We are making decisions in response to this pandemic that will live on for generations. Once government makes a decision, it rarely ever changes the enacted policy.
One of the great moments in U.S. military history was the battle of Midway in WWII. Just six months after the devastation from Pearl Harbor, the Japanese navy threatened a small U.S. possession, Midway, located more than 1,000 miles from Hawaii. The Japanese wanted to do battle with and destroy the remaining U.S. fleet in the Pacific but have that battle outside the range of U.S. aircraft from Hawaii.
The U.S. decided to accept the Japanese challenge and in a stunning clash inflicted devastating damage to the Japanese fleet. Did you ever wonder why the U.S. originally came to “own” Midway, a small island in the middle of the Pacific, far, far away from the continental U.S.?
It was all about the guano.
Guano, quite simply, is bird poop. Seabirds leave behind nitrate-rich guano on the ground. In the early 1800s, guano was called white gold because of how pricey it had become for our farmers to use on their cropland and guano’s use for gunpowder.
In fact, America imported over 760,000 tons of bird poop a year in the 1850s. Millard Filmore’s State of the Union in 1850 included a discussion on the need for more bird poop and that the U.S.A. should “employ all the means properly in its power” to get more bird guano.
We Americans were so desperate to get more bird poop, the United States formed a Senate committee to analyze the guano trade and make recommendations to the government on how to dramatically increase the poop we imported.
America’s interest in guano coincided with the empire building vision of William Seward. You might remember the tagline – Seward’s Folly. His vision of a worldwide American empire included the integration of Canada as part of America and his crazy recommendation the U.S. should purchase Alaska from Russia.
Alaska and Canada were not the only additions to the American empire Seward desired. Seward’s vision was of an American worldwide empire. He used the scarcity of available bird poop to ramrod a bill through the United States Senate.
That bill said any island, anywhere in the world, could be claimed by America if it were not lawfully claimed or occupied by another nation like France, Spain or Great Britain. Any enterprising American citizen could go claim an island for guano harvesting.
“The discoverer, or his assigns, being citizens of the United States, may be allowed, at the pleasure of Congress, the exclusive right of occupying such island, rocks, or keys, for the purpose of obtaining guano, and of selling and delivering the same to citizens of the United States, to be used therein, and may be allowed to charge and receive for every ton thereof delivered alongside a vessel, in proper tubs, within reach of ship’s tackle, a sum not exceeding $8 per ton for the best quality, or $4 for every ton taken while in its native place of deposit.”
The U.S. military was assigned to back up their claims. “The President is authorized, at his discretion, to employ the land and naval forces of the United States to protect the rights of the discoverer or of his widow, heir, executor, administrator, or assigns.”
At one point, it is estimated that 100 islands were claimed by the U.S.A. as their property. All in the name of a temporary crisis about sufficient bird poop. Alternative fertilizer made from ammonia eliminated the need for guano to be harvested and shipped all over the world, but the Seward imperial era of America lives on with U.S.A. ownership of Midway and other islands.
We are likely making decisions today, in response to the pandemic, that will create government policy lasting over a hundred years. Are they the right policies?
Share your thoughts.
David Dunn-Rankin is CEO of D-R Media, which owns the Highlands News-Sun and the Highlands Sun, as well as newspapers in Lake, Polk and Sumter counties. He can be reached at David@D-R.Media .