Published June 13, 2003


“Nato base, restricted access,” said the sign. As we had secured an invitation beforehand, we felt bold enough to drive on regardless. A soldier came running towards us, double time, M-16 at the ready but still, fortunately, pointing downwards. He informed us that we were at the wrong gate. We drove back, and without further ado managed to find the right one. We were met by another guard, and this time he pointed us in the direction of our host, passes were issued and the gate was lifted. Trailing behind the car of our host, public affairs officer Friðþór Eydal, one of about 1700 Icelanders working on the US Navy base, we crossed the border into the 13th biggest town in Reykjavik, but one that has little in common with the others apart from being located on the same island.

The US base in Reykjavik has long been a bone of contention in Icelandic society and the dividing line in Icelandic politics, and has been so ever since the end of World War Two. Iceland had always stood outside European wars due to its geographical remoteness, and when it became a free state within the Kingdom of Denmark in 1918, perpetual neutrality was declared. On the morning of the 10th of May 1940, everything changed. That morning (incidentally the same day Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of Great Britain, and Hitler started his western offensive) the people of Reykjavik woke up to find a foreign army marching in the streets. Iceland could no longer depend on its remoteness to keep it out of world events. Advances in aviation and naval technology had made it important geographically, linking North America and Northern Europe. As invasions go, this one was fairly benevolent. Some of the locals were at least relieved that it was the British and not the German Army that had landed, and the only casualty on that first day was the door of the telephone company, which the occupying forces broke down when taking control of the building.

A year later an agreement was reached between the governments of Iceland, Great Britain and the United States, that the US would take over the British presence, the United States being at this time still a non-combatant. The first American troops came in July 1941. Part of the agreement stipulated that US forces would leave the island as soon as hostilities came to an end. Armies, however, once in place, have a habit of remaining so.

The influx of money and materials brought affluence on an unprecedented scale, and Iceland became an independent republic under American protection in 1944. On the other hand, the influx of 50.000 young men into a country of about 140.000 caused various social problems. Of particular irritation, to the local men at least, was the difference in gender ratio this led to, and the attention the young, well dressed and well paid Americans received from the women. The ministry of Justice set up a committee to investigate the reported lapse in morals, and it concluded it had found about 500 instances of close encounters between local women and soldiers, and estimated this was about a fifth of the whole figure. The women were mostly between the ages of 14 and 23, although extremes of ages 12 and 61 were recorded. The committee concluded that the state of affairs was “terrible, but added that the uncivilized behaviour of Icelandic men contributed to the women’s attraction to the foreigners. No solutions were proposed, but women seen in the company of Americans were often ostracized to a large extent. More seriously still, there were instances of overzealous guards killing Icelanders, the greatest outrage braking out when a 12 year old boy was killed by a soldier who was later found to be mentally unstable.
After the end of the war, in 1946, an agreement was reached between the governments of Iceland and the United States that stipulated that American military forces be withdrawn and civilians brought in instead to run the airfield at Keflavik airport, which would still be open to military traffic between the US and occupied Germany. Some saw this as a betrayal of Icelandic independence, and around 200 people stormed the headquarters of the Conservative party, interrupted a meeting and broke windows, and then proceeded to sing the International in from of the house of Prime Minister Ólafur Thors.

Greater riots followed in 1949 when the government decided to join NATO. The crowd demanded a referendum and stones were thrown through the windows of the parliament building. Concrete was pulled out of the pavement to use as weapons against police, and the crowd was eventually dispersed with the aid of teargas. Still it was promised that an army would not be kept in Iceland in peacetime. In 1951, however, and partly as a result of the Korean War, a new agreement was made wherein US troops returned to Iceland.

The Navy Base Today

During the Cold War the base in Keflavik was an important stopover for aeroplanes flying between North America and Europe, and for monitoring Soviet submarine activity. With the US Navy commanding the seas, prospects of a Soviet invasion were slight, but subsequent openings of files have shown that four Soviet nuclear missiles were pointed at the base. Soviet planes frequently penetrated Icelandic airspace, often on flights between Russia and Cuba. F-15´s would be scrambled to escort them out again. The alliance came under strain in the Cod Wars with Great Britain in the early 70´s, some reports even have the Prime Minister of Iceland calling up the US commander while drunk and demanding that he bomb the Royal Navy! The American Commander declined, and the dispute was settled peacefully, with Britain grudgingly accepting the enlargement of Iceland’s territorial waters.

Reykjavik again became a focus of world events in 1986 with the summit meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev. However, advances in aviation and long range aircraft reduced Iceland’s strategic importance as a stopover, and it collapsed almost overnight with the end of the Cold War. As the prospect of a major war in Europe and the North Atlantic disappeared, the United States decreased its presence, and even suggested moving all its 18 fighter jets home, but the Icelandic government insisted on at least four of these being retained. Agreement on this was reached in 1994.

With the War on Terror, American attention is increasingly being diverted to other areas, and there is yet again pressure to reduce the base in Keflavik. Negotiations are currently under way. Both governments have been unwilling to divulge details, but it seems the US wants to recall all its remaining fighters and helicopters. It does, however, want to retain its submarine surveillance equipment, even though they have stated, with Russia now being a friend, that there are no hostile submarines to be found in the oceans of the North Atlantic.

For 36 years from the return of the Army in 1951, the airfield functioned both as an international airport and a military base. It wasn’t until 1987 that the two were separated. The US Navy still pays for the clearing of the runway, a considerable task in Icelandic winters, and for the rescue teams which are constantly on standby, although these are manned by Icelanders.

Our host took us for a drive along the military runway, and showed us the fleet of snowploughs used for keeping the strip in functioning condition. Our photographer went out to take a picture, and before we knew it two military police cars with flashing sirens drove up to us, armed guards stepping out demanding authorisation. Our host showed them his ID, and pointed out that he was driving a Navy vehicle, and as a public relations officer he did this frequently. They did not seem altogether convinced, but let us off on condition that we speak to the office in charge of the airfield. This done and things sorted out, we continued our trip. Our next stop was a shopping centre which has among other things a supermarket, a Subway, and a barbershop. The currency is US dollars, and all prices are at, or often below, the US average.

Today, around 1900 military personnel, along with 2000 family members, live in Keflavik. They usually stay from a week and up to 18 months, but 2-3 years if they bring their families along. The base is more or less a self sufficient community, with its own church, film theatre and recreation centres. Inhabitants of the base are rarely seen outside it. Until 1990, leave for single soldiers was restricted, as this would no doubt lead to trouble with the locals, whereas soldiers who had families could leave the base as the wished during time off. Today, no such restrictions apply, and soldiers can go where they please during their spare time. Still they seem to prefer to spend most of their time on base, and when they leave it, they mostly stick together as a group and frequent the same two bars in Keflavik, which locals rarely go to. Reports of friction between locals and soldiers are sometimes heard. A boxer from Keflavik, known as Skúli Tyson, famously said before a match with an American that where he came from, beating up Americans was a tradition, and that this match would be no exception. I spoke to a girl at a diner just outside the base, and she maintained that fights between locals and Americans were no more frequent than between the locals themselves. She did, however, mention that girls would either date a succession of Americans or Icelanders, and would rarely switch between the two groups. This seems like a curious throwback to wartime attitudes. She also said that one of the benefits of dating an American was that, in a small community (population of Keflavik and surroundings: roughly 8.000), the guys from the base were the only ones who didn’t know virtually all about her beforehand.

Sometimes off duty soldiers have gotten into trouble. In the late 80´s a group of drunken Americans went about Reykjavik stealing every flag they could get a hold of, some of them from embassies. American soldiers in Iceland fall under Icelandic jurisdiction, and a local court let them off with a warning. More seriously, on the 1st of June a fight broke out between Icelanders and Americans, which resulted in one Icelander being stabbed. But perhaps the most surprising thing about these incidents is their rarity. Soldiers are rarely visible, and almost never wear uniforms off base.

Is the base still necessary?

The presence of the US Army has caused great divisions within Icelandic politics. Parties farthest to the left and the right have not been able to work together in government since the Keflavik Agreement of 1946. The Defence agreement with the United States stipulates that either party can be released from the agreement, in a process that would take 18 months. Left wing governments have twice started these proceedings, once in 1956 when the process was stopped after the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and again in 1973, but in that case the government collapsed and the succeeding one cancelled the proceedings. During the Cold War Iceland held all the cards, since the base was considered essential to the defence of the continental United States, and the Americans largely had to agree to the terms set by the Icelandic government. Two Icelandic companies held a monopoly in construction for the base, but this was changed in 1996, so that now companies have to compete for military contracts. Ironically, since the collapse of the Soviet Union the situation has been reversed. Now the Americans want to diminish their presence, either keep it to a bare minimum or even leave entirely, whereas the Icelandic government wants them to stay on. It is interesting to note that Iceland was the only one of the Nordic countries that was part of the coalition of the willing in the 2003 Iraq War.

Having spoken to public affairs officer Friðþór Eydal, it seems four main reasons can be found for wanting to keep the base as is.

1: The defence aspect. Neutrality was seriously discredited in World War Two as the German Army rolled over one neutral country after another. Since then many have believed that countries that can not defend themselves militarily cannot be guaranteed continued independence, and so the best course of action is to seek protection from a greater power.

2: The employment aspect. The US military employs some 1700 people directly and the base is the 13th largest town in Reykjavik. Even more people in the southern tip of Iceland get their income from the base indirectly. A considerable number of people would probably become unemployed, at least initially, if the Americans were to leave.

3: The United States also pays for most of the maintenance of Keflavik airport. These would have to be taken over by Iceland at considerable cost.

4: The Navy base has 5 helicopters, supported by a refuelling plane for search and rescue missions. These have saved some 300 lives in the past 30 years. These operations would also have to be taken over by Iceland, which at present only has two helicopters for these purposes of its own.

Given that these are the arguments in favour of the base, what are the arguments against, held by a large number of people? We asked Stefán Pálsson, chairman of the Campaign Against Military Bases, which has been active since 1972, and succeeded other peace movements.

Stefán claims firstly that the Icelandic government has completely failed to point out who these enemies that we are to be protected from are, and that even US authorities admit that there is no foreseeable danger. Hence he claims that the Icelandic authorities’ insistence on the security aspect is mostly to camouflage the economics, as wanting to have a foreign army here for the sole purpose of making money of it can not be admitted. He also claims that the presence of the base is more likely to make Iceland into a target for terrorism, and hence makes the situation less rather than more safe for the country.

Regarding the economic factors, he says that those who oppose the base maintain that it is immoral to profit from armies, so even if it leads to financial losses the base should be abandoned. He also says that as the American presence is diminishing, efforts should be made to revive the economy of Keflavik rather than try to keep the army here as long as possible, and that Keflavik has often been left out of discussions on rural renewal, since it was assumed they could live off the army. He claims that without military restrictions, the international airport could be expanded and made more profitable. He concedes that the Americans have saved a number of lives, which has been a benefit of the base, but he also claims that their presence has kept Icelanders from developing such services of their own. He admits that if the Americans left it would lead to considerable financial expenditure, but because of this it is important to start preparing for this as soon as possible.

As for Iceland’s future, he says that Iceland should follow Costa Rica’s example, and become a neutral and demilitarised small state.

We handed in our passes, the gate opened, and we returned to Icelandic territory. The US Naval base in Iceland was established 52 years ago. At that time war raged on the Korean peninsula, Stalin dominated the Soviet Union, Japan was still under American occupation, and NATO and Soviet forces faced each other across minefields across the heartland of Europe. Since then, the Soviet Union has collapsed, Germany has been reunified, America’s predominant military interests have shifted to the Middle East, and War on Terror has been declared. Would the American base still be there in another 50 years, I wondered, as it disappeared in the back window.

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