The 70-year struggle for Kwajalein

An aerial photo of Ebeye Island, whose evolution from the Navy’s work camp island to major urban center, is discussed in many sections of Currie’s new book, “Kwajalein, the Marshall Islands and American Policy in the Pacific.” Photo: Anjojo Kabua.
An aerial photo of Ebeye Island, whose evolution from the Navy’s work camp island to major urban center, is discussed in many sections of Currie’s new book, “Kwajalein, the Marshall Islands and American Policy in the Pacific.” Photo: Anjojo Kabua.


A recently published book concerning Kwajalein and the Marshall Islands is a welcome addition to the sparse library of books about this region.

The focus of the book — on Kwajalein’s central role in US strategic interests and planning in the Pacific since World War II  — breaks new ground in the narrative of the US Pacific presence.

“Kwajalein, the Marshall Islands and American Policy in the Pacific,” by Ruth Douglas Currie, was published late last year. Her presentation is aided greatly by her four years as command historian for the US Army Strategic Defense Command, which clearly informs her narrative. She is a recently retired professor of history and political science at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina.

But a prospective reader would be mistaken to think that, because of Currie’s Army historian background, this book is a standard issue Army War College-type presentation of US military interests in the Pacific. It’s not.

In a dispassionate voice, she narrates American interests from the post-World War I period onward. Throughout the book, she shows how these US military interests repeatedly conflicted with the interests of Marshall Islands landowners.

She describes interactions at Kwajalein from the early 1950s — from the establishment of Ebeye as the location of Kwajalein’s Marshallese labor camp to the “temporary” removal of islanders from Lib for the first US missile tests to multiple attempts to come to a solution for long-term use of Kwajalein, a process that stretched across decades, involving numerous iroij (chiefs) including cousins Amata and Imata Kabua, landowner “sail in” protests at the missile range, and protracted negotiations for a military use and operating rights agreement in the Compact of Free Association.

Currie shows how the conundrum that land rights in the Marshall Islands presented to US authorities ultimately led the Trust Territory in the late 1950s to produce its official Land Determination in hopes of pinning down ownership and title to land. This TT Land Determination of 1958 and 1959 is frequently cited today in Marshall Islands courts when landowners are battling over a piece of land.

Currie also narrates the multi-decade bureaucratic battles among Defense, State and Interior for jurisdiction over what is now the RMI, Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

But even before WWII was over, as debate raged within top levels of the US government about the manner in which the US should handle future control of these islands, there was no dispute as to their value. President Franklin Roosevelt approved a War (later Defense) Department position that all “Japanese Mandated Islands…(are) required for the direct defense of the United States.”

Defense Department needs were paramount. A “strategic” trusteeship designation under the United Nations was identified as a way to limit potential criticism that the US was making a colonial land grab by taking over the Micronesia area while meeting the requirement that the US military have unfettered access to the area. Of the 11 trusteeships established by the UN after WWII, only the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands was designated “strategic,” which put it under the authority of the UN Security Council where the US government, as one of the five permanent members, retained veto power.

The trusteeship agreement allowed the US to, among other things, “establish naval, military and air bases and to erect fortifications in the trust territory;…station and employ armed forces in the territory…” “It was as blank a check as any militarist might desire,” Currie notes.

She starts a chapter midway through the book, “In the 1950s and 1960s, the dilemma of military use versus landownership rights in the Marshalls continued to plague the United States.” Establishing the Trust Territory administration didn’t solve the problem. “President Truman’s handoff of administration to the Department of the Interior created a nightmare of multiple levels in decision making, as well as potential for pitting the Department of the Interior against the Department of Defense,” Currie writes. “As the Navy continued its earlier ‘use as needed’ modus operandi for land, sign-off now would be required from the Interior Department as well. Kwajalein Atoll in general and Kwajalein Island in particular would provide the locus for an emerging and growing disputation.”

While these land issues were only destined to heighten in the 1970s and 1980s as US defense requirements for missile testing escalated, another situation bubbling in the background would soon be on the front burner.

“The ‘Ebeye problem,’ mentioned over and over again in Trust Territory and US documents, festered and grew worse,” writes Currie.

She looks at the US government’s multiple and unsuccessful efforts to find a final, “one-payment” solution to land use at Kwajalein.

First President Amata Kabua is prominently mentioned throughout Currie’s discussion of land disputes at Kwajalein and the negotiations between the Marshalls and the US that led ultimately to the Compact of Free Association being implemented in 1986 and the RMI becoming an independent nation.

She narrates the development of a “contentious political environment” during elections in the 1990s, an environment that “would only intensify after Kabua’s death.” This sets the stage for Currie’s narrative of the looming renegotiation of the first Compact of Free Association, set to expire in 2001.

The difficulty for the US of navigating the RMI’s challenging land tenure environment is a thread throughout the book. In a section on the Kwajalein LUA, Currie writes: “The present study has only hinted at the complexity of land claims that existed in the Marshalls and noted the numerous times Americans sought the ‘final solution’ for leasing land in Kwajalein Atoll…Back in 1962, one baffled US congressman had complained: ‘There is no analogy between the common American idea of an absolute owner and the Marshallese idea of a holder of any one of the levels of rights in common kinds of landownership in the Marshalls.’”

For people more than casually interested in Kwajalein, Currie’s meticulous job of footnoting will be appreciated. This is a valuable book for anyone wanting to know more about American interests in the Pacific, development of the Kwajalein missile range and Ebeye from the 1950s onward, negotiations on Compacts one and two, and internal political developments that affected relations with the US. In short: a book worth reading.

Kwajalein Atoll, the Marshall Islands and American Policy in the Pacific is published by McFarland. Available through or through order line 800-253-2187.

Read more about this in the July 7, 2017 edition of the Marshall Islands Journal.