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How Did the US Military Lift the Ban of Black Soldiers in Iceland?

In today’s world, racism is frowned upon. We often see racist acts on social media and how individuals react to them negatively. In the past, racism was commonly practiced. But did you know how the US Military changed the ways of the Icelandic government?

The Icelandic government effectively prohibited the stationing of black American soldiers in Iceland during the Cold War. Following pressure from the US military, the ban was lifted in the late 1960s.

US-Iceland Relationship

The relationship between the two nations was first formed in 1941, when Iceland and the US signed a defense agreement, passing the responsibility of defending Iceland to the US. And when NATO, or North Atlantic Treaty Organization, was formed in 1949, Iceland was part of the founding members.

Since Iceland did not have a standing military, it signed a bilateral defense agreement with the US in 1950. This agreement states that the nations will support each other militarily, both in offense and defense, as needed. (Source: The Baltic Initiative Network)

At this time, Iceland was seen as an important strategic location for the defense of Western Europe. It was a strategic move by Allied Forces to set up a base in Iceland as it was located in vital waterways into the region. (Source: NATO)

The agreement between the two countries was kept in force for the next five decades as it played a significant role in the security of the North Atlantic. In 2006 however, the US naval station in Keflavik was closed down. The US announced that they would continue to support Iceland’s defense but no longer set up permanent bases.

The US also worked with local Icelandic officials to help lessen the impact of job losses due to the bases’ closure, helping promote tourism and attract US investors into Keflavik. To date, the US is the largest foreign investor of Iceland, specifically in the aluminum sector. (Source: US Department of State)

Racial Discrimination towards American Soldiers

Despite the outward appearance of solidarity between the two nations, numerous reports of discrimination against US army men stationed in Iceland were reported over the years. Iceland has been known to have strong nationalistic mindsets, and this was not surprising.

By the late 1940s, Iceland, together with Greenland, Canada, Newfoundland, which is also part of Canada and Bermuda, did not welcome African American US soldiers stationed in US bases on their soil.

In the 1950s, these nations were taken off the list of countries not accepting African American soldiers, except for Iceland. During the time, Iceland was under heavy political reconfigurations. Pairing that with the nation’s intense nationalism and that Icelanders have little affection towards Western countries, it bred a strong dislike for foreigners.

In a poll secretly created by the US in 1955, it was identified that less than a third of Icelanders supported the Defense agreement. And in the 1960s, off-base movements of US soldiers were highly monitored and restricted. The local government did this to ensure that the US soldiers did not mingle with Icelandic women.

The local government even went to extremes in propagating segregation of US soldiers, specifically excluding black soldiers from fraternizing with Icelandic women. Soldiers were banned from entering Reykjavik’s few restaurants and clubs. 

The US government had no choice but to accept these stringent local laws to safeguard the presence of their bases in Iceland. But in March of 1971, under Nixon’s administration, the US formally raised this issue with the Icelandic government. The memorandum detailed complaints against the strict policy against US soldiers, specifically African American Soldiers.

The US government pointed out that the policy is a human-rights issue. Benedikt Gröndal, an Icelandic prime minister, attempted to suspend the strict off-base movement policy in 1979, but the abolishment was only successful in 1989. (Source: MIT Press)

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