The United States began its colonial administration of Guam in 1898. Today, Guam remains a colony of the US as an unincorporated territory. Because of this colonial status, the island and its people lack full self-government and guaranteed civil rights afforded to other US citizens. The ongoing struggle by the people of Guam to address this lack of autonomy and civil rights dates back to the earliest days under US rule. For the most part, this struggle for self-government and civil rights has been spearheaded by the island’s indigenous Chamorro people.

When the US began its occupation of Guam at the close of the 19th century, Chamorros were not consulted as to whether they wished for Guam to become an American colony. They had already endured 300 years of Spanish colonialism forced upon them by Spanish soldiers and missionaries. The US immediately assigned administrative authority over Guam to the US Navy, ushering in an era of military colonialism for Guam. The island and its people would be subject to US naval authority during two distinct periods. The first lasted from 1898 to 1941. Japan’s occupation of Guam during World War II from 1941 to 1944 interrupted US authority on the island. After the war, however, the US reinstated naval authority on Guam from 1944 to 1950. The 1950 passage of the Organic Act of Guam created a civil, or non-military, government for the island, thus ending the Naval Era.

In the years that the Navy governed Guam, a long list of appointed naval officers served as the Naval Governor of Guam. These governors had complete executive, legislative and judicial authority on the island and its people. Due to the lack of checks and balances in place for the governor and the complete absence of democratic rights for the island’s people, the naval government of Guam is remembered as an autocratic dictatorship. In a petition forwarded to the US Congress in 1901, Chamorros asserted that:

“It is not an exaggeration to say that fewer permanent guarantees of liberty and property rights exist now than when under Spanish domination.”

This sentiment would sit at the foundation of a long fight for self-government on Guam and US citizenship for Chamorros, which was believed to be an avenue to secure and protect civil rights.

Chamorro efforts

The pursuit of self-government and protected civil rights through US citizenship became a priority among many Chamorros in the first half of the 20th century. Guam leaders sought citizenship and self-government through formal democratic processes common in the US, but relatively new to Chamorros of the early 20th century who had just become subjects of the American empire.

A common strategy employed was the submission of numerous formal petitions to the US Congress. The first petition was drafted on 17 December 1901 and signed by thirty-two prominent residents of Hagåtña. The petition asserted the belief that the conditions instigated by the new naval government and the structure of the government itself were defective. As noted in the petition:

“A military government at best is distasteful and highly repugnant to the fundamental principles of a civilized government…”

Using a rhetoric of loyalty to the United States and a call for political rights, the petition highlighted the supreme power of the naval governor of Guam and the lack of power among Chamorros in the formation of laws or election of officials. The petition ultimately called for the establishment of a permanent government on Guam, rather than what was seen as a transitional and ineffective military government.

Similar to the 1901 petition, many other petitions were drafted and forwarded to Congress calling for self-government and citizenship. Petitions were signed by residents of Guam in 1917, 1925, 1929, 1933, 1936, 1947, 1949, and 1950. Support grew as the numbers of signatures increased for each petition. The first petition in 1901 contained 32 signatures of support. A petition in 1933 had collected nearly 2,000 signatures. Despite these repeated efforts over five decades, the petitions went unaddressed in Congress. Some were claimed to have been “lost” in the files, were never answered to, were ignored altogether, or completely rejected due to heavy opposition from the US Navy.

Guam Congress

Chamorro efforts to secure self-government and citizenship were not limited to petitions. Many Chamorros found hope in the formation of the Guam Congress in 1917 by Governor Roy Smith. The Guam Congress was first composed of Chamorro men appointed by the governor, but their role in the governance of Guam was only advisory. This did not, however, prevent Chamorros from utilizing the Congress as a platform to discuss civil rights, citizenship and grievances against the naval government

In his address at the opening session of the Guam Congress on 17 February 1917, member Tomas Calvo Anderson asserted that the role of the Congress was to represent the interests of the Chamorro people and defend their lawful rights. He further asserted that the Chamorro people were due the “same rights that have been granted to the different States, territories, and possessions…” Anderson’s address would resound loudly in the decades that followed as the Guam Congress took on this role by mobilizing toward the achievement of self-government and citizenship.

In fact, the Guam Congress had the opportunity to communicate the desire for citizenship directly to members of the US Congress who were visiting Guam. In June 1925, eleven US congressmen arrived on the island and attended a special hearing of the Guam Congress on July 1st. Formal presentations were delivered by Atanasio T. Perez, Jose Roberto and Ramon Sablan, all of whom expressed a desire among Chamorros for US citizenship. Perez emphasized the inequities between peoples in other US colonies and Chamorros. He noted that the people of the Virgin Islands received American citizenship immediately upon the acquisition of sovereignty by the US, but that Chamorros remained a people “truly without a country.” Roberto reminded the US congressmen of the ongoing effort among Chamorros to obtain citizenship and the lack of response from the US, noting that, “This is a matter in which the people of Guam are much concerned, and which has been, from time to time, brought to the attention of the authorities in Washington. But as yet, nothing has been done.” Sablan emphasized that, “For more than a quarter of a century we have been under the American flag, but neither as citizens nor as aliens,” posing the question, “If we are neither aliens nor citizens, what are we?” The special hearing concluded with the presentation of a letter from the Guam Congress containing a resolution requesting US citizenship.

Chamorro desires for more active participation in the governance of Guam were addressed to an extent in 1931. Some Chamorros wanted to elect their representatives to the Guam Congress for a set term, rather than have them appointed by the naval governor. In 1931, Governor Willis Bradley formed the 2nd Guam Congress and island residents were allowed to elect their representatives to two houses—the House of Council and the House of Assembly. Although this granted the people of Guam a democratic voice in the selection of their representatives, the Guam Congress itself continued to be limited to an advisory capacity and frustrations continued to grow among the people over the naval government’s persistent indifference to most of the Congress’ recommendations.

Governor Bradley, however, supported Chamorro aspirations for citizenship and self-government. In addition to allowing the election of members to the Guam Congress, Bradley also made several recommendations to the Naval Department that the federal government enact legislation to grant US citizenship to Chamorros. He further recommended that a bill of rights be granted by Washington. In 1930, Bradley proclaimed a Bill of Rights for the people of Guam without waiting for federal approval. Despite Bradley’s efforts, however, US citizenship and a bill of rights for Chamorros were never approved at the federal level.

Nevertheless, the drive for US citizenship continued and was advanced in 1936. In July of that year, the Guam Congress adopted a resolution that requested the US Congress grant American citizenship to the people of Guam. This time, two delegates were selected from the Guam Congress to deliver the petition to Washington, DC in person and to lobby for a bill to implement it. When Governor Benjamin W. McCandlish refused to finance the trip to Washington, an island-wide fundraising effort was launched and funds were collected from both schoolchildren and adults to help in the effort.

On 7 November 1936, Baltazar J. Bordallo and Francisco B. Leon Guerrero departed Guam to represent the Guam Congress in the nation’s capital. Bordallo and Leon Guerrero successfully lobbied for the drafting of Bill S. 1450 to be introduced in the US Senate and companion Bill HR 4747 to be introduced in the House of Representatives. The legislation, however, failed in the US Congress due to strong opposition from the Secretary of the Navy and the US Department of State, who argued that granting citizenship would not be in the best interests of the Chamorro people.

The efforts of the people of Guam to achieve self-government and US citizenship, however, were interrupted in December 1941 when Japan occupied the island by force during World War II. When the occupation ended in August 1944, the US naval government of Guam was reimplemented. Many of the issues surrounding self-government and citizenship that were prominent before the war persisted in the late 1940s, reigniting efforts on Guam to address them.

As the island entered into a postwar reconstruction period, the two leading causes of conflict between Chamorros and the Navy were land and employment. Many Chamorros found themselves losing land as the US military seized roughly two-thirds of the island’s landmass for military use. Additionally, Chamorro laborers were subject to discrimination in the workplace as they earned only one-fourth the pay rate of American laborers performing identical jobs. US citizenship and self-government were seen as a way Chamorros could prevent further land alienation, job discrimination, and other inequities.

The Guam Congress Walkout

Grievances against the naval government reached a climax in 1949 during the historic Guam Congress Walkout. Frustrated with the lack of powers vested in the representatives elected to the Congress, the Guam Congress unanimously approved “The Bill to Provide an Organic Act and Civil Government for the Island of Guam” to be forwarded to the US Congress on 5 March 1949. Member Antonio C. Cruz motioned that the House of Assembly adjourn and refuse to return to session until the US Congress acted on the proposed legislation.

The Guam Congress Walkout earned national attention when assembly member Carlos P. Taitano alerted the US media to the protest. Newspapers throughout the country began publishing stories about the walkout, calling the American public’s attention to the situation in Guam. The media attention proved instrumental in garnering a response from the US government. Shortly after the walkout, President Harry Truman ordered that the Department of Interior begin plans to take over administrative authority of Guam from the Department of the Navy.

On 1 August 1950, the Organic Act of Guam was signed into law by President Truman ending the era of naval rule on the island and granting civil government to Guam. Residents of Guam at the time of the Organic Act’s passage and their descendants were granted congressional US citizenship. Guam’s political status was defined as an “unincorporated territory.” At the time, the Organic Act was celebrated as a victory won after a long fight for self-government and citizenship that had begun in 1901.

Document unsatisfactory

For many Chamorros, the 1950 passage of the Organic Act seemed a welcome reward after a long drive for self-government and US citizenship. But doubts about the rights and powers afforded by the Organic Act arose very soon after its passage. Although the island received civil government, some Guam leaders argue that the island continues to lack self-government due to the complete oversight powers that the US Congress maintains over Guam. The US citizenship granted by the Organic Act has also been questioned, as residents of Guam cannot vote in US national elections as other citizens do, and the US Constitution that defines and guarantees civil rights does not necessarily apply to Guam.

Chamorros have fought numerous battles over many decades toward the attainment of self-government and citizenship with significant success. Yet ongoing debates in the 21st century over whether Guam truly is self-governing and its people equal citizens suggest that the drive for self-government and full US citizenship has not necessarily come to an end. The petitions of the early 20th century, with their rhetoric of loyalty to the United States and their call for political rights, would find parallels in the activism and struggle for self-determination and decolonization from the federal government prominent at the end of the century and that continues today.

By James Perez Viernes

For further reading

“Address of Mr. Tomas Calvo Anderson.” Guam Newsletter. February 17, 1917. In Hinasso’: Tinige’ Put Chamorro/Insights: The Chamorro Identity. Hale’-ta series, Vol. 1. Agana: Political Status Education Coordinating Commission, 1997.

“Chamorros Make Plea for U.S. Citizenship.” Guam Recorder. July 1925. Hinasso’: Tinige’ Put Chamorro/Insights: The Chamorro Identity. Hale’-ta series, Vol. 1. Agana: Political Status Education Coordinating Commission, 1997.

“Petition Relating to Permanent Government for the Island of Guam.” Hinasso’: Tinige’ Put Chamorro/Insights: The Chamorro Identity. Hale’-ta series, Vol. 1. Agana: Political Status Education Coordinating Commission, 1997.

Hattori, Anne Perez. 1996. “Righting Civil Wrongs: The Guam Congress Walkout of 1949.” Kinalamten Pulitikåt: Siñenten i Chamorro/Issues in Guam’s Political Development: The Chamorro Perspective. Hagåtña: Political Status Education Coordinating Commission.

Hofschneider, Penelope. 2001. A Campaign for Political Rights on the Island of Guam 1899-1950 (Occasional Historical Papers Series No. 8). Saipan: CNMI Division of Historic Preservation.