On 15 February 1898, the USS Maine, anchored in Havana Harbor, was blown up under mysterious circumstances. The incident gave birth to the war cry, "Remember the Maine, To Hell With Spain." Four months later, Captain Henry Glass, in command of the USS Charleston, received orders to sail to Guam, capture it, and report back when that mission has been accomplished.
On the morning of June 22, 1898, two days after sailing into Guam's Apra Harbor without challenge, Captain Glass most likely sent a message to the Navy Department along this vein: "Mission accomplished. Guam captured; enemy soldiers under my control. What am I to do with the thousands of native Chamorros who are inquiring about their status?" The response from Washington probably went along these lines: "Civil administration is neither your concern nor your domain. Proceed to Manila Bay. Report to Commodore Dewey for duty in connection with the Philippines campaign."
In the ensuing 50 years, the Navy not only showed that Guam was under its domain, it literally dominated the island in every respect. By any yardstick, Guam had a rocky relationship with U. S. Naval governance. Then, in 1950, Guam was "transferred" from the Navy and was placed under the cognizance of the Secretary of the Interior where it has remained for the second half of this century. In those 100 years under the Department of the Navy and the Department of the Interior , Guam has indeed enjoyed the benevolence of the United States in terms of financial assistance. At the same time, however, the people of Guam have been repeatedly frustrated by the failure of the United States to show a willingness to address seriously Guam's persistent quest for a well defined, participatory policy, with respect to its political relationship with the Mother Country.
The Guam Commonwealth Bill which has been before the U. S. Congress for the past ten years has been characterized as something relatively new but the history books reveal otherwise. They are replete with references of attempts by the local population in every decade of this century to improve our relationship with our own country. Although Guam's designation was modified at mid-century to "unincorporated territory" to replace "possession", Guam is still NOT an integral part of the United States.
While the term Self-Determination has more or less been taken to mean political Self-Determination, there are two other areas in this category that have gone essentially unnoticed. The first of these has been the conscious effort of our people, the Chamorros of Guam, to preserve our language and culture. This insures that we do not end up as a footnote in the history books as an extinct specie. In this area we have succeeded in achieving "Cultural Self- Determination."
Similarly, Guam has attained a significant measure of economic self-sufficiency while gingerly picking its was through a plethora of inhibiting U. S. laws and regulations, many of which were written for other places at other times. Nevertheless, Guam has managed to get closer and closer to achieving another milestone -- "Economic Self-Determination."
The enduring quest for the part that would give us a solid foundation upon which to build as we prepare to enter the 21st Century, however, is one that is beyond the capability of the people of Guam to accomplish by themselves --"Political Self-Determination." This requires Congressional action and Congress has been leisurely taking its time and has not shown any inclination that it considers Guam's political aspirations a top priority piece of legislation.
Understandably, the U. S. Constitution was specifically designed to apply to the States of the Union. Provisions were made to insure uniform application of laws to all states and to territories that are embryonic states.
Imbued with the notion of preserving the Union at all costs, there prevailed a kind of circle-the-wagons syndrome in the early days of the nation punctuated by pronouncements that the United States was not interested in aggrandizing itself with land acquisitions abroad. That feeling was not shared by many influential people who wanted to acquire strategically located islands in the Atlantic and the Pacific for use as forward bases to protect the homeland in North America. The Spanish-American War provided America the opportunity to make the acquisitions it needed and, as a consequence, acquired Cuba and Puerto Rico in the Atlantic and the Philippines and Guam in the Pacific.
Cuba and the Philippines became independent around the turn of the century and about mid-century, respectively. Significantly, persons of Cuban and Filipino ancestry continue to comprise a very large proportion of the immigrants to the United States. Similarly, Puerto Ricans and Guamanians also migrate to the U. S. mainland but they arrive as American citizens, having acquired them through collective naturalization decades earlier as residents of U. S. flag territories. These resettlements from Guam and Puerto Rico come about primarily in pursuit of opportunities and services not available to U.S. citizens in their home islands.
It comes as a big surprise to many that the provisions of the U. S. Constitution are selectively extended to the U. S. territories (that is, not all of the provisions of the U. S. Constitution apply to U. S. citizens who are residents of the territories and not of the States of the Union). This stems from the fact that Congress has plenary powers which it applies to non-states as it wishes, even whimsically, if it so chooses. These powers are derived from the Territorial Clause of the Constitution which was inserted to address the problem of the Northwest Territories, those areas which the United States controlled in North America but which were not themselves states.
With the acquisition of such small overseas territories as Guam, however, a change came about when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the newly acquired overseas possessions were indeed territories, but different. Territories which were destined for statehood, it called incorporated. Those that were not, it declared to be unincorporated and, as such, were not an integral part of the United States.
The plenary powers of the Congress have been upheld over the years in the way that it administers the off-shore territories. Unfortunately, because the Uniformity Clause of the Constitution does not apply to unincorporated territories, it has resulted in an aggravating lack of uniformity in the application of U.S. laws and regulations resulting in some territories being covered by a Federal law, while others are not. In other words, since the Uniformity Clause has been ruled as inapplicable to the current territories, Congress has not shown any misgivings about the lack of uniformity in the application of U.S. laws to the territories, which laws often defy reason and logic. The U. S. Supreme Court has consistently upheld Congressional actions in exercising its plenary powers in the past and can expected to continue to do so in the future.
What Guam has been seeking is an arrangement whereby its relationship with the United States is based on a mutually agreed document that takes into account the political realities of today and one that is fair to both entities and without prejudice to either. For those who are riveted to making no changes, the words of one of the greatest of America's early leaders seem particularly appropo:
"I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors."
The author of these words once prompted President Kennedy to tell a group of American Nobel Prize winners who were being honored at a White House dinner that there had not been such a collection of genius gathered under its roof since Thomas Jefferson dined there alone. We take great pains today to insure accuracy of entries in the record of colloquies and verbatim accounts of debates to establish clearly legislative intent behind various pieces of legislation. The most accurate indications of the thoughts of the Founding Fathers as they pondered nation-building are found in their writings which have been diligently preserved in our archives. Even in the days of the American Revolution, Jefferson clearly foresaw the need for changes in laws and institutions to go hand in hand with the human mind as new discoveries are made and we become more enlightened.
For a nation that has won the respect and envy of peoples everywhere for its willingness to commit its resources, human and material, to fight in foreign lands in the name of freedom and democracy, on short notice, it is woefully negligent in dealing promptly with the affairs of its own citizens. For a nation that is widely acclaimed internationally for welcoming immigrants to its shores, it struggles trying to accommodate those under the American flag who live in the land of their own nativity: Indians, Eskimos, Hawaiians, Samoans, Chamorros. For a nation that devotes so much money and energy in the well being of nations and peoples around the world, it spends more time and resources on fishes, lakes, insects, wild life and rare animals, than it does on "endangered" Native Americans on the mainland and in overseas territories.
It is against this background that one can begin to appreciate the tone and tenor in which Guamanians present their case for a different relationship with the United States.
A hundred years is a long time in a queue, especially when you have to get off the line from time to time to fight a war in defense of the nation.