In the decade following the Second World War, Iceland found itself right at the heart of post-war economics and strategy. As part of our Forgotten Iceland series, take a look this fascinating film footage of Iceland during the prosperous, yet troubled decade that was the 1950s.

See Also: The Icelandic Flag | A Tale of Identity 

When most think on the fifties, their minds conjure images of rockabilly guitarists, colourful diners and drive-in movie theatres. It was the decade of the Korean War, soda fountains and sideburns, poodle skirts and McCarthyism.

It was when the United States emerged as one of the remaining world powers, stretching its cultural and political influence across the globe.

Nowhere in the fifties was this Americanisation as apparent as it was in Iceland. After all, the American troops who had been stationed here over the Second World War had left a lasting impact, from the food they ate, to the music they listened to, to the ástandsbörn (”children of the situation) who continued their lives on the island long after their foreign-born fathers had left.

So just how and why did the United States of America come to hold such influence over this Nordic isle in the years following the war? How did this American influence come to define the fifties in Iceland as a whole?

NATO in Iceland

In 1949, Iceland had become a founding member of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), a commitment which would require a viable defense of the island. Remember that this was in the early days of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was considered to be the great enemy of western freedoms and political ideology. 

Given that Iceland had for years survived without a standing military, this duty to protect fell to the Americans, who established Keflavík Air Base in 1951.

See Also: History of Iceland 

This decision would mean the prolonged presence of troops in a nation that, in substantial part, opposed it. Iceland, now a player on the global stage, would spend the next ten years struggling to come to terms with this new reality.

Divided Politics in Iceland

Obviously, this substantial difference of opinion amongst its people meant Iceland was starkly divided in the 1950s. This was a consequence of both American troops stationed at Keflavik, and a growing conflict of opinion regarding the Icelandic government’s approach to world politics.

Many young left wingers chose to be educated in the Eastern bloc, a journey that was often organised by the Socialist Party in Iceland. While a handful of these students were openly critical of the Soviet Union’s political situation, others were vocally sympathetic.

See Also: Icelandic Literature for Beginners 

Upon their return to Iceland, many of these students were considered the focal point for suspicions that a communist takeover was being planned. This seemed plausible at the time given the Czechoslovak coup d’état in 1948. In an attempt to prove this, the conservative youth organisation, Heimdallur, published correspondence between exchange students and the Socialist Party of Iceland in a specialist pamphlet infamously known as the “Red Book”.

To understand more of this shady political conflict, make sure to read The Atom Station (1948) by Halldór Laxness. Whilst published a couple of years before the decade in question, no literary work better describes the cultural trends and philosophies that would come to dominate Icelandic society in the fifties.

Laxness who would later be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955 for his “vivid epic power, which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland”.

According to Stefán Einarsson, author of A History of Icelandic Literature, “the demoralisation of the occupation period is described nowhere as dramatically as in Halldór Kiljan Laxness’ Atómstöðin (1948)… [where he portrays] postwar society in Reykjavík, completely torn from its moorings by the avalanche of foreign gold.”

This avalanche of foreign gold had only just begun, and it would lead Iceland into further conflict with its neighbours as the decade progressed.

Lead Up To The First Cod War

In 1951, 95% of Iceland’s exports was fish. This made them something of a weak link among NATO allies, causing concern that should the global fish market slump, then Iceland’s population would radicalise. This was just another of the reasons why the United States felt it was important to support, suppress and influence the Icelanders until their protests quietened.

See Also: Fishing in Iceland 

It was not until 1958, however, that fishing would lead to conflict. That year, the Icelandic government authorised an expansion of their territorial fishing grounds from 4 nautical miles to 12. While most European countries chose to accept this, one roundly condemned it, openly citing its intention to defy it. It was another island nation, one whose reliance on cod near matched the Icelanders’ own.

So whilst this expansion meant little to the majority of land-locked Europe, the British took it as personal insult. As a response, Britain vowed to continue fishing in the disputed waters, albeit under the supervision of Royal Navy gunships, leading to what is known as the First Cod War.

This was not warfare in the typical sense. Rather than fighting with fists or weapons, the opposing fishing vessels would ram into one another, their occupants hurling dead fish onto the others decks or cutting one another’s mooring lines. Instead of wanting to hurt or kill one another, the intention was to disrupt the opposing side’s operation. 

The Soviet Union stepped in during the first Cod war as the biggest buyer of Icelandic fish stocks, worrying not only the United States, but also smaller nations such as Spain and Italy. Because of this, the United States made sure to purchase more fish, all the while persuading the British to end their conflict with Iceland.

The first Cod War would end in 1961, though this would in no way be the end of the conflict. In fact, three more Cod Wars would occur over the next three decades, bringing the relationship between Iceland and Britain into further disarray.

We will look further at the Cod Wars of the later decades in our upcoming Forgotten Iceland instalments. 

Did you enjoy our article showcasing historic film footage from the 1950s in Iceland? If so, make sure to read Forgotten iceland | Historical FIlms of 1920s Reykjavik and Iceland During WW2 | Historical Film Footage. Next week, we will look at footage of Iceland from the swinging sixties.