Op-Ed: On this date in 1958, Senate vote secured Alaska's future

Fifty years ago, hope and excitement were running high in the United States Senate as lawmakers approached the final hours of a marathon debate on Alaska statehood.

Some of the Senate's most distinguished members had weighed in on the issue, including John F. Kennedy, Everett Dirksen, Henry "Scoop" Jackson, Warren Magnuson, Mike Mansfield, Strom Thurmond and President Bush's grandfather, Prescott Bush.

Opponents contended that it set a bad precedent to admit a noncontiguous state to the Union, while supporters said it was only fair that Alaskans be granted full rights of citizenship.

On this day in 1958, after six days of spirited debate, the Alaska Statehood Act was put to a vote, and it passed overwhelmingly -- 64 to 20 with 12 members not voting. Because the U.S. House of Representatives had already approved the legislation, the Senate action sent the measure to the White House where President Eisenhower signed it into law on July 7, 1958.

Alaska was formally admitted as a state with full congressional representation by presidential proclamation on Jan. 3, 1959.

As our 50th anniversary celebration commences, I've been perusing the Congressional Record to get a sense of the Senate debate leading to statehood. As a lifelong Alaskan, I've found the record fascinating -- enthusiastic, even passionate, arguments in favor of statehood countered by lawmakers who saw Alaska's entry into the Union as a big mistake.

In the spirit of our 50th anniversary, I want to provide you with a taste of the Senate statehood debate.

Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., who retired from the Senate in 2003 at the age of 100, was among the most vocal critics of Alaska statehood. He wondered whether adding a noncontiguous territory would "dilute the authority and strength of the Union" and make Alaska vulnerable to foreign attack because it would be too far away to defend.

"Between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and between the northern and southern borders of the United States lie the 48 states of the Union, unbroken and unfettered by the inclusion of any foreign area," Thurmond said. "This is strength; this is compactness; this is cohesiveness. Therein lies one of the greatnesses of the United States."

Sen. Warren Magnuson, D-Wash., a statehood supporter and strong friend of Alaska, disagreed.

"Alaska's distance from the present group of 48 states and the fact that it is not contiguous with them has very little pertinence in these days of rapid communications," he said. "It is much easier for an Alaskan to reach Washington by air than for an Ohioan a century ago."

Sen. Thomas H. Kuchel, R-Calif., agreed with Sen. Magnuson: "The facts are that Alaska is not in any sense of the word distant. I can go into the cloakroom, pick up a telephone and talk with the Governor of Alaska in the capital of Alaska within a few moments. Within a matter of hours, any Senator can be in any part of Alaska."

Sen. Richard Neuberger, D-Ore., another supporter who presided over the Senate during the historic Alaska statehood roll-call vote, said that Alaska statehood gave the United States an opportunity to show that "we practice what we preach."

"For decades we have preached democracy to the rest of the world," he said. "Yet we have denied full self-government to our vast outpost in the North, despite many assurances that such would not continue to be the case."

These comments represent only a fraction of the Alaska statehood debate, which began years before the Last Frontier became the 49th state. But they offer some valuable perspective on the challenges and obstacles our forefathers faced on the road to statehood.

Alaska faces great challenges today -- high energy costs and access to health care to name a few -- but I have no doubt that these challenges are surmountable if we apply the kind of commitment and perseverance our forefathers employed as they confronted the daunting task of statehood.

Born in Ketchikan, I was just a year old when Alaska became a state, so I have grown up with the blessings of statehood. As our Golden Anniversary approaches, I join Alaskans in celebrating our proud 50th birthday.