Bush Sr. and the US’  Blatant Disregard of Palau’s Nuclear Free Goals

US was playing dirty politics in Palau in the 1980s when a reign of terror against anti-nuclear activists was unleashed in the remote Pacific Islands.

Beginning with ex-First Lady Barbara Bush’s April 17, 2018 death then followed by the Nov. 30 death of her husband the same year, Americans were bombarded with spectacles of propagandistic presidential pomp and pageantry from the non-critical mainstream media. Instead of mere reportage, MSM barraged viewers with time-consuming homages. Ballyhooers and disinformation specialists working for state-controlled media in dictatorships would be astonished by the biased royal treatment devoid of any dissenting reporting, the Bushes were given by a privately-owned, supposedly free press in a purported democracy. The fawning continued for months: On March 3, 2019, CNN launched the six-part series The Bush Years: Family, Duty, Power. Corporate media’s one-sided idolatry was more hagiography than reportage.

archival photo of President Haruo Remeliik of Palau
More than three decades ago, in the middle of political turmoil fanned by the US, Palau's President Haruo Remeliik (far right), leader of the world’s first nuclear-free nation, as assassinated. Photo courtesy of University of Hawaii at Manoa archives.

Observing this was head-scratching for me. Not just because I remembered that in 1976 Bush Sr. became the director of the Central Intelligence Agency; or his involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal and his subsequent pardons for this involvement; or his demagogic Willy Horton and “revolving door” furlough campaign ads; or the Panama invasion; or April Gillespie and the Gulf War; or his father’s alleged dealings with Nazis.

Indeed, the main reason I was shocked is because I witnessed what Bush was up to in the 1980s, when a reign of terror against anti-nuclear activists was unleashed in the remote Pacific Islands where I was stationed as reporter for various news outlets including AP, Reuters, Newsweek, Australian Broadcasting Corp., Radio New Zealand, ABC News’ 20/20. On June 30, 1985 Haruo Remeliik, President of Palau — the world’s first national nuclear free zone — was murdered. Since then I’ve always wondered what, if anything, was then-vice president Bush Senior’s role in the assassination. As the only fulltime foreign newsman residing in Palau, as an objective observer, I was struck by a singular fact regarding Remeliik’s murder: Going back to 1944, all roads led to George H.W. Bush.

Long credited as the youngest Naval aviator during World War II, the Pacific Theater’s fierce island hopping campaign, including 1944’s bloody Battle of Peleliu at Palau, made an indelible impression on Bush. By the time he was 20 the realpolitik and essential importance of the strategically located Palauan archipelago, which sprawled across the shipping lanes of Japan, Australia and Indonesia in the Western Pacific Ocean, was stamped on the youthful Bush’s psyche. 

After the U.S. defeated the Japanese at Palau and elsewhere in Micronesia, the island nation became the southwestern-most outpost of the United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI), a vast region composed mainly of water located in between Hawaii and the Philippines, that would be administered by the United States from 1947 to 1994. The 3 million square mile TTPI was one of 11 postwar trusteeships setup by the UN in former colonies with a purported benevolent purpose: Developing the onetime colonies so they could decolonize and freely choose their political fates by exercising legitimate acts of self-determination through referendums.

The atomic cloud during the "Baker" nuclear test at the Bikini atoll. The people of Palau knew that the residents of Marshall Islands, which the US Department of Defense (DOD) used as a nuclear test site from 1946 to 1958, were suffering the impacts of irradiation and they didn’t want do have anything to do with nuclear weapons. Photo courtesy of the US Navy/National Archives and Records Administration.

In 1979, as Palau prepared for self-rule, concerned about nuclear arms, fallout and irradiation, the islanders ratified the world's first constitution banning nuclear substances and weapons from their territory. Specifically, the new constitution required the approval of three-quarters of the electorate, a super-majority, to enter into any agreement allowing the introduction of hazardous substances, including nuclear weapons, into Palau.

The people of Palau knew that the residents of Marshall Islands, which the US Department of Defense (DOD) used as a nuclear test site from 1946 to 1958, were suffering the impacts of irradiation and they didn’t want do have anything to do with nuclear weapons. The constitution was to be one of the last steps taken before Palau gained its sovereignty. But for the process to be finally complete, it also needed to enter into an agreement with the US — a Compact of Free Association — that would end Palau’s trustee status.

However, Palau’s constitutional ban on nuclear arms was unacceptable to the US. It clashed with the Pentagon’s policy to neither confirm nor deny that its crafts are nuclear-powered or armed. Besides, the US had plans to relocate US forward bases from the Philippines to Micronesia. So the US made the Palau Constitutional Drafting Commission redraft the constitution and delete the nuclear prohibition language. But Palauans overwhelmingly rejected the redrafted constitution, with 70 percent voting no. A third vote on the constitution followed in 1980, this time with the original nuclear prohibition reinstated in the draft, and Palauans approved it with a 79 percent vote.

During this period, as CIA director, Bush oversaw the illegal surveillance of the Micronesian political status negotiations, which aimed at replacing the US-administered trusteeship with self-governance. Back then, Bob Woodward reported in The Washington Post that Henry Kissinger ordered the bugging of the Micronesian negotiators, which was executed by Bush crony Brent Scowcroft with the goal of “exerting covert influence on key elements of the Micronesian independence movement.”

When he was vice president between 1981 and 1989, Bush arranged for another long-time ally, Fred Zeder, who was also a Texas businessman and fighter pilot in the Pacific during WWII, to become President Ronald Reagan’s personal representative for Micronesian status negotiations. Zeder went on to become a major player in the newly emerging Republic of Palau. He facilitated the financing of a massive project on the island called IPSECO, apparently a covert action in the guise of a costly, far-too-big power plant that threatened to bankrupt the diminutive developing island nation and force it into an even weaker negotiating position with the US.

When the US’ attempt to amend Palau’s constitution failed, it tried a different tack —including a provision in the Compact of Free Association that would override the country’s nuclear free constitution and require Palau to provide land to the Pentagon for possible fallback bases in the Asia-Pacific region. But even there the US ran into a hitch — the agreement, since it contained a provision that would override the constitution — would require 75 percent voter approval!

So even though Palau signed the compact in 1982, dispute over the provision overriding the constitutional nuclear ban led to a decade of political turmoil and violence in the country.

Basically, Bush Sr. helped force Palauans to return to the polls about 15 times to vote on the compact and their future political status and anti-nuclear statutes enshrined in its Constitution. Palauans were free to cast their ballots, but Washington didn’t accept the results unless the outcomes were favorable to US policy. So the people of Palau had to keep on voting until the Pentagon got the result it was after. In the international annals of “display democracy” this coercion was truly a unique type of voter suppression.

Bush Jr. may have used 9/11 as a rationale for attacking Iraq but during the period when Palauans were contending with IPSECO and future political status plebiscites, Palau was beset by terrorism. Shooting Remeliik in the head in 1985 led to unlocking the thorny Compact negotiations. Shortly following the assassination, Vice President Bush traveled in person to the TTPI headquarters located north of Palau, at Saipan, in order to revive the deadlocked deal. With Bush’s high level, personal involvement at the Northern Mariana Islands, a new agreement was reached.

Nevertheless, anti-nuke Palauans organized and rallied, beating the new version of the compact — which had received less than the required 75 percent of the ballots in the latest plebiscite — through the judicial system. The Palau Supreme Court handed down a decision stating that in order to overrule the constitution’s nuclear free stipulations a 75 percent vote was indeed necessary (the US had been trying to argue that a supermajority was not necessary). A reign of terror ensued: The office of anti-nuclear activists was firebombed and the Palau legislature was under siege in 1987. According to an investigation by the US Congress’ General Accounting Office, a $2 million slush fund bankrolled dirty tricks. Palau’s second elected president elected, Lazarus Salii, died from gunshots after he, like Remeliik before him, failed in his bungled bids for compact ratification and elimination of the constitution’s prohibition of nuclear substances. (The death was deemed a suicide.)

In the 1960s Moruroa atoll, at French Polynesia, became France’s South Pacific nuclear testing site for atmospheric and underwater N-blasts. On Jan. 12, 1985, New Caledonia’s indigenous militant leader Eloi Machoro fighting for independence from Paris was killed by French police snipers. On March 2, 1985, shortly after meeting anti-nuke activists at Auckland, New Zealand, Tahitian activist Charlie Ching was arrested walking to a pro-independence, antinuclear rally in Papeete, Tahiti. On June 30, 1985 President Remeliik was shot. Ten days later French General Directorate for External Security secret agents bombed the Rainbow Warrior at N-free New Zealand on July 10, 1985, as Greenpeace prepared to protest France’s nuclear testing near Tahiti. The DGSE Rainbow Warrior saboteurs were captured and convicted; the implicated chiefs of France’s military and intelligence services resigned.

The above appear to be part of a coordinated counterinsurgency program to defeat the nuclear free and independence movements in the Pacific. The French state was indisputably responsible for bombing Greenpeace’s ship. Is it farfetched to think assassinating Palau’s president(s) and the reign of terror in the country was American-sponsored? The Pentagon had motive: Relocating bases from the Philippines (closed after Marcos’ overthrow) to Palau — but the world’s first nuclear-free constitution thwarted this aspiration. The IPSECO debt and political violence finally wore Palauans down; in the 1990s their antinuclear rules lost at the polls. Palau was, in effect, annexed by Uncle Sam, as was the rest of Micronesia.

Palau is now “Exhibit A” of imperialist irony. When Bush 43 invaded Iraq, Palau was part of the “coalition of the willing” cobbled together by the US. Having never become fully independent, the country continues to depend on strings-attached funding by Washington, and is thus one of the handful of UN member nations that votes on controversial issues the way America wants it to.

If mainstream media had spent 1 percent of the time investigating Bush’s ties to covert actions in Palau as they did extolling his “virtues”, the case of who shot President Remeliik might actually get solved. Then again, Palau is a tiny, remote nation where Americans might want to scuba dive and vacation at, but regarding the fate of its people or their wish to save their environment and health — who cares?

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