30 Years in the making

Guam’s Commonwealth Act was both a continuation of indigenous rights struggles from the early 20th century and a reaction to Washington’s negotiations and status agreements with Guam’s regional neighbors to end the United Nation’s Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI). For three decades, from the early 1970s to 2001, the commonwealth movement was the dominant theme in federal-territorial relations and a major expression of Chamorro cultural nationalism.

While Guam’s fifty-year quest for civil rights through US citizenship was finally addressed by the 1950 Organic Act, that federal legislation conferred only a modest degree of home rule, leaving the island with an appointed governor, no representation in Congress and little autonomy or flexibility in the application of federal law to the island. Moreover, the Pentagon clamped a security clearance requirement on Guam a few months after the Organic Act, stifling visitation and commercial development until it was lifted in 1962. By 1972, the island had been accorded the right to elect its own governor and a non-voting Delegate to the House of Representatives.

At that time, however, the Northern Marianas, a district of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands seeking affiliation with the United States, began negotiating with the US Government for a commonwealth status that was modeled on the agreement negotiated by Puerto Rico in 1950. Drafted between December 1972 and February 1975, the Commonwealth Covenant was approved by the Northern Marianas electorate in a 17 June 1975 plebiscite by a 78.8% margin.

The Northern Marianas “Covenant” provided a significant degree of autonomy under a locally adopted constitution, requiring “mutual consent” for key self-government provisions to be modified, limiting land ownership to residents of Northern Marianas descent, and delegating control of immigration, labor and tax laws to the local government.

Genesis of the commonwealth quest

The speedy negotiations and innovative agreement between the Northern Marianas and the US shocked many Guam residents. The voters of Guam had rejected reunification with the Northern Marianas in 1969, fearing the financial burden of developing the neighbor islands and because the Northern Marianas Chamorros, who had been under Japan’s pre-World War II rule, had assisted the Japanese military in their wartime occupation of Guam. The Chamorros of Guam had remained steadfastly loyal to “Uncle Sam” during those agonizing war years, many suffering starvation, torture and death at the hands of the Japanese, and most losing their homes and businesses in the American bombardment and recapture of the island.

The perception of many Guam leaders was that their loyalty, patriotism and sacrifice counted for little, while those who had aided America’s wartime enemy were rewarded with high-level US attention, comprehensive negotiations and a more autonomous and honorable status in the American family. This was a major psychological blow for Guam’s senior leadership. As Antonio Won Pat, Guam’s delegate to the US Congress, said at the time,

“Whatever the needs—real or perceived—of the Pentagon in the Western Pacific, the willingness of Washington to deal so generously with non-citizens while denying their fellow Americans equal treatment can only be viewed with suspicion and resentment by the people of Guam.”

Won Pat’s generation had seen the island’s military role transformed from a small naval refueling and communications station into a major US staging base for the war on Japan, with more than 200,000 military personnel and twenty-one bases occupying an estimated eighty percent of the island’s 212 square miles. After the war, about sixty-three percent of the island was officially retained (bought or leased)—much of that through controversial eminent domain land condemnation proceedings—to convert the bases into Cold War sentinels.

These acquisitions displaced more than 11,000 Chamorros, almost half of the indigenous population—a heart-rending experience following their liberation from wartime trauma. The new installations included a Strategic Air Command base, which supported US forces in the Korean War and hosted B-52 bombers that flew thousands of missions in the Vietnam War; a naval base which home ported Polaris nuclear missile submarines and nuclear powered attack submarines in the era of “Mutually Assured Destruction;” and a Naval Air Station and top-secret Naval Facility which tracked Soviet naval activity in the Pacific.

The evolving US military posture on the island had significantly affected the indigenous population, regarding political and economic development before World War II and causing major land alienation, immigration and environmental impacts in the postwar years. Washington’s immigration policy was regarded as especially controversial because many Chamorros believed the federal government allowed an unnecessarily high number of permanent immigrants into the island, affecting the social, cultural and political character of their homeland. Many indigenous rights advocates maintain this policy violates the United Nations Charter, which discourages permanent immigration into non-self-governing territories.

Residents who claim Chamorro ancestry today represent less than half of the island’s 160,000 residents, down from ninety percent in 1950 and fifty-five percent in the mid-1970s. The other two-thirds of Guam’s population are immigrants (and their descendants) from the Philippines, US states and other Asian and Pacific nations, including a recent wave of more than 35,000 citizens of the Freely Associated States (the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands). Filipinos are now the second largest ethnic group on Guam, accounting for about twenty-six percent of the population.

These postwar developments, especially the accelerating change in the island’s ethnic makeup, led to growing concerns regarding the loss of Chamorro culture and primacy. Diminishing use of the Chamorro language, which had been banned from the public school system and replaced with English under US Naval Rule rule, was seen as symptomatic of the loss of indigenous identity. In the late 1960s, the local government began mandating Chamorro cultural studies and language programs in public elementary, secondary and college curriculum.

Launching the commonwealth movement

These initiatives to encourage Chamorro language and cultural studies reflected linkages in the evolving views of many Chamorros regarding cultural preservation, indigenous primacy and greater autonomy within the US family. The blanket application of federal laws to the island was seen as especially problematic because the people of Guam do not have an equal voice with communities in US states in the formulation and enactment of federal laws affecting them. Owing to the island’s unincorporated status, Guam residents have no representation in the US Senate—only a non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives—and may not vote for President.

The sense of being ignored by Washington officials while Northern Marianas residents received first-class treatment spurred the Guam Legislature to institute a political status movement by establishing official commissions to study options, issue reports, conduct public education campaigns, recommend plebiscites and engage Washington in negotiations. A 1973 legislative status commission, saying independence and statehood were unrealistic, concluded that the most feasible option for an improved interim political relationship within the US political family was the commonwealth status Puerto Rico enjoyed and which the Northern Marianas was seeking.

Because US administrations had accepted commonwealth pacts with these two territories, Guam leaders assumed it represented a new transitional or interim status in the US territorial relations hierarchy—above unincorporated but below incorporated—which could limit US federal power and enhance local control of island affairs. Commonwealth was seen as a solution that allowed continued US sovereignty while addressing local autonomy issues, such as the application of US law, military land acquisition policy and preservation of Chamorro culture and primacy.

The commission also invited a UN committee on decolonization to visit Guam in October 1974 to affirm that the island was non-self-governing and had a right to independence as an ultimate political status. The federal government, which maintained that Guam had opted for affiliation with the United States and achieved self-government, blocked the visit. However, Washington was reluctant to petition the UN to remove Guam from the list of small, non-self governing territories because the committee overseeing this decolonization list was often led by US antagonists, such as Libya and Cuba, which would oppose the US request and elevate the international profile of Guam’s quest for greater autonomy and self-determination.

As the Northern Marianas negotiations concluded, US National Security Council officials, who appreciated the implications of the new agreement for Guam, conducted a classified study that supported a comparable status for the island. US President Gerald R. Ford approved the recommendation in 1975, and US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger instructed an Under Secretaries Committee to “seek agreement with Guamanian representatives on a commonwealth arrangement no less favorable than that which we are negotiating with the Northern Marianas.”

However, US Department of Interior officials responsible for carrying out the directive were extremely reluctant to engage Guam in substantive negotiations (which might include ostensibly “non-negotiable” topics such as US sovereignty, military bases and foreign affairs). Their reactive, foot-dragging approach attempted to cajole island officials to open a “dialogue” on Guam—federal relations with a limited agenda without actually informing them of the Presidential directive. Disagreement among Guam leaders on negotiation strategy, status approaches and the strong preference of Rep. Phillip Burton, the powerful chairman of the US House Subcommittee on Territorial and Insular Affairs, for a locally drafted-constitution ended consideration of the proactive negotiations envisioned in the Ford/Kissinger directive.

Guam’s commonwealth strategy

During this period, Chairman Burton, who regarded himself as a benefactor of the island territories, repeatedly told Guam leaders that he would ensure that the benefits the Northern Marianas received under its new status would eventually be provided to Guam. He urged Guam leaders not to object formally to the Northern Marianas commonwealth legislation in Congress and insisted that allowing Guam to draft its own constitution would enable the islanders to gain the status improvements they sought.

Guam leaders established a new political status commission in 1975 and, persuaded by Burton and Won Pat to support the draft constitution approach, organized a 1976 plebiscite on options that did not include a “commonwealth” choice. The island, already suffering from high unemployment and inflation, was struck by super-typhoon Pamela in May, which caused widespread damage to homes and public utilities, as well as the military base complex, leading to large infusions of federal emergency relief funds and capital rehabilitation investments. On 4 September 1976 the plebiscite vote was held and fifty-eight percent of voters chose the status quo “with improvements” over four other options. Statehood was second with twenty-four percent.

The following month, as a result of Won Pat’s efforts with Burton to provide Guam another means of expanding local autonomy, Congress authorized island leaders to draft a constitution and federal relations act “within the existing territorial-federal relationship.” Both documents, which would replace the Organic Act, required US legislative and executive branch approval. However, Guam voters rejected the draft constitution in 1979, primarily under the logic of “political status first.” The spirited convention debates, carried live via television, and extensive public advocacy campaigns, culminating in the defeat of the draft constitution, provided a major impetus for the next evolution in the process.

Reflecting growing public awareness of the UN mandated “self-determination” process sweeping Micronesia and continued concern with the loss of Chamorro culture and primacy, Guam leaders established a Commission on Self-Determination, under the direction of the Governor, to supplant the previous commissions on political status, which had been under the control of the Guam Legislature. The change in terminology and organization structure reflected a growing assertiveness regarding the island’s agenda for negotiations.

The new commission then organized a 1982 plebiscite, resulting in a plurality vote for commonwealth (forty-nine percent), which was generically defined along the lines of the Puerto Rico and Northern Marianas pacts. Statehood received twenty-six percent of the vote; status quo ten percent; while free association and independence each received four percent. A runoff chose commonwealth (seventy-three percent) over statehood (twenty-seven percent) as the preferred status.

Rep. Phil Burton died in 1983. However, a group of US congressmen, at the request of Won Pat, met with island leaders in Albuquerque in 1984. Touted as the “Spirit of Albuquerque,” the congressmen advised Guam leaders to develop a “working draft” of a bill that addressed their concerns, but to remain willing to compromise when negotiations on the proposal were joined. Rep. Morris K. Udall, chairman of the House committee with primary jurisdiction over the bill, reiterated the need for flexibility.

During the next three years, the Commission held numerous outreach and public comment sessions and reviewed numerous suggestions and proposals. The active public discussion and debate over the bill’s provisions was closely followed by the island media, and as the Commission refined the draft, it decided that Guam voters should ratify the bill before submitting it to the US Congress.

Major provisions of the Commonwealth Act

The Commonwealth Act was drafted under the administration of Governor Ricardo J. Bordallo (1983–86) and became the keystone of the territory’s federal relations platform under him and later under Governors Joseph F. Ada (1987–94) and Carl Gutierrez (1994–2003). Beginning in the spring of 1988, the legislation was introduced in several consecutive sessions of the Congress during the tenures of Guam Delegates Ben Blaz (1985–93) and Robert Underwood (1993–2003).

The final version of the measure called for mutual consent on key self-government aspects of a federal-territorial commonwealth relationship, including the application of federal law to the island, and provided the local government authority over immigration, labor law and the Exclusive Economic Zone. The bill prohibited the federal use of eminent domain power to acquire land for military bases, and required the return of excess Defense Department lands to the local government and consultation with Guam officials before major changes to force levels or base missions. The measure would also provide Guam greater authority to negotiate commercial agreements directly with Asian-Pacific states and a greater role in awarding commercial air carrier routes into Guam.

Chamorro grassroots groups that had been garnering public support for indigenous rights for more than a decade through advocacy campaigns on cultural and environmental preservation, land rights and political status, lobbied for many of these provisions. More importantly, because Guam remained on the UN list of small, non-self-governing territories and was ostensibly eligible for an internationally monitored self-determination process, indigenous rights advocates had urged the Commission early in its deliberations to address that issue, introducing a new and potentially governing dynamic.

Citing UN decolonization principles and international treaties, the Commission determined that the “self” in self-determination could only be the indigenous residents and their descendants, because post-World War II settlers had by birth or naturalization already chosen their national affiliation. The residual sovereignty of the Chamorro people was asserted in commonwealth bill provisions that provided for special cultural preservation and land trust programs and the exclusive right to determine the island’s ultimate political status in a future act of self-determination. The Chamorro “self” was further defined as people born on Guam as of 1 August 1950 (the effective date of the Guam Organic Act) and their descendants. All qualified voters could vote on the draft commonwealth bill, however, because it was deemed an “interim” or “transitional” status.

Guam voters approved most of the bill in an August 1987 referendum. Immigration and self-determination provisions that had failed to receive a majority were revised and narrowly approved in a second vote. Guam Governor Joseph F. Ada described the proposed commonwealth status as “a relationship of mutual consent: in which the power of the federal government unilaterally to change our status, change agreements we arrive at, and impose unilateral federal law upon us is restricted…Only by giving us the right of consent can our people truly be empowered.”

The proposed legislation received two hearings (1989 and 1997) by the House Interior Subcommittee on Territorial and Insular Affairs. Gov. Ada testified and publicly maintained he was bound by the bill’s language (as approved by Guam voters) and unable to negotiate changes. As a result of the first hearing, the Commission agreed to meet regularly with a federal executive branch task force to try to resolve US concerns with the bill’s major provisions. Among its strategies, the Ada Administration hoped that emphasizing the island’s “colonial status” under an ostensibly “anti-colonial” nation would encourage Washington officials to offer concessions. The Gutierrez efforts included a demonstration of party loyalty, with more than US$1 million in contributions to the re-election campaign of President William J. Clinton.

However, the administrations of Presidents George H.W. Bush (1989–93) and Clinton (1993–2001) consistently opposed major provisions of the bill, focusing their objections on issues of sovereignty, constitutionality and policy continuity, and arguing that the proposal sought a composite status that included incompatible aspects of independence, free association, commonwealth and statehood. The bill would authorize the exclusion of US citizens (the settler population), based on ethnicity, from a vote on ultimate status, which federal officials said conflicted with constitutional protections against non-discriminatory voting. Other provisions, they argued, ran counter to strategic defense interests and territorial policy. The measure was never reported out of committee.

Guam officials involved in the commonwealth quest generally attribute its failure to Washington’s refusal to recognize the residual sovereignty of the Chamorro people, their non-self-governing status and their exclusive right to self-determination. Local leaders also assert that Washington—the Pentagon, specifically—believed that greater local autonomy would restrict and jeopardize the US defense posture and military flexibility in the region. Since the passing of the Commonwealth Act on Guam, the White House, too, has refused to negotiate this status, and Congressional leaders deliberately have tried to control the issues Guam leaders wanted addressed.

Robert F. Rogers, a Guam historian and former political status adviser to Gov. Ricardo J. Bordallo, agrees that US “obduracy” played a significant role in blocking the legislation, especially regarding Washington’s geopolitical use of the island or allowing local leaders to participate in determining US national security policy for the region. However, Rogers also attributes much of the failure to what he calls the adversarial posture, inflexible position and poor strategy of Guam leaders, who forfeited an opportunity to craft a compromise bill with a Democratically-controlled Congress, relegating negotiations to a task force of federal officials who habitually defend the status quo. The Commission’s discussions with the task force never yielded significant US concessions, let alone a final agreement.

By Frank Quimby

e-Publication: The Guam Commonwealth Act


Download the Draft Guam Commonwealth Act here.

For further reading

Ada, Joseph and Leland Bettis. 1996. Hale‘-ta: Kinalamten Pulitikåt: siñenten i Chamorro. Issues in Guam’s Political Development: the Chamorro perspective. Hagåtña, Guam: Political Status Education Coordinating Commission.

Leland Bettis. 1994. “Political reviews: Guam,” The Contemporary Pacific, 6(1):173.

Gayle, Andrew. 1974. “An Analysis of Social, Cultural and Historical Factors Bearing on the Political Status of Guam.”

Guam Commonwealth Act. Library of Congress website. Accessed 6 September 2013.

Hale‘-ta: I Ma Gobetna-ña Guam: Governing Guam: before and after the war. Hagåtña, Guam: Political Status Education Coordinating Commission. 1994.

Rogers, Robert. 1995. Destiny’s Landfall: a History of Guam. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Rogers, Robert. 1998. “Requiem for a Quest: The Failure of Guam’s Leaders to Secure Fundamental Political Changes,” in Leadership in the Pacific Islands: Tradition and the Future. Eds. Donald R. Shuster, Peter Larmour and Karin Von Strokirch. Cambridge: Australian National University and Mangilao, Guam: Micronesian Area Research Center, pp. 89-99.

Souder-Jaffery, Laura and Robert Underwood. 2009. “Chamorro Self-Determination: Right of a People.” Accessed 6 September 2013.

Underwood, Robert A. 1999. “The Status of Having No Status.” Speech presented at the annual College of Arts and Sciences Research Conference. University of Guam, Mangilao, Guam. 26 April 1999.

Willens, Howard P. and Dirk A. Ballendorf. 2004. The Secret Guam Study: how President Ford’s approval of the commonwealth was blocked by federal officials. Mangilao and Saipan: University of Guam Press.