THE BLOG

End the War in Guam

06/05/2015 08:44 am ET | Updated Jun 05, 2016

President Obama's efforts to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations and end the Cold War in our hemisphere have captured scores of headlines worldwide--and for good reason. It was an ineffective policy that was even losing power as a partisan tactic. But the success in Cuba begs the question of why the U.S. government still refuses to end World War II on the island of Guam, a U.S. territory for over a century.

The little known story of Guam's experience before and after World War II illuminates what is wrong with American policy toward the U.S. territories. This is a policy that bluntly states that unincorporated territories like Guam legally "belong to, but are not part" of the United States and its citizens cannot vote for the president despite their high rates of military service. Guam's story also highlights the harm that the U.S. government can inflict on territorial citizens, in part because most Americans are not aware of them and the media is rarely interested in their fate.

Guam was pulled into World War II four hours after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Located 6,000 miles west of California in the Northern Pacific, Japan's Imperial Army started bombing the island on December 8, 1941. A few days later, the military occupied Guam for two and a half long years.

Due to its strategic location between Asia and the Americas, foreign occupation was not new to Guam. For three centuries, the island was a Spanish possession. In 1898, a U.S. naval captain claimed the island on his way to the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. Subsequently, from 1899 to 1941, the president of the United States appointed Navy officers to serve as governors and oversea the construction of naval facilities.

Although clearly undemocratic, the Navy justified military government by asserting that while the native people of Guam, the Chamorros, were "becoming more like Dad (Uncle Sam) every day," they were not mature enough to become American citizens and were therefore safest under U.S. martial rule. In the words of former Navy secretary Claude A. Swanson: "these simple people have not yet reached a state of development commensurate with the personal independence, obligations and responsibilities of United States citizenship." To become citizens, concluded Swanson, "would be most harmful to the native people."

Ironically, when the time came to defend Guam from imminent Japanese attack, the U.S. evacuated the wives and children of their (white) military dependents but left Chamorro families to fend off for themselves. Not lost on Chamorros, Guam--the only occupied U.S. territory in the Pacific--was the first island to be invaded by the Japanese and the last to be liberated by the United States. If the American forces had arrived only a few days later, the Japanese claim that "they would find only flies," may have come to pass. By the time that the U.S. military landed on July 21, 1944, the Imperial Army had killed nearly 10% of Guam's population via sword or starvation.

Under Japanese rule, however, Chamorros lost few opportunities to express their support for the U.S. and its larger democratic ideals. They would keep their hopes up by improvising on a wartime song, "Uncle Sam, won't you please come back to Guam." The popular tune was sung village to village throughout the island although this was considered a subversive act and those found guilty faced severe punishment.

Even more dangerously, over thirty families banded together to protect George R. Tweed, a Navy Radioman who hid in the jungle during the entire occupation. Some Chamorros were continuously beaten and tortured for sheltering or feeding him. Others like Father Jesus Baza Duenas, Guam's most vocal leader against Japanese authority, were beheaded for their refusal to disclose Tweed's whereabouts. Mourned to this day, Father Duenas was killed hours before a U.S. ship rescued Tweed.

Chamorro sacrifice did not end after liberation. The U.S. expropriated nearly three quarters of the island to build military facilities and evicted hundreds of families from their ancestral homes paying them little or no compensation. In this process, not even war heroes were spared: Antonio Artero, who received a Presidential Medal of Freedom for his role in protecting Tweed at the risk of his own life and those of his family, was stripped of much of his land. In addition, many Chamorros like Ignacio "Buck" Cruz, whose father and a brother died in a massacre during the Japanese occupation, later volunteered to serve in Vietnam three times to express gratitude for liberation.

The tradition of military service now runs deep in Guam. The majority of Chamorros have war memories and ancestors to honor. The U.S. military is also one of few sources of employment and other opportunities on the island. The end result is that Guam has the highest per capita rate of veterans in the U.S. More people from Guam die on foreign soil fighting for America than any other jurisdiction.

The United States, however, continuously disregards Guam's sacrifices. In 1950, President Truman signed the Organic Act of Guam ending military government and granting American citizenship to the Chamorros. But not only did the act fail to provide meaningful citizenship rights, it explicitly stated that the president could still dispose of Guam's land for military purposes at will.

While the military has returned some property taken in the 1940s, it has not sufficiently compensated most families. Guam's veterans receive inadequate medical services and communities adjacent to military bases generally obtain the least investment of any community under the U.S. flag. Now, a proposed military buildup is opening old wounds as it aims to bring 35,000 additional military personnel to Guam and take up 2,500 more acres of land.

Chamorros have always campaigned against military power in the territory. Yet, the potential buildup is rallying old and young in protest like never before. Most people still want to be U.S. citizens and have the option to serve in the military--but not at any price. After nearly 120 years of providing for American military needs, it's time for the people of Guam to have a say over their lives. It's time for the U.S. government to publicly acknowledge Chamorro contributions to American well-being and return land.

It's time for World War II to end in Guam.