NOW that the United Nations have focused the attention of the world on non-self-governing areas, it is appropriate for Americans to review conditions in their own territories and island possessions. The United States likes to boast that it is one major nation that has no "colonial empire." That is certainly true as far as the literal interpretation of the phrase goes. Yet we must not forget that we are responsible for some 3,000,000 people who live in what the United Nations Charter describes as "non-self-governing territories." Unquestionably, the American people desire that every one of their territories and island possessions shall eventually be freed in name and in fact from the status of dependency and shall ultimately achieve self-government, whether in the form of independence, statehood in the federal union or some other popularly-chosen political status.

The responsibilities of administering Powers have been spelled out in the Charter of the United Nations. Article 73 of Chapter XI states that "Members of the United Nations which have or assume responsibilities for the administration of territories whose peoples have not yet attained a full measure of self-government recognize the principle that the interests of the inhabitants of these territories are paramount, and accept as a sacred trust the obligation to promote to the utmost, within the system of international peace and security established by the present Charter, the well-being of the inhabitants of these territories."

Sections b and e of Article 73 are of particular concern to us. The former instructs the administering powers "to develop self-government, to take due account of the political aspirations of the peoples, and to assist them in the progressive development of their free political institutions, according to the particular circumstances of each territory and its peoples and their varying stages of advancement." Judged by these objectives, the American record in Alaska, Hawaii, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands has been a fairly creditable one.

Section e of Article 73 requires nations with dependencies "to transmit regularly to the Secretary-General for information purposes, subject to such limitation as security and constitutional considerations may require, statistical and other information of a technical nature relating to economic, social, and educational conditions in the territories for which they are respectively responsible. . . ." The United States was the first nation to comply with this section. On August 19, 1946, it submitted its reports on conditions in Alaska, American Samoa, Guam, Hawaii, the Panama Canal Zone, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and island possessions in the Pacific. The reports listed accomplishments that were due to federal assistance as well as to local effort, but they also listed many sins of omission.

The four areas for which the Division of Territories and Island Possessions in the Department of the Interior is responsible are exceedingly varied in resources, climate and population. Alaska, with an area larger than Texas, has had a population inadequate in numbers and organization to develop its vast resources. Hawaii, with its rich soil and favorable climate, has been more self-reliant than any of the other areas. Puerto Rico has suffered from an unbalanced economy, inadequate to support its dense population, and therefore urgently needs a program of constructive national assistance, mainly technical and economic. The pitifully small economic resources of the Virgin Islands present a critical problem, since they still lack any substantial base for a future balanced economy. Because political growth is impossible without economic strength, we have tried, throughout the history of our territorial administration, not only to extend immediate material aid where needed, but to assist the territories in using their own resources in a productive manner. Except in emergencies, we have preferred to help the territorial peoples to help themselves.


Almost since it was ceded to us by Spain on December 10, 1898, Puerto Rico has had a substantial degree of self-government. In 1900, provision was made for an elective lower house of the legislature. The present legislature, both houses of which are elected by popular vote, was established by the Organic Act of 1917, which outlined the framework of the local government. The general powers of the insular legislature do not differ markedly from those of State legislatures, inasmuch as the legislative authority extends "to all matters of a legislative character not locally inapplicable." The Congress has the power to annul such legislation and the President and the Governor to veto it. The President has used this power sparingly. The Congress has never exercised its power of annulment. Bills may be repassed over the Governor's veto by the legislature, in which case they are sent to the President for final action. In recent years the President has received only three such bills repassed over the Governor's veto.

The President appoints, and the Senate confirms, Puerto Rico's Governor, the Supreme Court members, the Attorney General and the Commissioner of Education. In the past few years, an increasing number of important posts has been filled by qualified residents of Puerto Rico rather than persons from the continental United States. The Island's Acting Attorney General, the Commissioner of Education, the Auditor and four of the five members of the Supreme Court were all born in Puerto Rico.

The Island now has for the first time, under either Spanish or American administration, a Governor born and raised in Puerto Rico, the Honorable Jesus T. Pinero, who was inaugurated on September 3, 1946, and who had previously been elected Resident Commissioner by an overwhelming majority of Puerto Rican voters. His appointment certainly reflected United States and Presidential determination to choose for the people a Governor who would best represent the interests of the Puerto Ricans themselves.

Understandably, different groups in Puerto Rico have a variety of desires regarding their present and future political status. One group wants complete and unqualified independence, while another has long desired statehood. A third group wants increased local self-government, retaining the benefits Puerto Rico now receives from the United States.

The United States has been vitally concerned with the political aspirations of the Puerto Rican people, and the interest of the Congress has been increasing in recent years. In 1943, the late President Roosevelt declared that the Organic Act should be revised to include, among other things, provision for a popularly elected governor. He appointed four Puerto Ricans and four continental leaders to draft recommendations for such action. Senate Bill 1407, prepared by the President's committee and introduced in the 78th Congress, provided for the popular election of Puerto Rico's Governor and for increased local autonomy. Although passed by the Senate, with amendments, the bill failed in the House. In May 1945, the Senate Committee on Territories and Insular Affairs conducted hearings on a bill, introduced by Senator Millard E. Tydings, designed to give outright independence to Puerto Rico. As a result of the hearings, a new bill, drafted by a joint commission of the Legislature of Puerto Rico, was introduced in the Senate as S. 1002 and in the House as H. R. 3237; but it also failed to pass. This bill would have authorized a plebiscite by which the people of Puerto Rico could decide their own political future by democratic means.

In October of 1945 President Truman, in a special message to the Congress, recommended that since the existing form of government in Puerto Rico seemed unsatisfactory to a large number of its inhabitants, Congress should enact legislation to submit various alternatives to the Puerto Rican people so that they might in a plebiscite indicate a preference among the following forms of political status: 1, retention of essentially the present form, but with a wider measure of self-government, including popular election of the governor; 2, statehood; 3, complete independence; and 4, a dominion form of government. No such bill is yet before the 80th Congress, but bills providing for statehood (S. 59), independence (S. 1158), and an elected governor (S. 1184) have been introduced.

Puerto Rico's acute economic problems have been caused by dependence on a single agricultural product, sugar, and by failure to make development of resources and industrial productivity keep pace with the rapid increase in population. The Island, with a population density that is ten times that of the United States, is attempting to support a rapidly growing population of 2,500,000 on a tract of land 100 miles long and 35 miles wide. Yet the Puerto Rican people themselves have done much to improve their economy, not only through the Federal Government, but also on their own initiative and with admirable persistence. Impatience for greater improvement sometimes clouds the view of the real progress that has been made toward the permanent solution of the basic economic problems. In 1942, the Insular Government began its own industrialization program with the establishment of the Puerto Rico Development Bank and the Puerto Rico Development Company. This company initiated new industries, and has assisted private industrial enterprises by supplying information, research and certain material aids. In addition, Puerto Rico is putting into effect new and constructive developments in trade and agriculture. Experiment stations have long been established for improvement of old and development of new crops, and the University of Puerto Rico is engaged in research programs aimed at the solution of social and economic problems peculiar to the Island.

The United States set in motion a campaign of health and sanitation that has cut the Island's mortality rate in half since the turn of the century. Teachers and educators from the continental United States have promoted educational facilities that have expanded the school systems and increased Island literacy. Technical and financial aid have been extended by such Federal agencies as the Farm Security Administration, the Federal Public Housing Authority and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration. The Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration, established by Executive Order in May of 1935, has administered a program of work-relief projects to increase employment and improve economic conditions. Labor in the sugar industry may bargain collectively on an Island-wide basis, and a number of other industries and service trades also have union organization. Provisions of the National Labor Relations Act apply to Puerto Rico, although wages there are established by special boards which determine the requirements of various industries. An Insular Labor Relations Board and Labor Departments of both the Federal and Insular Governments act in labor conciliation.

Recent statistical comparisons have revealed that Puerto Rico is materially better off than its non-American neighbors in the Caribbean. In essential "level of living" measurements, Puerto Rico outranks all these areas. Its per capita income is three times that of the Dominican Republic, eight times that of Haiti. Its per capita education expenditures are almost double those of Cuba, and public health expenditures are almost three times those of Barbados. The Island's geographical position gives ready access to South American markets and to raw material resources of the western hemisphere. Its production costs are reasonably low, and its manpower reserves are yet to be fully utilized.


The Virgin Islands of the United States, at one time the Danish West Indies, were purchased from Denmark in 1917 for $25,000,000. They were once the wholesale center of the American slave industry. There are about 50 of them, including islets and keys, but only three are inhabited -- St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John, with a total population of about 25,000. The Islands were under the supervision of the United States Navy from the time of their purchase until February 27, 1931, when they were transferred to the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior. An Act of Congress in June of 1932 gave natives of the Virgin Islands then living in foreign countries the status of non-quota immigrants for the purpose of admission to the United States within two years. United States citizenship was accorded all natives of the Virgin Islands who, on the date of the Act, were living in the continental United States or any insular possession or territory.

But civilian government did not bring with it any promise of autonomy. Procedures of the old Danish local government and colonial councils were retained until the enactment of the Organic Act of June 22, 1936, which provided a large measure of self-government. Under this Act local legislation is enacted by two Municipal Councils, subject to the approval of the Governor, who is appointed by the President of the United States. The Council members are elected by popular vote in each of the municipalities, a considerable improvement over the partially-elected, partially-appointed Colonial Councils under Danish rule. The Legislative Assembly, which enjoys broad powers, is composed of the two municipal councils meeting in joint session. Congress has never exercised its power to annul Virgin Islands' legislation, and Presidential disapproval rarely occurs.

While top governmental posts continue to be held by presidential appointees, in the past few years an increasing number of important positions have been filled with qualified Virgin Islands' residents. The Government Secretary, the Administrator of St. John, the Commissioner of Finance, the Commissioner of Public Works, the Superintendent of Public Welfare, and the Commissioner of Health are Virgin Islanders. On May 17, 1946, William H. Hastie, who had previously resigned as Federal District Judge in the Islands to become Dean of the Law School of Howard University, was inaugurated Governor. Considerable progress in all phases of Virgin Islands' life is expected during Governor Hastie's tenure. In addition to his excellent administrative qualifications and a knowledge of the Islands gained from his earlier service there, Governor Hastie has already begun to put into effect a comprehensive and practical program of economic and social improvements.

The Virgin Islanders want a Resident Commissioner to represent them in the Congress, and they should have one; this is the only United States island possession under the Department of the Interior's jurisdiction without such representation. The Secretary of the Interior, on January 7, 1946, stated that: "The Organic Act of the Virgin Islands requires, in my opinion, amendments that would provide a wider measure of self-government including a Resident Commissioner to represent the Virgin Islanders in the Congress." President Truman, in his January 1946 State of the Union Message, recommended that "the people of the Virgin Islands should be given an increasing measure of self-government." Bills to authorize election of a Resident Commissioner are now before Congress. (S. 749, H. R. 1553, H. R. 3256.)

Until fairly recently, the commercial life of the island of St. Thomas had long centered around the harbor of Charlotte Amalie, a coaling station and free port. But advances in science, commercial competition and the development of other West Indian ports have steadily lessened its importance, thereby increasing unemployment.

St. Croix, which is the largest of the Virgin Islands, produces sugar and rum. When the Island's biggest sugar company collapsed in 1929, the Federal Government was compelled to take steps to prevent starvation, and the Virgin Islands Company was therefore established in 1934 to develop a complete, long-range program of social and economic rehabilitation. The company is engaged in growing sugar cane, in the production of sugar and rum, in the operation of a rural electrification system and several other enterprises. It has 11 villages, houses almost 500 families, and employs approximately 600 persons the year round and about 1,200 during the grinding season. It is now the economic mainstay of the Island.

Recently, the Congress authorized a $10,000,000 appropriation for general public improvements in the Islands. Work has begun on a badly-needed sanitation system and on road improvements. It is expected that with additional appropriations there will soon be put into operation plans for the improvement and building of schools, hospitals, water supplies, streets, highways, recreational facilities, and telephone and radio communications. The major economic problem of the Virgin Islands arises from the simple fact that its present income does not pay for food, clothes, and other necessities supplied from outside. Governor Hastie is working with the local and Federal Governments to reduce the Islands' dependence on imports, to increase consumption of local products, and to market them abroad. It is hoped that the tourist industry can be greatly increased, and that this will do much to stabilize the insular economy.


Hawaii is the most self-reliant of all our territories. Its level of living is above the average on the mainland, its educational system is superior, and its labor laws progressive. Despite the diverse origins of its population, Hawaii has been admirably successful in applying democratic principles of racial equality. As inhabitants of a Territory, Hawaii's citizens cannot vote for the President, although in many respects they have the same privileges and obligations as the citizens of the states. They are represented in the Congress by a popularly elected delegate, who may participate in congressional debates and introduce legislation, but may not vote.

The Governor is appointed by the President, as are the Territorial Secretary and judges. The legislature consists of a Senate of 15 members and a House of Representatives of 30 members, elected by popular vote in accordance with Hawaii's Organic Act of 1900. The territorial legislature is subject to the same constitutional restrictions as are those in the States; the Governor's veto of any legislation may be overruled by a two-thirds vote of each house.

The first congressional subcommittee appointed to investigate the question of statehood visited Hawaii in 1935, and a second went in October of 1937. The Territorial legislature in 1939 authorized a plebiscite to determine the wishes of the people, and on November 5, 1940, 67 percent of Hawaiian voters declared themselves in favor of statehood. In 1941, and in March 1946, Gallup polls revealed that continental Americans favored Hawaiian statehood in just about this proportion. President Truman, in his State of the Union Message in January of 1946, said: "I urge, too, that the Congress promptly accede to the wishes of the people of Hawaii that the Territory be admitted to statehood in our Union." Another Congressional subcommittee, after holding extensive hearings in Hawaii early in 1946, unanimously agreed that the Territory has met the requirements for statehood and recommended that immediate consideration be given to enabling legislation. Some of the conclusions of the subcommittee were:

That Hawaii with its population of over 500,000 has a larger population than any other state at the time of admission to the Union with the exception of Oklahoma.

That the heterogeneous peoples of the Territory live and work together amicably, democratically and harmoniously.

That the mixed racial complexion of Hawaii existed at the time of annexation, was not regarded as an obstacle to annexation, and should not now be considered an obstacle to statehood.

That the people of Hawaii have demonstrated beyond question their loyalty and patriotism to the Government of the United States.

That Hawaii has been a Territory for 46 years, during which the people of Hawaii have shown themselves fully capable of self-government.

Extensive hearings were held by a House Committee of the 80th Congress on H. R. 49, and a favorable report was submitted.


United States administration of Alaska dates from March 30, 1867, when the Territory was purchased from Russia. From 1867 to 1877 Alaska was nominally under the War Department, and from 1879 to 1884 limited jurisdiction of the Territory was in the hands of the Navy Department. On May 17, 1884, an Act of Congress provided for the appointment of a governor and the establishment of civil government. Alaska's Organic Act of 1912 provided for a bicameral legislature elected every two years by popular vote. This legislature is subject to the same constitutional limitations as are those in the States, and, by a two-thirds vote of each house, the Governor's veto of any legislation may be overruled. Alaskans elect a Delegate to Congress, who has a voice, but no vote.

Alaska is an incorporated Territory and should soon become a state. Sentiment in favor of such status has been growing in the Territory for the past ten years, and Alaska's delegates have long pleaded that cause in the Congress. In a plebiscite on October 8, 1946, 60 percent of Alaska's voting citizens asked for it. Hearings have been concluded on H. R. 206 and a report will soon be submitted.

Congressional consideration of the question will undoubtedly bring careful scrutiny of what is described as Alaska's "unbalanced economy," for which "absentee ownership" is most frequently blamed. On the one hand, it can be argued that statehood for Alaska should be postponed until its economy is "stable." On the other hand, there is widespread belief that statehood would result in immediate expansion of Alaska's industry and greatly improve its finances. The remedy for the present undesirable condition lies in the encouragement of a larger permanent population, rather than a transient one. The people of Alaska themselves must work constructively on this and other major problems. They are aware of the flaws in their economic life and have taken the initiative in eliminating a number of them, as, for example, in the recent establishment of the Alaska Development Board, an organization of Alaskan leaders which is energetically studying territorial resources and the possibilities of new and expanded industry. Postwar local legislation has been progressive and is aimed at the economic development of the Territory; veterans' legislation provides priority financial assistance to servicemen.

The Federal Government is rendering technical and financial assistance to Alaska on an increasing scale. The Department of the Interior is developing a program which includes settlement of aboriginal land claims as soon as possible; review and reduction of land withdrawals and determination of clear title for all areas; consultation with continental labor, business and industrial interests on over-all industrial development; rehabilitation of the Alaska Railroad; expansion of Alaska's road program; development of the fish and mining industries; establishment of a pulp industry and a number of smaller businesses; increased surveys for petroleum potentialities; modification of Alaska Highway withdrawals; encouragement of the tourist industry; extension of agricultural research; reclassification of land; and facilitation of settlement to give impetus to agricultural development. Both the Federal Government and the people of Alaska must accelerate their efforts in this vast Territory before its economic problems will approach solution. But the record shows that considerable progress has been made, and that our plans and the plans of the Alaska people for the future are practicable.


Guam and Samoa have been dependent areas of the United States, under Navy administration, since the islands were acquired nearly 50 years ago. Despite the fact that half a century has gone by, no action has been taken to extend to the 22,000 Guamanians and the 16,000 inhabitants of American Samoa the basic privileges of American democracy, including United States or local citizenship.

Under the provisions of the Treaty of Paris of December 10, 1898, Spain ceded Puerto Rico, the Philippine Islands and the Island of Guam to the United States. Although Article IX of the Treaty provided that the Congress would determine the civil rights and political status of the native inhabitants of the ceded territories, such action has never been taken with respect to Guam. Instead, a military form of government, originally established by proclamation of President McKinley, has been perpetuated. The people of Guam are now seeking an Organic Act containing a bill of rights, provision for local self-government under civilian administration, and American citizenship. Several bills to this end were before the 79th Congress, and one of them has been reintroduced into the 80th Congress as H. R. 64. The most comprehensive measures relating to island administration are the joint resolutions authorizing and directing the President to establish an interim civilian administration for the former mandated islands, as well as for Guam and American Samoa.

At the turn of the century, Germany was building an empire in the Pacific. She assumed control of the Caroline Islands and the Marshall Islands and purchased the Marianas Islands, except Guam, from the King of Spain. Germany, England and the United States became involved in a dispute over certain of the Samoan Islands. On April 10, 1900, and on July 16, 1904, chiefs of the islands of Tutuila and Manua and other islands of the Samoan group ceded their islands to the United States. It was not until February 20, 1929, by Public Resolution No. 89 of the 70th Congress that the United States accepted, ratified and confirmed the cessions made by these chiefs. In the meantime, the Navy had administered the islands under the direction of the President. By Public Resolution 89, the Congress accepted the Islands and authorized the President to continue to rule Samoa as had been done in the past until such time as an Organic Act should be passed. Samoa has continued to be governed under a form of naval administration.

The view of the Department of the Interior concerning civil administration of Pacific Islands was briefly summarized on September 9, 1946, in a letter from the Secretary of the Interior to the editor of the Honolulu Star Bulletin, written after a number of speculative reports on the subject in the press. Secretary Krug wrote, in part: "The principle that the just powers of all governments are derived from the consent of the governed is as old as the United States Government itself. I have always been a firm believer in the fullest measure of local self-government for all United States territories and dependencies. That is still my belief. In due course, I am sure that civilian government will be established in those islands with civilian populations which remain under United States responsibility."

In summing up, then, we may rightly say that considerable progress has been made in recent years toward self-government in United States territories and island possessions. The efforts of the Federal Government in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Hawaii and Alaska, although inadequate in many respects, have been motivated by a desire to produce as high levels of living there as in the continental United States. Americans may take pride in the fact that conditions in these areas are generally superior to those in non-self-governing areas of other nations. The people have the right of universal suffrage, without qualifications of property or birth. Their legislatures are elected by popular vote and have broad powers that facilitate the passage of legislation essential to their peculiar needs. The executive branch of each of these local governments is not staffed with a "colonial" service, but with qualified local residents.

This pride in accomplishment does not permit complacency, however. We are pledged to assist our non-self-governing areas to attain autonomy at the earliest possible date. The task is far from finished. The political status of some 3,000,000 people is no small responsibility. But on the basis of past performance, expectations of success are justified.

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  • EDWIN G. ARNOLD, Director, Division of Territories and Island Possessions of the Department of the Interior
  • More By Edwin G. Arnold