Finding America, Losing Iceland


Finding America, Losing Iceland

Around the year 1000, Leifur ‘the Lucky’ discovered America. Some thousand years later, Homer Simpson discovered Iceland. In between, U.S. forces were stationed in the country. The cultural influence continues but the decision-makers in Washington seem to have lost interest in Iceland. Historian Guðni Th. Jóhannesson examines the history of U.S.-Iceland relations in recent times.

Published in the 2013 August-September issue of Iceland Review – IR 04.13. By Guðni Th. Jóhannesson. Photo by Páll Stefánsson.

The parliamentary election in the spring of 2013 heralded a radical change in Iceland’s foreign policy. Whereas the outgoing center-left coalition applied for membership to the European Union, the new government of the centrist Progressives and right-wing Independence Party has put the accession negotiations on indefinite hold. Instead, the aim is to look more beyond Europe. That policy includes the strengthening of relations with the United States, particularly in connection with the global interest in Arctic issues where Iceland may conceivably play some role in the future. In other words, the Icelanders want to rediscover America, and they would like the Americans to rediscover Iceland. Keeping Quiet Let us begin with the initial discoveries. In the year 1000, there were of course no United States and no Icelandic state or nation. Iceland had recently been discovered by Norse settlers and some of these Norsemen and women dared to venture further, finding lands to the west of Iceland. As the Irish writer and poet Oscar Wilde put it, “The Vikings discovered America, but were wise enough to keep quiet about it.” True enough, news of the Norse voyages did not reach the world outside Iceland, but the pun also conveys a message of mockery or sarcasm. The Norse kept quiet, Wilde said in the late 19th century, because for many European intellectuals America equaled vulgarity and low culture. Was that the America the Icelanders finally discovered and did not keep quiet about? It could be said that the Icelandic discovery of America truly began in 1941, with the arrival of U.S. troops on the island and the signing of a U.S.-Icelandic defense treaty, in the midst of the Second World War. Suddenly, U.S. dollars transformed the flailing economy and the population was introduced to chewing gum and Coca-Cola. You can read the remainder of this article in the 2013 August-September issue of Iceland Review – IR 04.13. Five times a year the print edition of Iceland Review & Atlantica brings you a wealth of articles on all aspects of life in Iceland including Páll Stefansson's latest images of the country’s majestic landscape. Click here to subscribe.