Samoa: America’s Shame in the South Seas
By Clarence W. Hall
Reader's Digest, July 1961
Last March in Pago Pago, in the lushly beautiful South Pacific islands of American Samoa, I ran into an angry man from Minneapolis. We met in an island trader’s store, formerly the inn where Somerset Maugham is said to have made notes for his famous drawn-from-life story “Rain”.
While we have been doling out billions to underdeveloped nations, we have let our only South Pacific possession sink to the level of a slum.
The Minnesotan had arrived that morning aboard a cruise ship stopping briefly at Pago Pago. While other tourists plodded about shopping for curios, he had made a tour of the island, and he was hopping mad.
“What the Sam Hill have we been doing in these islands for 60 years?” he boomed. “While squadrons of our foreign-aiders charge about the world loaded with largess for every underprivileged people who’ll take it, but look what we’ve let happen to these – our own nationals!”
In American Samoa, such righteous indignation rises readily in anyone concerned with U.S. prestige in the Pacific. For here, amid enchanting scenery and smiling Polynesians – praised by Robert Louis Stevenson as “God’s best, at least God’s sweetest, works” – the visitor is shocked to encounter government buildings peeling and rotting on their foundations, beautiful Pago Pago Bay marred and befouled by hideous over-water outhouses, rutty and teeth-jarring roads unrepaired for years, crumbling reservoirs and ancient leaky water mains that cause frequent water shortages – despite an average annual rainfall of 200 inches.
Agriculture is fast going to seed; coconut trees and banana plants, the territory’s most abundant crops, are destroyed by insects and disease; the islands, once self-sufficient, now have to make heavy importations of canned goods. The medical service, manned by able but too small staffs, wrestles with high case loads, inadequate laboratory equipment, an overcrowded hospital partly housed in a former Navy barracks.
Public schools are unequipped shacks or tiny one-room Samoan fales, thatched-roofed structures with no sides. A largely untrained and poorly paid teaching force struggles to teach some 5,500 eager pupils on the lowest budget (less than $50 per pupil) of any U.S. state or territory in the world.
A few months ago a British government official, a firm friend of the United States, took a long look at American Samoa and shook his head. “I can’t believe,” he said, “that this is the way the American Government treats its dependencies. The America I know is responsible and humanitarian to the core. But how does one explain Samoa?”
One can’t, except with two words; neglect, and apathy. Both have persisted ever since the United States made itself custodian of these islands 5,000 miles from its shores.
It began in the early 1870’s, when the U.S. Navy, plying the Pacific to protect American shipping, needed a coaling station. Steaming into Pago Pago, the finest natural harbor in the Pacific, a naval commandant made a deal with the local chief promised in return “the friendship and protection of the great government of the United States.”
Such protection came in handy for the Samoans, at a time when German naval forces were assuming “protectorates” over any unclaimed island groups. By 1899, harassed Samoan chiefs had ceded the islands outright to the United States. President McKinley accepted the “gift” in February 1900, put the Navy in charge.
Thus the Navy found itself saddled with governing a people whose unique social system, old when Columbus discovered America, it but dimly understood. Fa’aSamoa (the Samoan way of life) was spun around a network of communal family groups, each giving allegiance to a chief, or matai, whose word was law. The matai determined the occupation of each member, apportioned his earnings among the group, held in trust all family lands. Ascending echelons of the matai included numerous high chiefs and “talking chiefs.” No question could be decided save by prolix oratory and long dalliance around bowls of kava, Samoa’s ceremonial drink.
Impatient Navy four-stripers, whose tours of duty as island governors were brief, had neither time nor desire to reform such a society. Deciding that a “Samoa for the Samoans” policy was best, the Navy left the Samoans largely to their own devices. For 51 years it did little more than supply minimal education and health services.
In World War II the islands became a staging area for Guadalcanal. Soon everybody was working for the military. Schools closed down, copra cutting ceased, hundreds of young Samoans deserted their fishing canoes. Free-spending sailors brought a gush of prosperity, and kept the matai busy dividing up the wages paid Samoan civilians.
The war left Samoans with tastes beyond their ability to support, aspirations beyond the Navy’s ability to satisfy. Demands for civil government arose, and in the States a lively Donnybrook ensued between the Navy and the Department of the Interior. Interior won and, in 1951, took over.
The departure of the Navy, which had been spending many millions of dollars a year on its installation, payroll and services, left the islands economy stripped. Interior’s governors, handicapped by peanut-size budgets, came and went with alarming rapidity. (In one two-year period the islands had four governors and four acting governors.) Despite heroic efforts by a few of the more durable, notably the present incumbent, Peter Tali Coleman, conditions today are scarcely better than in 1951.
Who is to blame? Rooting about in Pago Pago and Washington for an answer, you find the finger pointing inevitably to the Department of the Interior. Its penny-pinching policies have kept the islands on a bare subsistence level for ten years.
For example, from 1956 to 1960 federal grants and appropriations for the regular operations of American Samoa averages less than $1,325,000 a year, or about $67 per capita. (For the more self-supporting Virgin Islands, the most nearly comparable U.S. territory, they were $7,250,000 or $225 per capita.)
Such penury begets official Pago Pago policies as indefensible as they are trouble-breeding. One is high customs duties, ranging from 15 to 100 percent, placed on everything brought into American Samoa lifting the local cost of living to ridiculous heights. Another is the wage differential between Samoans working for the local government and those employed by the Van Camp fish cannery, the island’s only private enterprise hiring more than a handful of workers. Shortly after the cannery was established in 1953, wages-and-hours experts from Washington moved in to demand for its 400 workers a minimum wage of 75 cents an hour. The local government itself has a minimum of 15 cents an hour for its 1500 employees half of whom make no more than six dollars a week.
With Nikolao Tuitele, assistant director of education, I toured the public schools. Typical was one on a small bush clearing near Tafuna. In a 9-by-15-foot fale, a young Samoa teacher was trying to cope with 21 primary pupils in three grades – without desks, blackboards, books, pencils or paper. The youngsters sat on the crushed-coral floor taking turns reciting the rote. Lunch preparation was over an open fire, toilet facilities were the bush.
Further evidence of the tight fisted disregard in which American Samoa has been held is that it is the only U.S. territory which has been persistently excluded from any bills. Samoa was not even mentioned in the 394-million-dollar Depressed Areas bill or in the early proposals for the 5½-billion-dollar Federal Aid to Education bill, until Sen. Oren E. Long of Hawaii spotted the omission and corrected it. A comment you hear often in the islands these days: “We lack two things: votes to keep anybody in office, and a communist or two to create a threat.”
But American Samoa’s troubles are not all due to miserly budgets. Fuzzy goals, too, have held the people back. Interior’s own statement of objectives, made in 1956, announced contradictory aims. While promising “progressive development toward self-government,” and the attainment of “maximum possible self-support,” it pledges continuance of the archaic and now facing matai system. One aim obviously nullifies the other.
Nobody at Interior seems to have noticed that Samoans are fast outgrowing the more repressive aspects of their ancient tradition. One full-blooded Samoan, educated at Stanford University and now back in Samoa as a teacher, asked me, “How can any people live and work with Americans for 60 years, study the ideals of George Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, see underdeveloped peoples rising all around them in the world, then be content with the Indian-reservation life enforced here? Fa’aSamoa and Fa’aAmerika have met, and most of us have made our choice. Why are we held back?”
Of the dangers in denying such aspirations, the late Dr. Felix M. Keesing, eminent expert on Pacific matters, said, “Small as these possessions may be, they are watched carefully by other nations, some of them searching for weaknesses and mistakes in the U.S. record here as elsewhere.” Keesing sees American Samoa as the “test of U.S. intentions” for economically underdeveloped countries and non-self-governing territories.
How miserably we’ve flunked the test may soon be revealed for all to see. American Samoa, long hidden from outside notice, will shortly be brought into the world spotlight by two significant events, both scheduled for mid-1962.
One is the opening of a jet airport at Tafuna, near Pago Pago. Now under construction, the 9000-foot runway will make American Samoa the aerial gateway to all Polynesia, with several airlines bringing in thousands of passengers.
The other event is the scheduled assembly in Pago Pago of the South Pacific Conference. Meeting on U.S. soil for the first time, the conference will draw some 300 critical delegates from island territories all over the Pacific, with full press, radio and TV coverage.
“At this meeting,” says Dr. Knowles A. Ryerson, of the University of California, U.S. representative on the South Pacific Commission, “the United States should present a picture of which we can be proud, not ashamed.”
The president, realizing the prestige factor at stake, last March rushed to Congress a special-appropriation request for $565,000 to provide accommodations for the conference and give American Samoa something better than a threadbare dress in which to appear before her neighbors. Even so, there is serious doubt that the territory can be refurbished and made ready in time.
Samoans, both those in the islands and those who have migrated to the States—some 2,000 in Hawaii, another 1,500 on the U.S. mainland—have many ideas for the economic rescue of their homeland. Brightest hope is tourism, whose possibilities will burgeon with the completion of the Tafuna jet airport. And Samoans point to other possible developments that range from copra-refining and cocoa-processing plants to cottage industries producing handicrafts and other island specialties. Until now, however, the government has thrown cold water on schemes for any “operation boot-strap” with the old excuse, “interior won’t approve.”
Despite all this, Samoan admiration for the United States is strong and deep. Still proud of being Americans, Samoans turn their backs coldly on any suggestion of union with Western Samoa, a U.N. trust territory administered by New Zealand and soon to get its independence.
“All we ask,” I was told by Talking Chief A.P. Lauvao, one of the islands’ most articulate spokesmen, “is to be treated as brothers, not sons or stepsons. We ask nothing but enough technical aid to help us start doing for ourselves, to prove to the world that Samoans can stand on their own feet—like real Americans.”
That seems not too much to ask. With so few “showcases” for the free world’s intentions left to us, can we afford to slight strategic Samoa?