Adapted from an excerpt from Presidents' Body Counts: The Twelve Worst and Four Best American Presidents Based on How Many Lived or Died Because of Their Actions.
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Repression in America’s Pacific Colonies:
Guam, Hawaii, Micronesia, and Samoa
It likely comes to a surprise to many Americans to hear the US has colonies, has had them for over a century, and that much of these colonial populations would like independence, or in some cases to be independent again as they were before US conquest. All these peoples were conquered or annexed without their consent. Three of these peoples have no say in the national political system and varying amounts of local control. Another, Micronesia, was a US colony for up to four decades. In all of these peoples' homelands, resources and workers flow out to the US mainland and in all cases except Samoa, local peoples have a more limited say in the economy than elites in the mainland US.
The body count from US colonialism in these Pacific islands was high:
167 Bikini Islanders forcibly removed, starved for six months, and exposed to an extra one in seven higher risk of death from cancer from atomic bomb testing.
Hundreds of Marshall Islanders on Rongelap, Rongerik, Ailinginae, and Utrik Atolls, 23 Japanese fishermen, and 28 US weathermen exposed to radiation from atomic bomb tests.
Over 4,000 US servicemen exposed to radiation during the cleanup of Enewetak Atoll. Six died during the cleanup, an unknown number died early deaths.
200,000 Hawaiian deaths from disease introduced by American and British traders and missionaries. Americans and Europeans had even less excuse than they did in early colonial times. By the time of these epidemics, from 1804 to 1853, whites knew full well that they brought disease with them that would kill large numbers of indigenous people. They had seen so for over three centuries of experience with not just American Indians, but with other Pacific Island peoples.
Seven deaths, an unknown number wounded in the Samoan Civil War, with factions allied with the US or Germany.
15 Samoan chiefs falsely imprisoned for 5-7 years during the Samoan Mau independence movement of the 1930s. Samoan chief Samuelu Ripley was permanently barred from Samoa.
Starting about 1890, the US tried to become a colonial empire not very different from the British, French, German, and Spanish empires. All these empires were built because of a mix of national pride, pseudo scientific racism that insisted whites knew best how to run the world, and just plain old fashioned greed, taking local resources to make money off the local people. The US's first major attempt at empire was the Spanish-American War. The failing Spanish empire was defeated and Cuba, Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico were conquered. In the Philippines, an independence revolt had to be crushed with great brutality, killing as many as a million Filipinos. It remained a US colony until 1946.
Two other island nations and one colony also were taken into the US empire. Samoa was carved up between Germany and the US. The Kingdom of Hawaii first was conquered by the US on behalf of American-born plantation owners, and then later taken over by the US in the aftermath of war fever from the Spanish-American War.
Guam, was seized from Spain in 1898 and wanted by the US as a naval base. A US Naval Governor ruled the island until 1950. The Chamorro language was banned. In a series of decisions from 1901 to 1922, the Supreme Court ruled the US Constitution does not apply to territories like Guam. During World War II, many Chamorros died during a brutal Japanese occupation. At war's end, many Chamorros protested they should be rewarded for their suffering with at least local self-rule. In 1950, Chamorros finally got US citizenship. But there were no elections until 1968, and no local constitution until 1979. Today the island's economy is utterly dependent on the US military. US bases make up most of the island, and US servicemen and Filipino migrant workers almost outnumber Chamorros. Thus there is no substantial movement for Guam's independence.
Samoa's suffering was different from Guam. Their civil wars in the 1880s and 90s saw both the US and Germany stepping in to aid the two rival factions. German ships bombarded Samoan villages and the US sent its own warships. A typhoon at the start of the Second Samoan Civil War kept the three sides (Britain decided it wanted Samoa too) from fighting. German Samoa was handed over to New Zealand after World War I. There was an independence movement in both Samoas called the Mau (Firm Strength or Unwavering). The leader of the movement, Samuelu Ripley, was permanently exiled and Samoan chiefs imprisoned. The last Samoan king was only allowed his title after promising US authorities he would be the last. An attempt to revive the kingship in 1924 was blocked by the US governor.
But by comparison to either Guam or Hawaii, the first US Naval Governor interfered less. He decided to somewhat leave Samoan culture and people largely alone. Traditional land ownership continues to this day, as do traditional Samoan titles. As the saying goes, the hard part is not knowing who is chief in Samoa, but who is not. Titles are widespread, but authority is limited to being a counselor, and the titles are awarded based on consensus. Unlike Hawaii, almost all Samoan land is still owned by Samoans, and communally.
Today, Samoans are legally US Nationals, but not citizens. They think of themselves as Samoans, not Americans, but can move freely to the US without passports. There is a large Samoan community on the west coast, especially Los Angeles. There is no organized Samoan independence movement, but not because the islands depend on the US as Guam and Puerto Rico do. Instead, they consider themselves to have gotten the best of the bargain, being part of the US, but not giving up being Samoan to be American. That does not change the original wrongdoing of their being seized by the US, nor deaths in their civil wars, nor false imprisonment and exile for their leaders.
Hawaii has suffered the most from colonialism of any American island colonies. There is a tendency to forget, or more often to never teach in US schools, that for almost 70 years, Hawaii was an independent kingdom with diplomatic recognition, relations, and treaties with major nations including the US. British and American merchants and missionaries brought disease with them, and still came knowing this could kill many locals. The missionaries and their children turned into plantation owners, coveting Hawaii's rich soil, ideal for sugarcane. Plantation owners recruited labor from China, Japan, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Blacks from the US. By 1900, Native Hawaiians made up only 20% of the nation's population.
Anglo-American plantation owners determined they would rule Hawaii. They set up their own private paramilitary, the Honolulu Rifles. In 1887, the Rifles forced the appropriately named Bayonet Constitution upon Hawaii. The Rifles arrested the King's minister and stripped the King of all power. Whites were virtually the only ones who could vote. Asians were specifically barred from the vote, and most Hawaiians were barred by literacy tests and property requirements.
In 1893, Liliuokalani became Queen. She called for a new constitution, one where Hawaiians would rule their own islands again. The so called Committee of Safety, plantation owners, told the US Ambassador their plan to overthrow the Queen. The US Ambassador offered a company of US Marines, from a US warship in port, who overthrew the Queen. The committee declared the Republic of Hawaii and called for the US to take over. President Cleveland refused and condemned the overthrow.
A Native Hawaiian counterrevolution failed, and their petition to the US Congress failed to get US troops to restore the Queen. The US took over in 1898, during the war fever of the Spanish-American War. The Hawaiian language was banned until 1986. The Hawaiian religion was also banned. A white exploiter, Max Freedom Long, later invented a false impersonation of Hawaiian religion he called Huna, which some whites today naively believe is Hawaiian.
Hawaii continued to have a turbulent history, with some one of the most radical labor conflicts in the US, seeing major strikes in 1900, 1904, 1905, 1906, 1909, 1912, 1920, 1924, 1934, 1938,and 1940. The plantation owners kept a racial hierarchy in place, whites at the top, followed by Japanese, other Asians, other nonwhites, and Native Hawaiians at the bottom socially and economically in their own homeland.
After World War II, the UN pressured empires to set free their colonies. The US finally held an illegal statehood vote. Many non-Hawaiians voted, mostly US servicemen, while many Asians were barred. Most scholarly specialists agree with the Native Hawaiian sovereignty movement, that Hawaii remains an occupied nation under illegal US rule. It is also a colony, since tourism as the main industry mostly sends its economic benefits to the mainland. Native Hawaiians continue to work for a return to independence, and can point to some victories, the end of the language ban, restoration of voting rights, Hawaiian language schools, and a cultural renaissance.
Micronesia, the broad group of northern Pacific islands, was made a US Trust Territory in 1947. The UN granted the islands to the US with the intent of guiding them towards self rule. Their lack of a legal voice made the islanders very easy targets for atomic bomb testing. Bikini Atoll became permanently contaminated by radiation after H-bomb tests. The island remained dangerous to live on. The islanders were take off their homeland and dumped for six months on Rongerik Atoll, nearly starving to death. Many Marshall Islanders, Japanese fishermen, and US servicemen were also killed by radiation from H-bomb tests or, for servicemen, from the cleanup after.
What role did presidents play in the takeovers or repression of independence movements of these island nations or colonies?
McKinley ordered the conquest of Guam and Puerto Rico as part of the Spanish-American War, and the US takeover of Hawaii, where previous President Cleveland refused.
Truman and Eisenhower both ordered H bomb tests on Pacific islands. When Ike's election opponent, Adlai Stevenson, called for an end to nuclear weapons testing, Ike called that “a moratorium on common sense.” There is little sign that either president gave much thought to Pacific Islanders. Yet neither man could claim to be ignorant of the bomb's effects. Eisenhower also signed the illegal statehood bill for Hawaii, over the objections of most Native Hawaiians. Ike had supported statehood from the start of his time as president.
Some presidents do have a better record on these islands. Cleveland as an anti-imperialist refused to annex Hawaii. Both major parties included Guam, Puerto Rico, Samoa, and the Virgin Islands in their presidential primaries starting in 1976, and most major candidates have campaigned for their votes. Obama has publicly vowed to sign the Akaka Bill if Congress passes it, which would grant Native Hawaiians status similar to an American Indian tribe, a reservation and government to government relations with the US.
Self determination for Hawaiians remains strongly opposed by white racists in Hawaii. These are the descendants of the same racists who overthrew the Hawaiian national government, suppressed an attempted uprising, persecuted Hawaiians, stole land, suppressed Hawaiian culture, banned the Hawaiian language, and pushed for Hawaiian statehood over the objections of Native Hawaiians. There are a few vocal anti Hawaiian racist authors, especially Ken Conklin, Thurston Twigg-Smith, and the best and known and most bizarre racist, the white supremacist Filipina, Michelle Malkin.
Pacific Islanders are often little known or understood by many Americans. For example, without professional sports it is doubtful if many American would even realize there are Samoan people. In my own teaching, it is rare to find students who know about the US takeover of Hawaii. It is this lack of knowledge that is the biggest barrier to giving these islanders rule over their own lives. With the exception of some anti-Hawaiian bigotry, US control of these islands is largely a legacy of the old colonialism rather than any current evil intent. Were more Americans to know and understand this past, self rule for these peoples would come sooner.
Al Carroll is Assistant Professor of History at Northern Virginia Community College and a former Fulbright Scholar. His other books are Medicine Bags and Dog Tags: American Indian Veteran Traditions from Colonial Times to the Second Iraq War and Survivors: Family Histories of Colonialism, Genocide, and War. He is a longtime activist and researcher for NewAgeFraud.org. More information on him can be found at http://alcarroll.com.