Tsarist Russia found itself in a difficult position with the massive peninsula of Russian America (what would later become known as Alaska). It was a land rich in resources, but it was as inhospitable as Siberia and exceedingly distant from the capital at St. Petersburg. Colonization would take money and time, the former of which Russia lacked due to the costly Crimean War and the latter due to encroaching settlers from British Columbia. Another disastrous war could cost them the land without compensation, so the Tsar decided best to sell it now to a state so expansionist it could stymie the land-hungry British Empire: the United States.
While much of Alaska remained populated only by the native Eskimo people, Russia had made attempts at colonizing their corner of America. In 1763, Stephan Glotov explored the island and found it suitable for the fur trade. In 1784, Grigory Shelikhov established the first permanent settlement there, which would later become a significant center of the fur trade. If Russia sold Alaska completely, the Tsar and his people would lose out on the business they had helped to build.
Stoeckl found himself in a difficult position. Seward still wanted to buy, but he seemed suspicious of the Russians holding their key island where the Russian tradesmen would have a leg-up on American settlers. Finally, after a hasty agreement that would have been voided without later Tsarist permission, Stoeckl offered Seward the Kuril Islands south of Kamchatka. They had been a point of contention between Russia and Japan, which formally established relations in 1855 with Treaty of Shimoda, part of which clarified the national border “between the islands of Etorofu and Uruppu. The whole of Etorofu shall belong to Japan; and the Kuril Islands, lying to the north of and including Uruppu, shall belong to Russia.” Unlike the significant Sakhalin, these islands were primarily uninhabited, and an American buffer there would strengthen Russian standing in the North Pacific against Japanese expansion. Seward saw it as another chance for expansion and a closer diplomatic tie with the Japanese, who had opened their ports only a decade before during Admiral Perry‘s expedition.
Before and after the treaty being narrowly passed by the Senate, the national mood mocked the $7.2 million purchase as “Seward’s Folly” or “Seward’s Icebox” even with the price of about two cents per acre. More derision followed as Russia kept its dominance in the fur trade over the next years. However, with the gold rush of 1898, America secured its position in Alaska, and Kodiak lost out on much of its economic significance. Later, in 1905, many feared that holding the Kuril Islands would drag America into the Russo-Japanese War, but they proved key ground for President Theodore Roosevelt to begin peace talks. American defenses would be built on the cold, volcanic islands as Japan became more militaristic, and, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the American troops there would be wiped out during bitter winter fighting in the first prong of the Japanese assault on Alaska after the spring thaw in 1942.
The most significant fallout of the seemingly minor amendment to a land-purchase a century before came as the Cold War grew hotter between America and the USSR. Both Kodiak and the Kuril Islands became military strongholds, and both sides attempted to place missiles in their bases there secretly. When U-2 spy planes discovered silos being constructed on Soviet Kodiak, President John F. Kennedy gave his famous “Kodiak Missile Crisis Address to the Nation” on October 22, 1962. He finished his enumeration of demands with, “Seventh and finally: I call upon Chairman Khrushchev to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless, and provocative threat to world peace and to stable relations between our two nations.”
Khrushchev refused to budge, sparking the three-week-long Alaska War in late 1962. American Marines stormed Kodiak Island, fighting with Soviet troops for days in bitter cold. The Russians counterattacked in the Kuril Islands, and the world sat on edge with everyone panicking at the thought of nuclear exchange. After both operations became successful invasions, desperate diplomacy cleared the mess, and agreement was reached that the two nations would officially exchange the islands.
Many historians note that it required involvement in three wars to fix a seemingly advantageous treaty that proved inexpedient. Commentators routinely call upon it as evidence for diplomats to be mindful of future strife as well as modern business.
In reality, there was no letter, and America purchased Alaska wholesale. The Kuril Islands would be granted to Japan in the 1875 Treaty of Saint Petersburg and given back to Russia in 1945.