Variations | The Covenant debates in the US Senate

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ON Feb. 24, 1976, Sen. Joe Biden, Democrat of Delaware, was among the 23 U.S. senators who voted no to the Covenant to Establish a Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in Political Union with the United States of America.

But 66 other senators voted in favor of the Covenant joint resolution, which the U.S. House had passed on a voice vote on July 21,1975. President Gerald Ford signed the Covenant on March 24, 1976. 

The frontrunner in this year’s presidential election, Biden was 33 years old when the bipartisan Covenant resolution reached the U.S. Senate. For many liberal senators, absorbing a string of small remote islands in the Pacific smacked of “colonialism.” These senators included Democratic bigwigs such as majority leader Mike Mansfield, Ted Kennedy, George McGovern, Claiborne Pell (of Pell Grant fame; he wanted independence for the NMI),  and Abraham Ribicoff (who spoke against “the Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago,” during the Democratic convention in Aug. 1968. The video of Mayor Richard J. Daley’s, um, eloquent reaction is on YouTube.).

Some conservative Democrats (now an extinct breed) were likewise opposed to the Covenant: Harry Byrd of Virginia, Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Herman Talmadge, Georgia’s staunch segregationist. Sen. Harry Byrd’s Republican colleague from Virginia was William L. Scott who was once called by a newspaper as “the dumbest man in the U.S. Senate.” According to Howard P. Willens and Deanne C. Siemer in their authoritative book about the Covenant,  Scott was worried that “somebody [could] just come up to the island and start living [there.]” He wanted to know if the NMI had a border patrol. “Do they try to keep people out?” he asked.

One of the staffers of Ambassador F. Haydn Williams, the U.S. president’s Covenant negotiator, recalled one person as saying, “We don’t need any more brown-skinned people that far away. How am I going to tell my people down south that they [the NMI people] are eligible for food stamps when they don’t turn in any taxes to America.”

Willens and Siemer likewise noted that  the New York Times and the Washington Post had also argued strongly against the Covenant. “Not Another American Colony” was the title of one of the Post’s editorials at the time: “For the natives it’s a good deal,” but it “is nonetheless unacceptable…. [I]t is unthinkable, or it should be, for the United States to be adding a colony — granted a voluntary one — to its territory and polity….”

The NYT, for its part, said the U.S. was “poised on the verge of a questionable new economic and military commitment thousands of miles overseas without as yet even a semblance of serious Congressional consideration.”

The Covenant’s most vocal opponent, however, was a 39-year-old newly elected senator from Colorado, Gary Hart. (He was McGovern’s campaign manager in the 1972 presidential election, but Hart is now more known for a yacht called Monkey Business.) Hart, among other things, accused the NMI negotiators of “corruption.” He refused to meet with them.

Willens and Siemer said Hart was elected to the Senate on an anti-military platform. The Cold War was still raging, but the Vietnam War had just ended and not a lot of U.S. lawmakers were enthusiastic for more “foreign entanglements.”

In his remarks on the Senate floor prior to the vote on the Covenant resolution, Senator Hart said: “What the people of the Marianas want is not an issue, but it has been discussed at length by proponents of this measure…. [T]he issue before the Senate today is what is in the best interest of the United States.”

Hart also served as the campaign manager of Sen. Robert Kennedy which probably made it hard for Sen. Ted Kennedy to go against Hart in the Covenant vote. Willens and Siemer quoted NMI team member Benjamin Manglona of Rota as saying that they informed Ted Kennedy how much the people of the NMI loved JFK. They even showed him a photo of the JFK bust in front of the Mt. Carmel Cathedral. Ted Kennedy wouldn’t budge, however. But at least “he’s not going to the others to lobby for more opposition,” Manglona said.

The Friends of the Earth, however, believed that the Covenant would “irreparably harm the environment,” and lobbied against its passage in the U.S. Senate. The Friends of the Earth, Manglona recalled, told the U.S. senators “don’t give it to them. They are going to screw up with the environment…. [W]e say, don’t use as a zoo. You want us to remain what we are so you can look at us as being a zoo, just to watch us.”

On the Senate floor. Senator Scott  reiterated his opposition to the Covenant. “Is it in our interest to give American citizenship to 14,000 people 6,000 miles away from our shore who will not even pay taxes to the federal government?” he asked. “Who will recoup their taxes? As citizens they will have the right to get on welfare if they choose to. It will be a drain upon our economy.”

Scott’s fellow Republican, Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who had visited Saipan, said he was “afraid that, once again, we are missing the important part of this whole thing.” America’s primary point of foreign policy interest, he added, should be the Pacific Ocean. “[I]t is the future of the world, the economic future, and I think the cultural future.” He said the NMI “is just about all that is left in the Pacific that we could use if the need ever arises again for the defense of the continental United States and other countries surrounding the Pacific…. We used their islands in World War II and, I would say, abused them rather roundly. These people have been expecting this [the Covenant]; they have been promised this. I think that promise should be kept….”

In our hearts, we know he’s right.


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