Now that we’ve moved on to Nazis, the threat of nuclear war seems like a distant memory.
Upon reflection, that’s probably a good thing. No one wants to think about imminent doom. But the only thing that stands between the United States and all-out war is a 200-square mile in the middle of the Pacific.
Guam still sits in the crosshairs of nuclear apocalypse. Following Trump’s “fire and fury” comments, reports surfaced that North Korean officials were contemplating a nuclear strike on the island. After a full week of posturing, Kim Jong Un recently commented that he wouldn’t be attacking Guam, opting instead to tune into the season finale of “White Empire.” There’s no doubt Trump will ramp up tensions with North Korea again soon to distract from his Nazi sympathies.
But for residents of Guam, the possibility of becoming ground zero of all-out nuclear war brings more frustration than fear.
“It’s frustration because they know [people] don’t care about us, really,” says Ann Perez-Hattori, a history professor at the University of Guam and lifelong island resident. “In the end, it’s not about defending Guam. It’s about these national contests.”
For the most part, fear is subdued (and not because of the pseudo-confidence of Defense Secretary James Mattis). Perez-Hattori noted that the K-Mart where she takes her mother–usually cleared of every item at first word of a typhoon–was as normal as ever. Living on a territory vital to U.S. military operations in Asia following World War II, the people of Guam are used to talk of war and being caught in the middle. Still, this time around things feel a bit different.
“There’s a little more anxiety because of our president,” says Perez-Hattori. “People aren’t confident that he’s going to handle things diplomatically.”
Perez-Hattori is a Chamorro, the indigenous people of the island. Despite the presence of roughly 20-30 thousand American troops, she explains that most of Guam’s population is made up of Pacific Islanders and non-caucasian immigrants. Many in Guam were turned off by Trump from the start of his candidacy.
“Guam is primarily minorities,” she says. “So during the campaign, there was all this anti-immigration rhetoric that made brown skinned people feel like they weren’t really part of the family.”
Although the people of Guam are U.S. citizens, their votes for president don’t count–but that didn’t stop them from holding a straw poll. Despite the island’s Republican leadership (Guam has had a Republican governor for 16 years running), Trump received just 30 percent of the vote. Reports of Guamanian frustration with Trump are all over the internet. The president probably wasn’t thinking about Guam when he openly threatened a nuclear power.
Logistically, Guam makes sense for the U.S. as a Pacific foothold. It was attacked at the same time as Pearl Harbor and captured by the Japanese. Apart from Japan’s two-and-a-half year occupation, though, it’s remained under American control since 1899. Troop numbers have fluctuated depending on the severity of the American war being waged–they were highest during Korea and Vietnam–but have remained steady since the end of the Cold War.
For an island that serves a critical strategic purpose, it has woeful representation in the U.S. government. Guam has one non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives and none in the Senate. Citizens can vote for party delegates that hold some sway in presidential elections, but it’s little respite. Campaigns for self-governance have popped up here and there but mostly flamed out.
That’s partly because U.S. military is a major boon to Guam’s economy. Many people find jobs on the bases or have friends or family members involved with the military in some way. Perez-Hattori says she understands those who don’t want to upset the status quo. Still, there’s a disconnect in learning about the American system of government and not being able to fully practice it.
“Growing up we get an education about democracy and voting and taxation without representation,” she says, “and at some point, people start wondering ‘what’s going on here?’”
It’s fair to wonder, given the American public (and probably government) don’t think twice about Guam until it comes under military threat. At the moment, Perez-Hattori says some people are adopting the attitude held during the Japanese occupation of WWII–that they had nothing to do with this and would like to be left alone. It’s a frustration that stems lack of representation and the current status of the nuclear buffer. But since the entire situation can change with a single Trump tweet, all Guam can do is keep living.
“It doesn’t seem like anybody is in a red alert condition,” she says. “People know we have no control over any of this, so we just have to go about our daily lives.”