It was an epic swindling or a strategic bargain, depending on who you ask. When the U.S. took possession of Alaska from Russia, 150 years ago this week, it paid less than two cents an acre. Some economists have dubbed it a losing investment, while most foreign policy experts praise the move as a savvy opening to the Pacific. Squaring economic and national security considerations has never been easy, but it has grown even more difficult as the global market for territory has transformed.
Historic as it was, Alaska's sale was not entirely unusual for the time. Nations bought and sold territory, typically without regard for the rights of native inhabitants. North America was a prime market, with France, Spain, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States all vying for land. Territory was also taken forcefully, but America's early statesmen were adept at choosing the bank over the battlefield to advance both commercial and strategic aims.