Americana: Alaska

The White Alice Communications System
September 25, 2007 to October 13, 2007

Still she haunts me, phantom-wise
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

The uncertain world situation in the mid-1950s, in particular the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, gave Alaska far more importance in American politics than its sparse population would otherwise have merited. The United States maintained a heavy military presence in Alaska and constructed a major air-defense system across its vast expanse. The various military and radar sites were connected through the White Alice Communications System (WACS), a network of enormous parabolic antennas and microwave radio relays.

Because of Alaska's remoteness and its history as a former Russian colony, it had always been regarded with suspicion by American anti-Communist groups. The establishment of WACS played an important role in strengthening its relationship with the rest of the United States, and in the granting of its statehood in 1959. By the early 1970s, however, advances in technology had made the WACS network largely obsolete (the fear by then was of missile, not aircraft, attacks). The 71 stations began to be shut down. Eventually most of them were entirely removed, due to vandalism, unsafe conditions, and environmental concerns.

Only a few of the colossal antennas remain standing, like ritual totems of an ancient civilization; what was once the most advanced technology of its day now seems archaic. Not much is left of the threat these facilities once protected against. The antennas are often the only human-made structures for miles around. Surrounded by the cold emptiness of the Alaskan terrain, they function as landmarks for the local population. As they decay, nature has begun to take them back, imbuing them with an eerie beauty that seems alien, yet somehow naturalistic.

Anna Gritz

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