It was world and national opinion after World War II that prompted the United States government to direct their attention to this question. At that time many people under colonial rule were rapidly gaining their independence.

Carlos Pangelinan Taitano

When Guam was ceded to the United States after the Spanish-American War in 1898, the island fell under the administrative control of the US Navy. The first half of the 20th century saw thirty-two naval governors appointed to rule over the island and its people, but with no formally established civil rights or offers of citizenship for the people of Guam. Guam leaders attempted in various ways, particularly through petitions and statements of protest, to demand the US Congress to consider granting greater self-government for the Chamorro people. These efforts were interrupted by the Japanese occupation of Guam during World War II (1941-1944).

Following the war, when Guam leaders resumed their campaign for civil rights, self-government and US citizenship, their aspirations and political agitation affected influential segments of American society. These included newsmen who chronicled the island’s liberation from Japanese occupation; citizen-soldiers stationed on Guam during and after the war; civil rights advocates in Washington, DC and New York; national news media; and key federal decision-makers. These groups and individuals encouraged, amplified and aided the Chamorro quest for change.

Senior leaders who had spearheaded the prewar movement, especially Baltazar J. Bordallo and Francisco B. Leon Guerrero, led the postwar effort. They had also inspired a younger generation of Guam leaders who now joined them in the struggle, including Antonio B. Won Pat, Concepcion C. Barrett, Carlos P. Taitano, Agueda Iglesias Johnston, Simon A. Sanchez and many others. Most were members of the bicameral Guam Congress, whose lower house, the Assembly, became the institutional driver of the rights movement.

As it became apparent that the naval government was settling back into its all-too-familiar autocratic rule, these leaders began petitioning through the naval governor, Secretary of Navy and the US Congress for the civil and political rights that had been accorded to other US island territories, such as Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, decades earlier. They wrote letters to US senators and congressmen, traveled to Washington to lobby executive and legislative branch leaders, and worked with advocacy groups and individual citizens on Guam and in the US who supported their cause.

The citizenship movement embodied several objectives: real legislative powers for the Guam Congress, a civilian territorial government, guaranteed civil rights and continued ties with the United States. Political awareness among Chamorro leaders persisted after the war and their increased contact with Americans intensified the desire of many for citizenship and self-government.

US Policy in the wake of Japan’s surrender

In the inner circles of the Truman Administration, Guam’s status and aspirations elicited conflicting views among the Navy, State and Interior departments. All agreed on the island’s strategic value to the US, as defense planners sought to consolidate American control of the North Pacific Basin, but the departments disagreed on how to achieve this “American lake.” Fearing a resurgent Japan or aggressive Soviet Union, the War and Navy departments were convinced that continued naval rule of Guam and Micronesia would be needed to secure a stable, competent defense posture in the region, not only during the postwar reconstruction years, but also in the emerging Cold War.

The Department of State was attuned to the international anti-colonial temper of the time and the Truman Administration’s professed support for the United Nations’ decolonization mission for non-self-governing territories. Sensitive to any US action that the Soviet Union could use for propaganda, State department strategists sought solutions to postwar island governance issues that could secure national security interests while avoiding the appearance of colonialism or unilateralism. Their recommendations focused on the use of UN auspices, i.e., enrolling Guam on the UN list of small, non-self-governing territories and establishing a “strategic” UN trusteeship for the former Japanese-controlled islands of Micronesia.

From the outset of this internal policy debate, Interior department leaders argued for citizenship, territorial government and civilian administration for Guam. Touting itself as the only federal agency with valid credentials for administering US island territories, the Interior department believed it should manage the transition from military to civilian government for non-state areas. President Truman’s domestic civil rights agenda also influenced the US position. By the late 1940s—in response to Chamorro initiatives, world and public opinion—the US position shifted from continued Navy rule for the indefinite future to acceptance of the Chamorro agenda for immediate citizenship and civil government.

War and citizen-soldier remembrance

The glacier-like reaction toward Guam’s position was enabled in part by empathetic American public opinion that had been generated initially by wartime news coverage and the military buildup on the island. Press reports of the recapture of Guam by US forces had described the agony of “the only US territory occupied by the enemy” (which overlooked the two Aleutian Islands that also had been occupied) and “the sufferings of American nationals [the Chamorro people] in the hands of the brutal Japanese Imperial Forces.”

While national newspaper coverage of the war on Guam was limited, any front page coverage was often accompanied by heart-rending images of a war-devastated island; Sumai and Hagåtña in ruins; eighty percent of homes, business and government buildings destroyed; starving children and emaciated elders being led and carried from their hiding places and concentration camps by battle-weary marines. Accounts of horrendous Japanese atrocities against the island’s people soon followed, as did stories of heroic Chamorro resistance, courage and patriotism. There were also reports of local families risking their lives to help the American sailor George Tweed, who had refused to surrender in 1942 and eluded the Japanese throughout the occupation with the help of many Chamorros.

The citizenship movement also received the empathy and active support of many soldiers, sailors and marines who served on Guam during and after the island’s recapture. They had fought, their leaders assured them, to save democracy from totalitarian regimes. And despite their reputed cynicism, many embraced the belief that the people of Guam, who had suffered terribly for “Uncle Sam,” also deserved the political fruits of the US victory.

More than 200,000 US military personnel were stationed on the island at twenty-one bases in the mid-1940s. Many Chamorros found these citizen-soldiers, who had enlisted or were drafted for wartime service, different from the career Navy officers and “lifers” who administered Guam’s naval government. They impressed a lot of local people as more respectful of Chamorros and more receptive to their political aspirations.

As Carlos P. Taitano, a US Army infantry officer in the Pacific during the war, recalled, “In contrast to their prewar colleagues, the postwar troops on Guam listened with sympathetic understanding to the problems of the Chamorro people. Many of these soldiers wrote to their Senators and Congressmen, advocating citizenship and civil government for the Chamorro people.” They also wrote to their hometown newspapers where their letters to the editor were published, encouraging commentators and editorial writers to pen opinion pieces on how the Chamorro peoples’ loyalty should be rewarded by addressing their long-standing grievances. As Taitano noted, these servicemen and veterans “helped in convincing Washington that continued denial of these rights to the people of Guam could no longer be tolerated…This was the first effective sizable support of our cause from the American public.”

However, many American military officials working on Guam after the war, particularly the naval government, consistently discouraged the granting of self-government and citizenship to the Chamorro people. In spite of the appreciation expressed by Chamorros during the recapture of Guam, tensions between the locals and the military still existed, fueled by policies that resulted in military land appropriations, disparate pay rates and other forms of discrimination against the Chamorro people.

Activist friends in critical places

Nevertheless, the positive sentiment toward Chamorro aspirations was stoked further by national civil rights lobbying groups that amplified Guam’s quest, including the Institute of Ethnic Affairs in Washington, DC and The American Civil Liberties Union in New York.

The Institute, founded by anthropologist Laura Thompson and her husband John Collier, maintained close coordination with Chamorro leaders in conducting a public and political outreach strategy that strengthened Guam’s message; pursuing a concerted national media information campaign; and aggressively lobbying administration and congressional leaders. Thompson had been brought to Guam by the Navy in 1938 as a Native Affairs specialist and had studied and written about the history, culture and aspirations of the Chamorro people. However, she was an outspoken advocate for their civil and political rights, and had been banned from the island by the Navy in the 1940s after her critical commentary on naval government practices.

Thompson wrote and lectured about Guam’s situation to numerous US audiences, including guest appearances on Richard Wels ABC national radio program broadcast from New York—The Court of Current Issues. Wels, an attorney who had served with the US military on Guam during the Japanese war crimes trials, also conducted a letter-writing campaign to the New York Times, urging citizenship and self-civilian government for the island. In addition, he worked with Time magazine which also carried coverage of Guam’s desires, and wrote several articles about the island’s situation for the national magazine Asia. Thompson also spoke to groups and testified to congressional committees about Guam’s citizenship movement on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, which embraced the island’s political cause as part of its postwar national agenda.

Collier, who led the day-to-day activities of the Institute, was an idealistic social worker who, as Commissioner of Indian Affairs under President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, had led a sweeping reform of federal Indian policy. His efforts reversed the previous half century of misguided attempts to end tribal identity and culture by forcibly assimilating American Indians into the mainstream as “independent Christian farmers.” Under Collier’s leadership, the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 dramatically changed that policy, allowing tribal self-government and self-determination and consolidating individual land allotments back into tribal government hands.

Collier had also been an adviser to the US delegation at the first session of the UN General Assembly in 1945, where he worked with Abe Fortes, then-assistant secretary of Interior, to draft a “Resolution on Non-Self-Governing Peoples” which was endorsed by Washington and adopted by the UN General Assembly. A year later, the US inscribed Guam on the UN’s list of non-self-governing territories, which required the US to report regularly to the General Assembly on Guam’s advancement and sought to provide the island’s people the right to political self-determination, including the option of independence.

Under Thompson and Collier, the Institute urged US leaders to forthrightly address the nation’s colonial problems in the Pacific by ending a half century of military rule on Guam and American Samoa and granting its new Pacific Island dependencies self-government under UN trusteeship. Secretary of the Interior Harold I. Ickes launched the Institute’s campaign on 29 May 1946 with a keynote speech that pushed to remove the governments of Guam and American Samoa away from the Navy.

A staunch supporter of citizenship and civilian government for Guam, Ickes resigned his Interior post that same month and became a widely-read syndicated newspaper columnist reaching millions of readers. His speeches and columns often addressed US postwar policy in the Pacific. In his view, Guam was a testing ground for America’s response to the new era of decolonization.

The Institute published a national newsletter, which regularly carried reports of the Chamorro rights’ campaign, and also printed thirty-seven issues of the Guam Echo, a publication that kept the people of Guam informed about the latest developments, challenges, setbacks and progress in their quest for citizenship and self-government. More than two dozen leaders of Guam subscribed to the newsletter and eventually more than 500 residents of the island received the pamphlet. The Institute’s national newsletter and the Guam Echo were also distributed to federal agencies—Navy, Interior, State—as well as the White House and Congress. It was also sent to major media outlets, US veterans groups and other organizations interested in civil and political rights issues.

Additionally, Institute officials supported Guam’s cause in letters to members of Congress and executive branch officials, as well as in opinion/editorial pieces and letters to the editor for leading newspapers. When Guam leaders visited Washington to lobby, Institute officials conferred with them, provided introductions, arranged appointments and transportation, and generally worked with them to advance the cause of citizenship and self-government. A few Institute officials also visited Guam to meet with movement leaders.

Political progress and continued opposition

By 1947 considerable progress had been made in the campaign to make the American public, US Congress and Truman Administration aware of Guam’s aspirations. A number of bills and resolutions had been introduced in the US Congress calling for citizenship and territorial government for the island, and by 1949, twenty-nine of these measures had been proposed. However, the Navy and War departments’ position had not changed appreciably.

Reserving the right to influence any decision on Chamorro rights because of Guam’s strategic position, the military cited defense priorities and a long tradition of naval administration in opposing all attempts to change the political status and governance of the island. In opposing Chamorro citizenship in the 1930s, the Navy had argued that the status quo was necessary for an effective defense in the face of Japanese expansion in the region. Following World War II, the Navy used virtually the same rationale, replacing Japan with Communist China and the Soviet Union as the threats justifying staying the colonial course.

Following Japan’s surrender, Navy Secretary James A. Forrestal argued that postwar Guam must remain a strategic area, especially in view of the growing tensions with the Soviet Union. The island’s airfields and naval installations could serve US security interests by providing a strategic bombing platform as well as support for aerial and naval surveillance of potentially hostile vessels in the region. President Truman agreed with this analysis. But Forrestal went further, maintaining that home rule for Guam was out of the question and citizenship could hamper military flexibility. He urged the President to continue naval rule, even after the island had been reconstructed, the inhabitants resettled and the economy restored.

Those were the parameters under which Admiral Charles A. Pownall took command of Guam in May 1946. His initial messages to the civilian population conveyed the need for a strong naval government, but promised that the people of Guam would have a significant voice in his administration, as together they would build a new and better Guam. Pownall hedged on the role of the Guam Congress, which was reestablished with purely advisory powers, and promised only an open government in which all Guamanians could consult with his office.

His efforts to convert the island into a Cold War sentinel included reconstruction, village relocation, population resettlement and land expropriation policies that shocked and angered many Chamorro villagers, landowners, laborers and political leaders, who felt the brunt of these programs. Ironically, as a result of his administration, the citizenship movement gained renewed vigor, new allies and a cause celèbre.

The establishment of new towns and farming areas under the naval reconstruction program meant the end of many established villages, including Sumai—the island’s second largest residential area—as well as numerous cultural traditions. Hagåtña was being rebuilt as a government and commercial center, with a significantly reduced residential area. These actions displaced more than 11,000 residents—half the island’s population—causing enormous hardship for the war-ravaged residents and mounting complaints. Local laborers, who were being paid only a third of what US workers on the island received, demanded fairer wages for reconstruction work and compensation for prewar work for which they were never paid. Pownall responded by importing several hundred Filipino laborers, who received higher wages than comparably skilled Chamorro workers, and referred the wage issue to Washington.

The land expropriation policy, which eventually took about sixty-three percent of the island’s acreage (either owned or leased by the military) included hundreds of homesteads, some of the best agricultural lands, as well as beaches and traditional reef fisheries. The seized lands and coastal areas, which included recreational areas for the exclusive use of military dependents, were declared off-limits, and “squatters” (Chamorros who did not want to leave their homesteads or who moved onto these undeveloped lands) were regarded not only as criminals but also as violators of naval security.

By 1947, 1,350 Chamorro families had lost their homes to the Navy’s off-limits policy. Much of the land was confiscated for “contingency use” and remained undeveloped for decades. No promise of compensation for the seizures was made at the time. When lease payments and compensation for purchased lands eventually were made, the rates were exceptionally low because the island was a restricted military area closed to outside investment and development, which abnormally depressed land values. The Guam Congress petitioned the governor for relief, saying his land condemnation program was a “refugee-making” policy, similar to what the Japanese had done during their occupation.

Outraged by this language, Pownall called the Guam Congress “irresponsible” and secretly ordered military intelligence agents to begin surveillance of local congressmen and labor agitators. In June 1947, Pownall publicly announced his surveillance “findings,” labeling Francisco B. Leon Guerrero and other Guam Congress leaders “communist subversives.” This Red Scare tactic, however, failed to undermine support for these well-known and highly-respected men, further discredited Pownall’s administration, and strengthened the rights movement. Guam leaders argued that the Admiral’s land appropriation, wage discrimination and defamatory accusations underscored the need for citizenship rights and civil government to protect the indigenous people.

The tension between the military and civilian communities led to Washington’s intervention. Acting Secretary of the Navy John L. Sullivan ordered Pownall to grant limited home rule status to the Guam Congress “to demonstrate that the Navy has a real interest in the welfare of the people of Guam.” On 7 August 1947 the Admiral announced the Guam Congress had “limited interim legislative powers.” He retained veto authority but a two-thirds majority of Congress members could overrule him, sending the measure to the Secretary of the Navy for review.

Later that year, Secretary of State George Marshall advised Truman that the Guam problem had become too controversial to ignore. It was damaging the US international image, inflaming military-civilian relations and potentially jeopardizing national defense interests. Marshall, the chief architect of the plan for European reconstruction to counter the appeal of Communism to decimated and destabilized societies, said he favored eventual transfer of power from the naval government to the Guam Congress. Truman welcomed this advice, telling Speaker of the House Joseph Martin, “It has long been my view that the inhabitants of Guam should enjoy those fundamental human rights and that democratic form of government which are the rich heritage of the people of the United States.”

By the end of 1947, two studies—one ordered by Truman (from State, Interior and Defense) and the other by Forrestal, who was now the nation’s first Secretary of Defense (from the Hopkins Commission)—had called for citizenship, civil administration, territorial government and a bill of rights for Guam, but had recommended that the Navy continue to administer the island for the indefinite future. To some Chamorro leaders the momentum appeared to be shifting in the Truman administration to those who believed that citizenship and civilian government would not jeopardize national security or hamper naval operations on Guam—anymore than civilian governments in the states hampered military operations there. But no “date certain” was being proposed for this historic transition.

Truman’s position became somewhat firmer during the 1948 presidential race, when the Democratic Party Platform carried a plank on Guam, calling for full citizenship rights and territorial government. The Cold War had also influenced party policy, as the plank was additionally intended as a signal to Eastern European counties under Soviet domination that “those who defend democracy and oppose totalitarianism would be handsomely rewarded.” After his election, Truman declared the naval administration of Guam an “interim government.”

In search of a tipping point

Though some Chamorro leaders thought victory was in sight, others heard only noble rhetoric and perfunctory lip-service. They saw no concrete action on legislation for Guam citizenship, civil government stagnating in the US Congress, and a naval government intent on maintaining its control by opposing all bills that addressed Chamorro grievances. By 1949 a general restlessness and impatience prevailed in the lower house of the Guam Congress. As Carlos P. Taitano, a member of that body, later recalled, after half a century of neglect and five years of renewed, intensified calls for citizenship and self-government, the federal government—particularly the US Congress—was still unresponsive. Further petitioning struck many local congressmen as a waste of time. “What was needed,” Taitano felt, “was an incident of such political importance that it would stir interest…change their perception of the situation…and pressure the US Congress into action.”

That “incident” occurred as the Guam Congress sought to define and exercise its “interim legislative power”—the extent of which had been murky from the outset, forcing local leaders to seek repeated clarifications. They had been told, for example, that if they disapproved of a measure sent to them by the naval governor, he nevertheless retained the power to make law—including measures the Guam Congress would not approve—by issuing executive orders. Those regulations could only be overturned by the Secretary of the Navy. In effect, Pownall’s supervisor was the island’s final “court” of appeal. When Guam congressmen had attempted to pass a law granting them subpoena power so they could conduct official investigations, Admiral Pownall vetoed it, informing them that the Guam Congress had that power inherently.

While investigating suspected abuses involving Americans owning businesses on Guam through frontmen, an Assembly committee then subpoenaed a Navy civil service employee to question him about his involvement with a local dress shop. The use of such frontmen violated naval government policy aimed at promoting and protecting Chamorro-owned businesses. Citing Pownall’s earlier veto, the man refused to testify, insisting the Guam Congress had no authority over him. The Assembly then issued a contempt order and warrant for his arrest. Admiral Pownall declared that because the man was under the jurisdiction of the naval government, the Guam Congress had exceeded its authority and ordered the police to ignore the warrant.

On 5 March 1949 Speaker of the Assembly Antonio B. Won Pat blasted the governor’s interference as the latest in a series of arbitrary actions that had left the Assembly with no real legislative authority. He declared the Guam Congress dissolved. Thirty-four members of the Assembly walked out and refused to return until their authority was clearly defined by federal organic legislation. So that US officials could clearly understand the larger point of the protest, before adjourning that day, the Assembly had also adopted a Bill to Provide an Organic Act and Civil Government for the Island of Guam, which was subsequently transmitted to the US Congress.

Pownall decided that the Assembly had become radicalized, dissolved the body and attempted to establish a new Guam Congress by appointing replacements. The dismissals caused outrage and twelve of Guam’s nineteen villages voted not to recognize the replacements. Unsure of his next move as the stalemate continued, Pownall referred the issue to Washington.

The walkout was a difficult, stressful time for many of the walkout’s leaders, Taitano remembered. “Some recognized leaders under naval rule were holding back the new leaders who were agitating for civil and political rights. I received tongue-lashings not only from Navy officers but also from Chamorro officials of the Island Court.” He and other movement leaders were accused of being “anti-Navy” and jeopardizing the island’s continued reconstruction. Many Chamorros, including some who had served in the Navy as well as several prominent community leaders, favored continued naval administration. These leaders praised the work that had been done and noted that the Navy and Defense departments could gain greater support for island development than the Interior department, which had—in their view—a dismal record in advancing the American Indian interests and a mixed record at best in overseeing island territories.

When the walkout began, Taitano, at his own initiative, cabled two American newsmen whom he had befriended several months earlier during their visit to Guam. He had provided them background on the history of naval government and the citizenship movement during their visit, and his cables now provided details of the protest. He updated those reports over the next several weeks with accounts of the Admiral’s response and subsequent developments. Based in Honolulu, the reporters wrote for national and international news services—one for the Associated Press, the other for United Press International. Their stories were picked up by hundreds of US and overseas newspapers and radio stations, including front page accounts in major national media, such as the Washington Post and New York Times.

During the spring and summer of that year, these reports and editorials generated sustained negative publicity, criticizing Pownall, continued naval rule of the island and, implicitly, the US government’s seeming inability to live up to its democratic ideals. Some papers compared the Admiral’s actions to the British Stamp Act and the walkout to the Boston Tea Party—the start of another battle for liberty. Relations between the Guam Congress and Admiral Pownall were described as “bordering on civil war.” The New York Times called for immediate “reforms” and the Washington Post opined that the confrontation was “inevitable” given the realities of military government on Guam, lamenting that if news media had been more vigilant, “perhaps the naval government would have disappeared long ago.” The national media had now become an ally not only of Guam’s citizenship campaign but also of the Guam Congress and its call for immediate action. As Taitano recalled, “This protest received nationwide publicity and helped bring about the passage of the Organic Act of Guam the following year.”

Reluctant to appear pressured into action by a political crisis, the Truman Administration did not publicly respond, but launched an internal investigation into the incident. Upon review, Truman instructed Pownall to restore the Guam congressmen to their seats and ordered that a transitional government be created, instructing the Interior Department on 21 May 1949 to develop plans for assuming the administration of Guam from the Navy. By July, the Interior and the Navy Secretaries had signed the transfer agreement and Pownall announced his retirement, noting his replacement would be a civilian governor.

After several members of the Guam Assembly demanded an explanation of the President’s position, Truman issued Executive Order 10077 in September, formalizing the transfer, to take effect 21 July 1950, and calling for immediate US congressional hearings on Guam’s political future. The US Congress, which has plenary authority over US territories, would have to consider the pending citizenship and status legislation and make a final determination.

Guam’s new civilian governor, nominated by Interior and approved by Truman, was Carlton Skinner, a former Navy officer who had commanded one of the first fully integrated naval vessels in a pilot program for Truman’s and Forrestal’s initiative to integrate the US armed forces. During his time as Special Assistant to the Interior Secretary, Skinner had also become a specialist in western Pacific affairs. He fully supported Guam’s citizenship movement and urged administration and congressional leaders to accept Chamorro leaders’ demands.

Hearings on Guam’s citizenship and home rule began in February 1950 and the Organic Act of Guam was passed by the House on May 23, the Senate on July 26 and signed into law on August 1, retroactive to July 21—the sixth anniversary of the US recapture of Guam. Navy officials testifying on the legislation emphasized the nearly completed reconstruction and modernization of the island under its administration and called the criticism of Pownall “misplaced”—an argument poorly received in both the House and Senate. In their testimony, Navy officials did not oppose citizenship and territorial government for Guam, but they did not endorse the proposals, either.

By Frank Quimby

For further reading

Babauta, Leo. “Carlos Pangelinan Taitano.” In Guampedia, last modified 30 April 2022.

Cogan, Doloris Coulter. We Fought the Navy and Won: Guam’s Quest for Democracy. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2008.

Friedman, Hal M. “Civil Versus Military Administration: The Interior Department’s Position on U.S. Pacific Territories, 1945-1947.” Pacific Studies 29, no. 1/2 (2006): 24-53.

Hattori, Anne Perez. “Righting Civil Wrongs: The Guam Congress Walkout of 1949.” ISLA: A Journal of Micronesian Studies 3, no. 1 (Rainy Season 1995): 1-27.

Hofschneider, Penelope Bordallo. A Campaign for Political Rights on the Island of Guam, 1899-1950. Saipan: Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Division of Historic Preservation, 2001.

Maga, Timothy. The Citizenship Movement in Guam, 1946-1950.” Pacific Historical Review 53, no. 1 (1984): 59-77.

Murphy, Shannon J. “Institute of Ethnic Affairs.” In Guampedia, last modified 3 June 2021.

Skinner, Carlton. After Three Centuries. Representative Democracy and Civilian Government for Guam. San Francisco: Macduff Press, 1997.

Taitano, Carlos. “Guam: The Struggle for Civil and Political Rights” in Micronesian Politics. Suva: Institute of Pacific Studies of the University of the South, 1988.

–––. “Status Tensions between Guam and the United States: Participant-Observer Accounts.” In Guam History: Perspectives. Volume One. Edited by Lee D. Carter, William L. Wuerch, and Rosa Roberto Carter. Mangilao: Richard F. Taitano Micronesian Area Research Center, University of Guam, 1997.