American “Colonialism” In Micronesia? – Not From My Vantage Point

American “Colonialism” In Micronesia? – Not From My Vantage Point

Over the past several years I have read, and also heard, several people comment on the former Trust Territory Government and its lack of commitment toward economic development and its colonial attitude toward the islands of Micronesia. For the record I have never heard criticism directed toward the U. S. Navy which administered Micronesia for a period after the war.

As far as I have witnessed, and to this day, the Navy is still regarded with the utmost affection and respect among the people of Micronesia. As we near the end of the twentieth century and looking back on that distant period of the former Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands from a perspective of the present and remembering the cultural, geographic and political environment that prevailed in the islands of Micronesia from the conclusion of the Naval Administration after which the U. S. Department of Interior assumed the responsibilities of administration until only a few years ago several thoughts come to mind. There was no economy in those days and very little entrepreneurial talent to develop businesses.

There was a shortage of risk capital. Potential export markets were very distant and remain so today. Until the early seventies the Japanese could only take out of their country the equivalent of $743 a minuscule amount for a tourist holiday upon which to base a tourism sector. Many of the essential ingredients for the development of an economy were conspicuously absent such as an adequate infrastructure, a trained workforce and, indeed, a commitment for development. In those days the Micronesians had no political identity in the world and were preoccupied with a change in their political status to the extent that this issue over shadowed their efforts to establish a “business climate” designed to encourage investment.

Having been colonized by the Spanish, Germans, Japanese – and much to my chagrin – as some would opine, the “Americans”, the islanders had practically no experience in matters of self government and the financial mechanisms required to sustain government operations. Among other things an extended family system discouraged savings. This cultural trait still prevails on many islands of Micronesia today. The area’s domestic market was fragmented and separated by great distances. Except for those of the sea, natural resources were limited. Populations were small making the achievement of economies of scale difficult which in turn limited opportunities to manufacture certain products locally in order to substitute imports and thus keep consumer’s money in the islands while also offering the possibility of exporting products to earn even more income.

For almost a quarter century after the conclusion of hostilities travel by air to and from Hawaii or Japan was excruciatingly time consuming.These were the days before widespread use of commercial jet aircraft when travel from Hawaii to the isolated islands of Micronesia required many exhausting hours. For example, in the early fifties a flight from Honolulu to Wake Island (technically not an island within the Trust Territory) required about nine and one half hours and from Wake to Saipan was still eight hours further. In those days Japan was occupied by the United States Armed Forces.

The country was concerned with its own reconstruction and had little interest in its former mandated islands. The United States got involved with the Korean Conflict in 1950 and several years later Vietnam became a priority. The United States also exhibited little interest in the islands’ reconstruction of an economy that had previously been marginal and dominated by the Japanese. Micronesia’s economy, infinitesimal as it was, languished undeveloped for an entire generation, some 33 years, following the conclusion of the Pacific war. First, as a result of sheer exhaustion and despondence and later (until 1973) as a result of American policy exercised on the basis of the ''most favored nation" clause within Article 8 (1) of the Trusteeship Agreement For The Former Japanese Mandated Islands. From 1947 until 1973 this policy to prohibit non American investment was referred to as the "denial principle."

The United States Government was not particularly interested in the islands except for Saipan and its training base for Central Intelligence Agency covert operations for the Naval Technical Training Unit (an area now known as Capitol Hill) and did not wish to encourage investment from the nationals of other countries. The administering authority interpreted Article 8 (1) in such a manner to be an effective tool to prohibit foreign investment. This policy precluded Japan from re-establishing itself in the islands of Micronesia which were administered for the United Nations under the Trusteeship Agreement.

Later, it was the policy of the Department of Interior, the administrating agency of the area, to wait until the Micronesian's controlled their own political and economic destiny and let them decide on how they wanted to development their economy. If mistakes were to made they would be Micronesian mistakes – not American. It was largely through the efforts of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce at a meeting held at the Royal Taga Hotel (now the Diamond) in December, 1972 that the United States was convinced of the need to relax its policy and open all the islands to foreign investment. This action by the business community on Saipan untaken primarily by two astute individuals, David Sablan and the late Joe Screen, set the stage for foreign investment for all of Micronesia. However, once the United States changed its policy toward outside investors there was still a strong desire by a somewhat xenophobic Congress of Micronesia and some of its members, (Marshalls, Kosrae, Ponape, Truk, Yap and Palau) to continue to control the introduction of foreign capital into the islands. This body, in which the Marianas District was represented, had enacted a rather stringent and restrictive Foreign Investor's Business Permit Act. This law remained in force even in the Northern Marianas until 1983 when it was repealed. In the Northern Marianas the door was opened to investment from all nations.

From that point and continuing up to the present the Northern Marianas has witnessed from 3/4 to $1 billion in foreign investment. By 1995 the reported business gross revenue had reached $2.26 billion annually. In many aspects, the restrictive foreign investment law is still in place in many other islands of Micronesia and still inhibits investment which can readily be seen in stark contrast to what has occurred in the Northern Marianas. So when I hear or read criticism of the former Trust Territory Government I remember the various constraints that were put in place by the islanders themselves to thwart such investment which continues to stunt economic growth today in all islands except the CNMI and Palau. As anyone can see, this did not occur in the Northern Marianas as a result of enlighten local leadership that refused to be bound by the attitudes of the other islanders. Certainly the Trust Territory Government was not perfect – no government is – but i wasn’t all bad. The United States instigated a policy of “decentralization” which placed administrative responsibility and authority at local island levels where local people would make the major decisions that were to effect their lives and their economies. This in itself provided a measure of experience in grooming for self government.

This policy was implemented in conjunction with a program known as “Education For Self Government”, a program which needs no explanation as the name implies. If the United States is to be criticized, in my opinion it is a result of an innocent, naive belief by some federal administrators in Washington at the time that all the islands of Micronesia were the same and therefore should be administered as a cohesive unit for administrative convenience. After all, they must have reasoned, Micronesian people reside on islands and they can sustain life with coconuts and fish. Thus, it was thought, treat them all the same. I even believed it for awhile. It was a utilitarian and uncomplicated impression, but untrue. In those days many in Washington failed to realize that the Chamorro is as different from a Marshallese as a German is from a Spaniard, that a Palauan is different from a Ponapean. The Trust Territory Government’s policy under the Department of Interior was “what’s good enough for one island is good enough for all.”

All the islanders have different cultures, languages, attitudes, etc., and each group had their own concept as to what they desired in their economic future. I can recall that it was sometime around 1970 or ‘71 that steps were taken to prepare the islands for the termination of the Trusteeship Agreement and thus launch the area on the path to self government. The target date was set for 1981. At the time it seemed so far into the future – now it seems so far in the past. The people of the Marianas were the first of all the former Trust Territory entities to decide their future political identity, they decided to enter into a Commonwealth arrangement in political union with the United States. In all of Micronesia they were the only island group to so closely affiliate with the United States.

On May 28,1986 the United Nations Trusteeship Council concluded that the United States had satisfactorily discharged its obligations to the islands. On November 4, 1986 United States citizenship was conferred upon those people of the Northern Marianas that met the necessary qualifications. On December 22,1990 the Security Council of the United Nations voted to dissolve the trusteeship over the Northern Marianas, Marshall Islands and the Federated States Of Micronesia.The Trusteeship over Palau was terminated in 1990 after 20 years of negations. In recalling my impressions and memories, I can state that I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

The experience certainly has enriched my life and gave me more than I gave. But that is another characteristic of the islanders – they always give – they are not selfish. Could that be the reason why they have lagged behind in their development aspirations – because they give everything away? Is it the islanders form of “Potlatch”, that bizarre, ceremonial cultural trait among American Indians of the north Pacific coast that dictates that one’s wealth must be destroyed once a year? I think it may be certainly true within the Federated States of Micronesia with the granting of fishing rights to foreign nations.