IN January of this year Admiral Nimitz established a military government over the Marshall Islands, one of the wide-flung groups of Pacific islands mandated to Japan after the last war. The official text of his first proclamation, dated January 31, 1944, included the following paragraphs:

I. All powers of government and jurisdiction in the occupied territory and over inhabitants therein . . . are vested in me as Admiral, USN, commanding the United States forces of occupation, and Military Governor. . . .

II. Exercise of the powers of the Emperor of Japan shall be suspended during the period of military occupation. . . .

Similar proclamations will extend Admiral Nimitz's sway over the Caroline and Mariana Islands, also parts of the Japanese mandate, as well as over the Bonins and the other islands nearer Asia which have been owned outright by Japan for a somewhat longer period.

Although the land surface of the mandated islands, known as Micronesia, is only 836 square miles, about twice the size of New York City, they cover an extent of ocean nearly as great as the land area of the continental United States. They all lie in the southwest Pacific, on the other side of the International Date Line. The nearest of them is 4,000 miles from San Francisco. Together they form either an effective barrier to, or steppingstones for, our communications with the Philippines and China. Australia, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Portugal control islands nearby; all these nations, as well as China and the Soviet Union, are also directly interested in the future of Micronesia. So are the 50,000 native Kanakas and Chamorros. And so are the 100,000 Japanese inhabitants and their countrymen at home.

The rule of the United States Navy over the islands is "for the duration." How will the Atlantic Charter, the Cairo Declaration, and the Covenant of the League of Nations affect their permanent disposition?


The islands were discovered in the sixteenth century, mostly by Spaniards, but have acquired political significance only in the last 60 years. Frequent visits to them during the first half of the nineteenth century by whalers from Boston, New Bedford, and other parts of New and Old England, and during the second half of the same century by missionaries (largely from the Congregational Board in Boston), were not followed by the planting of the American flag in what has been considered the traditional fashion. Warships -- Russian, French and British -- came and went as they pleased. Their visits were for the purpose of making surveys, which no doubt have been keenly examined by officers of the United States Navy during many months past.

Merchants, largely British and German, meanwhile extended their trade to these regions. But again the flag did not follow until Germany hoisted hers in the Marshalls in 1878 and in the Carolines in 1885. Spain protested as regards the Carolines and referred the matter to the Pope, the first appeal to an international authority in this area. His decree of December 17, 1885, supported the Spanish claims in the main but prescribed rights for German warships and a large measure of economic equality for Germany.

The United States first became officially interested in the islands as an aftermath of the Spanish-American War. Guam, the largest of the Marianas, had been occupied by American troops and was obtained permanently under the Armistice as a steppingstone to the Philippines. Whitelaw Reid and other American Peace Commissioners thought it more important to acquire at least naval and cable rights in the Carolines and Marianas than possession of the southern islands in the Philippine group; but this had not been provided for in the Armistice. The United States Government toward the end of the negotiations offered $1,000,000 for Kusaie in the eastern Carolines. It was too late. Spain meanwhile had agreed by secret treaty to sell all the Carolines and the Marianas to Germany at a price later fixed at $4,500,000.[i]

The United States might have obtained possession of all the islands at that time if it had been fully alive to their strategic value. One may speculate as to whether there could have been a successful attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 if we had been clearer as to our interests in 1899 or even during World War I. At the beginning of that war, Australia intended to press on from New Guinea to take over these territories, which had not been developed to any extent under German rule. The British, however, in return for increased assistance from the Japanese Navy, requested Japan to occupy the islands. This was followed in February and March 1917 by the secret understandings according to which Britain, France and Russia agreed to support Japan's claims to Micronesia. The United States was then on the verge of entrance into the war.


During the Paris peace negotiations American policy ranged from an attempt to apply to the islands the Fifth of Wilson's Fourteen Points -- "a free, open-minded and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims" -- to a suggestion from the Department of State that the islands be temporarily returned to Germany and later handed over to the United States.[ii] Japan said little. She was in occupation of the islands; she had her secret treaty; and her way was smoothed by the British Dominions, which were insisting vigorously on their annexation of the German islands south of the equator (opposed only by the United States). President Wilson, in conversation with one of his associates, expressed doubts as to the application of the mandate system to the islands held by Japan, and observed "that these Islands lie athwart the path from Hawaii to the Philippines and that they were nearer to Hawaii than the Pacific Coast was, and that they could be fortified and made naval bases by Japan; that indeed they were of little use for anything else and that we had no naval base except at Guam." [iii]

Shortly afterward the President and Secretary Lansing expressed views in favor of the internationalization of Yap in the West Carolines, and made reservations in that regard. Nevertheless, on May 7, 1919, all the former German islands north of the equator were formally and unconditionally allocated under mandate to Japan. The action was taken by the Council of Four, which, of course, included a representative of the United States; but it was not taken by the League of Nations, as is commonly believed, and as President Roosevelt recently intimated. No protest was made at the time by President Wilson. He apparently thought that the earlier statment of the American position had been accepted by the other countries, since he advised the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on August 19, 1919, that the question of the control of Yap had been relegated to a "general cable conference." This conference was held in Washington in the autumn of 1920, but reached no settlement of the matter. In November of the same year the Department of State reopened the whole question of the mandates system. But on December 17 the Council of the League confirmed the terms of the mandate to Japan, with the other "C" mandates as proposed by the remaining Principal Allied Powers, and declined to reopen the matter at the request of the United States.

The terms of the mandate denied Japan the right to fortify the islands or build bases there, provided that the government was to be in the interests of the natives, and placed the supervision of these matters in League hands. Economic equality for League members was not provided, because of the unwillingness of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa to agree to it in the case of their "C" mandates.

Three arrangements affecting the islands were made at the Washington Disarmament Conference: 1. A ten-year non-aggression treaty in regard to the islands in the Pacific, by which in reality a four-power agreement was substituted for the Anglo-Japanese alliance. 2. A five-power agreement to maintain the status quo with regard to fortifications and naval bases until December 31, 1936. 3. A Japanese-American treaty by which the United States agreed to the mandate, obtained for itself the same rights as a member of the League (with special emphasis on missionary rights), and full privileges in regard to the use of Yap for cable and radio installations. Japan also assured the "usual comity" to American nationals and vessels visiting the islands.

But the underlying situation had been fundamentally altered. The war had put Japan in actual possession of the islands for the first time. And though Japanese control was limited by the principle of international trusteeship, the United States did not belong to the international board of trustees -- the League of Nations. The conflict between the two Powers was put off by the Washington treaties, but it was not resolved.


While Japan was consolidating her rule in Micronesia in the period between the wars the islands were forgotten by the American public. Yet they cast their magic spell over the occasional westerner whom the Japanese allowed to visit them. Dr. Paul H. Clyde, who spent some weeks in the islands in 1934 at the invitation of the Japanese Government, described Truk's beauty and also spoke of its fine anchorage and its steep summits which stood "like battlements." [iv] But though the islands dropped from public view, probably no part of the world of comparable size and population has ever been the object of more official attention and solicitude. The printed reports which Japan made annually to the League of Nations, of which the United States received duplicates, averaged over 150 pages. But though they included voluminous statistics, they did not explain very fully what was going on (in this they were not unlike certain other mandate reports). Each year, for 17 years, the Permanent Mandates Commission sat at Geneva to examine these reports. The Secretariat circulated informally to the members such information as it obtained from other sources. Japan sent its representative to answer questions. Usually the report which the Commission drew up asked the Council for more information. The Council passed these requests on to Japan, and replies came back a year or so later. It was a slow procedure. The annual report for 1933, for instance, did not reach Geneva until the autumn of 1934, and Japan's comments on the Commission's questions did not arrive until the autumn of 1935, nearly two years after the end of the period to which they referred.

The Commission consisted of colonial experts appointed for indefinite tenure, four of them nationals of Mandatory Powers and five to seven of other Powers. All served as individuals and not as representatives of their Governments. The group was able and conscientious, fully aware of the political basis on which it stood and of the limitations which this imposed. Its policy was to collaborate so far as possible with the Mandatory Powers, as being the most effective method of "promoting to the utmost the material and moral well-being and the social progress of the inhabitants of the territories" and of enforcing the more specific provisions of the mandates.

From 1922 to 1938, the Commission's reports dealt with nearly a score of different subjects: health provisions, better control of the liquor traffic with the natives (according to the mandate it should have been prohibited), measures taken to protect the rights of natives in their land, etc., etc. Public finance served as a key for the Commission's studies. The reports show how carefully it scrutinized Japanese financial statements and how conscientiously it tried to hold Japan to a course of action "strictly consistent with the principle of disinterestedness which is the essential feature of the mandates system."

As Japan pushed her economic exploitation of the islands with dramatic success, financial and economic questions became more and more important. Trade was 20 times greater in 1936 than it had been in 1917. In 1936 it exceeded $22,000,000, or more than $200 per head of population.[v] In 1914, the sugar cane industry did not exist; by 1936 its export value reached $6,500,000 -- approximately that of all the other products combined. The phosphate mines in Angaur and nearby islands formed the second largest industry; in 1940 they produced about 3 percent of the world's phosphate rock. The Mandates Commission devoted considerable attention to labor problems. They criticized the system of recruiting native workers employed in the phosphate mines, the unsatisfactory health record and the sharp discrepancy between substantial profits and a lack of accident compensation payments. The Japanese administration did not, however, change its practices.[vi]

The sugar and fishing industries, as well as many of the others, were developed almost entirely by immigrant labor from Japan. This raised the most vital problem under the whole mandate -- the population problem. The Japanese increased from perhaps 100 in 1914 to 73,000 in 1938; by 1944 there were probably 100,000 of them in the islands, or twice the number of natives. As the native population has remained practically stationary, the prospect has been that the Japanese would swamp the territory and thus possess it in fact, regardless of what nation assumed political control. The Mandates Commission frequently pointed out the importance of arresting the marked decline of the native population in Yap; but despite various discussions it took practically no action on the larger problem of Japanese immigration.

Japan was suspected of constructing fortifications and bases in the islands. An American request that destroyers be allowed to visit six "unopen" ports, including Kwajalein and Wotje, was denied by Japan in 1929 on the ground that there were no pilots and that the harbors were dangerous. After nine months of negotiation with the United States, Japan agreed that unopen ports might be visited if Japanese officials were present to extend the usual courtesies and prevent the natives from becoming frightened. This exchange of views was not reported by the Mandatory to the League of Nations, nor did the United States Government make it public or pass it on to the Mandates Commission. The story was disclosed only in April of this year.

The Mandates Commission went into the question of fortifications, however, as the extremely frank "cross-examination" of the Japanese representative, Mr. Ito, in the meeting of the Commission of November 11, 1932, indicates. Both the Italian and Swiss members pressed Mr. Ito for a plain statement as to whether the harbor works in the islands were naval bases as rumored. M. Rappard pointed out that "the reports of the Mandatory Power had ceased to refer to the execution of the military and naval clauses of the mandate at the moment when the expenditure on harbor works had considerably increased. . . ." The Japanese representative insisted that the improvement of the harbors of the islands was undertaken only for economic purposes, citing the growing sugar trade.[vii] He later confirmed this thesis in writing and the Commission officially reported to the Council the Japanese Government's denial of the rumors. Very much the same thing happened in 1934 and 1935.

The following year, 1936, the United States asked the Japanese Government to permit one of its destroyers to visit the mandated islands. Visits to the islands by foreign ships of any description had indeed been rare, averaging one a year since 1932. Our Government reminded Japan that Japanese ships had been permitted to call at "unopen" Alaskan harbors. The Department of State advised Mr. Joseph C. Grew, the American Ambassador, that

In our view it is unfortunate that the Government of Japan so far has not adopted an attitude similarly liberal in the face of allegations that in the Japanese Mandated Islands in the Pacific improvements are being carried out which are irreconcilable with Japan's Treaty obligations not to fortify these Islands.

No reply was received to this request. This striking clue to the situation was not communicated to the League of Nations and was not published until 1943.[viii]

The occasional foreign visitors to the islands from 1932 to 1935, among whom were several Americans, reported seeing no fortifications. Writing in 1943, however, Willard Price gave a detailed account of his trip in 1935 through the 60-mile natural "fleet basin," or lagoon, at Palau, and described roads, piers and airfields which had no commercial justification.[ix] Obviously, also, to the degree to which Japan could keep the islands isolated, she could prevent a foreign navy from obtaining vital information on contours, currents, and so on.

Though the Mandates Commission had strong suspicions that Japan was violating the terms of her mandate the evidence was largely circumstantial; and since officials of the League of Nations lacked authority to visit territories under mandate, corroborating evidence could not be obtained on the spot. On behalf of the Mandates Commission, however, it should be said that its reports revealed the good and bad features of Japanese administration and strengthened the standards set up by the League for the government of backward peoples. [x]

During the whole period between the wars the United States gave no evidence of interest in the developments taking place in the islands and did not seek to exercise any influence over them through the League of Nations. Its only moves were the requests that American warships be permitted to visit the islands and certain informal contacts between the American Embassy in Rome and the Italian Chairman of the Mandates Commission. It was handicapped by the fact that it was not a member of the League and by the absence of an American from the Mandates Commission.


On March 27, 1933, Japan gave notice of her withdrawal from the League, and two years later her withdrawal became effective. There was much unofficial discussion of Japan's right to continue as a Mandatory Power, but no member of the League raised the question officially. Japan's annual reports continued to arrive in Geneva for a few years more; but in 1938 she ceased to collaborate with the League. Significantly, the final report submitted (late in 1939) failed to contain the usual paragraph to the effect that Japan had not constructed fortifications or bases in the islands. After 1937 no foreign ships visited Micronesia; and after 1939 no natives were permitted to pass from the Marshalls to Kusaie, where the only American residents lived. The Japanese appropriated $367,000 for harbor works in 1940-41, and $850,000 for air routes and aircraft facilities. The latter figure compares with an expenditure of $185,000 in 1936.

The character of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor is clinching evidence that she had set up bases in the islands. Her gross violation of the terms of the mandate amply justifies its termination. But shall there be a new mandatory, shall the status of the territory be changed, and who has the power to act? These questions are extremely controversial. Many English and American authorities maintain that the Principal Allied and Associated Powers, in favor of whom Germany renounced her rights in these islands and who conferred the mandates, have the power. But the mandates system was established by the Covenant of the League, which provides that tutelage of the dependent peoples inhabiting mandated territories should be exercised by certain advanced nations "as mandatories on behalf of the League"; and each mandate stipulates that "the consent of the Council of the League of Nations is required for any modification" of its terms. Many jurists, therefore, support the view that while the Principal Powers were entrusted with the transitional function of inaugurating the mandates system, they passed out of the picture once they made the territories subject to Article XXII of the Covenant and placed them under the trusteeship of the League of Nations.[xi]

In any event, steps will be taken to leave Japan no possible claim to the islands and their entire status as a mandated territory will probably be reconsidered. The fact is, of course, that they are rapidly being occupied by the United States. Our proclamation of military government makes no reference to the mandate or the League of Nations, but tells the inhabitants only that "your existing laws and customs remain in force." Certainly, one of the first things to be done by the new authority in the islands after the war will be to transport back to Japan, at the expense of the Japanese Government, all or almost all of the 100,000 Japanese now there, and to take over without payment and hold for the credit of the territory the industrial undertakings in the islands, almost all of which are state or quasi-state enterprises.

The United States has the best claim to these islands and the strongest interest in them. The late Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, although admitting the jurisdiction of the coming peace conference over the question, stated to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on March 9, 1944, that in his personal opinion "those mandated islands have become Japanese territory and as we capture them they are ours." He explained that they were not of much use except for military purposes, and that nobody in the Government opposed his view that such of them as were necessary as bases should be allotted to us. This thesis has been supported by Senator Chandler, by various publicists, and by certain correspondents with our forces in the Pacific. It represents the easiest and most conventional solution. We can claim the islands by right of conquest, on reparations account, and also on the ground that our possession of them is necessary for peace and security. We would still, however, have to meet criticisms based on the first clause in the Atlantic Charter -- that we "seek no aggrandizement, territorial or other" -- and also on one sentence of the Cairo Declaration of December 1, 1943, between Roosevelt, Chiang Kai-shek and Churchill: "The three Great Allies . . . covet no gain for themselves and have no thought of territorial expansion." That sentence is followed, however, by another: "It is their purpose that Japan shall be stripped of all the islands in the Pacific which she has seized or occupied since the beginning of the First World War in 1914. . . ." It was clear that Japan was to lose the islands. But what was to be done with them?

Probably none of the Powers friendly to the United States wants them so long as there is no danger of a potential enemy getting them. It is doubtful whether any friendly country would object to outright annexation by the United States. In fact, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa would probably prefer this solution. They disliked the limitation inherent in the mandates principle and would be glad to have a good precedent for outright annexation of the territories still mandated to them.

A second solution would be direct international control and administration of these and all other small islands in the central and south Pacific areas. This would be a common-sense way of handling a regional problem involving many little islands and would provide an excellent experiment in international cooperation. Strategic control could be given to the Combined Chiefs of Staff of the United Nations, of the "Big Four," or of the Powers of the region. The United States would naturally wish to be convinced beyond any reasonable doubt that she would not again be cut off from the Philippines and China by a screen of islands dominated by a potentially hostile Power.

A third procedure which meets with the approval of many liberal students would be a modification of the old mandate principle. This would give the United States strategic control over Micronesia, the Bonins, and other islands in the western Pacific which were not formerly Chinese. The United States would assume responsibility for civil administration under mandate (or under some similar and better system of international trusteeship), in the interests of the territories in question and their inhabitants. The program would be worked out by the United Nations. Its effectiveness, or that of the second plan indicated above, would naturally depend on the nature of the world organization which is set up. Under the third plan the United States would decide what military, naval and air bases were necessary in the islands, and would construct and own them, subject to the general agreements worked out by the United Nations or by the "Big Four" for the joint use of sea and other bases not merely in the Pacific but elsewhere in the world. The United States should also have the right to construct and maintain civil air bases in the islands. Subject to the requirements of security, these bases should be available to the civil air fleets of all friendly countries in accordance with such laws of the air as are agreed upon after the war.

Most of the United Nations would probably accept these proposals. In particular, Australia again would have a desired precedent for the modification of her mandate and for the right to construct strategic bases in New Guinea. It does not seem improper to give all Mandatories henceforth the duty to defend their mandated territories. However, the use of the revenue of the territories and the recruiting of natives for military purposes should be subject to the approval of the Mandates Commission or its successor. The specific provisions of the old mandate for protection of the natives, including those regarding the traffic in slaves, liquor and arms, should be continued. Others should be added, some of them borrowed from the "B" Mandates for central Africa (covering, for instance, the protection of native rights in land, native participation in the industrial prosperity of the territory, control of immigration as needed to protect the natives, and economic equality for all members of the United Nations). The present Pacific mandates for New Guinea, Western Samoa and Nauru should be continued with similar modifications, and it is to be hoped that this arrangement could be applied to the Dutch and Australian parts of New Guinea and the small, undeveloped islands of France, Great Britain, Portugal and the United States in the central, southern and southwest Pacific.[xii]

Such a solution would lay the foundations for the protection of the strategic interests of the United States in the Pacific area, in coöperation with friendly neighbors, great and small. The United States would have opportunities for leadership in working out specific details of the plan and in strengthening the principle of international trusteeship for dependent peoples. The action we take in regard to these islands will strongly affect the action to be taken in other backward areas of the Pacific and in Africa. It is pertinent to recall Secretary Hull's statement in his broadcast on April 9, 1944, that "we in this country have moved from a deep-seated tendency toward separate action to the knowledge and conviction that only through unity of action can there be achieved in this world the results which are essential for the continuance of free peoples."

[i] A little earlier the United States Navy had assumed possession of Wake Island.

[ii] "Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, 1919: The Paris Peace Conference," v. II, p. 512-515.

[iii] David Hunter Miller, "My Diary at the Conference of Paris," v. I, p. 100.

[iv] "Japan's Pacific Mandate." New York: Macmillan, 1935, p. 11.

[v] Figures have been converted from yen at roughly two yen to one dollar.

[vi] J. A. Decker, "Labor Problems in the Pacific Mandates." New York: Oxford University Press, 1940, p. 225-6.

[vii] Permanent Mandates Commission. Minutes, 22nd Session, November 21, 1932, p. 114-15.

[viii] Foreign Relations of the United States-Japan, 1931-41, v. I, 1943, p. 307-9.

[ix] Willard Price, "Japan's Islands of Mystery." New York: Day, 1944, p. 128-135.

[x] A comprehensive report on the development of the islands during the twenty-odd years of Japanese control, with special attention to the points taken up by the Mandates Commission, should be prepared as soon as practicable by the League of Nations (or its successor) for the use of future administrators.

[xi] Quincy Wright, "Mandates under the League of Nations." Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1930, p. 487.

[xii] A Gallup Poll published May 23, 1944, indicated that 69 percent of the American public desire to "keep" Micronesia and also the islands owned or controlled by Britain and Australia which the United States has captured. This result is not very significant, because no alternative to annexation appears to have been given the voters.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • HUNTINGTON GILCHRIST, for some years member of the International Secretariat of the League of Nations, first as Chief of the Department on Administrative Commissions, later as Assistant Director of the Mandates Section
  • More By Huntington Gilchrist