In the latest development of the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia, a strategy of reorganising and strengthening US military capabilities in the Pacific, the islanders of Pagan and Tinian are being told to make way for a “simulated war zone”.
After decades of living at the behest of American military priorities, they are still resisting moves to encroach on their homelands – and their chances of success are as slim as ever.
Both islands are part of the US associated Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas. Their strategic location, midway between the US Pacific Fleet headquarters in Hawaii and the Asian mainland, with further logistical support available at the naval facilities in nearby Guam, make them attractive locations for the US military’s purposes.
Tinian also has a prime place in geo-strategic history: it is home to the airfield from which the Enola Gay took off to carry out the bombing of Hiroshima, marking the dawn of the nuclear era.
The provisional plans for these islands so far released by the Pentagon suggest that they have been earmarked for amphibious landing training, live ammunition manoeuvres, bombings and heavy artillery target practice.
The islanders’ appeal to stop their displacement is only the lastest in a long line of disputes. Small Pacific island communities have faced a long history of disruption and displacement thanks to the machinations of distant “great powers”.
Out of the way
At the start of the 20th century, islanders in Micronesia were relocated to provide a workforce for phosphate mining operations, such as those on Nauru and Banaba. It was not until the Japanese arrived as part of the post-World War I League of Nations mandate system that Micronesian islands started to be fortified – a direct contradiction of the mandate’s terms.
More islanders were displaced under Japanese rule, and then as a result of the Allies’ invasion during World War II. After Japan was defeated, the US took control of these islands as the United Nations’ Strategic Trust Territories of the Pacific Islands.
Also in the Pacific, the residents of Bikini atoll in the Marshall Islands were notoriously relocated in 1946 to make way for the US nuclear testing programme. Although the islanders were initially told that this would be a temporary measure, there has been no seriously implemented return and resettlement programme, despite much lobbying by the Bikini islanders and their international supporters.
Similarly, the Chagossians of Diego Garcia have fought a lengthy legal battle with the UK government ever since they were forced to make way for the US military to use of their land, known as the British Indian Ocean Territory, without the inconvenience of local residents. The UK Chagos Support Association has recently made the most of publicity surrounding the 800-year anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta by referring to clause 39, which states that no free man should be exiled “except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.”
But of course, the principle of equal treatment before the law is often stretched when sticking to it would conflict with “higher order” strategic interests.
Giving a damn
Although he subsequently denied it, the former National Security Advisor to Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, has been repeatedly quoted as responding to a question about the fate of Marshall Islanders affected by the US nuclear test programme with the words “There are only 90,000 people out there. Who gives a damn?”
Whether or not he actually used those words, they are a perfect distillation of the sentiments that have governed US policy in these islands. Whenever these populations’ hopes, dreams and wishes run counter to great powers’ interests they are dismissed and displaced – especially when military might is at stake.
That said, some aspects of the world have changed beyond all recognition since the late 1960s, and the islanders have new means to make themselves heard. Today, a great many people not only give a damn, but can also connect with each other and organise to take action. An online petition calling for the US to reconsider their proposals for Pagan and Tinian has already received more than 100,000 signatures.
This campaign platform was simply not available to the Bikini islanders immediately after World War II; it was not until US Peace Corps volunteers visited the Marshall Islanders in the 1960s that some of them began to lobby the US on behalf of the islanders.
But given the history, it seems unlikely that the protests of a relatively small community of islanders can defy US geo-strategy and all the logistical and financial commitments it entails. However much the world has changed since the 1960s, Henry Kissinger’s apocryphal words are still all too apt.