After the Allied victory, the entire Pacific Island empire of Japan was placed in a trust of about 100 inhabited islands scattered over an area the size of the neighboring United States to be administered by Washington, which was charged “to promote the development of the inhabitants of the Trust Territory to autonomy or independence.” (This included the modern-day Northern Mariana Islands, Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau.) Saipan later became the headquarters of the trust, which was administered first by the Navy and then the Department of the Interior, and which arbitrarily divided the islands into six districts, with each voting to decide its fate.
The founding fathers of the commonwealth, as the group of lawmakers is known, wrote the Covenant, a governing document that outlined the archipelago’s right to control its internal affairs while giving the U.S. federal government sovereignty over the foreign affairs and defense of the Northern Mariana Islands. . The Covenant specified which articles of the American Constitution applied, and fundamental changes to the document can only be made by mutual consent between the Northern Mariana Islands and Congress. The Northern Mariana Islands have the right to demand direct negotiations with the federal government on specific issues. This arrangement was made possible by the Island Cases.
In 1975, 75 percent of Northern Mariana Islands residents voted to adopt the document. (They also voted several times to integrate with Guam, but Guam rejected the proposal.) Residents of the Northern Mariana Islands are now US citizens without federal voting rights. They serve in the US armed forces, but do not have their own VA office.
As part of the negotiations, the US government leased two-thirds of the land on Tinian for 50 years to build a military base, saying it would boost the economy, while also promising to build a school and provide medical services. Residents are still waiting. Today the 40-square-mile island, home to 2,000 people, has no hospital or dentist, one gas station, one semi-functional ATM and a few small grocery stores. The main employer is the mayor’s office. In a 2010 census, 44 percent of the households on Tinian fell below the poverty line.
When the US Army took Tinian from the Japanese during World War II, they laid out roads in the same way as Manhattan – with Broadway, Wall Street, 86th, 42nd, etc. That morning, Fleming took me to North Field, where American service members had built the largest airfield in the world at the time, from which planes took off every three minutes during the last year of the war. We drove up Broadway to the two bombing pits that were used to load nuclear weapons into airplanes, now encased in glass like a mausoleum of the grotesque. Atomic Bomb Pit No. 1 loaded the five-ton uranium bomb, Little Boy, which killed more than 100,000 people in one morning explosion. Atomic Bomb Pit No. 2 contained the plutonium bomb, Fat Man, which instantly killed 40,000 people in Nagasaki. Standing at the glass, the duality of past destruction – overshadowed by the prospect of the future reduction that would require use of the Diversion Airport – felt dizzying.