Roosevelt’s geographers define territory

During WWII the US Department of State worked with an outside group of scholars on “post-war foreign policy.” Prominent among these scholars were members of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) such as Isaiah Bowman and Hamilton Fish Armstrong. Alger Hiss was also involved who as you may know was later convicted as a Soviet spy in 1950. Bowman had proposed Hiss for American Geographical Society membership and was prepared to testify on his behalf at the trial (see Neil Smith’s book for details).

The Territorial Subcommittee of this secret group was Chaired by Bowman and met weekly from March 1942 through the end of 1943, at which time the State Dept. took more direct control. The official history of this group records the definitions of “territory” that they were using:

The term “territorial” was defined in two sense: first, as land with the people on it. As land, it signaled property, which must be delimited for tax purposes, administration of law, and national defense. Boundaries therefore could not be ignored. They still meant what they always had, only to a lesser degree. Aviation and other modern developments of a military and economic nature had modified the significance but not entirely removed either the security or the economic implications of boundaries. These boundaries afforded, in particular, a reduced but still strategically vital period of military warning.

Second, the word “territorial” was considered to mean the historical and present economic, social, and political forces and activities at work inside any area. The center of emphasis, accordingly, was the individual country and its people, but to understand its problems and conditions one had to see beyond it, always keeping in mind the historical forces at work in and around it. The deliberations of the subcommittee focused in this regard upon the requisite conditions for peace and stability both within and among countries.

I think you can see in these definitions both a typically 20th century take on territory as states or countries, but also an especially geographical-historical one where territories are put into a wider context and not just treated individually. Of course the definitions are problematic because for example who are the “people”? Here the subcommittee took an interesting almost critical epistemological approach:

The subcommittee’s initial question was: “What do we need to know” about the problems ahead?

They soon answered this by collecting data on the “population” in each area but it would be interesting to see them decide what they needed to know.

All quotes are from: US Dept. of State Postwar Foreign Policy Preparation, 1939-1945. Edited by Harley A. Notter, 1949.


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