THE INHABITED ISLAND TERRITORIES OF THE USA
This year the CLUI finally got around to including the nation’s territories as part of our ongoing study of the landscape of the USA, with an exhibit about the unoccupied minor outlying island territories. The CLUI also made a study of the five occupied territories, and added sites on them to our online Land Use Database.
THE 14 OFFICIAL TERRITORIES OF THE USA are all islands of some kind or other. They are home to a total of 3.6 million people, though most of those people live in Puerto Rico. The rest, around 350,000, live in four other officially occupied and settled territories, with independent forms of government, on land that is officially part of the United States, but is in many ways still treated as foreign terrain.
Nine of the 14 territories are, technically, “unoccupied,” even if they are inhabited, though most are not, anymore. These are the Minor Outlying Islands, and they have been transformed in curious and dramatic ways (and are discussed elsewhere in this newsletter).
The five occupied territories of the USA also tell a history of US expansion, especially during the Spanish American War, and World War II. In the decades after World War II, the US relinquished most of its territorial islands, returning them to pre-colonial nations, or allowing them to become nations with self-rule, such as the Philippines, and much of Micronesia. The five occupied territories that the US retained, or that elected to stay part of the USA, remain important strategic locations for the country, especially territories in the Pacific, which provide forward positions for the US military in Southeast Asia.
Puerto Rico, the largest and most familiar territory, is located in the Caribbean, between the Dominican Republic and the Virgin Islands. It consists of a main island 110 miles long and 40 miles wide, and a few outer islands. 3.3 million people live on the island, which is more populous than 20 of the 50 United States. Most of the population is in San Juan, the port city on its northern shore.
Puerto Rico has been a possession of the USA since 1899, when it was acquired from Spain, following the Spanish American War, during which most of Spain’s colonial holdings in the Pacific and Caribbean were seized and redistributed. In 1917 its inhabitants, born in 1888 and later, became US citizens, and in 1952 Puerto Rico became a commonwealth, with a governing constitution. Its residents elect a governor and a non-voting member of the US Congress. As with other territories, residents of Puerto Rico cannot vote for a president in federal elections, just in the primaries.
Notoriously battered by hurricanes and neglected by the federal government, Puerto Rico has a median household income lower than any state (less than $20,000), and the highest per capita concentration of Walmarts and Walgreens. It has served as a regional military outpost, housing as many as 25 separate installations over the years, including the Roosevelt Roads Naval Base, and the bombing ranges on Vieques Island—though now, nearly all of them are closed, and slowly undergoing remediation and redevelopment.
US Virgin Islands
The US Virgin Islands are located immediately east of Puerto Rico, and west of the British Virgin Islands. They are composed of three primary islands, St. Thomas and St. John (which are next to one another), and St. Croix (35 miles south), and a few scattered small islands around them.
The islands have been claimed by the Dutch, French, Spanish, English, and Danish, when in 1800, 35,000 African slaves worked on sugar plantations. The United States purchased the islands, then known as the Danish West Indies, from Denmark for $25 million in 1917, at the onset of World War I. Due to fears that Germany might establish a submarine base there. Most of its residents became US citizens in the 1920s, and though the US Virgin Islands is considered part of the USA as an “organized, unincorporated territory,” it is still working on its constitution.
The population today is around 106,000, more than 75% of whom are of African descent. Tourism is the major industry, with resorts scattered along the shores. There are two cruise ship docks at the port of the city of Charlotte Amalie, the capital city of the US Virgin Islands, on St. Thomas. Up to 500 cruise ships come to the port every year, bringing more than a million tourists to the island annually.
St. Croix is the least touristed of the three islands, and is the most populated and industrialized. The port on its southern side is dominated by a fuel tank farm and one of the largest oil refineries in the USA, which is mostly closed now. Other sites around the port include a Captain Morgan rum distillery and production plant.
Guam is the largest of the Mariana Islands, which extend north from Guam for a few hundred miles in the western Pacific Ocean, 1,300 miles east of the Philippines, and 1,400 miles south of Japan. It became a US territory in 1898, during the Spanish American War, when it was taken from Spain by the US Navy, without firing a shot, on their way to the larger prize, the Philippines. Since then it has been a major asset for US military control in Southeast Asia, referred to by some as “the tip of the spear.”
The first shots fired by the US in World War I were likely at Guam, in 1917, to take a German ship in the harbor (warning shots were all that were needed). In World War II, Japan took the island from the US by force in 1941, with an attack that started the day after Pearl Harbor. Japan occupied the island for 31 months, one of only a few pieces of American territory held by Japan in the war (others included islands in the Aleutian Chain of Alaska).
When the US took the island back in 1944, the battle took 26 days, claimed 1,700 American and 15,000 Japanese lives, and destroyed nearly all the buildings on the island. After the war, the US military took over a third of the 30-mile-long island, building what would become one of its most important global bases of operation.
Facilities include Andersen Air Force Base, a major nuclear bomber base at the island’s northern end; Naval Base Guam, with aircraft carriers, and nuclear submarines at Polaris Point; and a large inland ordnance depot. Marines from Okinawa are likely to move here, too.
The rest of the island, especially the main city of Tumon, is a military town and tourist destination, seeing a million tourists from Japan, as well as Russia and South Korea, coming to visit one of the closest American outposts to their shores, replete with the most popular American shopping and dining franchises. 168,000 people live on Guam, including more than 60,000 native Chamorros and 40,000 Filipinos, most of whom are American citizens by virtue of being born in the territory.
Northern Mariana Islands
The 14 islands in the chain north of Guam are governed as a US territory known as the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). The Marianas were first colonized by Spain when Magellan planted a flag there in 1521. After the Spanish American War of 1898, most of the Marianas were sold to Germany, which then lost them to Japan after World War I. The United States took them from Japan in World War II, after which they became part of a large group of islands in the north Pacific known as the United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands.
Over the years after the war, most of the islands in the trust became independent states, such as the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau. After being rebuffed by Guam for decades, the Northern Marianas elected to become a separate commonwealth and join the USA in 1975. This became official in 1986, when the UN dissolved the Trust Territories, and the 50,000 residents of the islands became US citizens.
90% of the population lives on Saipan, which after becoming part of the USA, developed into a major global garment production center, attracting another 45,000 workers, mostly from China. Clothing for major brands, such as Gap, Ann Taylor, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Liz Claiborne, and J.Crew, were made in sweatshops that, while “made in the USA,” were done so with labor rates and conditions far below normal USA standards. Despite persistent lobbying by the garment industry in Washington, which was fighting to maintain the one billion dollars in annual production, media exposure and political pressure eventually had their effect. The national minimum wage came to Saipan in 2007, and now most of the industry is gone, as well as the Chinese workers.
Three miles south of Saipan is Tinian, the second largest of the Northern Mariana Islands. With a population of just 3,000, most of Tinian’s development are the remains of a World War II airbase. The US captured Tinian from Japan in August 1944, built six runways on the island, and made it the busiest US airfield for the remainder of the war. The last of the hundreds of missions that flew from here to Japan were the atomic bombings of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and Nagasaki, three days later. The loading pits for the oversized Little Boy and Fat Man bombs remain amidst the vestiges of the base at the north end of the island.
American Samoa is the only populated place in the USA south of the equator. Its population is around 55,000, and is 92% Pacific Islander. It has the lowest per capita income in the USA, one of the highest rates of service in the military, and there is a heavy missionary presence. As much as 80% of its revenue comes from a single StarKist tuna cannery in Pago Pago, on the main island of Tutulia, where 98% of the population lives.
The other sparsely occupied islands in American Samoa include the Manu’a Islands, and Swains Island, located 220 miles north of Tutulia. Since 1856 Swains Island has been claimed by the American settler Eli Jennings, joining American Samoa in 1925. It is a mile-wide ring of beach and land, surrounding a brackish lagoon, and is generally inhabited by around a dozen people.
The Polynesian islands of Samoa were colonized in the 19th century, and divided up. The larger islands in the west (called Western Samoa at the time) went to Germany, and the smaller ones to the east went to the USA, in 1900, by a deed of cession, approved by native chiefs. For the following 51 years, American Samoa was controlled by the US Navy, which built a refueling base in the harbor at Pago Pago. In 1967, a local constitution was adopted, and elections began, providing a further degree of self-rule.
Unlike the other four US Territories with populations and governments (CNMI, Guam, USVI, and Puerto Rico), American Samoans are not US citizens by birth, but American Nationals, instead. This gives them more autonomy at home, where 90% of the land is shared in a native communal system, and helps preserve other cultural traditions, but is less convenient when outside the territory, as not being citizens limits the types of work they are allowed to do in the rest of the USA. Though they can have US passports, the documents are stamped with a statement that the bearer is not a US citizen.
After World War II, Germany lost Western Samoa to New Zealand, and in 1962 it became an independent nation. In 1997, it officially changed its name from Western Samoa to Samoa, and the International Date Line was moved to the east, so Samoa would begin its day with New Zealand. This further separated Samoa from American Samoa, which is on the east side of the date line, making it the last part of the occupied United States to see the end of the day. ♦