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The Cod Wars: When Iceland Defeated the British

In the middle of the 20 th century, Iceland, a small and sparsely populated island nation, bested the United Kingdom, formerly the biggest empire in the world, and still a significant world power. Iceland beat the British not once, but an unprecedented three times, achieving significant victories in each of the three “Cod Wars.” Faced with this situation, there is one clear question: How did Iceland do it?

Iceland was by no means a wealthy or even highly developed nation. Their population was low, and their natural resources were sparse. In the 1950s, Iceland had two valuable assets: a strategic position in the North Atlantic, and a lucrative fishing industry. Looking out for the latter, Iceland extended their fishery zones from three to four miles away from the coast in 1952, limiting the ability of foreign fishermen to work in Icelandic waters.[1] This seemingly small action would lay the groundwork for three Cod Wars fought intermittently over 18 years.

When the United Kingdom received word of Iceland’s move, they were furious. The British relied heavily on fishing the waters around Iceland, and responded to the small country’s perceived attempt to push them around by banning Icelandic fish from British markets.[2] This was a significant blow, as fishing accounted for 90% of Iceland’s exports, and the UK was their biggest trading partner. Luckily for Iceland, the British strategy failed resoundingly when the USSR went out of its way to buy Icelandic fish, leading the US to immediately follow suit and encourage its allies to do so as well due to fear that Iceland would enter the Soviet sphere of influence. Britain eventually followed suit, recognizing the new four-mile Icelandic fishing zone and re-opening its markets in 1956.[3]

That relatively small dispute between Iceland and the British would serve as a model for the three ensuing Cod Wars. While the British were substantially more powerful than Iceland, the US Keflavik military base in Iceland made the country a significant player in Cold War politics, and the country used that advantage to bring NATO to its knees in 1961.


Emboldened by their previous victory, Iceland

expanded their exclusive fishing zone from four to twelve nautical miles out in 1958, sparking the

first full-on Cod War.[4] This action was unanimously

condemned by NATO and greatly outraged the UK, who sent the Royal Navy into disputed waters to protect British fishing vessels from attacks by the Icelandic Coast Guard. Tensions were higher than ever. To Iceland, they were looking out for their own livelihood. To the UK, Iceland was resorting to blackmail to get what they wanted.[5] Skirmishes grew intense. Shots were fired, and a few tense standoffs threatened to escalate dangerously. With the Royal Navy pushing back hard against the smaller and less equipped Icelandic Coast Guard, Iceland used their last and strongest card to turn the tides of the conflict. The government threatened to pull out of NATO and shut down the American-run Keflavik military base, which greatly alarmed the

United States, who had attempted to stay neutral throughout the conflict. The US believed Iceland’s threats, and was terrified by the idea of an Iceland, free from US influence, turning to the USSR for support and recognition. With this possibility in mind, the US pushed NATO and the UK to recognize the 12-mile fishing zone, ending the First Cod War in 1961.[6]

The final two Cod Wars followed a similar pattern. In 1972, Iceland again extended their exclusive fishing zone, this time more than tripling the 12-mile limit with a new 50-mile limit. Britain and NATO were incensed, fishing lines were cut, boats were rammed, Iceland threatened to leave NATO and expel US troops, and won once again, with NATO pressuring Britain into accepting the new fishing zone in 1973, with minimal concessions on the part of Iceland.[7]

The third and final Cod War took place from 1975 to 1976, and saw the most brazen extension of fishing rights yet, to 200 nautical miles from the Icelandic coast. Shots were again fired, and there were 35 separate ramming incidents in the disputed waters within six months.[8] This controversy proved to be the tensest of them all, with Iceland actually severing diplomatic ties with the UK. For a third and final time, NATO stepped in and resolved the conflict, with

Iceland winning its 200-mile fishing zone, and setting the precedent that would later be adopted worldwide, when the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea established the standard of a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which has since been adopted around the world.[9]


Overall, the Cod Wars might seem like a bizarre historical anecdote. In the “wars,” while tensions were

often high, there was only one death (an accident, at that) and few injuries. To some, the Cod Wars might seem rather trivial. To Iceland, however, this was far from the case. Their economy was heavily dependent on fishing, and any interruption to their ability to fish, in their eyes, jeopardized the very existence of the country. To Icelanders, cod fishing funded the development of their country, and pushed them into the modern world. Any threat to that, even from a close ally like Britain, was to be met with fierce determination and hostility.[10] Thanks to that

determination, Iceland was able to protect their fishing industry, and leave a notable mark on the world through the 200-mile EEZ. Though Iceland resorted to somewhat dubious tactics during the Cod Wars, they nevertheless managed to oppose the powerhouses of the western world and win. An impressive feat for a small island nation, regardless of the circumstances.


Notes

[1] Frost, Natasha. “How Iceland Beat the British in the Four Cod Wars.” Atlas Obscura, June

21, 2018. http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/what-were-cod-wars.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jóhannesson, Gudni Th. “To the Edge of Nowhere?” Naval War College Review 57, no. ¾

(Summer/Autumn2004 2004): 118.

https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=31h&AN=15287994&site=ehost-live.

[4] Ingimundarson, Valur. “A Western Cold War: The Crisis in Iceland’s Relations with Britain,

the United States, and NATO, 1971-74.” Diplomacy & Statecraft 14, no. 4 (December 2003):

94–136. doi:10.1080/09592290312331295694.

[5] Jóhannesson, Gudni Th. “To the Edge of Nowhere?” Naval War College Review 57, no. ¾

(Summer/Autumn2004 2004): 121.

https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=31h&AN=15287994&site=ehost-live.

[6] Frost, Natasha. “How Iceland Beat the British in the Four Cod Wars.” Atlas Obscura, June

21, 2018. http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/what-were-cod-wars.

[7] “The Cod Wars.” The Cabinet Papers. The National Archives, December 1, 2008.

https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/cabinetpapers/themes/cod-wars.htm.


Bibliography


Articles:

“The Cod Wars.” The Cabinet Papers. The National Archives, December 1, 2008. https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/cabinetpapers/themes/cod-wars.htm.

Frost, Natasha. “How Iceland Beat the British in the Four Cod Wars.” Atlas Obscura, June 21, 2018. http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/what-were-cod-wars.

Ingimundarson, Valur. “A Western Cold War: The Crisis in Iceland’s Relations with Britain, the United States, and NATO, 1971-74.” Diplomacy & Statecraft 14, no. 4 (December 2003): 94–136. doi:10.1080/09592290312331295694.

Jóhannesson, Gudni Th. “To the Edge of Nowhere?” Naval War College Review 57, no. 3/4 (Summer/Autumn2004 2004): 115–37. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspxdirect=true&db=31h&AN=15287994&site=ehos

t-live.

“What Is the ‘EEZ’?” What is the "EEZ"?: Exploration Facts: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research. Accessed November 9, 2022. https://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/facts/useez.html.

Pictures:

“The Cod Wars.” St Andrews Dock Heritage Park Action Group. Accessed November 9, 2022. https://www.hullfishingheritage.org.uk/the-cod-wars/.

“Cod Wars: British Sea Fishing.” British Sea Fishing. Accessed November 9, 2022. https://britishseafishing.co.uk/the-cod-wars/.

Chambers, Jewells. “The Cod Wars: Iceland vs Britain - EP.36.” All Things Iceland, December 28, 2019. https://allthingsiceland.com/the-cod-wars-iceland-vs-britain-ep-36/.

Jarrett, Matthew. “The Cod Wars.” Forgotten History. Forgotten History, February 21, 2020. https://www.forgottenhistory.me/war/the-cod-wars.


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