IGY (1957–58) and the Discursive Transformation of the Antarctic

It was science, especially the IGY held during 1957–58, which transformed Antarctic politics and laid down the groundwork for the Antarctic Treaty of 1959. More than 40 research stations and observatories were established during this period, and thousands of scientists were located on the continent. There was more or less a tacit agreement among the participating countries that political problems regarding the Antarctic ought to be shelved for the duration of the IGY. Yet, some kind of a 'red threat' was perceived by the United States and its allies from Soviet polar program. The IGY was instrumental in giving rise to the dominant representation of Antarctica as a laboratory for fundamental science and accorded the politicization of Antarctica a totally new, unprecedented direction. The geopolitical imperative to preserve it as such and in its pristine form now became apparent, bordering some kind of urgency, in the given Cold War conditions pervading the world.

Against this background, President Eisenhower announced on 3 May 1958 that the US had invited 11 other countries, this time including the USSR, to confer with US in seeking an effective joint means of keeping Antarctica open to all nations to conduct scientific or other peaceful activities there under joint administrative arrangements. The invitation avoided suggesting a prominent position or role for the United Nations in the envisaged arrangement. Instead, USA would prefer an agreement to disagree that would preserve a legal status quo on Antarctica, not only in regard to the claims of sovereignty by some nations but also in regard to the rights of the other interested parties accruing from their stakes and activities in the Antarctic, including, of course, her own.

In case of the claimant states, what so obviously entered into their willingness to meet and discuss a political arrangement for Antarctica was not just the nagging uncertainty over the future of their claims in the event of a concerted occupation of the continent by the United States and the then Soviet Union, but also the utter impracticality of defending national interests in Antarctica by conventional military means. Both Argentina and Chile, probably others too, concluded on the basis of pragmatic geopolitical reasoning that their Antarctic claims would be advanced more effectively within rather than outside the treaty. Apparently, the interests of both USA and the USSR too had converged. Both found in the proposed treaty, therefore, the best possible way of avoiding a confrontation, while at the same time guaranteeing and safeguarding one's own strategic position, lest it be diminished by a strategic advantage going to the other party.