Trust Territory of the Pacific

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TRUST TERRITORY OF THE PACIFIC. The Trust Territory of the Pacific was a United Nations Trust Territory administered by the United States from 1947 to 1996. It consisted of the Marshall Islands, Caroline Islands, Palau Islands, and the northern Marianas Islandsall of Micronesia except for Guam. Scattered across roughly three million square miles of the western Pacific, these island groups were geographically and culturally heterogeneous; their population included at least six distinct ethnic groups and nine mutually unintelligible languages.

All of Micronesia was claimed by Spain from the sixteenth century until 1898. However, after the Spanish-American War, Guam became a possession of the United States while the rest of Micronesia was purchased by Germany. The islands remained in German hands only until World War I, when they were captured by Japan. Until World War II they were League of Nations Class C mandates, effectively Japanese colonies. The region was the site of several major land and sea battles during the latter conflict, including those of Tarawa, Saipan, Peleliu, and the Philippine Sea.

After Japan's surrender, the islands were placed under the administration of the U.S. Navy, and then incorporated into a new trust territory. The Trust Territory of the Pacific was unique among all trust territories in that it was a "strategic" trust, one whose administrator answered to the UN Security Council, where the United States had a veto, rather than the UN General Assembly.

From 1948 until about 1996, the Trust Territory was administered as a de facto American colony. There was very little economic development on the islands; literacy levels were raised and basic health care was provided, but otherwise there were no major changes in the standard of living.

During this period, the islands were used for a variety of purposes by the U.S. military. Sixty-seven nuclear weapons tests were conducted in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958, while Saipan was used as a training center for Nationalist Chinese forces. The islands were kept under military security: foreigners were excluded and travel by the islanders themselves was strictly regulated.

Beginning around 1962, however, the United States began to take a more liberal approach toward governing the Trust Territory. The Kennedy administration ended most travel restrictions, permitted limited foreign investment, and sharply increased the territory's budget. In 1965 the territory was granted limited self-government in the form of a bicameral Congress of Micronesia.

During this period a debate over the territory's future emerged and quickly became acute. Most islanders wanted independence, but a large minority wanted some form of association with the United States, while a local majority in the Northern Marianas Islands wanted to become an American commonwealth or territory. Furthermore, there was sharp disagreement over whether the territory should evolve into a single independent state or a group of smaller entities. This debate was resolved in 1975, when negotiators for the Northern Marianas and the United States agreed that the former should become an American commonwealth.

Over the next twenty years, four separate entities emerged from the Trust Territory. The Northern Marianas Islands broke away first, becoming an American commonwealth in 1978 with a status roughly equivalent to Puerto Rico. Then, in 1979, the Marshall Islands became an independent state, while Chuuk, Yap, Pohnpei, and Kosrae combined to form the Federated States of Micronesia. The last entity to emerge from the Trust Territory was the Republic of Palau. Its independence was delayed for nearly a decade by a protracted dispute over making Palau a nuclear-free zone. Full independence was finally granted on 1 October 1994 and the world's last trust territory came to an end.

The historical legacy of the Trust Territory is mixed. The Trust Territory government spread American concepts of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law across the Micronesian islands and the successor states are, by the standards of the region, stable and free. However, while the Northern Marianas have seen considerable economic development since the breakup of the Trust Territory, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia remain among the poorest states in the Pacific, and remain heavily dependent upon American aid.

The Republic of Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia are all internationally recognized sovereign states with seats in the United Nations. However, all three have signed treaties that bind them quite closely to the United States politically, diplomatically, and economically. Although the Trust Territory of the Pacific is no more, the United States remains the dominant military and diplomatic influence in Micronesia.


Kluge, P. F. The Edge of Paradise: America in Micronesia. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993.

Willens, Howard, and Deanne Siemer. National Security and Self-Determination: United States Policy in Micronesia. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2000. There is no single-volume history of the Trust Territory of the Pacific, but Willens and Siemer provide a straight forward chronicle of the period from 1962 to 1975.

Douglas M. Muir