Guam and Its Three Empires
Interpretive essay: Colony since 1565
Few peoples in the world have had continued colonial status for the past 340 years. However, the Chamorro people can claim this unfortunate distinction. It all began when Ferdinand Magellan, and his three small ships stumbled upon the Mariana Islands 6 March 1521 (some accounts say 17 March). Totally exhausted, sick with scurvy and half-starved, Magellan and his crew were fed and the ship’s stores replenished. Magellan stayed just long enough to take vengeance on the islanders’ for their theft of his ship’s skiff, and, reportedly, carve out human entrails for his sick crew.
It was a tragic beginning to colonization for the Chamorros.
Spanish take charge
Because of the Chamorros’ perceived aggressive ways, Magellan was not interested in claiming the islands for Spain. Sailing out of New Spain (Mexico), Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, a prosperous landowner from Mexico City, officially took Guam as a formal possession of Spain in 1565. But a continuous Spanish colonial presence did not begin on Guam until 1668, after King Philip IV of Spain approved Father Diego Luis de San Vitores’, S.J., mission to Guam. San Vitores needed several years of heavy-duty politicking and persuading to get his vision funded. For this he depended on Queen Mariana and her Jesuit confessor, Father J. E. Nithard.
Fr. San Vitores was Guam’s first governor (head of colony) and his main order of business was, of course, to Christianize the Chamorros. This led to the priest’s murder in 1672 by Chief Matapang and twenty-seven years of Chamorro resistance that was brutally put down by Spanish force of arms.
Three priests—Frs. Francisco Solano, Francisco Ezquerra, and Peter Coemans—followed San Vitores as head of colony till 1674 when the first military man, Captain Damian de Esplana, originally assigned to the Philippines was stranded on Guam. Because of his military rank, the Jesuits requested Esplana to serve as head of the mission.
It was not until 1681 that Captain Antonio Saravia was appointed the first official Military Head Commander (later governor) of Guam upon the authority of King Charles II of Spain. One of Saravia’s first acts was to persuade all the Chamorro leaders, then loyal to Spain, to take and sign an oath of allegiance. They promised to “abide by any law which His Majesty might be pleased to impose upon us.” This show of loyalty was celebrated with cannon and musket fire, shouts, and triton trumpet shell blasts. For the next 217 years and fifty-some foreign governors, the Chamorros would live as both citizens and subjects of Spain.
In 1698, after twenty-seven years of war, the Spanish had largely subdued the Chamorros and imposed a governing structure. A network of dirt tracks connected five districts each with a pueblo, or main village, and church. A priest and a soldier were assigned to each pueblo. Leading Chamorros were identified and designated as principales. The principales were assigned some village duties and used to persuade all the Chamorros in the surrounding area to take up residence in the main village.
The village priest headed both the church and school with upkeep being done by Chamorros. In 1680 Guam had nine priests and three lay brothers and a population of about 7,000. This was a considerable reduction from the 50,000 estimated at San Vitores’ arrival. The population, reduced by the Spanish-Chamorro War, was further reduced by epidemics in 1688 and 1693 that began from diseases brought by Spanish ships.
The 217 years of Spanish colonial rule on Guam was theocratic and autocratic. Toward the end of that period, however, a royal order of 1885 introduced an element of village-level democracy. The order allowed free use of crown land by Chamorros and the election of local officials called gobernadorcillo, or mayor, from among the principalia class. This was a major change for the islands, with elected officials replacing appointed ones.
Americans were next
Such a change, important as it was, had no impact on the continued decline of Spain’s empire, by 1898 but a shadow of its former self. Aggressive and ambitious, the United States had established itself as a player in the arena of world geopolitics. Irritated by Spain’s autocratic rule of Cuba and the mysterious explosion that destroyed the battleship, USS Maine, then in Havana’s harbor, the U.S. declared war on Spain in April 1898.
In June, Captain Henry Glass quickly took Guam and sailed on to the Philippines. In August a protocol was signed ending the fighting and in December the Treaty of Paris was agreed to whereby the US paid $20 million reparations for all the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam.
The transfer of Guam’s sovereignty did not involve the Chamorros and other than the assignment to the US Congress the power to determine the civil rights and political status of the Chamorros, there was no explicit obligation placed on the US to cultivate self-government or improve the political, social, or economic well-being of the indigenous people. The authority to administer Guam was soon transferred to the US Navy, whose appointed governors would assume complete and unquestioned authority of Guam and its people. From the beginning, Guam was and still is but a piece of real estate needed by the American empire for its strategic purposes.
Guam’s first US Naval governor arrived in August 1899 and the last one ended his term when the Organic Act was signed in 1949. As with the Spanish, American military rule was autocratic, the one-man rule of a commanding naval officer. Be that as it may, some of the naval governors took initiatives to enlarge Chamorro participation in government.
Governor Roy Smith (1916-1918) established the first Guam Congress. This group of thirty-four members was made up of village commissioners, deputy commissioners and other prominent Chamorros, all appointed by the governor. However, the “legislators” were told in no uncertain terms that they were merely an advisory body with no authority to debate political rights or status issues.
Guam’s greatest naval governor was Willis W. Bradley, 1929-1931. Bradley worked to forward recommendations to Washington, D.C. that Guam’s people be granted US citizenship and a bill of rights. While his efforts were ignored by US leadership, he went ahead and established Guam citizenship and a Guam Bill of Rights. He reconstituted the Guam Congress as a bicameral elected body and called for the direct election of village commissioners. However, the Navy brass in Washington was not happy with Bradley’s initiatives in the area of expanded civil rights for Guam’s people and recalled him at the end of his term.
World War II brought Japanese
US naval rule of Guam was violently interrupted by the 1941 attack of the Empire of Japan’s forces. The Imperial Japanese Navy’s 54th Naval Defense Guard ruled Guam for the purpose of establishing the Greater East-Asia Co-prosperity Sphere. This ideology was intended to liberate Asian peoples from European colonialism and establish one political and economic bloc centered on Japan.
Japan’s grand vision resulted in repressive and harsh rule. Japanese forces would occupy Guam for nearly three years between December 1941 and July 1944. Attempts to implement the sphere ideology came crashing to the ground as an occupying military government had to immediately transform itself into a fighting force which was crushed in less than a month by the overwhelming power of the U.S. military. Guam then reverted to the American empire.
Americans come back
What remained steady and increasingly persistent both before and after the Pacific War was the Chamorro call for political rights and civilian rule. This began in 1901 with a petition calling for a permanent civilian government. In 1917 at the opening of the first Guam Congress, Tomas Calvo Anderson asserted:
It is high time that there be granted to the people, respectful, loyal and devoted to the Great American nation, the same rights that have been granted to the different states, territories and possessions… Our ideals are realized by the giving of that which by right should be granted, that is to say, the defining of the status of the Chamorro people.
Again in 1926 and 1929, the Guam Congress adopted and endorsed petitions for the grant of U.S. citizenship to Chamorros. A few years later, the Guam Recorder of 1933 contained two statements, one by congressmen Manuel F. Ulloa and Dr. Ramon M. Sablan and a second by Guam Postmaster James Underwood calling for American citizenship. In response, naval Governor Captain George A. Alexander endorsed this effort by transmitting the citizenship petition to the White House signed by 2,000 Chamorros.
Dead silence from Washington DC
In spite of dead silence from Washington, DC in response to all these petitions, the push for citizenship and civil rights continued with the efforts of local political leaders and men of prominence. In 1936, Baltazar J. Bordallo and Francisco Baza Leon Guerrero made the long trip to Washington using donations from school children and their own funds to personally lobby the U.S. Congress for a citizenship bill. Introduced into both the 75th and 76th Congresses of 1937 and 1939, the bill eventually failed because of navy opposition and the specter of war.
After the war—one during which Chamorros demonstrated great loyalty to the U.S. – some 600 Guamanian war veterans could and did become naturalized American citizens. In a January 1947 resolution the Guam Congress requested Governor Charles A. Pownall (a vice admiral) to ask the U.S. Congress to grant American citizenship to Guamanians and pass organic legislation establishing civilian government. The Navy Department postponed action on this request while it awaited the results of the Hopkins Study concerning Guam and American Samoa. That study had been commissioned by President Harry S. Truman’s secretary of defense to inspect and recommend changes in the government of American Samoa and Guam as well as one completed by a cabinet level committee.
Both groups made nearly identical recommendations. They proposed that congressional legislation provide civilian government via an organic act, American citizenship, a bill of rights, and local legislative powers be established by law. Friends of Guam on the U.S. mainland, including former Governor Willis W. Bradley, then a congressman from California, were lobbying for these changes and making Guam’s plight a national issue.
However, what really broke the navy opposition and got President Truman’s attention was the 1949 walkout of the Guam Congress over a serious disagreement with Governor Charles A. Pownall. Besides refusing to grant subpoena powers to the congress — the reason for the walkout — he also declared their seats vacant and stated that he would fill them by appointment.
The walkout and the heavy military hand were reported in both The New York Times and The Washington Post and caught Truman’s attention. In early 1949 the president ordered the Department of Interior to draft an organic act for Guam, approved it in May, and had it introduced into the 81st Congress. Hearings were held on Guam in late 1949 that led to numerous changes to the draft. Even the navy testified in favor of the organic legislation, after all it already had about thirty-six percent of Guam’s land under its control.
Organic Act signed
In mid-1950, the US Congress passed the Guam Organic Act and President Truman signed it into law on August 1. Only one Chamorro was present at this event. This was former Guam Congressman Carlos P. Taitano, then an American citizen and student at the Georgetown University Law School. Taitano had been the key contact to the national press that got Guam’s plight into the newspaper headlines. At a 1998 celebration of the forty-eighth anniversary of the act, he publicly stated that the approval of the Organic Act:
…was the beginning of the decolonization of Guam. Unfortunately, almost half a century after… the Chamorros are still trying to set up an island government without the bounds or restraints of colonialism. It is our hope that before another fifty years have passed… we would see the passage of the Guam Commonwealth Act, now before the US Congress.
The major provisions of Guam’s Organic Act provided American citizenship; a bill of rights; a civilian administration and local three branch government that included a civilian executive that retained many of the powers of the former naval governor and who, just as under the US Navy, would be appointed by the US president, a 21-seat unicameral legislature, and a judiciary.
The act also identified and reserved over thirty-six percent of Guam’s land for US military use and declared Guam to be an unincorporated Territory of the US The act has been amended numerous times by Congress since 1950; notable amendments included those for an elected governor and lieutenant governor, an elected delegate to the US Congress, and most recently, a Guam Supreme court as a separate and pinnacle body of the island judiciary system. Although these changes improved the Organic Act, the government was not yet one of or by the people.
Still under United Nations watch
Chamorros certainly accepted the 1950 act as a large political step forward since it lifted the heavy yolk of military rule. Nevertheless, they did not have an opportunity to vote on it. Strictly speaking, an act of self-determination had not been taken and Guam remains on the United Nation’s list of non-self-governing territories. As an unincorporated territory, Guam continued as a strategically located piece of real estate belonging to the American empire.
The Organic Act of 1950 was a major step forward for Guam’s home rule and a model for the rest of the Pacific at that time. The act greatly accelerated political activity with the formal establishment of the Democratic and Republican parties in the 1960s, fierce competition (bi-annually) for legislature seats, and beginning in 1970, battles for the governor and lieutenant governor offices (every four years). Control of the legislature and governorship has oscillated between the Republicans and Democrats, stimulated by dynamic personalities such as Democrat Ricardo J. Bordallo and Republican Joseph F. Ada. The 1998 gubernatorial contest between Democrat Carl Gutierrez, the incumbent, and Ada, attempting to make a political come-back, culminated in an unprecedented post-election controversy that made its way to the Supreme Court of the United States for final resolution in favor of Gutierrez in 1999.
The same excitement evolved in the heated 2002 race between former Congressman Robert Underwood and his running mate, Senator Tom Ada, as they went nose-to-nose with Senators Felix Camacho and Kaleo Moylan, the sons of Guam’s first elected governor and lieutenant governor. In 2002, the sons won, but it took some underhanded campaign maneuvers to pull off an upset. Camacho and Underwood faced off again in 2006 with different running mates. Camacho won again by a slim margin.
Other islands of Micronesia unshackled
In contrast to Guam’s “status of no status,” the island peoples of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI) surrounding Guam were not shackled by the unincorporated territory doctrine of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Insular Cases. According to this doctrine, the U.S. Congress retains plenary authority over all unincorporated territories (such territories were not recognized as integral parts of the United States) and could decide which Constitutional protections and rights it might (or might not) extend to such territories. In contrast, the peoples of the TTPI were governed by the 1947 Trusteeship Agreement which, unlike the Treaty of Paris, clearly delineated obligations of the US government that included “the development of the inhabitants of the trust territory toward self-government or independence as may be appropriate to the particular circumstances of the trust territory and its peoples and the freely expressed wishes of the people concerned.”
Because of this fundamental difference in legal doctrine, the TTPI leaders could and did negotiate political status change with the U.S. on a more or less equal basis. In negotiations with the U.S., the TTPI leaders (excepting the Northern Mariana Islands) rejected both territorial status and commonwealth status. Finally, in the mid 1980s (1994 for Palau) the various TTPI entities approved and signed compacts of free association with the U.S. that resulted in political independence. In the case of the Northern Mariana Islands (also a part of the TTPI), the leadership there concluded a covenant agreement that established a commonwealth relationship with the U.S. in 1975.
All the while, the US citizens on Guam stood by and watched amazed and even angered at how they were being ignored. Guam delegate to the U.S. Congress, Antonio Won Pat remarked:
Whatever the needs—whether real or imagined—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.
Ford approves Commonwealth but plan shelved
The highest reaches of the US government got wind of this suspicion and resentment. In response, the National Security Council commissioned a study in September 1973 of US national objectives, policies and programs for Guam. After the resignation of President Richard Nixon, President Gerald Ford reviewed the study, approved it, and directed that:
The US negotiator should seek agreement with Guamanian representatives on a commonwealth arrangement no less favorable than that which we are negotiating with the Northern Marianas.
President Ford’s directive of 1 February 1975, issued through Secretary State Henry A. Kissinger was never carried out and the Guam study and the directive remained secret for nearly thirty years. Furthermore, the Department of Interior essentially subverted President Ford’s directive by never informing Guam’s political leaders of the study or presidential action on it.
Throughout the period 1980-1997, Chamorro leaders embarked on a serious effort to improve Guam’s political status through the Commission on Self-Determination that was established by the Guam Legislature in 1980. Totally unaware of President Ford’s directive of 1975, the Commission wrote a draft commonwealth act that was approved by the Guam electorate. The draft was introduced into every session of the U.S. Congress during the tenures of delegates Vicente Blaz (1985-1992) and Robert Underwood (1993-2002).
Guam’s commonwealth quest came to a standstill in 1997. At Congressional hearings on the act, John Garamendi, representing the Clinton Administration, rejected the provisions to do with Chamorro self-determination as well as immigration and labor control in the commonwealth bill. Congress remained uncommitted. At the present time, Guam’s government and people remain a creature of the Organic Act and a piece of property of the American empire. Speaking very recently about the Organic Act and political change, former Congressman Underwood summarized the US-Guam situation in these words:
Today, I think people want the relationship between the federal and Guam governments defined so that it can’t be changed arbitrarily. We hope to increase our autonomy and enhance our participation in federal decision making in a way that enhances our economy as well as our autonomy.
For further reading
Leibowitz, Arnold H. Defining Status: A Comprehensive Analysis of United States Territorial Relation. The Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1989.
McHenry, Donald F. Micronesia: Trust Betrayed New York: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1975.
Pacific Daily News, “Centennial Timeline,” June 21, 1998.
Rogers, Robert F. Destiny’s Landfall: A History of Guam. Honolulu:, University of Hawai`i Press, 1995.
Taitano, Carlos P. “American Citizenship: A Centennial Commemoration.” Keynote address at a public meeting during the centennial commemoration, Plaza de Espana, Hagåtña, GU, August 1, 1998.
“Trusteeship Agreement.” In the 1980 Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands 33rd Annual Report. Washington, D.C.: Department of State Publication 9181, 1981.
Underwood, Robert A. Brief remarks at a public meeting, the Guam Humanities Council Forum on the Organic Act, University of Guam College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences Lecture Hall, December 7, 2005.
Willens, Howard P. and Ballendorf, Dirk A. _The Secret Guam Study: How President Ford’s 1975 Approval of Commonwealth Was Blocked by Federal Officials. Mangilao, GU: University of Guam Richard F. Taitano Micronesian Area Research Center and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Division of Historic Preservation, 2004.