If the United States had it to do over – would it offer Commonwealth status to the Northern Marianas?
Do the new geopolitical relationships which have evolved around the Pacific rim since 1976 between the United States and other countries still exercise the same degree of influence on the political relationship with the Northern Marianas today as in the previous period of the Trust Territory administration?
A brief review of the past is necessary to place the question in perspective. At the end of World War II there were eleven United Nation trusteeships that evolved from the flames of the holocaust. Ten of these possessions of former adversaries of the Allied powers were administered through the United Nations General Assembly. Only the islands of Micronesia, of which the Northern Marianas was a part, were considered a strategic trust and placed under the administration of the U. N. Security Council where the United States had veto power. Before exploring this question it is necessary to look back in time to a period just after the conclusion of hostilities.
Those were the days before widespread use of commercial jet aircraft when travel from Hawaii to Saipan required many exhausting hours. In the early fifties a flight from Honolulu to Wake Island took about nine and one half hours from Wake to Saipan was still eight hours further. To consider the islands as being isolated in those days would be an understatement. The appeal of the islands of Micronesia was to military planners and political strategists. Long before the flames of World War II engulfed the world, the use of a nation's resources was directly affected by its trading opportunities.
With few exceptions among the great trading nations of the world, the full benefit of possessing exploitable resources or colonies only came with transport across the oceans. Sea routes are valuable national assets and the power to control or influence these traffic lanes is a matter of importance to all nations which border the sea. The ocean, and today the air, are avenues of commerce — lifelines to carry a nation's industrial blood, whether it be raw materials or its processed products to world markets. It was opportunities for commerce that first opened the vast expanse of the Pacific.
Later sea power was brought to bear to protect these trade routes. All navies depend upon bases of fixed facilities for replenishing, repairing and refueling their vessels and the islands in the Pacific have frequently played a major role. To keep such bases operational a navy must strive defensively to maintain control of those sea lanes leading to its base of operations and keep them open. To wage offensive warfare a navy must have sufficient power to close off the trade routes of any adversary. These units must have a secure base preferably near or within the sea lanes they are to protect. Before the Second World War both the United States and the Japanese appreciated this concept very well. It is because of geography that the Pacific Islands have always figured prominently and importantly in the affairs of western hemispheric nations in a measure far beyond their size and resources would seem to warrant.
It is frequently because of an isolated but strategic location that some islands are considered to be of military and political importance far in excess of their economic value. Indeed, those islands situated relatively near the coastline of continents make ideal bases for extending the national will of one country over another. Rarely do such islands owe any allegiance to the country which controls the nearby mainland. Guam is a classic example. Not only is it relatively near the Asian continent but from the time the Japanese moved in to control the Nanyo (Mandated Islands) it was an American enclave within a Japanese military and economic sphere — a virtual thorn in the side of the Japanese military planners. Islands most prized by the military are frequently those which can provide a navy with a protected deep water anchorage. In former times islands served as coaling stations, relay stations for transoceanic cables, locations for radio transmitters, etc.
Today they are sites for radar, earth satellite communication systems and fueling stops for the jet "clippers" of the skies, which more often than not land on air strips which were first constructed to service the military. Extreme geographic, cultural, historical, economic and political contrasts face each other across the Pacific Ocean. The oldest civilization on earth faces the youngest. The most overpopulated continent lies opposite the most sparsely populated. The richest country is in stark contrast with some of the poorest. The most modernized and industrially advanced nation faces some of the most technologically backward.
The nation with the highest standard of living stands in contrast to a continent with the lowest. But this is changing rapidly. The Pacific is the ocean where east meets west — ancient civilizations with cultural and ancestral stability and with reverence for the past are juxtaposed with the restlessness of the West and its obsession with the future. So it was in the early forties and so it remains today. As the strategy of the Pacific is examined it becomes abundantly clear why Guam, Saipan and Tinian are so important to the United States. Before the war the Japanese developed the economies of the mandated islands to the extent possible.
After the war the United States elected to wait until the Micronesians themselves were the rulers of their own economy and America adopted a policy of providing funds for public works projects which ironically, to date, benefit Japanese investors and at some future date possibly the U. S. military. Curiously, the islands were never administered by the U. S. Department of State which carries out America's foreign policy since to do so would be tantamount to admitting they were "foreign." Instead, the newly "associated" Pacific islands were, for a period, administered by the United States Navy until June 30, 1951 after which responsibility passed to the Department of the Interior, Office of Territorial and International Affairs where many United States domestic policies and programs could be applied regardless whether they were appropriate for Pacific societies and, indeed, many were not – but others were quite beneficial. Eventually the people of Micronesia ( including the Marianas) were encouraged to choose their future political status from three options. These included selecting independence or becoming affiliated with the United States, either through a relationship of free association or a commonwealth status based upon a negotiated agreement which later became known as the Covenant.The Covenant describes the relationship agreed upon between the people of the Northern Marianas and the United States Government. No other United States territory or insular possession has a similar relationship. Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam and other Pacific possessions were all acquired under circumstances far different than that of the Northern Marianas.
This unique relationship between the United States Government and the Commonwealth stems from the fact that the islands were never recognized as a permanent possession of any nation since they were taken from defeated Germany by the Allied Powers during World War One. Subsequently assigned to Japan under a mandate from the League of Nations, the status of the islands did not change after they were occupied by United States armed forces in 1944. Indeed, since their purchase by Germany from Spain in 1899, and their assignment to Japan for administration in 1920 by the League of Nations, the Northern Marianas had no political identity among the countries of the world. From the time of Germany's loss of the islands they were never regarded as a permanent colony within the exclusive sovereignty of any nation, except, of course, by Japan when it left the League before the outbreak of World War II.
For a nation to acquire additional territory a government must either annex an area by force of arms or by purchase from a sovereign government.The Northern Marianas was not a permanent legal possession of Japan at the time of the war as it had only been entrusted to Japan under a mandate by a group of countries through their organization – the League of Nations. Therefore, the United States could not strip territory from defeated Japan at the conclusion of hostilities since the islands were never recognized as a permanent legal possession of Japan in the first place. After the war the Northern Mariana Islands were sealed off to all but the military in order to provide a location for clandestine activities undertaken by the Central Intelligence Agency under the auspices of the Naval Tactical Training Unit, (NTTU). Not much is known about the secret facility which had been established on Saipan to train certain individuals in insurgency for possible future interdiction into Communist southeast Asia and elsewhere. The island was militarily sealed off and only certain U. S. government personnel were permitted to enter and leave Saipan. The local people did not enjoy much freedom of movement and were confined to Saipan and Guam which was also closed to everyone except military personnel.
Once the training facility on Saipan was abandoned in the 60’s the island became the headquarters of the Trust Territory Government from which all the islands of Micronesia, formerly the Japanese Mandated Islands, were administered. During this period and until 1973 it was the policy of the United States Government, as the administering authority, to continue exercising unusual influence over the development of the islands and its people. American policy was exercised on the basis of the ''most favored nation" clause within Article 8 (1) of the Trusteeship Agreement For The Former Japanese Mandated Islands. From 1947 until 1973 this policy prohibited non American investment and was referred to as the "denial principle." The United States Government was not particularly interested in the islands- except for Saipan and its training base for Central Intelligence Agency covert operations and did not wish to encourage investment from the nationals of other countries. The administering authority interpreted Article 8 in such a manner to be an effective tool to prohibit foreign investment. This had the effect of keeping the economy of the islands in an undeveloped state. Meanwhile, the Congress of Micronesia, a representative body whose creation was sanctioned by the High Commissioner of the Trust Territory, entered into negations with the United States Government for a change in political status.
Representatives of the Congress of Micronesia approached the High Commissioner and pointed out that the people who would eventually vote in a plebiscite were not aware of the ramifications of the issues involved within the various political choices and requested that a program be undertaken to acquaint them with the intricacies of the various political alternatives. The result was a Micronesian wide effort known as Education For Self Government (ESG). I think Sam McPhetres and myself are the only non indigenous people still around who were involved in the program although at the time many participated including Chamorro and Carolinian advisors. It was during this program that the United States “caved in” and assented to the demands of the Soviet Union’s representative on the United Nations Security Council to remove all materials and withhold all information which could be construed as encouraging democratic principles or advocating any form of relationship with the United States. Thus, programs in the public schools teaching the concept of civics, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Principles of Democracy and other works were withdrawn from the program without a whimper in deference to the Soviet Union’s communist representative.
If some people within the Northern Marianas seem be unfamiliar with the obligations and responsibilities that are inherent in U. S. citizenship, an honor bestowed upon the those islanders that qualified by Presidential Order, it should be kept in mind that at the time the people of the Northern Marianas, unlike other nationalities seeking U. S. citizenship, were not required to possess any knowledge of American history or the principles of democracy as most Americans perceive them to be. Normally immigrants seeking U. S. citizenship must study a variety of subjects related to American history, pass an examination and swear an oath of allegiance to the Constitution. This was not required of the people of the Northern Marianas. Nor, during the period the Trust Territory Government conducted educational programs for self government, was civics and the duties of citizenship taught in the public schools. To have done so during this period of the early seventies when political preferences were being explored – and to have openly advocated U. S. Commonwealth status from among the other remaining options available to the people of the Northern Marianas would have raised the ire of the French and Soviet delegates on the United Nations Security Council and precipitate a charge of colonialism against the United States. The political education program had to be impartial – and it was.
The United States assured the Security Council that it would conduct political status negotiations with the Trust Territory as a whole and would not attempt to fragment the area. This policy was later abandon by the United States and the Marianas Political Status Commission was created to negotiate separately with the United States. This eventually lead to a plebiscite when the people of the Northern Marianas by 78.8 percent of the votes cast on June 17, 1975 elected to accept a negotiated Covenant with the United States. This became U.S. Public Law 94-241 when enacted by the United States Congress and became effective on April 1, 1976, a little more than 30 years after the end of World War II. The people of the islands, of their own free will, desire and volition found their own way toward a close affiliation under the American Flag. Of all the entities within the former Japanese Mandated Islands they were the only people to seek and obtain such a close political relationship with the United States.
Upon the breakup of the Soviet Union and after the United States closed it bases in the Philippines several years ago, the Mariana Islands of Guam, Tinian and Saipan also experienced a reduced importance to American strategic requirements in the western Pacific. However, it is still a result of their geographic location in proximity to the Asian Continent as well as the Great Circle Sailing Routes (shortest distance) between the United States and the Philippines, the Strait of Malacca at Singapore and the Lombok Straits in Indonesia that the United States is expected to continue to exhibit interest, albeit at a reduced level, in the area far into the twenty-first century. The Malacca and Lombok Straits are the passages through which super tankers and their vital cargo of oil from the Middle East must travel enroute to the United States west coast and the ports of its Japanese ally and trading partner. The Mariana Islands are geographically situated so as to be the farthest United States possessions in the Pacific west of Hawaii. Situated in a universe of water, the Marianas archipelago are the farthest stars out in the American galaxy. As a contingency the United States military has leased a portion of Tinian, (originally 17,799 acres of which 12,000 acres have been leased back to the CNMI ). Several U.S. military supply vessels are already based in Commonwealth waters. Today the islands may have lost much of their strategic appeal as geographic assets. Not only is the land area available for military use limited, but a diminished threat from the former Soviet Union (now the Commonwealth of Independent States) and the modern technology of weapon systems has certainly reduced the strategic importance of the islands. At the end of World War II and during – and after – the Korean conflict and the Vietnam War, the United States was preoccupied in southeast and northeast Asia with a policy designed to contain the Soviet Union and communism.
Japan was ideally situated geographically to facilitate the effort with the result that the United States greatly assisted in the economic recovery of its former adversary after the devastation of the Pacific war with the result that, within the span of less that four decades, Japan became one of the strongest economies in the world. After World War II and the emergence of the Soviet Union on the world economic scene along with the threat of communism, the United States, in an attempt to offer the developing nations of the world an alternative to this economic philosophy, opened its vast markets to industries in Asia. This was an "economic carrot" offered as an alternative to communism and aided in the building of an alliance against the Soviet Union. In so doing some of the United States domestic industries started their long decline. Who, for example in 1950, could possibly imagine that American automobile manufacturers would lose out on their own home territory. But this is what has happened along with steel, shipbuilding and a myriad of other industries. If it continues one must wonder what the American worker will produce in the year 2000 to earn the money to continue to represent a substantial export market for the growing quantity of Asian manufactured items of high quality.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the current strong economies of Korea, Taiwan, Japan and others the United States no longer has to offer the "carrot" of free market access or low tariffs on the American side of the Pacific. With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, America found itself with no real military threat in the western Pacific and Japan's geographic location no longer as important in containing Soviet expansion in east Asia. This was the principal reason for United States reconstructing Japan's economy after World War II – to make the nation a bulwark against communism. With the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union the United States is left without a military challenge in the region but finds itself faced with an economic threat from Japan, a country which is weak militarily but one of the most wealthy nations in the world.This is a nation consisting of a group of small, crowded islands in comparison to the entire American continent and, in contrast to North America, a country totally dependent upon overseas trade to sustain its economy. Geopolitics in the western Pacific will continue to be influenced by the United States with Japan and China increasingly becoming major players. With the second largest economy in the world, Japan must import all its raw material and export its finished manufactured goods to markets throughout the world. The highways for this commerce are the sea lanes of all the world's oceans. The Marianas archipelago sits astride many of these major ocean routes and is the closest American soil to the continent of Asia.
For this reason alone the area is a valuable national asset. The center of gravity for world trade has shifted over the past twenty five years to the vast markets of Asia. Since the conclusion of World War II the United States has maintained economic supremacy in the world but today that position is being seriously challenged by Japan and, to a lesser extent, several other Asian countries around the Pacific rim. The Mariana Islands, America's most western affiliated archipelago and the closest American jurisdiction to Japan and China, provides an ideal location for United States firms interested in serving Asian countries from a U. S. base of operations in proximity to the markets of the Far East. Serious consideration should by given by mainland American businesses to the geographic advantages, political stability and other amenities provided by the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth's proximity to Asia places it within reasonable distances to 1.4 billion people of Pacific rim Asian countries with a combined gross domestic product equal to $2.9 trillion dollars. China alone has a population of of 1.2 billion people and a fast developing economy. In terms of marine resources the Pacific Ocean yields about 65 percent of the world's annual supply of tuna. About 50 percent of the Pacific catch comes from the western Pacific.
The waters around the Northern Marianas chain abound with pelagic species of jacks, mahi mahi, marlin, skipjack, tuna, yellowfin and wahoo. The exclusive economic zone surrounding the Northern Mariana Islands covers 99.9 percent of the CNMI'S total area of approximately 264,000 square miles. The area is a unique body of water with a most unusual seabed. It contains the Marianas Trench, the greatest ocean depth on the face of the earth, and an active submerged volcanic system. These factors contribute to rich mineral resource potential. Returning to to question, “if the United States had it to do over – would it offer Commonwealth status to the Northern Marianas?” You, the reader decide.