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Guam, only current U.S. colony ever occupied by foreign troops; 3rd in a 21st Century American Colonies series

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Discovered by Ferdinand Magellan in March 1521, on his voyage around the world, the indigenous Chamorro people did not lose their native way of life until 1565 when Guam and the other Mariana islands were claimed by Spain.  

Guam was a convenient stop between the Philippines and Acapulco for the galleon trade to replenish fresh water and food and the Spanish settled in for over three hundred years of colonial rule of the island paradise.  Jesuit priests shared control of the island with the Chamorro kings until a dispute over baptism in 1672 led to the murder of a priest and subsequent retaliation against the local population.  By the time disease and warfare had subsided the indigenous population dropped from 200,000 to 5,000. 

 The Spanish-American War in 1898 cost Spain its remaining colonial empire and Guam was ceded to the United States by the Treaty of Paris.  Because U.S. troops did not invade, unlike Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines, America was a gracious winner and a year later paid Spain $20 million for Guam. 

Placed under the Department of the Navy, military rule of the former Spanish colony began in August 1899 with a lengthy list of new edicts controlling ownership of land, taxation, and the cultural life of the island.  Guam now became a refueling station for the U.S. Navy under an appointed governor.

 On December 10, 1941, three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese troops invaded Guam after a brief battle with a small contingent of U.S. Marines.  All the Americans were taken prisoner save for one soldier who escaped into the jungle and was aided for many months by the Chamorros until his capture.  Japanese rule of Guam was harsh and brutal.  Many rapes, tortures, and executions occurred during the 32 months the island was renamed "Omiya Jima". 

The United States regained its possession in 1944 after a fierce battle that left 7,000 Americans and 13,000 Japanese dead.  An unknown number of native inhabitants were also killed in the heavy bombardment of the island.  Following the end of the war, the military pulled out most of its forces and Guam returned to a pre-conflict colonial lifestyle and rule by the U.S. Navy.

When the United Nations was established, the U.S. voluntarily listed Guam as a non-self governing territory and required a security clearance to travel to the island.  In 1947, the Navy granted limited legislative rights to the local Guam Congress, which functioned as an advisory body to the Naval Governor of Guam.  Two years later the body adjourned in protest at the lack of rights and refused to reconvene. 

In 1950, Congress passed the Organic Act officially declaring Guam to be an "unincorporated territory", establishing a three-branched civilian government and granting U.S. citizenship to residents of the island.  However, the grant of citizenship did not extend all the provisions of the U.S. Constitution nor did it provide for a presidential vote or representation in Congress.

Because of its strategic location, there is no momentum to resolve the dilemma posed by the limited self-government imposed on U.S. citizens residing on the island.  Too small to be a state, to valuable to set free, Guam seems fated to remain a U.S. colony long into the 21st Century.

 

 21st American Colonies is a series of articles that explore the acquisition, control and status of modern-day colonies of the United States.  Although the colonies are now called "unincorporated territories", the second-class nature of U.S. citizenship of residents of the territories continues to define the colonial status.  Permission granted to reprint.

 

Michael Richardson is a freelance writer based in Boston. Richardson writes about politics, law, nutrition, ethics, and music. Richardson is also a political consultant.
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