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Book Reviews

Stepping Stones To Nowhere: The Aleutian Islands, Alaska And American Military Strategy, 1867-1945

by Galen Roger Perras
Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press 274 pages, $85.00
Reviewed by A.M. Jack Hyatt

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Book CoverThe Aleutian Islands receive scant coverage in many of the general works on the Second World War. For the most part, the Japanese occupation of Attu and its recapture by American Forces in June 1943 is given little attention. The assault on Kiska, after the island had been abandoned by the Japanese, was launched by a large American force, which included 5,000 Canadians, and is generally regarded as a waste of scarce resources that could have been used more fruitfully elsewhere. In fact, Galen Perras demonstrates that the islands, which came to the US with the Alaskan Purchase, played a significant role in American defence planning since their acquisition. The operations in the Aleutians in the Second World War were the result of “decades of debate about the potential strategic value – or lack thereof – of that isolated and windswept archipelago.” The debate, and the operations that resulted from it, are brilliantly summarized in Stepping Stones to Nowhere. More importantly, the book shows how the Aleutian Islands “became ‘a lodestone for strategists who had never been there’ and for some who had”. In Perras’s words, this is “a story of strong personalities seeking to up-end or disregard the unbending dictates of geography and climate, the vagaries of domestic and international politics, the often acrimonious arguments over strategic principles, intense inter-service rivalry and personal animosities, and the development of a Canadian-American military alliance.”

Perras examines in detail the various views on the importance of both the islands and Alaska to the defence of the United States since the acquisition of Alaska in October 1867 through to the opening of the Second World War. The number who believed that Alaska was important to the defence of the country was small, but included some rather important personalities – Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, Secretary of War Elihu Root, President Teddy Roosevelt and General Billy Mitchell among them. In spite of such important voices, Alaska and the Aleutians were almost always a cover for inter-service rivalries, personal ambitions or political considerations. Plans for the occupation, defence or development of the islands rarely received official sanction from the highest military or civilian authorities.

The meticulous research behind this incredible story is impressive. Indeed, a quick count shows that the author examined records held in more than 30 repositories, ranging from the National Archives of Australia to the University Library in the University of Alaska. His bibliography is extensive and his research prodigious. One could almost ask if the topic is worth such an extended investigation. However, if the question is asked, the answer must be an emphatic “yes”. The Aleutian Islands may have been “Stepping Stones to Nowhere,” but the story of their place in American strategic planning is a cautionary tale students of strategy and military planning should not ignore. The planning process in the United States was cumbersome and awkward, and was often complicated by clashing personalities and personal ambitions at all levels of the planning structure. It was made more difficult by the attitude of reluctant or self-interested allies. Perras shows that even the attitude of the second Roosevelt President could complicate the process substantially.

In the end, Perras agrees with Samuel Eliot Morison that “the Aleutian campaign had no appreciable effect on the wider outcome of the war”. The same cannot be said of the impact that the Aleutians had on American military planning. Perras argues that the Aleutian campaign greatly accelerated the development of Alaska, which is certainly true. However, this development was sustained by the discovery and extraction of priceless natural resources. The book is well written, well argued, and an astonishingly interesting read.

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Dr. Jack Hyatt is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Western Ontario.