On 1 July 1957, at the height of the Cold War, the International Geophysical Year (IGY) – the most comprehensive international scientific study ever undertaken, was launched. For a brief moment, the IGY would bridge the east-west divide when governments agreed to facilitate the establishment of scientific programmes across all continents, including Antarctica. The IGY would usher in the space age, unsettle Antarctic claimant states and heralded the advent of a new Antarctic order.
The International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU), one of the oldest non-governmental organisations, whose membership included academies of science, from both east and west, sponsored the IGY. [i]The ICSU urged its members to secure their governments’ financial support and commitment for a successful IGY and not to introduce politics into their deliberations.
The IGY was hardly an electrifying event in itself. But it did excite the popular imagination after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, giving birth to the space age.
Despite the outward signs of goodwill that the IGY projected, the refusal of the ICSU to recognise the political borders of Antarctica unsettled and angered some claimant states, namely Argentina, Australia and Chile. These three claimants insisted that nations wishing to enter their territories to establish IGY stations should seek permission first and leave at the conclusion of the IGY. The ICSU refused to consider Antarctica as a continent with political borders and ignored these calls.
As news filtered through that the two nuclear giants were proposing to establish scientific bases on the Australian Antarctic Territory, Australia wondered how it could possibly remove them at the conclusion of the IGY. It was pointless to assume that any nation that did not recognise Antarctic sovereignty claims would seek Australian consent and neither the United States nor the Soviet Union did so. The Minister for External Affairs, R. G. Casey, decided to pre-empt a diplomatic problem by publicly welcoming all IGY participating countries and offering Australia’s help to those wishing to undertake scientific research in the Australian Antarctic Territory.[ii] Casey’s invitation was at the same time a face-saving device and an assertion of Australian sovereignty. He recorded later that, Cabinet had agreed that ‘I should make a public statement welcoming the Americans and the Russians to make observations. As we can’t stop them, we’d better take it with good grace.’[iii] But he and his Department were well aware that a cordial diplomatic statement was no solution to a serious problem. With 42% of Antarctica claimed by Australia, the Government feared that the presence of the two superpowers would destabilise the region and turn Antarctica into another theatre of the Cold War.
Although sixty-seven countries participated in the IGY, there was no international rush to take part in its Antarctic Programme, apart from a small group of eleven, which were either claimant states or pioneers of Antarctic voyaging. Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom, were all claimants, but not all of them recognised each other’s claims. The United States and the Soviet Union were not claimants, nor was Belgium. All three refused to recognise sovereignty claims and reserved their rights in Antarctica. Under the post-war settlement, Japan was forced to renounce its rights over a number of its external interests, including Antarctica. In addition, Argentina, Chile and the United Kingdom had been engaged in a dispute since the early 1940s over the sovereignty of the Antarctic Peninsula. The old Antarctic order was clearly broken. Yet it was unclear how a new governance regime should be negotiated and what form it should take.
Although at different times the two superpowers believed the Antarctic question should be submitted to the United Nations, the claimants, particularly Australia, were adamantly opposed. The breaking down of the borders, which the scientific invasion of Antarctica had managed to do during the course of the IGY, inspired the United States to use IGY participation as a criterion to qualify a nation to negotiate a new governance regime. President Eisenhower personally invited the eleven participants, including South Africa, which qualified as a consequence of its Antarctic interests, to commence discussions in mid-1958, before the IGY concluded. On 1 December 1959, a year after the IGY, the Antarctic Treaty was signed. This new instrument neutralised the sovereignty question by maintaining the status quo but set aside assertions of control. It defined Antarctica as a place for continuing scientific collaboration and, through an initiative submitted by Australia, ensured its non-militarisation.
Marie Kawaja is a School Visitor, currently completing a history of the Australian Antarctic Territory.
[ii] Secret and Guard, Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference 1956, Volume II, Agenda Papers, Paper No. 8 – Antarctica. NAA, Series A.1838/283, Item: 1495/1/9/1 Part 1.
[iii] Lord Casey’s Diaries, entry: 30 July 1955, National Library of Australia (NLA), MS6150, August 1954-October 1956, Vols. 17-20, p. 226.