The America That Americans Forget


After Allied victory, Japan’s entire Pacific Island empire was placed into a trust of roughly 100 inhabited islands spread out over an area the size of the contiguous United States to be administered by Washington, which was charged “to promote the development of the inhabitants of the Trust Territory toward self-government or independence.” (This included the present-day Northern Marianas, Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau.) Saipan eventually became the headquarters of the Trust, which was administered first by the Navy and then the Department of the Interior, and which arbitrarily divided the islands into six districts, with each one voting to decide its fate.

The commonwealth’s founding fathers, as the group of legislators are known, wrote the Covenant, a governing document that outlined the archipelago’s right to control its internal matters while granting the U.S. federal government sovereignty over the Northern Marianas’ foreign affairs and defense. The Covenant specified which articles of the U.S. Constitution applied, and fundamental changes to the document can be made only by mutual consent between the Northern Marianas and Congress. The Northern Marianas have the right to call for direct negotiations with the federal government on specific issues. This arrangement was made possible by the Insular Cases.

In 1975, 75 percent of Northern Marianas residents voted to adopt the document. (They also voted repeatedly to integrate with Guam, but Guam rejected the proposal.) Northern Marianas residents are now U.S. citizens without federal voting rights. They serve in the U.S. armed forces, but do not have their own V.A. office.

As part of the negotiations, the U.S. government leased two-thirds of the land on Tinian for 50 years to build a military base, saying that it would provide a boost to the economy, and also promising to build a school and provide medical services. Residents are still waiting. Today the 40-square-mile island, home to 2,000 people, has no hospital or dentist, one gas station, one semifunctional A.T.M. and a few small grocery stores. The main employer is the mayor’s office. In a 2010 census, 44 percent of the households on Tinian fell below the poverty line.

When the American military took Tinian from the Japanese during World War II, they laid out roads in the same manner as Manhattan — with Broadway, Wall Street, 86th, 42nd and so on. That morning, Fleming took me to North Field, where American service members built the largest airport in the world at the time, from which planes took off every three minutes during the last year of the war. We drove up Broadway to the two bombing pits that were used to load nuclear weapons into planes, now encased in glass like a mausoleum of the grotesque. Atomic Bomb Pit No. 1 loaded the five-ton uranium bomb, Little Boy, that killed over 100,000 people in one morning explosion. Atomic Bomb Pit No. 2 contained the plutonium bomb, Fat Man, that instantly killed 40,000 people in Nagasaki. Standing at the glass, the duality of past destruction — overlaid with the prospect of the future decimation that would require use of the Divert Airfield — felt like vertigo.


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