Last month I traveled to Hong Kong to present with my colleagues — Elizabeth Kelley Bowman from UOG, Ronni Alexander from Kobe University, Reo Ngashima and a few others — on panels as part of the International Studies Association conference. In our presentations, we discussed the impact of militarism and militarization on societies from Guam, Japan, Okinawa and the Marshall Islands.
As a Guam historian in Hong Kong, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the late Carlton Skinner, the first civilian governor of Guam, during the time of the Organic Act’s passage.
Skinner is an interesting figure. He played a critical role in transitioning Guam from being a military colony to a civilian colony. He’s an important local historical figure, but has received little local attention save for some book mentions, articles and a plaza named for.
But Skinner wasn’t only significant in Guam’s history, but a claim could be made for him as an important person in the history of the United States. While serving on the USCG Northland in World War II, the engine failed and none of the white engineers could fix it. A black steward repaired it. When Skinner recommended the sailor for promotion, he was told it wasn’t permitted because of the sailor’s race.
Later, as a lieutenant in the Coast Guard, Skinner captained the Sea Cloud — the first racially integrated U.S. naval unit since the Civil War.
In these historical terms, where he helped to break down forms of racial discrimination, Skinner was considered very progressive. Because of his familiarity with unique situations, he was chosen to become the first civilian governor of Guam in 1949. He drafted the Organic Act for the island and helped set up the new local, civilian government, which ended centuries of military rule under the Spanish, the U.S. and the Japanese.
But at the same time, as if to remind us that something that’s progressive in one sense may nonetheless still be colonial in another, Skinner also oversaw the legalization of the illegal land-takings from more than 1,000 Chamorro families.
The reason all of this is connected to Hong Kong has to do with a speech that Skinner gave in 1951 in San Francisco. Its title was “Guam — The Hong Kong of the Future.” Although Guam was finally free from direct military control, there remained in place a security clearance at the time, whereby the Navy could dictate who or what could enter or leave the island.
Skinner recognized that as long as this and other “colonial” restrictions were in place, Guam could never realize its full economic potential as being a bridge between the U.S. and Asia. He envisioned the day when Guam would be released from undue U.S. federal or military interference, and could take advantage of its location and prosper.
The security clearance of that era is gone, but other restrictions persist. It’s important to remind ourselves, especially during this time of the year when commemorations abound, that what we call limited self-government didn’t end colonialism. It just gave it a more benevolent face.
Guam’s fundamental position in relation to the U.S. hasn’t changed, Organic Act or not.
Michael Lujan Bevacqua is an author, artist, activist and assistant professor of Chamorro studies at the University of Guam.