The U.S. territory of Puerto Rico has been referred to as a “commonwealth” since 1952, when the federal government approved the Puerto Rico Constitution and granted the island authority to conduct its local affairs. Yet “commonwealth” is only a title in the island’s local constitution, and the 1952 law did not change Puerto Rico’s status. Official statements regarding the passage of the law at that time are clear that Puerto Rico remained, and remains, a U.S. territory.
So why has the “commonwealth” label stuck?
When the Puerto Rican constitution was approved, the U.S. was working to counter Soviet claims of U.S. imperialism, of which Puerto Rico was a primary example. This 1952 statement from the U.S. Department of State when the Puerto Rico constitution was approved provides a window into the thinking of the Cold War era: “In view of the importance of ‘colonialism’ and ‘imperialism’ in anti-American propaganda, the Department of State feels that [this legislation] would have great value as a symbol of the basic freedom enjoyed by Puerto Rico, within the larger framework of the United States of America.”
As the Cold War continued, high-level federal officials addressed Soviet accusations of American imperialism with a moral righteousness that described Puerto Rico’s status in a way that was clearly at odds with original documentation surrounding passage of the 1952 Constitution. These statements were made at the expense of providing clarity to the Puerto Rican people.
For example. President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “We Americans introduced to the world a new concept by which local and national interests from a partnership for self-government….It is further strengthened by our unique and special relationship with the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, which stands as a shining symbol of friendship and cooperation.”
This message, which was delivered to the 1959 Governors’ Conference in San Juan by Under Secretary of State C. Douglas Dillon, does not carry the force of law and contradicts a very different statement made by President Truman that the new federal law he enacted authorized only changes in local law. Truman wrote: “The people of Puerto Rico have accepted the law as enacted by the Congress. They have complied with its requirements and have submitted their constitution for the approval of the Congress. With its approval, full authority and responsibility for local self-government will be vested in the people of Puerto Rico.”
Similarly, when President John F. Kennedy stated that “The Commonwealth relationship is not perfected and has not reached its full potential. I am in full sympathy with this aspiration.” He was displaying a sentiment that, while not lacking in empathy or good intent, did not and could not change Puerto Rico’s territorial status any more than it could make “commonwealth’ constitutional or a practical reality.
These statements created a movement in Puerto Rico but were not effective in changing the minds of the U.S.’s cold war enemies. Ronald Reagan recognized this reality in an op-ed he wrote for the Wall Street Journal in 1980, as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination:
Our keen “peacefully coexisting” competitor, the Soviet Union, is not unaware of the important of Puerto Rico in the great global contest of ideas. As a “Commonwealth” Puerto Rico is neither a state nor independent, and thereby has an historically unnatural status. There is this raw nerve to rub, and our Marxist-Leninist competitors rub it. They’ve long thought of the island economics of the Caribbean as easy marks. I do not suggest that the Kremlin strategists expect to snap Puerto Rico into the Communist orbit any time soon, only that they find it convenient to use its unnatural status, creating tensions around the idea of American “colonialism.” “Yankee Imperialism.” We can’t merely defend ourselves against this attack. We must ourselves attack, not with terror, but with statehood.
Since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, there has been wide acceptance in the federal government that Puerto Rico is a territory and the “Commonwealth” label has no legal meaning. The federal government has never said that Puerto Rico is not subject to the Territory Clause of the U.S. Constitution, regardless of how encouraging it may be about Puerto Rican local autonomy. Yet quotes from the 1950s are still used to continue a Cold War myth.