February 16, 2009
February is Black History Month. But Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who rose from poverty and overcame racism to become a leading black conservative thinker and jurist, wasn’t on the list of famous African Americans that my son brought home from school.
Interestingly, one name that was on the list was Matthew Henson. He may be more politically incorrect than Clarence Thomas.
Black explorer Matthew Henson was the co-discoverer of the North Pole. In fact, he planted the American flag at the Pole in 1909. In recognition of his great achievement, his body was interred at Arlington National Cemetery at the direction of President Ronald Reagan. Henson’s partner on the North Pole mission was U.S. Navy Commander Robert E. Peary.
The Henson/Peary mission has enormous geopolitical significance today, for the obvious reason that access to resources near, around and under the North Pole and other Arctic regions has drawn the interest of America’s rivals and potential enemies. This is more than a museum curiosity and footnote to history. Indeed, Henson’s contribution to black history was a contribution to American history and our future as a world power. But that assumes that our leaders have any desire to maintain that status.
This year—being the 100th anniversary of the Henson mission—is a great opportunity for the media to finally tell his story so that the American people can develop an understanding of this important part of their history and Henson’s significance for our energy future.
At the February 12 NAACP Image Awards ceremony, Stevie Wonder performed his 1976 song “Black Man,” which has lyrics referencing historic figures such as Matthew Henson. Still, Henson was only one figure among many in the song and his role in the North Pole mission is largely unknown to most Americans, black or white.
Turner Network Television did a 1998 movie, entitled “Glory & Honor,” in honor of Henson and Peary, and a U.S. stamp was issued in 1986 in honor of both of them. There is a valuable website devoted to Henson’s life.
Racism can be blamed for some of the lack of recognition of Henson’s North Pole discovery. But there is another reason why his achievement may be ignored in the current atmosphere. American discovery of foreign territories and lands is not something that is celebrated these days, even if the American was black, because it smacks of what the Marxists call “imperialism.”
In the present context, too much attention to Henson’s discovery might get in the way of the push to have the United Nations assume control over tens of billions of dollars worth of oil, gas, and mineral resources in “international waters,” such as those in the North Pole region. Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which will soon be considered by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the world body would take control of many of those resources. Nations would get access to them by paying a global tax or fee and getting favorable rulings from international judges. Under UNCLOS, the U.S. and other nation-states would only get immediate access to certain resources within identifiable limits off their coastlines. In those areas, of course, radical environmentalists can already be counted on keep them off-limits to the American people.
Support for UNCLOS reflects the modern tendency to put the fate of nations in the hands of international elites at the U.N. and elsewhere. However, under the legal Doctrine of Discovery, a concept of international law that predates the U.N., the resources in this region belong to the American people, not the world, because Americans discovered them. It’s been impossible to get the U.S. State Department to acknowledge this fact or make this case in international fora.
Despite the politically incorrect nature of the North Pole discovery, media interest and awareness is starting to grow. The southern New Jersey Courier-Post reports on the making of an epoxy bronze statue of Henson that will be displayed at a special ceremony on April 6. This is the actual date, 100 years ago, when Henson planted an American flag at the Pole.
The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, is currently presenting “Race to the Top: Arctic Inspirations 1909 & Today” through April. A story about the presentation notes that “Henson, a black American whose role in the expedition was disregarded at the time because of his race, shares equal billing with Peary in ‘Race to the Top.’ Some say that if it hadn’t been for Henson, Peary would not have been able to make his famous voyage.”
But the political blindness on this issue is bipartisan and may frustrate a national effort to grasp the truth about Americans being the first to the Pole and therefore having ownership over it.
On the Republican side, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who has a special interest in energy issues that affect her state, sent a letter to Alaska’s Senators in 2007 endorsing UNCLOS as a means by which Alaska could gain access to Arctic resources. In fact, UNCLOS undermines the rightful and historical claims that Henson and Peary made in the name of the American people and nation. She has failed to respond to detailed letters on the subject, even while launching a political action committee called “SarahPAC” to boost her national political future.
The website devoted to Henson also celebrates the election of Barack Obama as the first black American president. But Obama, like Palin, wants the U.S. Senate to ratify UNCLOS, thus undermining the entire legal basis and findings of the Henson/Peary mission. In fact, Obama campaigned for president on a platform in support of ratifying UNCLOS. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told her Senate confirmation hearing that ratification of the treaty would be a priority. Clinton made that statement to Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, who also had no clue as to which nation has a legitimate claim to the natural resources surrounding the Pole.
Carl Olson of State Department Watch has written to Governor Palin, urging her to oppose UNCLOS “as being detrimental to the interests of the State of Alaska and the rest of the country.”
Even without the Law of the Sea Treaty, which is also known by the acronym LOST, Olson points out that “the State of Alaska has absolutely no say or standing whatsoever with regard to ocean boundaries or resources. The U.S. Department of State claims 100% authority in these matters for the United States, with no power for states, including advisory and co-equal status.”
However, “Under LOST, the problem gets one step worse with authority thrown over to the unaccountable and opaque United Nations,” he points out.
UNCLOS has been around for decades, but the campaign to ratify it picked up in earnest under the Bush Administration and accelerated when the Russians sent a mini-sub under the Pole in August 2007 and “planted” their flag. The propaganda stunt caused some commentators to say that the U.S. would be cut out of lucrative Arctic resources unless we ratified UNCLOS. The reality of the mission was cast into doubt when it was later revealed that some of the film “footage” of the Russian sub that aired on a Russian government television channel was actually from the Hollywood movie “The Titanic.”
The truth is that a U.S. Navy submarine, the USS Nautilus, was under the Pole about 50 years before the Russians, claiming the region for the United States. In his book, First Under the North Pole, Navy Commander William R. Anderson wrote that as the Nautilus went under the Pole he declared, “for the United States and the United States Navy—the North Pole!” However, on the website of the U.S. Navy Submarine Force Museum, home of the Nautilus, this has been rewritten to be politically correct. Now it has Anderson saying, “For the world, our country, and the Navy—the North Pole.” Notice how “the world” had now become a part owner. That serves the interests of the U.N.
It is a shame that so few people know about the mission of the Nautilus. Even our Navy leaders refuse to acknowledge its nature and significance. Of course, they are under orders to support UNCLOS.
The State Department has exhibited a disturbing tendency to ignore American claims to American resources. State’s argument is that the number of U.S. ships is so low, down from about 600 under Reagan to only 280 today, that we have to rely on the U.N. to safeguard our interests. It would be a controversial move, but Navy leaders could break with the political authorities and embrace the necessary option of building more ships.
If the Senate ratifies the Law of the Sea Treaty, it will be saying that black explorer Matthew Henson’s discovery was of no real significance. The Senate will be saying that while Henson helped discover the North Pole, the fruits of his discovery have to be turned over to the U.N. and the U.S. will have to appease and appeal to international bureaucrats and judges.
What would Matthew Henson think? Based on his life and history, one can only conclude that he would raise the American flag in protest.
© 2009 Cliff Kincaid – All Rights Reserved
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Cliff Kincaid, a veteran journalist and media critic, Cliff concentrated in journalism and communications at the University of Toledo, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree.
Cliff has written or co-authored nine books on media and cultural affairs and foreign policy issues.
Cliff has appeared on Hannity & Colmes, The O’Reilly Factor, Crossfire and has been published in the Washington Post, Washington Times, Chronicles, Human Events and Insight.