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In the 1960s and 1970s, several formal entities were organized by the Government of Guam to help assess the island’s political needs and desires and its relationship with the United States. It was a time of change as Guam transitioned from naval rule to civilian governance under the Organic Act of 1950. Island leaders had successfully pushed for an elected governor and a territorial non-voting delegate for the US Congress. But the question of what lay ahead for Guam and its people weighed on government leaders both on Guam and in the nation’s capital. The spirit of decolonization advocated by the United Nations, especially in the 1960s, led many non-self-governing territories to seek new political statuses with their colonizing governments. Guam leaders decided to approach the question of Guam’s political status by examining the island’s unique situation and to educate themselves and the community on the various available political status options.

The Legislative Commission on Political Status (or the Political Status Commission) dates back to the early 1970s. There have been two legislatively mandated commissions—the first convened in 1973, and the second in 1975. Preceding the two Political Status Commissions were the Political Status Subcommittee of the First Constitutional Convention and the Governor’s Advisory Council on Political Status. Each of these groups pursued a greater understanding of Guam’s situation in the context of American colonialism and presented a grander vision of what Guam could achieve with a change in political status.

Background

Although Guam has been a US possession since 1898, the island’s political status has always been anomalous. An appointed US military governor held all legislative, executive and judicial authority over the entire island and its residents up to the outbreak of World War II on Guam in 1941, and again from 1944 to 1950. Guam was occupied by Japan between 1941 and 1944.

The US Congress did not provide for an organized civil government until 1950 with the passage of the Organic Act of Guam. Through the Organic Act, the island’s status as an unincorporated territory remained, but US congressional citizenship and certain constitutional protections were granted to the people of Guam. The administration of the island was transferred from the Department of Defense to the Department of Interior. The Organic Act also established a legislature and a judicial system that allowed appeals in the federal court system under certain circumstances.

The Organic Act, however, did not grant full equal rights to Guam residents enjoyed by other US citizens. It took another twenty years before changes to the Organic Act (initiated by Guam) finally allowed the people of Guam to elect their own governor and US Congressional delegate. Although the island’s economic, social and political development was connected directly to Guam’s political status, island leaders were only able to obtain these piecemeal changes to the Organic Act. However, these movements toward more self-government and political changes across the Pacific in general continued to push local leaders to examine further the question of Guam’s political status and future relationship with the US.

In the aftermath of World War II, up to 1962, the island essentially was a military installation of the United States government, as it had been since 1898. While the Organic Act transferred the administration of the island from the US Navy to an appointed civilian governor, there were still many federal and military restrictions that affected Guam’s potential political and economic growth and development.

However, two events that helped change this were Typhoon Karen which devastated the island in 1962, and the lifting of the military security clearance also in 1962. The rebuilding and reconstruction of the island’s infrastructure after Typhoon Karen were possible through millions of dollars of federal relief funding made available by the Kennedy administration. Additionally, the lifting of the Navy’s security clearance allowed more free travel to and from Guam and helped pave the way for tourism and business, thus increasing economic development on the island. Guam’s population increased as well, growing by more than 40,000 over the following two decades, and becoming more ethnically diverse.

Urbanization and increased construction of housing developments and hotels had significant impacts on health, environment and local culture. The active military bases throughout the island demonstrated Guam’s continuing strategic military value and significant geopolitical role in the Pacific region.

It was also around this time that the islands of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI) in Micronesia were negotiating their political statuses with the US and ending the United Nations trusteeship established in 1947. In the early 1960s, the UN resolved that all people have the inherent right to determine their political standing. In this spirit, countries and territories that had been under European control began to gain independence through the processes of decolonization. In Micronesia, the TTPI broke up into four entities, three of which eventually negotiated Compacts of Free Association with the United States—Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia (comprised of Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae)—which were finalized in the 1980s and 1990s. However, Saipan and the Northern Mariana Islands negotiated their political status rather quickly.

Although the unification of Guam with the Northern Marianas was discussed, the majority of Guamanians who participated in a special referendum in 1969 opted not to join their neighbors to the north. Instead, the Northern Marianas went on to negotiate their own political status with the US, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) emerged in 1978. For Guam’s leaders, witnessing the success of negotiations in Saipan only reinforced the idea that it was time for Guam to more actively and aggressively examine the island’s political status and to negotiate its political future.

The Political Status Subcommittee, first Constitutional Convention

In 1968, at the urging of Senator Richard F. Taitano, the 9th Guam Legislature established the first Constitutional Convention to draft a constitution for the people of Guam. Taitano argued that the people of Guam had never had the opportunity to conduct a comprehensive review of the Organic Act or the changes that had been enacted by Congress since 1950. The Organic Act, according to Taitano, was essentially Guam’s constitution, and a commission should be established to examine the Organic Act and advise Congress of changes that the people of Guam wanted. Taitano’s bill became Public Law 9-244 and 43 members were elected to serve on the commission. However, rather than draft an actual constitution, the members discussed numerous changes to the Organic Act, as well as possibilities for Guam’s political status.

A subcommittee of the Constitutional Convention, known as the Political Status Subcommittee, held public meetings to discuss the various options for Guam’s political status, but it was apparent from these meetings that most people did not understand the different options, and others were uncertain what “decolonization” and a shift in status might mean for the island and its people. In a vote by the convention, the majority of members voted for statehood. This led the convention to affirm Resolution No. 19 which declared statehood as the eventual political status sought by the people of Guam. However, the discussions by the Political Status Subcommittee were not the main purpose of the Constitutional Convention and Resolution No. 19 was not presented as a recommendation. Indeed, the official recommendations that were made by the convention members largely were met with indifference by the federal government.

Governor’s Advisory Council on Political Status

In 1970, the newly elected Governor of Guam, Carlos G. Camacho, established the Governor’s Advisory Council on Political Status, to discuss the possibility of the reunification of the Mariana Islands. In fact, initial discussions about Marianas reunification had begun in the early 1960s, and since 1965, leaders from both Saipan and Guam had traveled back and forth frequently to engage in talks. The issue was brought before the people of the Marianas, and separate plebiscites were held in Saipan and Guam in November 1969. While Saipan voters approved reunification, Guam voters rejected it, and instead, each entity continued to pursue their individual negotiations with the US government.

The first Legislative Commission on Political Status, 1973-1974

The first Political Status Commission was created through Public Law 12-17 by the 12th Guam Legislature in 1973. It was the first official body set up to address Guam’s political status as a specific issue. Unlike the previous Political Status Subcommittee and the Governor’s Advisory Council, the Political Status Commission was established to provide information to the general public about the legal and political status of Guam with the United States. The commission was chaired by Senator Frank G. Lujan and was comprised of nine senators, including: Joseph F. Ada, Antonio M. Palomo, Adrian C. Sanchez, Francisco R. Santos, Richard F. Taitano, Paul M. Calvo, Jesus U. Torres, and Paul J. Bordallo. An informational report was generated and released in September 1974.

The commission looked closely at economic, social and cultural factors that were impacted by Guam’s political status and relationship with the US. With assistance from the Stanford Research Institute, the commission prepared a formal report identifying changes needed to improve Guam’s economic and political growth and respect for the unique cultural heritage of the Chamorro people. In general, the informational report listed nine complaints against the US government and also called for a constitution and a committee to review the military presence on the island. The commission further suggested that Guam’s interim status be similar to the commonwealth status of Puerto Rico and the one being negotiated by the Northern Marianas at the time. The commission published weekly newspaper articles to highlight some of these issues.

The commission was challenged to move the issue of political status in the face of general indifference or inaction by the US Congress and a local community whose members were diverse in their desires and understandings of what a change in political status for Guam would mean. The commission asserted that Guam should have the right to self-determination and that the people of Guam must be consulted regarding any decision involving the island’s political status. In their report, the commission argued that the Organic Act did not allow the people of Guam to manage their affairs effectively with respect to the many federal regulations that constricted economic growth. The commission was also critical of the US military presence, arguing the military’s activities exceeded its national security interests, especially regarding the taking of land. Control over the island’s immigration policies and a careful review of federally-held lands were also argued for in the commission report.

The commission’s recommendation for the development of a constitution was seen as a way for the people of Guam to have greater control over their governance. The commission also recommended a review of the military presence by local government and federal representatives, hoping it would help control certain military activities that were seen as arbitrary, that were beyond security interests, or impeded the government’s ability to effectively manage its affairs.

Additionally, the Political Status Commission pointed out the need for a vibrant educational campaign to increase awareness about the issue of Guam’s political situation and relationship with the US. In their critical examination of Guam’s colonial relationship with the US—in light of people’s memories of World War II and American liberation, the ongoing conflict in Vietnam and the local media’s pro-American stance—the commission realized that any process for change would have to be gradual. With their recommendations, the members of the commission laid out a vision of Guam’s future driven by changes in Guam’s political status. They also laid the groundwork for more definitive plans for talking about these important issues and to address the challenges that lay ahead.

The second Special Commission on Political Status, 1975-1976

The 13th Guam Legislature created the second Political Status Commission in 1975. The commission did not take a position on the ultimate status for Guam but was tasked with educating the public about the different political status options and to formally open negotiations with the federal government. Public Law 13-24, which created the commission, identified the specific problems the commission was to try and resolve, including shipping, immigration, greater regional participation and other restrictions to Guam’s economy as a result of the Organic Act or other federal controls. Unlike the first commission, the second Political Status Commission was comprised of 15 members from both political parties and two village commissioners (mayors). Republican Speaker Joseph Ada appointed four senators of the majority party and three members from the public-at large. The Democratic minority selected three Democrat senators and Democrat Governor Ricky Bordallo selected three members of his administration. Republican Senator Frank Blas was selected as Chair of the commission and members included Edward Duenas, Thomas V. C. Tanaka, Jr., former Lt. Governor Kurt Moylan, Dr. Pedro Sanchez, and Democrats Carl T. C. Gutierrez, Adrian Sanchez, Francisco R. Santos, Edward Charfauros, Delfina Aguigui, James McDonald, Eugene Ramsey and Joseph Rios. PL 13-134 expanded the membership to include appointees from the Commissioners’ Council Gregorio A. Calvo and Roman Quinata.

Although the commission requested a federal representative, it was months before President Gerald Ford appointed the Director of the Office of Territories to represent the federal government. The Legislature had authorized the commission to be the sole representative for Guam during the negotiations. However, congressional delegate Antonio Won Pat, who was not consulted or asked to participate in the commission, introduced two resolutions to Congress asking the US government to consider a constitution for Guam and to form a separate commission to consider Guam’s political status. Won Pat’s actions were seen as an attempt to diminish the role of the Legislature’s Political Status Commission. In particular, Won Pat’s push for a constitutional convention without a specific political status chosen by the people of Guam created conflict between the Congressman and the commission. Unfortunately, the conflict between Won Pat and the commission was highlighted more in the media than the work of the commission itself.

Nevertheless, the commission prepared issue papers on political status, immigration and naturalization, shipping, air transportation, taxation and commerce, and US aid to Guam. The commission then polled the people of Guam as to which political status they would prefer. Again, Won Pat challenged the commission’s sole authority to negotiate on behalf of the people of Guam and requested the Congressional Research Service (CRS) to investigate the commission’s actions. The CRS concluded that the Political Status Commission’s authority to negotiate Guam’s political status was invalid because that authority lay with the Governor of Guam. The legislative commission could serve an investigatory purpose, but it could not represent the people of Guam in negotiations with the federal government. Despite these findings, the commission decided to go ahead and push for a federal negotiator while moving on with the educational campaign. Without the negotiating authority, however, any plebiscite put together by the commission was viewed more like an opinion poll.

The plebiscite coincided with the legislative primary elections in September 1976 and was the first formal expression of the people of Guam of the desire for change. Five options for political status were presented on the ballot. Eighty percent of eligible voters participated in the plebiscite with the following results:

  • Status Quo: 8 percent
  • Improved Status Quo: 51 percent
  • Independence: 5 percent
  • Statehood: 21 percent
  • Other: 3 percent

“Improved status quo” referred to changes in portions of the Organic Act and other federal laws to improve the economic and social opportunities for Guam, while “Other” referred to other relationships with the US not specified in the ballot.

A month after the plebiscite, President Ford appointed Fred Zeder, Director of the Department of Interior’s Office of Territories as the US negotiator. Around this time, Won Pat’s bill calling for a second Constitutional Convention passed in Congress, and Zeder announced that Guam would be able to negotiate a political status package by 1977. The commission, still having reservations about a constitutional convention initiated in Washington, decided to support it, believing they would be able to take the lead in the negotiations. However, in October 1976, Gerald Ford was replaced by President Jimmy Carter and Zeder stepped down in January 1977, having met the Political Status Commission only once.

The Political Status Commission created by the 12th Guam Legislature in 1973 recognized that a Guam constitution alone would not be able to resolve all the aspects of Guam’s political relationship with the US and recommended instead a Federal-Territorial Relations Act to help consider those issues. Indeed, they believed, the development of a constitution should be directly connected to the process of determining a political status for Guam. Likewise, Won Pat’s alternate approach of a constitutional convention was seen by the second commission’s members as too inflexible to address the issues that required changes in federal law, such as foreign affairs, control of federal lands, immigration, labor and transportation. The constitution would merely replace the Organic Act without changing Guam’s status as an unincorporated territory, and maintain Congress’ authority over the island. The commission, therefore, continued to oppose the constitution process, believing Guam’s political status should be defined first and drafting a constitution should follow.

Over the next five years, the constitution process moved forward while the political status issue languished, but it would not go away completely. While the US government saw the constitution process as a step toward self-government, Guam’s leaders continued to request for a change in the island’s political relationship, a struggle that would continue with the next wave of political status initiatives.

By Dominica Tolentino

For further reading

Ada, Joseph F. and Leland Bettis. 1996. “The Quest for Commonwealth, the Quest for Change,” in Kinalamten Pulitikåt: Siñenten I Chamorro: Issues in Guam’s Political Development: The Chamorro Perspective. Hagåtña, Guam: Political Status Education Coordinating Commission, pp. 119-203.

Liebowitz, Arnold H. 1989. Defining Status: A Comprehensive Analysis of United States-Territorial Relations. Dordrecht, the Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.