When President Eisenhower signed the Alaska statehood bill on this day in 1958, he did so privately in the White House without inviting any of the Alaskans who had worked so tirelessly on the cause for more than a decade. In the presence of a single aide, as well as a few photographers and reporters hurriedly summoned for the event, Eisenhower affixed his signature, handed the bill off, and said, "Ok, now that's 49."
He neither looked up nor smiled as the flashbulbs began popping, according to one reporter, only flashing his trademark grin once as he departed the room.
Eisenhower had long been lukewarm on statehood for Alaska. The former general recognized the strategic global position of the territory and, with the Cold War in full swing, was reluctant to cede any federal lands so vital to the national defense. A proposal to divide Alaska in half -- statehood for the more populous southern regions, and all lands to the north and west set aside as a military reserve -- even proved palatable to some residents if it was the only way to bring Eisenhower onboard.
From a political standpoint, the Republican president further resisted statehood knowing Alaska would likely send an all-Democrat delegation to Congress (one of the primary objections in the Senate and something that did indeed come to pass).
Eisenhower firmly supported statehood for Hawaii, however, endorsing the cause in three consecutive State of the Union addresses (1953--55). In January 1958, the president finally voiced support for Alaska statehood -- but only if Congress considered Hawaii simultaneously. Immediately after signing the Alaska bill, Eisenhower issued a statement again calling on Congress to admit one more. "I personally believe," he stated, "that Hawaii is qualified for statehood equally with Alaska."
Many in Washington speculated that Eisenhower, in signing the bill in private, simply didn't want to be photographed with a bunch of congressional Democrats who comprised the majority of statehood backers. Whatever the case, his action in no way incurred the wrath of Alaskans. They were plainly overjoyed and too busy celebrating to be offended.
The next ceremony was very much public.
On Jan. 3, 1959, Eisenhower signed the official statehood proclamation in the presence of a number of Alaska dignitaries: Senators-elect Bob Bartlett and Ernest Gruening, Representative-elect Ralph Rivers, former territorial Governor Mike Stepovich, acting Governor Waino Hendrickson, and Bob Atwood, publisher of the Anchorage Daily Times. Also present for the occasion were Vice President Richard Nixon, House Speaker Sam Rayburn and Interior Secretary Fred Seaton.
After the signing, Eisenhower handed out souvenir pens to the Alaskans. He caught himself with a nervous laugh just before calling Stepovich governor -- not only had Stepovich resigned the governorship some months before in order to run (unsuccessfully) for the U.S. Senate, but in signing the proclamation just moments before Eisenhower had done away with the post of territorial governor altogether.
A 49-star flag was then unfurled, featuring a symmetrical arrangement of seven rows of seven stars each. Eisenhower turned to Bartlett and good-naturedly made his aesthetic disagreement known. He preferred four rows of six stars alternated with five rows of five. "But I was overruled by all my advisers," Eisenhower explained with a chuckle. When Hawaii came along, the president continued, he was going to recommend five rows of six stars and four rows of five stars (the design ultimately chosen).
The president concluded the ceremony by pledging his cooperation to the three Democrats of the Alaska congressional delegation: "I hope we can all work together."
The men got that chance just two months later when Bartlett, Gruening and Rivers voted for the Hawaii statehood bill, which Eisenhower eagerly signed into law.
Ross Coen is an Alaskan from Fairbanks who currently lives in Washington, D.C.
By ROSS COEN