Fortress Guam: Resistance to U.S. Military Mega-Buildup

News Abroad

LisaLinda Natividad, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor with the Division of Social Work at the University of Guam. She is also President of the Guahan Coalition for Peace and Justice.

Gwyn Kirk, Ph.D. is visiting faculty in Women’s and Gender Studies at University of Oregon (2009-10) and a founder member of Women for Genuine Security (www.genuinesecurity.org). This is an adapted version of a longer article that appeared in the Asia Pacific Journal.

United States presidents rarely visit the U.S. territory of Guam (or Guåhan in the Chamorro language), but President Obama may visit this June.  This will be a significant stop for residents of this small island, thirty miles long and eight miles wide, dubbed the place “where America’s day begins.”  Guam is the southernmost island in the Northern Mariana chain that also includes Rota, Tinian, and Saipan.  It is the homeland of indigenous Chamorro people, whose ancestors first came to the islands nearly four thousand years ago.  Formed from two volcanoes, Guam’s rocky core now constitutes an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” for the United States military, in the words of Brig. Gen. Douglas H. Owens, a former commanding officer of Guam’s Andersen Air Force Base….  (1)

The…reason for Obama’s visit:  to rally community and official support for the Department of Defense plan to relocate 8,600 Marines from Okinawa to Guam, provide additional live-fire training sites, expand Andersen Air Force Base, create berthing for a nuclear aircraft carrier, and erect a missile defense system on the island.

Despite their economic dependence on the U.S. military, which occupies one-third of the island’s landmass and dominates the island’s economy, people in Guam have expressed strong opposition to the proposed enormous increase in the US military presence on economic, environmental, and cultural grounds.  Due to Guam’s status as an unincorporated U.S. territory, however, local communities are highly constrained in their ability to influence the political process.  Indeed, they were not even consulted when the expansion plans were developed.  Jon Blas of the coalition We Are Guahan stated, “we have not been able to say yes or no to this.  Hawaii said no.  California said no.  But we were never given the opportunity.”  After more than a century of U.S. control, the justification of military development for purposes of “national security” has been widely accepted by most island residents, many of who rely on the military for jobs given the lack of alternative employment.  However, following the release of the DOD’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) in November 2009, which for the first time revealed details of the proposed military build-up, community members started to question the enormous sacrifices they are being ordered to make in the name of “national security.”…

History of Guam

Spain [was] Guam’s colonizer until the conclusion of the Spanish-American War.  Under the terms of the 1898 Treaty of Paris, Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines were ceded to the United States.  Spain sold the Northern Mariana Islands and the Caroline Islands to Germany, thus separating Guam politically and culturally from neighboring islands in the Marianas and throughout Micronesia.  President McKinley placed Guam under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Navy, which used the island as a refueling and communications station.  During this time, Navy admirals served as governors and most administered the island as though they were running a ship.  (2)  The Naval administration also regulated land acquisition, the sale of liquor, marriages, taxation, agriculture, and schooling.  An old military plan to put Chamorro people on reservations in the north and south of the island, leaving two-thirds of the land for military use, did not materialize.  (3)  However, people’s demand for citizenship was denied as an encroachment on military control.  (4)

On December 8, 1941, Japanese warplanes bombed U.S. military installations on Guam, the same day as the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Japanese forces took the island two days later and renamed it Omiya Jima.  (5)  For 31 months the people of Guam were subjected to hardship and atrocities inflicted by the Japanese Imperial Army; including forced labor to build runways, incarceration in concentration camps (such as Manenggon), executions, slaughter, forced prostitution, and rape.  Chamorros resisted the Japanese invasion and, in allegiance to the U.S., assisted in hiding an American soldier, George Tweed, from Japanese forces for the entire occupation period.  Recollections of World War II experiences evoke tears and trauma memories for most war survivors to this day.…  (6)

Political and Economic Status

The Organic Act of Guam passed by the U.S. Congress in 1950 made Guam an unincorporated territory of the United States with limited self-governing authority.  The Organic Act placed Guam under the administrative control of the Department of the Interior.  With a current population of approximately 173,456, Guam is one of 16 non-self-governing territories listed by the United Nations, and represented by one non-voting delegate in the U.S. Congress.  Residents are U.S. citizens but not entitled to vote in presidential elections.  Federal-territorial policies are decided in Washington, 7,938 miles away, placing a number of restrictions on the island and hampering the development of a viable civilian economy….

The island’s economy is geared toward the military, both in support of the U.S. military and in charting the career path for youth.  The military is by far the major employer, with most families connected to someone serving in the military or employed to support military operations.  There are three JROTC programs in the island’s public high schools, as well as an ROTC program at the University of Guam.  According to Washington Post reporter Blaine Harden, “Guam ranked No. 1 in 2007 for recruiting success in the Army National Guard's assessment of 54 states and territories.”  (7)  A key reason for this is economic.  Poverty rates on Guam are high, with 25 percent of the population defined as poor.  Between 38 percent and 41 percent of the island’s population qualifies for food stamps.  Wage rates are low, schools are underfunded, and there are few opportunities for technical training on the island.  The fact that Guam was occupied by Japan during World War II is another issue in recruitment….

The island’s infrastructure is poor.  The only civilian hospital operates at 100 percent capacity three weeks out of the month and its school system struggles to meet payroll several times a year.  The island’s water supply is barely adequate to sustain the current population and the only civilian landfill for trash disposal is nearly at full capacity.  Government of Guam agencies that oversee education, mental health, substance abuse, and the landfill are currently under federal receivership, meaning that the federal government has hired an independent entity to take over certain functions of these agencies due to substandard conditions.

Fortress Pacific: Proposed Military Build-up

Guam’s military significance is being redefined as part of a major realignment and restructuring of U.S. forces and operations in the Asia-Pacific region.  According to Captain Robert Lee, “We’re seeing a realignment of forces away from Cold War theatres to Pacific theatres and Guam is ideal for us because it is a U.S. territory and therefore gives us maximum flexibility.”…  (8)

Opponents of the build-up have emphasized the negative impact of the U.S. military on Guam, manifested in poor health, radiation exposure, contaminated and toxic sites, curbing of traditional practices such as fishing, and major land takings, which started in the early twentieth century.  The incidence of cancer in Guam is high and Chamorros have significantly higher rates than other ethnic groups.  (9)  Cancer mortality rates for 2003-2007 showed that Chamorro incidence rates from cancer of the mouth and pharynx, nasopharynx, lung and bronchus, cervix, uterus, and liver were all higher than U.S. rates.  (10)  Chamorros living on Guam also have the highest incidence of diabetes compared to other ethnic groups, and this is about five times the overall U.S. rate.

Several major concerns have been raised with respect to the following issues:  the impact of up to nearly 80,000 additional people on land, infrastructure and services; the “acquisition” of 2,200 acres for military use; the impact of dredging 70 acres of vibrant coral reef for a nuclear aircraft carrier berth; and the extent to which the much-touted economic growth would benefit local communities.

Shift in Leadership Stance

Both Guam Representative Madeleine Bordallo and Governor Felix Camacho have wavered in their positions after hearing the outpouring of popular opinion.  At the start of the DEIS process, Bordallo was quiet about concerns in the proposed DOD plan.  After attending town hall meetings for two days where people passionately shared personal testimonies, she listed several significant stipulations in her address to the Guam Legislature on February 16, 2010 stating that she [would]….support limiting all military expansion to Defense Department properties on island [and] oppose any federal effort to acquire additional land by eminent domain….

Nonetheless, Congresswoman Bordallo framed her remarks by reminding residents of the need to work together to address these challenges because of the buildup's importance to the region.  "We are not embarking on this buildup solely for economic reasons. We are doing this because we appreciate more than any other American community our liberation and our freedom and the sacrifices it will take to preserve that freedom for generations to come.”…  (11)

Outside Guam, Senator Jim Webb, a member of the Senate Committee on Armed Services and Chair of the East Asia and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, voiced agreement with some of these points.  After visiting Guam to assess the build-up plan, he commented:

The U.S. military occupies or retains over one-third of the island’s territory, and I do not believe that additional lands should be acquired.  If they must be acquired out of a national security interest, the U.S. government out of respect for the people of Guam should seek private arrangements for use of the land and not exercise its right of eminent domain.  (12)

He noted “great concerns” about the plan to place live-fire ranges on Guam for Marine Corps training, and recommended that this be transferred to Tinian.  Finally, he urged the government to provide “the civilian infrastructure and services needed to support an increased population on the island.  The priorities include port modernization, water acquisition, wastewater treatment, healthcare, and schools.”…

Educating and Organizing

Because the proposed build-up involves transferring Marines from Okinawa, alliances between Chamorro groups, Okinawan anti-bases activists, and partner organizations in mainland Japan have strengthened opposition to military base expansion in all three places, as organizers stand together in solidarity trying to stop the military from pitting one community against another.  Through Pacific Islander networks, Chamorro activists are supported by veteran organizers from Belau, the Marshall Islands, and Hawaii; they are also linked to communities in Latin America and Europe resisting U.S. military expansion through the No U.S. Bases Network.

Chamorro activists are aware of the experiences of long-standing opposition anti-base movements in Okinawa, where opposition over a decade has thus far thwarted U.S. plans to construct a new base at Henoko.  Likewise, in South Korea, village residents and supporters waged a three-year struggle from 2004-2007 to stop the U.S. military taking productive farmland for base expansion in the Pyongtaek area south of Seoul, and current opposition centers on a proposed new Navy base on Jeju Island south of the Korean peninsula.

Okinawan opposition to U.S. bases goes back to 1945, with support from disaffected U.S. troops, particularly African Americans, in the 1970s, and leadership provided by an anti-base governor and Japanese and Okinawan activists during the 1990s.  Thousands of Okinawans have worked on U.S. bases as civilians; some receive rent for military use of their land from the Japanese government.  Dispossessed Okinawan landowners have been among the participants in the anti-base movement.  One significant difference between Okinawa and Guam is the fact that, despite the huge bases located in Okinawa, the U.S. military economy is now estimated to account for less than 10 percent of the Okinawan economy, even including indirect income.  Like Guam, Okinawa was decimated during World War II; people were dislocated and much of the most fertile land was appropriated for U.S. bases before they were allowed to rebuild their villages.  By contrast, Guam has been under colonial rule for centuries.  The population is much smaller than Okinawa, and two-thirds of Guam’s residents are outsiders, many of whom are attached to the military.  In addition, islanders’ U.S. patriotism runs deep with…the “liberation” of the island from Japan by U.S. forces.  Guam is heavily dependent on the military, which shapes the local economy, patterns of land-use, political priorities, and perhaps most dangerously, the psyches of the people.

Commenting on the fact that President Obama is expected to leave the military enclave of Andersen Air Force Base to meet Guam’s leaders and officials during his June visit, Judith Won Pat, Speaker of the Guam Legislature, said that, “the Obama visit appears to be a ‘game-changing’ move to gain local support."  (13)  The President should take this opportunity to hear people’s deep concerns about the impact of so many additional people on their already weak and overburdened infrastructure, fragile ecosystem, and island culture.  He should listen to respected historians like Hope Cristobal, a former Guam senator, and to women leaders, professors, and state representatives active in Fuetsan Famalao’an, who have come together out of concern over the military buildup.  He should visit the Hurao Cultural Camp that teaches young children Chamorro language and culture.  He should hear the Chamorro people’s deep love for their land, seeking to honor their ancestors and provide for their children.  Above all, he should rethink the expansion of U.S. bases in Okinawa, Guam and South Korea.  A small fraction of the 2011 federal budget, proposed at $3.8 trillion and including $708 billion for the Department of Defense, could provide residents of Guam with needed medical and educational facilities and improved infrastructure.  It could clean up contaminated water, underwrite job-training programs, and provide for projects that emphasize economic, environmental and cultural sustainability and security.  This is a vision for One Guam that leaders in Washington and Guam should consider and support.


(1)  Accessed here.

(2)  Department of Chamorro Affairs, 2008. I Hinanao-ta: A pictorial journey through time. p. 24.

(3)  Personal communication, Hope Cristobal, historian and former Guam Senator, Sept. 2009.

(4)  Department of Chamorro Affairs 2008.

(5)  Accessed here.

(6)  Palomo, Tony. “Island in Agony: The War in Guam,” in Geoffrey M. White, ed., Remembering the Pacific War. Occasional Paper 36, Center for Pacific Island Studies, School of Hawaiian, Asian & Pacific Studies, University of Hawai’i at Manoa, 1991,133-44.

(7)  Accessed here.

(8)  Bohane, B., America’s Pacific Speartip, The Diplomat, Sept/Oct. 2007.

(9)  Haddock, R. L., & Naval, C. L., 1997. Cancer in Guam: A review of death certificates from 1971-1995. Pacific Health Dialogue, 4(1), 66-75. p. 74.

(10)  Guam Cancer Facts and Figures 2003-2007, published by the Department of Public Health and Social Services Guam Comprehensive Cancer Control Coalition (October 2009).

(11)  Tamondong, Dionesis. 2010. “Bordallo Addresses Buildup,” Pacific Daily News, February 17, 2010. Accessed here.

(12)  Accessed here.

(13)  Cited by Jeff Marchesseault, February 1, 2010, from this source.

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