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A U.S. Air Force B-2 Spirit deployed from Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., receives fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker assigned to the 155th Air National Guard Air Refueling Wing, Neb., during a local flying mission at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, Jan. 19, 2017 (Airman 1st Class Jazmin Smith via Wikimedia Commons)

In Nuclear Crosshairs, Guam Still Doesn’t Control Its Own Affairs

… because its inhabitants are not fully considered Americans when it matters.

Words: April Arnold
Pictures: Jazmin Smith

At the core of Guam’s indigenous CHamoru culture are the concepts of inafa’maolekinafa meaning “to make together” and maolek meaning “good.” It is the idea that something was once bad or broken and is in need of repair, and that repair comes from doing good together and restoring harmony. If there is one thing the CHamoru have known for nearly 500 years, it is how to make the best of broken circumstances. 

In recent years, Guam has found itself at the center of tensions between the United States and countries in the Pacific. As the tiny island sits on the frontlines of the competition for influence in the region, Guam has increasingly come under threat of being a prime target for nuclear attack by China or North Korea. 

In 2022, North Korea confirmed a test launch of an intermediate-range ballistic missile that could reach Guam. In 2023, the country confirmed launching spy satellites that targeted military installations in Japan, on the US mainland and on Guam. Equally concerning was North Korea’s response that attempts to interfere with their satellites would be considered a declaration of war. In April 2024, North Korea conducted a test launch of another intermediate-range ballistic missile that could also reach Guam. 

“Guam Killer” 

As for China, during a military parade in September 2015, the Chinese government unveiled a new missile that quickly became known as the “Guam Killer.” Following the introduction of this new missile, the US-China Economic Security Commission published a 2016 report detailing China’s military expansion and its implications for Guam. 

Yet, despite the threat to the island, it still does not have a full say over many aspects of its strategic role in international affairs. Its citizens are not allowed to vote in US presidential elections, with straw polls showing that voting trends of the territory do not guarantee one political party leverage over the other. 

Nor does Guam have full representation in US Congress, limiting its ability to lobby for the island’s interests, despite being in harm’s way militarily and environmentally. As the US promotes democracy worldwide, it should start at home by affording Guam statehood. This, in turn, could help temper the aggression and rhetoric China and North Korea have directed at the island, giving the US an even stronger foothold in the region.

History of Foreign Rule

Guam has been under foreign rule since 1565 and foreign aggression since 1521 when Ferdinand Magellan landed on the island. As a strategic trade outpost for Spain for over 300 years, the CHamoru were forced to convert to Catholicism by the Jesuits and subservient to Spanish governance that ravaged the island’s natural resources and culture. In the book “Destiny’s Landfall,” author Robert F. Rogers detailed stories of the abuse the CHamoru people experienced at the hands of governors who had a recurring penchant for excessive greed and virile priests seeking to exact their purportedly divine authority. 

Yet, despite the threat to the island, it still does not have a full say over many aspects of its strategic role in international affairs.

Then, as a concession of the Spanish-American War, Spain transferred Guam to the US under the Treaty of Paris of 1898. This was a controversial transaction at the time as Congress was amid the throes of the debate over Manifest Destiny and expansion into the Pacific.

Much to the surprise of the citizens of Guam, the transfer did not result in its incorporation into the country as a state, despite establishing a local democratic government to aid this effort. 

Military Oversight

Instead, the island was placed under the oversight of the Department of the Navy for 52 years, where military governance had absolute authority. As a result of the treaty, the US government faced a new hurdle of incorporating these newly-acquired territories.

Through a series of Supreme Court rulings known as the Insular Cases, the US decided that Guam among other islands such as Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines, would be considered territories without full citizenship rights.

Language from one of the Insular Cases, Downes vs. Bidwell, states, in part, the following about foreign territories: “If those possessions are inhabited by alien races, differing from us in religion, customs, laws, methods of taxation, and modes of thought, the administration of government and justice, according to Anglo-Saxon principles, may for a time be impossible.”

Taking Advantage 

In short, even though Guam had been under Catholic influence and rule for more than 300 years and had adopted many Catholic practices, it was not enough to be accepted into the US as more than an “alien race.”

Meanwhile, the US had begun taking full advantage of Guam’s position in the Pacific, constructing military bases starting in WWII. It wasn’t until 1950 that the Department of the Navy would transfer its oversight of Guam to the Department of the Interior, designating the island as an unincorporated territory through the Guam Organic Act. 

With the steady military buildup of US forces on Guam over the decades, the US would gain more influence in the Pacific while pushing CHamoru off their lands and creating waste management nightmares that now include two Superfund sites used to dispose of hazardous chemicals.

Military Buildup

Even as tensions have grown, military officials have called for increased investment in a missile defense capability on the island to counter China’s capabilities development and aggression in the region. This includes relocating 5,000 US Marines to Camp Blaz on Guam later in 2024, with some concerned over impacts to the local ecosystem and historical sites. 

Meanwhile, Guam continues to wrestle with the US government on waste management funding to clean up the Superfund site, Ordot Landfill. The landfill was formerly owned and used by the Department of the Navy during WWII, with some of its contents allegedly being toxic chemicals such as Agent Orange. Even upon returning the landfill to the island after Congress passed the Guam Organic Act in 1950, the Navy continued to use the dump until the 1970s. 

After its closure in 2011, Guam’s local government began clean-up efforts and filed a lawsuit under the Superfund Act to seek financial help from the US government on the $160 million estimated cost. A lower court ruled that Guam’s lawsuit surpassed the statute of limitations under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act. As one article states, “Shouldering the cost alone would be unduly difficult for the small island, as the bill exceeds the combined annual budget of its health, social services, police, fire, public works, solid waste and environmental departments.” 

In May 2021, the Supreme Court reversed the ruling, and in September 2023 the US government agreed to pay $48.9 million in cleanup costs that were incurred prior to Aug. 10, 2022. The remaining $110 million in costs will still have to be covered by Guam’s local government. 


The conversation of Guam’s self-determination starts at the local level. Guam’s Commission on Decolonization was formed in 1997 to promote domestic education and outreach on the island’s options for self-determination. These options include statehood, free association, or independence. The first step in this process is the self-determination vote, where voters decide which of the decolonization options to pursue. Yet, efforts for a referendum have already run into issues at the federal level. 

Before conducting the vote, Guam’s government needs to decide who is included in the definition of self-determination, which it has already done. According to the commission’s website, the right of self-determination belongs to those who were colonized, with the definition of “native inhabitants of Guam,” referring to people who became US citizens through the 1950 Guam Organic Act, as well as their descendents. 

In 2020, the Supreme Court declined to review Guam’s appeal of a previous lower court ruling on conducting a nonbinding plebiscite to determine whether native inhabitants preferred statehood, free association, or independence because the vote was discriminatory on the grounds of race. 

In February 2024, Guam’s government began looking into better defining the term so that it meets expectations in local law and was not “considered again a ‘proxy for race’ and therefore unconstitutional.” 

On May 13, 2024, Guam’s Attorney General published an opinion that there was “no room” for Guam’s definition of the phrase that would be deemed constitutional. Instead, the AG recommended Guam’s Governor take other legal routes, such as lobbying Congress to recognize Guam’s unique history and work with the island to develop a path towards self-determination as well as petition support from the United Nations.


Separately, politicians on Guam are also reluctant to pursue tribal classification for the CHamoru people, especially after the US federal government sued Guam over land trust issues. 

In 2017, Madeleine Bordallo, then the Guam delegate to the US House of Representatives, expressed concerns over the implications of enrolling the CHamoru as a tribe when the island would have to transfer ownership of the tribal lands to the federal government. 

Each of these issues has made it difficult for Guam to gain traction in pursuing any form of self-determination, let alone statehood. 

While it is unlikely that the majority of US elected officials would support anything other than statehood for Guam, leaving the island in a position that forces them to either lobby Congress for any self-determination support or solicit help from the United Nations could strain the relationship at a delicate time internationally. 

Path Forward

After a referendum favoring statehood, all that is required for Guam to become a state is a simple majority vote on a joint resolution in both houses of Congress and approval by the President. The biggest hurdle is often lobbying Congress for the votes. The CHamoru have had their land taken from them to support US military demands with little-to-no reconciliation efforts from the US government. 

Yet, the tiny island finds itself in the crosshairs of growing tensions between multiple nuclear weapons states, with barely a voice to hold the US government accountable for its actions. Many arms control and nonproliferation experts lament the lack of US public interest in the threat of nuclear war. Perhaps, it is because those most at risk are not fully considered Americans when it matters. If the US truly cares about ensuring democracy around the world, it should start at home. 

April Arnold

April Arnold has over a decade of experience advising the US government on arms control and nonproliferation, particularly at the intersection of environmental compliance. She now helps private sector clients navigate national security issues, focusing on global catastrophic risks. She holds an MA in Sustainable Energy from Johns Hopkins University and a BA in International Relations from University of Delaware.

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