A review of Claus Naske's first book

Art Snob Blog
Stephen Nowers, Anchorage Daily News

(Note: Fairbanks historian Claus-M. Naske died on March 5, 2014. A version of this review of his first book, “An Interpretative History of Alaskan Statehood” (Alaska Northwest Publishing Co., 1973), was first published in the July, 1973 issue of CounterMedia: The Alaska Journalism Review.)

While this concise, authoritative and immensely readable book merits high praise as the first truly objective account of Alaska’s long and difficult campaign to attain statehood, some may find, as did this reviewer, that its most intriguing aspect is a hitherto unpublished account of a clandestine operation designed by two prominent Alaskans to ferret out damaging and embarrassing personal information about statehood opponents in the U.S. Congress through a hired detective agency.

Their purpose was to blackmail opposing U.S. congressmen into casting their votes in favor of the statehood bill by threatening to release the information through — and with the complicity of — some members of the national press corps in Washington, D.C. The scheme was concocted and carried out by Fairbanks Daily News-Miner publisher C.W. (Bill) Snedden and future U.S. Senator Ted Stevens, then an assistant attorney in the U.S. Interior Dept.

This episode was revealed to author Naske in an interview with its principal figure some 17 years later, Bill Snedden. He told Naske on March 25, 1970 about the obscure 1956 statehood caper. Curiously, Naske buries this disclosure — which most authors would have prominently highlighted — in a few paragraphs on Page 155. There is no indication that other Alaskans were involved in the Snedden-Stevens undercover effort. The late Republican Fairbanks state senator John Butrovich, who was deeply enmeshed in the statehood drive, emphatically denied having had any knowledge of it either then, or later, until he read it in Naske’s book. 

According to Naske, Snedden — one of Alaska’s most militant statehood advocates after he acquired the News-Miner in the early 1950s — “took up residence in Washington on a more or less permanent basis in 1956.” There, he, along with Ted Stevens, then legislative counsel for the U.S. Interior Dept. on Alaska affairs, “began to compile a card file on every member of Congress for their own use.” It contained “not only information about the attitudes of U.S. senators and representatives (towards statehood) but also extensive personal information on individual members of Congress.

“To deal with those senators and representatives who remained doubtful or opposed to the Territory’s cause,” Naske writes, he (Snedden) engaged a detective agency which was assigned to unearth information on uncooperative legislators which might be used as leverage in obtaining affirmative votes for statehood. “In a few cases, Snedden recalled, 'we stumbled across situations where we knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that... if (revealed) it would end (a man’s career) in public service. We got excellent cooperation from all the top people in the press in Washington. Some of the nation’s top columnists gave us a hand there.’”

“As a result,” writes Naske,” several pledges for a vote in support of statehood were obtained.” He doesn’t expressly state, but implies that these were key votes for statehood which would not otherwise have been cast.

This is the only titillating, and perhaps the sole new piece of information to be found in Naske’s superbly organized history, a model of clarity and succinct expression. But the book’s principal value lies in its documentation and assemblage into a single accessible volume of the dramatic half-century-long events of the statehood struggle, scripted against a shifting backdrop of characters, times and political exigencies in an even-handed style which puts the whole serried epic into a neatly balanced perspective.

Credit for the enormous effort poured into the statehood movement over the half-century, for the first time, was properly apportioned for posterity. Earlier accounts like the one provided by former Governor Wally Hickel in his book “Who Owns America,” which was mainly self-serving, or former U.S. Senator Ernest Gruening’s “The Battle for Statehood,” exaggerated their own roles while diminishing others.

Clearly, no one surpassed Gruening’s contribution to statehood, but at least one prominent Alaskan, U.S. Senator E. L. “Bob” Bartlett, with his drastically different, buttoned-down stye, matched it and Naske gives them each equal due. One statehood veteran feels that Naske under-estimated the role of former U.S. Interior Secretary Fred Seaton, a tower of support for Alaska in the otherwise cool Eisenhower administration. “I don’t think we would have gotten it (at that time) without him.” (Again, my source for this comment, not identified in the original review, was Senator Butrovich). Seaton, a close friend and confidante of Bill Snedden, enjoyed a persuasive influence over Ike who was, for years, hostile to Alaska’s statehood cause.

What some may see as this book’s chief defect may be viewed by others as its essential virtue: brevity. Naske’s effort appears to have been consciously restrained and designed to shun elaborate detail which some may have expected to find there. But the crucial question is whether the material that Naske did select renders a balanced and accurate view of events and personalities. And the answer appears emphatically that he did, allowing some slight margin for error and bias.

Said Butrovich: “There’s much more good in it than bad. I can’t be too critical of omissions.” And that, it seems, is the book’s only major flaw for those who may have anticipated a more panoramic and sweeping opus of epic proportions.

Some 40 of the book’s 192 pages are crammed with meticulously researched footnotes and an exhaustive bibliography on statehood literature encompassing unpublished manuscripts, government publications, court cases, personal interviews, newspaper and periodical articles, books and theses right on down to the text of a Christmas card designed by a statehood “gimmicks” committee asking “friends” in the discontiguous states to write to their congressmen urging them to support Alaska statehood.

Butrovich was designated spokesman for a group of Alaskans who visited President Eisenhower in the White House during a 1956 statehood mission to the nation’s capital. Wrote Naske: “For emphasis, Butrovich banged his fists on the President’s desk as he spoke. Eisenhower is said to have reddened.” Butrovich flatly denies the fist-pounding account and told me: “You don’t pound your fists on the desk of the president of the United States and not expect to go out feet first.”

Butrovich agrees that Ike “reddened” when in the midst of his (Butrovich’s) eight-minute spiel, he said, “We feel you are a great American, but... (a subtle allusion to Ike’s well-known antipathy to Alaska statehood).” Slightly piqued, Ike testily interrupted Butrovich and said: “Well, sir, I’m glad you think I’m a great American.” As the group filed out of Ike’s office, Sherman Adams, White House Chief of Staff, told Butrovich: “Young man, you’ve made your first and last visit to the White House.” Butrovich, who said he was impressed with the wealth of research Naske lavished on his book, told me the error involving himself was the only one he detected.

In the Introduction to his book, “The Battle for Alaska Statehood,” Senator Gruening wrote: “It is clear to me that the definitive account of the battle for Alaska statehood remains to be written and should be.” Naske’s brilliant effort notwithstanding, it still does, and should be. But until it is, this slim volume asserts itself as the pre-emminent documented authority on the statehood movement, the standard which all subsequent efforts must strive to equal or exceed. It is the fountainhead for future historians.

An afterword

Naske, who had never met Senator Butrovich, asked me to introduce him to the senator so he could apologize for his error in person. I did, and they became fast friends and regular conversants. In a letter to the editor, he told me: “I think your review was a fair one. The account on Butrovich I extracted from a newspaper. I think Bartlett was more effective in attaining statehood than Gruening. Wickersham drafted the Second Organic Act with all its restrictions deliberately — and when he found Alaskans opposed, he blamed the 'special interests’ for the limitations of the 1912 measure.”

Biographical Note:

Claus-Michael Naske, who died in Fairbanks at the age of 78 on March 5, immigrated to the U.S. in 1952 at the age of 17 from Stettin, Germany, where he was born. He came to Alaska’s Matanuska Valley as a farm laborer and later worked as a Bureau of Land Management fire fighter and surveyor in Alaska and California. In 1961 he received a degree in history and political science from the University of Alaska and in 1970 earned his doctorate at Washington State University. He taught at the Juneau-Douglas Community College from 1965-67. In Sept. 1969, he and his family moved to Fairbanks where he accepted a position in the UAF history department.


Joe LaRocca lived and worked as a newsman in Alaska for 20 years. He now resides in his hometown of North East (Erie County), Penn. where he continues to follow Alaska affairs closely. He is the author of “Alaska Agonistes: The Age of Petroleum — How Big Oil Bought Alaska,” published in 2003. He may be reached at jlar5553@verizon.net or 814-725-8926.