The History of Guam
Guam is a virtual US colony, whose residents have been denied the rights afforded to other Americans, says professor David Vine
DONALD TRUMP: North Korea best not make anymore threats to the United States. They will be met with fire, and fury-
NEWSCASTER: And one US territory just over 2,000 miles away from North Korea in the cross hairs. Over night the small Pacific Island of Guam, home to crucial American military bases, and more than 7,000 US forces on alert. After North Korea said in a statement, it’s leaders are seriously considering a plan to target the territory with missiles.
JAISAL NOOR: While the media spotlight is now shining on Guam, it ignores the some 160,000 civilians who live there. The history of US rule, and just how the United States acquired a territory thousands of miles from it’s main land. To discuss this we spoke to professor David Vine of American University.
DAVID VINE: My name is David Vine, I’m an associate professor of anthropology at American University in Washington DC, and I’m the author of Base Nation: How US Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World. And the United States has turned much of Guam into one large military base. Well actually multiple military bases on Guam, but at least around 25 percent of the island currently is occupied by the US military.
So, large swaths of the island look like just one massive base. There’s a very large air force, and navy presence in particular, and the United States has occupied, and controlled Guam since the Spanish-American War of 1898. When the United States defeated Spain, the remnants of the Spanish empire, and seized some of it’s remaining colonies. Namely Guam, the Philippines, Puerto Rico.
At the same time it occupied Cuba, and continued to exercise tremendous control, and influence in Cuba, until the Cuban revolution. But very quickly after 1898, the US Navy in particular occupied, and turned Guam into a base, and ran Guam under military administration for years.
Guam had been colonized previously by the Spanish, so it’s been a colonized place for centuries now. Guam is also unusual in that during World War II, it was the only part of the United States … The only large occupied part of the United States that was occupied by Japanese forces. Philippines would be another example, but Japan occupied Guam for much of World War II. Before the US military liberated it.
In the process, however, the island and the island people, especially the local Chamorro people, indigenous people, suffered grievously, both under Japanese occupation, and many thousands were confined to concentration camps of a kind, where they suffered. After the war … Actually beginning during the war, once the United States had re-occupied the island, the military began a very large base building project. That proceeded to occupy acres, and acres, and acres of local land. Displacing people in the process.
And after the war, most of that displacement remained in place. People were not allowed to return to their land, to their homes, and instead were displaced elsewhere on the island. As the United States maintained Guam in a highly militarized base infused state.
And Guam has remained a part of the United States, but a part of the United States that is in a colonial relationship with the United States. People in Guam do not have the right to vote for president. They do not have congressional representation of any note. There are non-voting representatives, but like the other remaining colonies … US government, and many of us like to talk about these places as territories, but fundamentally they remain in a colonial relationship with the United States.
So along with Puerto Rico, the commonwealth, and the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, the US Virgin Islands, and Washington DC. Though it has a little bit more democratic power. Guam has remained colonized largely because of the significance of the island to the US military, because it provides a launch pad, as it was during World War II. A launch pad, from which the United States could deploy military forces into East Asia.
An important base that provides a threat from the United States to both China, North Korea, and Russia … Of course that it’s important to point out however that Guam is part of a constellation of US bases in East Asia. That surround China, and Russia, and the much smaller North Korea.
So, scores of bases in Japan, South Korea, and now again in the Philippines, and around the Asia Pacific region. Numbering in total into the hundreds of US bases. Far from US borders, and surrounding China, Russia, North Korea.
JAISAL NOOR: And so I found a US military propaganda video form World War II, and it has a native of Guam talking about how great life was before the Japanese took over from the US military, and it just had occupied Guam for three years.
GUAM NATIVE: Soon we will find out what those Jap’s have done to our island. Beautiful it was then, and living there made us happy. There were 21,000 of us, and we knew each other as friends. Although we were far out in the Pacific, we were proud to be under the American flag. We were content, it was a good life.
JAISAL NOOR: But what’s not talked about is even to this day, is the history of the natives of Guam struggling for democracy, and for independence under US rule. Can you talk about that a little bit?
DAVID VINE: Yes, if anything good comes out of this really scary, and frightening moment for the people of Guam most importantly, but for people around the world. US citizens, people in Korea, and elsewhere. If anything good come of this, it might be to call attention to the undemocratic situation in which the people of Guam are currently living.
Many of them have been struggling for full democratic rights in the United States for decades. The right to vote for president, the right to have elected representatives in Congress, in both the House, and the Senate, and this struggle has been ongoing since prior to World War II.
I am not surprised that of course there’s a propaganda video showing a local person in Guam, talking about the way of life before the war under US occupation. But the fact of things is that, Guam was in a colonial situation that for the large part, did not enrich the island, and its people. And instead people were living prior to the war, and since the war, in some of the poorest conditions of anyone in the United States and all it’s occupied territories.
JAISAL NOOR: And to be clear, the reason why the residents of Guam, and other US territories were not given the right to vote as states had been given. As the US expanded into the 50 states, in the 19th century. Is because they were thought of as racially inferior, and the US was sort of civilizing them, but they weren’t ready for democracy yet.
DAVID VINE: But very much it is ideas about race, and racist ideas about the people of Guam, and the other colonies, Puerto Rico, and American Samoa among them. These racist ideas have very much been part of the reason that the US government has prevented the people of Guam, and the other colonies from gaining full democratic rights, like other US citizens enjoy.
JAISAL NOOR: You had talked about your book a little earlier, but it’s an assumption in the media, and in history books, and common discourse that the numerous bases the United States has are for benevolent reasons. They’re to protect democracy. They’re to foster peace. They’re to support democratic governments. What has your research found?
DAVID VINE: In short, the answer to your question is, no. The conventional wisdom about US bases abroad for decades has been, that US bases spread democracy, ensure peace, and stability, and deter enemies. But for the most part these claims have not been backed up with any evidence. The first point, the claim that US bases abroad spread democracy is fairly comical, or sadly comical.
Because what my research has shown is that the United State has bases in fully 33 or more undemocratic countries. Countries ruled by often dictators, or undemocratic regimes, where US bases are directly supporting regimes that are preventing democratic rule in their countries.
So US bases are blocking the spread of democracy in many cases. Elsewhere it’s clear that US bases are causing a range of other harms to local people. Causing environmental damage, displacing people as the case of Guam, very poignantly demonstrates. With the people who are displaced during, and after World War II.
Elsewhere you see crimes being sadly committed by US military personnel against locals. Most prominently in Okinawa, you see prostitution industries. Exploitative sex-work industries popping up around bases, in Korea, South Korea among others. And a whole range of well demonstrated forms of damage that US bases have inflicted.
And meanwhile there is little to no evidence that US bases overseas protect the United States. That again, has been an assertion, but one rarely backed up by any evidence. And instead, you see US bases overseas frequently contributing to military tensions. I think it’s worth thinking about how people in the United States would feel, if China, or Russia, were to build a single base, anywhere near US borders, for example in the Caribbean or in Mexico. Meanwhile the United States has hundreds, literally hundreds of bases surrounding both China, and Russia, and you can imagine how they respond. They don’t see these bases as bringing stability, and instead the rightfully see bases like Guam as a threat. And they are intended to be a threat. Guam is known as the tip of the spear in the military. And US bases abroad are meant to threaten, and this does not create a more stable international environment.
Instead it frequently encourages countries like China, Russia, and North Korea to further militarize, to boost their military spending, and then the dangers that this can, and certainly has led to spiraling tensions, spiraling military spending, and then spiraling tensions as we’re seeing today very, very dangerously for the world.