Saipan — In “A Reporter in Micronesia,” his 1966 book about the tiny islands administered by the United States, E.J. Kahn Jr. pinpointed America’s primary goal in the region: “to exercise some kind of control over so broad an expanse of the Pacific; otherwise our national security might again be imperiled.”
It was in 1947 when President Truman formalized the U.S. Navy’s supervision of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, which consisted of the Northern Marianas, the Marshall Islands,
Palau and what is now known as the Federated States of Micronesia.
In line with what was then the American policy toward the islands, Kahn said the Navy basically left the local people to their own devices. This was known as the “zoo theory” of administration. “One zoophilic Navy admiral who got to know the natives well declared in 1947, ‘…for mercy’s sake let them alone in their happiness!’ ” However, Kahn noted that no one knew what the islanders considered happiness.
“The zoo theorists thought the Micronesian could subsist quite satisfactorily on the bounty of their soil and of their seas. But many Micronesians thought otherwise…. A subsistence economy might keep them detached from the rest of the world, and in the admirals’ eyes, quaint, picturesque and unspoiled; but a cash economy, such as had flourished…during the Japanese Period, was more appealing to many of the natives who, however…foreigners might feel about Micronesia, had to live there.”
The Navy, in any case, “stood watch” until 1951 when President Truman turned over the administration of the islands to the Department of the Interior. At the helm of the Trust Territory or TT government was the high commissioner who was appointed by the U.S. president. The high commissioner, Kahn wrote, was “more powerful within his three-million-square mile realm than the President of the United States is within his.” The high commissioner was “not only the supreme executive but also the supreme legislative authority; he falls short of being omnipotent by virtue of the supreme judicial authority reposing in a chief justice who is also designated by and responsible directly to the Secretary of the Interior.”
Fun fact: the TT flag looks like the FSM flag, but with six stars (representing the six TT districts) instead of four. Kahn said a TT-wide contest was held in the early 1960s to pick a TT flag design, and the winning entry was designed by a radio operator on Saipan who won the first prize of $500 — about 4,200 in 2020 dollars.
During the TT’s early period, the most money ever allocated to its government by the U.S. Congress was over a million dollars a year (equivalent to about $9.4 million today), “and since a good deal of that had to go into subsidizing transportation, making ends meet was not easy.”
But the U.S. policy was “to move slowly” in Micronesian region, Kahn said, and so “everything just sort of limped along.” Most of the money appropriated by the U.S. government “was spent on facilities for the Americans who were out there to spend the money.”
The high commissioner’s headquarters were on Saipan. “By Micronesian standards,” Kahn said, “Saipan life is plush.” Why? Because the island had dial telephones — and a bowling alley. Moreover, Saipan “is only a hundred and twenty miles from Agaña, the capital of Guam — which though no great shakes compared to Hong Kong, Paris or New York, is to many Micronesians a metropolis of breathtaking glitter. Like Guam…Saipan, alone of Micronesian metropolises, is hospitable to the sport of cockfighting.”
Kahn said the TT offices on Saipan were comparatively opulent because they were inherited from the Central Intelligence Agency “which built itself a postwar enclave there at a cost of some twenty-eight million dollars” (worth $302 million today). Because the CIA’s presence was top-secret, half of Saipan was off-limits to most everyone, including island residents. Kahn said they “became understandably nervous about what was happening in the [CIA-controlled] area.” The locals “are still somewhat edgy about the effect on them of the United States’ strategic moves,” Kahn added.
In February 1965, when the locals heard that U.S. planes were bombing North Vietnam, “there was a wild exchange of frightening rumors. The most widely circulated one…was that [a] Soviet trawler…was lying off Saipan, ready to launch an invasion force. Before the day was out, every pound of rice in every store on Saipan had been bought up by panicky natives who thought the Third World War was under way.”
Because the TT was administered by the U.S. “on behalf of the United Nations,” a U.N. Trusteeship Council held a session each year to look into the progress the U.S. was making to achieve the U.N.’s long-range goals for the TT: self-sufficiency and self-government. Kahn said the council session “usually lasts about a month [and its] deliberations are open to the public, but hardly anyone bothers to attend, and the press rarely prints about them.” The Soviet Union delegates did most of the talking. “When they are not complaining…they are challenging the motives and the actions” of the U.S.
Every three years, Kahn said, the U.N. would send a delegation to inspect the TT islands. “No country unfriendly to the United States has ever been represented on one of these missions, but even so some reports, considering the diplomatic language all such documents are couched in, have been highly critical.”
Kahn said the Micronesians were “always glad to have outsiders drop in, and usually welcome them with flowered leis and splendid feats…. [But] Micronesians try not to let themselves be deluded about the permanency of the visitors’ interest in their welfare.” Kahn quoted the FSM’s future president, Leo A. Falcam, as saying, “Let us not forget that they will…come and go, but we are here to stay….”
Zaldy Dandan is editor of the NMI’s oldest newspaper, Marianas Variety, and author of three books available on amazon.com