Belanger, Deep Freeze

Published by Jacob Darwin Hamblin in Journal of American History 94 (2007), 637

Deep Freeze: The United States, the International Geophysical Year, and the Origins of Antarctica’s Age of Science.  By Dian Olson Belanger. (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2006. xxxiv, 494 pp. $29.95, ISBN 978-0-87081-830-1.).

The epic contest to reach the South Pole ended in 1912, with victory to Roald Amundsen’s efficient, well-equipped team of men and dogs, and the frozen death of Robert Scott’s entire man-hauling expedition.  Both men would have been dumbfounded to see the C-124 Globemaster airplanes, Sno-Cat tractors, crevasse detectors, scientific instruments, and sturdy semi-permanent bases proliferating across the continent just 45 years later.  Sled dogs, dutifully brought in the mid-1950s, would have seemed superfluous even to them.  Scientists and military personnel came to Antarctica as part of the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958)—an event that ushered in, as Dian Olson Belanger puts it, “Antarctica’s Age of Science.”  Most scholars know the IGY only unconsciously; it was under the mantle of this international cooperative exercise that the Soviet Union launched the satellite Sputnik.  Since then historians have debated the IGY’s legacy: it heightened world tensions yet it led to several treaties, including the one to keep Antarctica an international zone freely accessible for scientific research.

Historians should thank Belanger for taking on the daunting task of writing a history not only of the Antarctic parts of the IGY but of the preparations and some of the after-effects.  She draws upon published and unpublished documents and scores of interviews—civilian and military (officer and enlisted), men and women.  The story she tells is multifaceted: logistical problems of building bases, practical tasks of getting machinery to work, scientific data to collect, political stakes in each decision, interpersonal relations and conflicts, attitudes about women in Antarctica, scientist-naval relations, the importance of alcohol, and the psychological drama of wintering over on the continent.  The chapter “Life on the Ice,” partly about the near-mutinous attitudes toward one station leader, Finn Ronne, who monopolized the ham radio, is alone worth the price of admission.  But probably the most satisfying aspect is how clearly Belanger shows how much of the story predates the 18-month “year” itself.  Historians will be delighted to read how the U.S. Navy’s Construction Battalions (CBs, or “Seabees”) planned the infrastructure of the IGY, how they dealt with challenges (and deaths), and how they bridged the conceptual divide between the “heroic” age of exploration and the modern era of long-range supply and technology.

Belanger’s account is indispensable as a lively history and as a resource for scholars.  Looking for drawbacks is difficult, but here are two minor ones.  The first is that we still await a full history of the IGY, rather than just one about the Antarctic continent.  But to be fair to Belanger, the IGY was the inheritor of two previous “international polar years” and the icy continent always was the soul of the project.  Another is that it focuses only on the United States.  Yet the depth Belanger achieves would have been impossible had she attempted a broader synthesis.  If others will take up the task of writing the history of, say, the Soviet side of the story, they will have quite a task to measure up to Belanger’s accomplishment.

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