then there were some deviations to do oceanographic work too, provided they don't get called away on some emergency once they finish their continental station support work. We oceanographers weren't very popular when the ships were heading home, as we would stop to do an oceanographic station. Everybody wants to get home and every two-hour station we would make, delayed the ship's arrival back at home port. We compromised in a lot of those. 2015-09-03-1441288088-6593926-OperationDeepFreezeWyandotKA9268391024x682.jpg SELLIN: The Antarctic Treaty was becoming very important for one particular reason. This was 1974. OPEC had been established, the oil embargo was in effect, and everyone was scrambling for oil. And somehow or other, there had been some research done to suggest that there was oil under the continental shelf of Antarctica.

Now, the fact that this continental shelf is submerged to God knows how far down, 800 feet or something, because of the weight of the ice on the continent, it's very hard to get at that stuff. But at the same time, the Law of the Sea Treaty was being negotiated, and hydrocarbon resources were involved in the Law of the Sea, and Antarctica became a thorny part of the Law of the Sea negotiations.

The upshot of this was that suddenly, instead of having the National Science Foundation and the State Department making up Antarctic policy and the delegations to the Antarctic Treaty consultative meetings, suddenly you had to have the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] as observers, we had to have Commerce because of the oil, DOD [Department of Defense] because of logistics, and so on. So these delegations to the annual consultative meetings grew tremendously. The job took on a dimension that was not envisioned by me or anyone, and turned out to be a very important job and a stimulating one.

But in the 70's there was confusion about Antarctica's future. And potential mineral resources exploitation, even marine living resources, were driving forces that could eroding the pristine environmental conditions of the continent, which State was trying to protect....

Q: Now, were there difficulties with Congress in this regard?

SELLIN: Well, Senator [Claiborne] Pell was the only one that I ever had any interaction with. I actually went to testify; I had never done that before. He called a committee meeting to explore our position on the oil exploitation. The National Science Foundation and the State Department weren't too keen on the oil drilling notion in Antarctica, but we had some pretty powerful enemies. So we did testify and it turned out to be a little meeting in Senator Pell's office with a stenographer....

Anyhow, it wasn't Congress so much an adversary, it was really the overall full- court press by various other government agencies who locked horns. Of course the EPA was in a sense on the State Department's side, and on the National Science Foundation's side. They didn't want anybody to interrupt the scientific work or mess up the penguin rookeries and things like that.

And one of the things we had to do was create designated areas of special interest where nobody could go. These would be either nature preserves or places that had scientific potential for some kind of research. That was one of the principal jobs of the consultative meetings every year, to redraw the map of Antarctica a little bit.

COTTER: Chile and Argentina extend down close to Antarctica. If you look at a map, there is a peninsula that sticks up from Antarctica and comes close to those countries. They are separated from it by the Drake Channel, which is the main passage through Cape Horn. Chile and Argentina are among a number of countries that have territorial claims in Antarctica. The U.S. doesn't. We have always maintained that the white continent ought to be saved as an international zone for scientific exploration. A number of other countries, primarily but not solely, those that are contiguous to Antarctica take a different view and assert territorial sovereignty claims.

Under the Antarctic Treaty, all countries agreed to place those claims in abeyance. In any event, that peninsula is very popular for scientific stations. One main reason is that in the summer the snow all melts and it is solid ground, which makes it easier to build and support bases. That is good for countries whose technology doesn't really go as far as supporting bases on ice. On that peninsula, you find, in one very small area, a large number of bases, including Chinese, Russian, Polish, British, German, and Argentine, of course. All those bases are fairly near one another.

The U.S. has a scientific station a little bit further down the west side of that peninsula, called Palmer Station. The base is essentially open for scientific work about four or five months a year. The National Science Foundation runs it. We fly in scientists at the beginning of the southern summer, in November, and then fly them back out again in March. 2015-09-03-1441288172-8533656-palmerstation1024x430.jpg The flying is done by the New York Air National Guard, out of Schenectady, which has a lot of experience flying in snowy conditions. It flies C-130s, which are the largest aircraft that can get into that base. They come down in November as one of their training missions and have aircraft there for two weeks or so. Scientists fly commercially as far as Punta Arenas, the southernmost town on the mainland of Chile, and then continue to the Chilean base on the C-130. So, you fly down to the Chilean base, and then take one of the research vessels for an overnight run down to Palmer Station.

I had an opportunity to take this trip. Timing is chancy. You may be in Punta Arenas a couple days because if the weather isn't good enough and anticipated to be good enough at the Chilean base for the plane to make the two-hour flight down and make it back, they won't go.

The base at Palmer Station is quite small. It only has several buildings with dorm-type sleeping quarters and then common rooms. The scientists study primarily animal and plant life. The krill is a very popular subject of study, as are the various animals that feed off it. Seals, penguins, and lots of birds feed off krill or each other.

DWORKEN: [Antarctica] was a special plus about duty in New Zealand. I think I was aware beforehand that there was something called Operation Deep Freeze, but I never realized how much America had invested in the South Pole Station, the station on McMurdo Sound, and the whole range of scientific and strategic activities in which we engaged in Antarctica. It has become even more important these days. Some of the best data about global warming is from the pristine environment in Antarctica. New Zealand had its own station also in McMurdo Sound that they supported as well; they were one of the major participants in Antarctica exploration.

That whole U.S. activity was supported from a base alongside the airport in Christchurch, in the middle of the South Island. The practice was that every year the Ambassador to New Zealand gets two seats on the various scheduled military aircraft that go down to McMurdo and the South Pole as a perk and to recognize that the Ambassador had general influence over that activity. I got one of those seats once, and the PAO and I went down together.

I should explain: During the winter, there are very few people at McMurdo and even fewer in South Pole Station, but in the Antarctic summer (beginning late in our calendar year and ending in February or early March), there are hundreds and hundreds of scientific and support personnel who flood down to Antarctica. Most of that goes through Christchurch. Most of the aircraft pass through Christchurch as well, because it is a seven-and-a-half or eight-hour flight by C-130 to get there; these are special C-130s that have skis on them.

There were only two squadrons of C-130s in the U.S. inventory that had skis and extreme cold weather experience; one was part of the New York Air National Guard, and the other was part of the U.S. Navy out of the U.S. west coast. The New York unit supported Arctic activities, and the Navy aircraft supported Antarctica. The Navy concluded this was uneconomic, and in one of their downsizing and reapportionment operations, they decided to give up this specialty aircraft. Mind you, these specially built C-130s were equipped with skis that had wheels embedded through them, and each ski cost over $1 million. They break from time to time, so it was a big investment.

That changeover from the Navy to the National Science Foundation, along with all of its associated personnel and equipment, and a new contract with the New York Air National Guard to cover both the Arctic and Antarctica led to a massive change in our footprint in Christchurch. This was a downsizing, again, money saving in one sense but also expense shifting.

Part of the reason the PAO [Public Affairs officer] and I went on that orientation trip was to gather information that we could use to describe the changes to the New Zealand government and public. We were concerned that there would be all this employee turbulence, downsizing, and shifting around. We also gave advice on how to make that appear as smooth as possible. In the event, it was a very smooth transition, one of the smoothest I've ever seen for that kind of multifaceted change. 2015-09-03-1441288253-7424331-mcmurdo2008.jpg A couple of things about Antarctica: It was an amazing trip to an amazing place, and the people who are down there are very special in their willingness to be in this small isolated community. They seemed to have tremendously high morale, very much mission oriented, both civilian and military, and very much imbued with the idea that they are in an environment that needs protection. The emphasis on protection of that environment was fantastic.

Things in that cold an environment last forever, because it is an icebox even in the summertime. A generation ago, we just threw everything away or buried it in the ice, so there were still things there from the original explorations, like the original huts and their contents that [Antarctic explorer Robert] Scott and others had set up [during their ill-fated 1910-13 Terra Nova expedition]. Now, there is a great recycling effort. I had never seen so much care taken to divide cardboard from regular paper, to divide colored glass from white glass, to divide plastics refuse into different categories, and to separate all that, package and preserve it, and then ship it out.

The South Pole Station, which is mainly a dome partially buried in the snow and ice, was beginning to fail. It started out sitting on top and over time, it had become partially buried and encrusted with ice and snow. It was also deemed insufficient for the exploration and scientific work projected to be done there. So there were initial plans, which later came to pass, for building a new station up on stilts above the ice. Whatever snow that blew against it then would go under and around it rather than pile up.

We stood at the actual South Pole as well as the VIP South Pole for photos. The latter is a candy stripe thing which is right next to the runway, so you can land right alongside it. The C-130 has to keep at least one of its engines running at all times so the oil and petrol don't freeze up. You run out of the back of the C-130, run over to the ceremonial candy stripe South Pole, get your picture taken, and run back into the airplane, because they don't stay around very long.