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Being American-- or not

Updated: Oct 4, 2023

These Islands By Robert A. Underwood

The basic question about Guahan’s political identity has always been part of the Guahan reality since 1899. Is Guahan part of the United States? Is it a territory of America? Is it just owned by Uncle Sam? In an upcoming article titled “The Patriot” by J. Goldberg ("The Atlantic" to be released November 2023), Donald Trump made it clear. Whatever it is, “Guam isn’t America.”

This was clarified succinctly by a family story my father told me when I was very young. In the parlance of the 20th-century Guahan society, my father was half-American or “mestisun Amerikanu.” Born to a North Carolina native and a CHamoru woman, John J. Underwood was born in Guahan in 1911, but was a U.S. citizen. In 1948, I was born a U.S. citizen as well, courtesy of him and my grandfather. This was before the passage of the Guam Organic Act declared all natives of the island to be U.S. citizens in 1950.

When the Japanese invaded Guahan in 1941, all Americans were required to surrender. My father, as well as his siblings, and probably 300 or more “mestisun Amerikanu,” were U.S. citizens by then. His mother wasn’t. My grandfather (a full American) was detained by the Japanese and eventually went to a civilian internment camp near Kobe, Japan for over four years. He and many other elderly men were kept as prisoners although they were not technically prisoners of war since they weren’t in military uniform.

My father reported on a conversation he had with a Japanese officer who was questioning him about being an American.

Japanese officer: Are you an American?

John Underwood: I am a U.S. citizen.

Japanese officer: Are you an American?

John Underwood, being a little evasive: Well, I am a U.S. citizen.

Japanese officer: Do Americans think you are American?

John Underwood, a little relieved: Some do and some don’t.

So, these mestisu Americans were not taken to Japan. My father believed that this conversation kept him on Guahan during the Japanese occupation. I think it was probably a logistical nightmare for the Japanese. They were already transporting 400 prisoners of war, full American civilians and Spanish priests.

They didn’t want to add another several hundred (including children) to the plan to evacuate Americans.


In recent years, Guahan has been treated to the drumbeat about the Chinese threat to the stability of the Pacific. It is a real concern and demands an intelligent, integrated response involving all of American know-how and experience.

In response, the integrated response is almost all about missile defense, at least for Guam. The Indo-Pacific Command has articulated a strong case for establishing a 360-degree missile defense system called “Enhanced Integrated Air Missile Defense System.” This involves a series of 20 “candidate sites” upon which to place launchers, sensors and radars in a manner designed to protect Guahan. The clearly understood rationale is that significant military assets have been placed in Guahan, which affects the strategic management of the entire region. These assets need to be protected. Simultaneously, the island becomes the tip of the American spear and the “first strike” community.

This system even has a CHamoru name: “I Uminsiman Dinanna Sisteman Difensot Aire yan Missile.”

It is equally awkward in both languages. Unfortunately for the planners, there isn’t a CHamoru word for missile. Perhaps they just want to leave no doubt about what they are defending against.


But exactly what are they defending is the broader question. Is it more than just assets? The threat and the rationale have to match up. As an added bonus, many military planners have emphasized the “homeland” rationale. It is part of America and we are defending Americans. This system is focused primarily on Guahan and does not include the Northern Marianas. I guess the “Americans” to the north of Guahan do not merit the same consideration.

The relationship between the unincorporated territory of Guam and the United States is one fraught with contradictions and the use of convenient rhetoric and rationale whenever necessary. It is pretty obvious that most Americans probably do not think of homeland defense when it comes to Guahan. Seattle and Los Angeles are for sure part of the homeland. Honolulu probably is, although that may stump some Americans. You can’t catch them all.

The Atlantic quotation is not exactly revelatory. Trump implied the same thing in a press conference on Aug. 12, 2017 when he railed against North Korea just before he exchanged love letters with Kim Jong Un starting in 2018. In a live interview, he mentioned the threat to Guam, the United States and Japan as separate threats, warning that the United States was “locked and loaded” and that there would be “big trouble” if Guahan was attacked.

On the same day, he telephoned then-governor Eddie Calvo to reassure him that the United States was with him “1000 percent.” Trump also predicted that Guahan’s tourism will increase tenfold because of all this attention. Should we feel comforted by this level of attention and understanding of what attracts visitors? Is 1000 percent a better guarantor than a mere 360-degree missile defense architecture?

Calvo’s response was instructive. In a manner that can only be described as overly deferential, Calvo thanked him profusely. In a way, Calvo’s response echoes how many, if not most, people of Guahan would respond to the extension of American protection. It was a moment of psychological relief for Calvo and pride that he was able to talk to the President of the United States.

Speaking of psychological conditions, the people of Guahan are involved in largely a one-way love affair with the United States. They are always concerned whether the love is returned in kind.

Many want to be “more” American and fear separation anxiety. America’s response has been to use the island for broader, strategic purposes and to grant the Guahan suitor with financial rewards. The call was praised and provided reassurances to the people of Guahan that they were part of the team. This is similar to the sense of relief an “obsessive-compulsive” lover feels upon receiving a phone call that their object of affection has been faithful.

Speaking to a Japanese officer is different from speaking to the president of the United States who leads the team you want to be part of. The officer represented a force that was rearranging your existence with guns and swords to become part of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The president ostensibly represented security. But it is interesting how one U.S. citizen felt relief about not being considered fully American while the other was giddy about being given some level of attention in the midst of mindless banter about 1000 percent support and tenfold tourism increases.

It is time to realistically assess the unequal, imbalanced relationship between Guahan and the United States. It is time for Guahan to assert itself in the kind of strategic role it wants, not what it is assigned to carry out. It is time for Guahan to have a frank conversation with people in uniform and their commanders no matter the rank or color of their uniform.

Dr. Robert Underwood is the former president of the University of Guam and former member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Send feedback to

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