Following World War II, the United States under-took by treaty responsibility for the defense of a number of countries in the Pacific: the Philippines in 1946 (revised in 1951), Japan in 1951, South Korea in 1953, and Taiwan in 1954. The relationships between the United States and these entities were so different in character from the prewar concept of protectorates that it would probably produce more confusion than clarity to use the term "protectorate" in these cases. With the exception of Japan, all have substantial armed forces of their own, and U.S. influence on their domestic affairs and even on their foreign relations is limited. The treaties, again with the exception of Japan, have some measure of mutuality in that they provide for assistance in the western Pacific if the forces of either signatory are attacked. The 1951 treaty between the United States and Japan came closest to the old protectorate concept. By its terms the United States could maintain troops in Japan not only to protect that country but also to defend East Asia. United States troops could, at Japanese request, even be used to quash internal disturbances in Japan. When the treaty was revised in 1960, largely one-sided defense provisions were agreed upon. The United States undertook to protect Japan, while Japan undertook to aid the United States only in case of an attack on U.S. forces on Japanese territory. Under this treaty Japan is certainly a protectorate of the United States in a military sense, but to use that word without qualification to describe the relationship between the first-and third-ranking industrial nations of the world is obviously to give a new definition to the term.
A closer parallel to the traditional concept of protectorates can be seen in the case of the islands of the North Pacific. These islands had been acquired by Germany during the heady years of nineteenth-century imperialism. During World War I, in agreement with its ally Britain, Japan seized the German Islands in the Pacific north of the equator: the Marshall Islands, the Caroline Islands, and the Marianas. At the close of the war, the island groups became a League of Nations mandated territory under the administration of Japan. More than two decades later, during World War II, the islands were the scene of some of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific War, including Saipan and Peleliu. Following Japan's surrender in 1945, the islands were made a United Nations trusteeship territory under U.S. administration. Subsequently, in a process spread over several decades, the UN trusteeship status was ended, replaced in three cases by compacts of free association with the United States and in one case a commonwealth covenant with the United States. In all cases, the United States undertook the responsibility for armed defense and retained a role in the foreign relations of the new entities, at least as related to defense.
It was the relationship between the United States and the Marshall Islands that was the most controversial case. During the trusteeship period, these islands, situated more than two thousand miles southwest of Hawaii, became a testing site for U.S. nuclear weapons. A total of sixty-six nuclear tests were carried out on Bikini (1946–1958) and Enewetak (1948–1958). The operations were conducted with scant consideration for the health and welfare of the islanders. It was not until 1986 that the United States agreed to set up a fund of $150 million to settle claims for compensation. The first payments did not begin until 1992, by which time many suffering from radiation sickness had died.
A compact of free association for the Marshall Islands was drafted in 1982. By that time the United States had overseen the setting up of a locally elected government. The compact provided that the Marshall Islands would constitute a new international entity capable of conducting foreign relations and entering into treaties. The United States, however, was given full authority and responsibility for security and defense, and in recognition of that, the government of the Marshall Islands was obligated to consult with the United States in the conduct of its foreign affairs. The United States agreed to a number of funding arrangements, the largest of which was an annual rent of $170 million for the use of Kwajalein as a missile-testing range. The compact was approved by the islanders in a referendum in 1983. It went into effect in 1986.
It was not until 1990 that the United Nations formally ended the trusteeship status of the Marshall Islands and the other island groups. In 1986, when the Marshall Islands gained free association status, the United States secured a majority vote in the UN Trusteeship Council to end the Pacific islands trusteeships, but the council lacked the authority to make such a change. From the outset of those trusteeships, they had been designated "strategic," and under Articles 82 and 83 of the United Nations Charter, decisions concerning such trusteeship were to be exercised by the United Nations Security Council. In the Security Council, the Soviet representatives threatened a veto. It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union that the Russians relented. In December 1990, Russia and all other members of the Security Council except Cuba voted to formally end the trusteeship status of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, and the Northern Marianas.
The Federated States of Micronesia (formerly the eastern Caroline Islands) took the same path to free association as the Marshall Islands. The federation was made up of four states: Kosrae, Pohnpei, Chuuk, and Yap. Situated to the west of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States stretched eighteen hundred miles from east to west. Chuuk (formerly Truk) had been the Japanese Imperial Fleet's most important central Pacific base during the Pacific War. Today, some sixty Japanese warships lie at the bottom of Chuuk Lagoon. Despite this heritage of war, in the postwar years the United States showed little interest in maintaining a military or naval presence in the Federated States.
The compact of free association that was concluded between the Federated States and the United States was identical with that which applied to the Marshall Islands. In fact, the two compacts were included in a single document. As with the Marshall Islands, it obligated the United States to protect the Federated States of Micronesia, and it gave the United States a consultative role in the foreign affairs of the federated government. The compact went into effect in 1986, although, as noted, the UN did not formally approve the termination of the trusteeship until 1990.
Palau (formerly the Western Caroline Islands), which are directly to the west of the Federated States, agreed to a compact of free association with the United States in 1982, but its coming into force was long delayed. In setting up an elected Palau government in the 1970s, a provision was included in the constitution outlawing the transit and storage of nuclear materials. The United States had no plans to make Palau a nuclear base, but it did not wish to agree to such a restriction when it was accepting the responsibility to protect Palau. A change in the constitution required passage by a 75 percent vote of the electorate, so it was assumed that the compact (which invalidated the restriction) would require a like majority. Over the period of a decade (1983–1992), seven referenda on the compact were conducted; each time the favorable vote was substantially more than a simple majority but short of the 75 percent mark. Finally, in 1992, a referendum approved a process for adoption of the compact that required only a simple majority vote. The following year the compact was approved by a 68 percent vote of the electorate, and it went into effect in 1994.
The Palauan compact of free association gave the United States exclusive military access to Palau's waters and the right to operate two military bases. As in the case of the other compacts, various financial payments agreed to by the United States meant the continuing financial dependence of Palau upon its former trusteeship overlord.
The people of the Northern Marianas did not opt for a compact of free association, choosing instead a closer relationship with the United States. The Northern Marianas included all the Marianas except Guam, a U.S. territory at the southern end of the island chain. In 1975 the people of the northern area, by a majority of more than 78 percent, approved what was called commonwealth status. Similar to the protectorates of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the commonwealth covenant gave the United States "complete responsibility for and authority with respect to matters relating to foreign affairs and defense affecting the Northern Mariana Islands." The covenant gave the United States fifty-year leases on three military bases, the largest base being on the island of Tinian.
Implementation of the commonwealth status was long delayed due to apprehension that the Soviet Union would block the termination of the UN trusteeship status. Finally, in 1986, without waiting for UN approval, the commonwealth covenant was instituted. When the Russians ended their resistance to the termination of the Pacific trusteeships in 1991, the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas was formally freed from UN control along with the island groups that chose free association.
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