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SAMOA: America’s Showplace of the South Seas


This is the second Reader's Digest article on conditions in American Samoa (see Reader's Digest "Shame").  After just four years, American Samoa has been transformed into a showplace.  On this website you will see how these changes came about, what they meant to the growth and development of the community and what happened to all of this in recent years. We thank Reader's Digest and Clarence Hall for bringing all of this to the attention of the world.



By Clarence W. Hall
Reader's Digest
November 1965

 

From a Pacific slum to a Polynesian paradise in four years.  The dramatic story of a man who helped an island people to help themselves.

Somewhere on earth there may be a more spectacular example of revolutionary change in an area and its people, but in years of roving the world’s far corners I have not seen it.

Five years ago the small cluster of exotic islands composing American Samoa was a national disgrace. Nestling deep in the fabulous South Seas, 8,000 miles from Washington, this tiniest, most forgotten U.S. territory slumbered in tattered neglect. Few tourists ever saw it; one who did stamped it “a Tobacco Road with palms.” The handsome people of purest Polynesian blood, had long since grown spiritless, were scorned and pitied as poor country cousins by their kinfolk on other island groups. Each year, hundreds of American Samoa’s more ambitious youths quit the islands to seek education and employment in Hawaii and U.S. West Coast cities.

Today, however, this former South Seas slum is the show place of the Pacific. Young expatriates are flooding back to participate in the islands’ bursting new life and prosperity. Other islanders come to stare enviously at American Samoa’s new schools and roads. Educators come to observe Samoa’s exciting experiment-the first anywhere-in almost total teaching by television. And with its storied capital, Pago Pago, now the main stop on the direct route from Hawaii to Australia, tourists by the hundreds will soon be tumbling off the jets at Oceania’s finest airport, to relax in the new 100-room luxury hotel or just to savor life in an idyllic South Seas settings.

What brought about this magical metamorphosis? Two factors, mainly: the threat of a diplomatic disaster, and a remarkable man.

A Grand Design. The threat arose early in 1961 with realization that, in July of the coming year, American Samoa was slated as host for the triennial meeting of the South Pacific Conference. More than 200 delegates would be coming from other Pacific territories. Worldwide radio and press coverage would contrast America’s vaunted concern for the world’s underprivileged with the shabby neglect of her own.

Appalled at the prospect, President Kennedy rushed to Congress a request for an emergency appropriation of $465,000. He admonished the Department of the Interior to get a new governor out there to do a fast job of refurbishing. Secretary Stewart Udall picked a seasoned troubleshooter H. Rex Lee, 52, then deputy commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Idaho-born Rex Lee is a man of steely determination masked by a soft-spoken manner. He arrives in Pago Pago four days before his inauguration, spent the time poking about the islands- “a melancholy vista if I ever saw one.” Government buildings flying tattered American flags were rotted, termite-infested and peeling. Roads were rutty paths leading nowhere. Raw sewage was piped into Pago Pago’s spectacular harbor, which was ringed by overwater latrines, Samoans suffered from unchecked disease and malnutrition. Agriculture had gone downhill, and heavy imports of even the barest necessities lifted the cost of living to ridiculous heights. The only private industry of any consequence was a small tuna cannery.

Most shocking were what passes for village schools- mostly sagging little grass-roofed shacks, crammed with children, taught by Samoan teachers who themselves had the equivalent of no more than five or six years of schooling. The singles high school could accommodate fewer than a third of those students desiring to enter.

A man of lesser fiber might have thrown up his hands and quit. Ever since 1899, when Samoan chiefs asked the United States to take over their islands, governors had come and gone with dismaying rapidity, unable to shake Samoa out of its doldrums or Washington out of its apathy. But Lee mapped out a grand design for Samoa’s redemption. “Simply to fix this place up for the SPC meeting and then abandon it,” he had concluded, “would be worse than nothing.”

Calling the island chiefs together for a confab around the ceremonial kava bowl, he told them, “I’m not going to ask Congress for anything you can supply yourselves-land for roads and schools, for instance, and the labor to build them.” Beguiled by the picture he painted of their future, but disbelieving, the Samoan leaders smiled indulgently and pledged full cooperation.

In three weeks Rex Lee was back in Washington, full of ideas and zest. The importance of American Samoa, he told members of the House subcommittee on deficiency appropriations, was moral: “When the islands were necessary for our defense, up to and including World War II, we used them and used their people.” But the territory’s importance was also political: “For years the South Pacific has been a vacuum. Now our enemies are moving into that vacuum. Here’s our chance to show the world how we can help underdeveloped peoples toward a self-sufficient life.”

The result: a Congressional down payment on the $9,500,000 requested for the first year’s budget.

“First-Rank Model.” Stopping off in Hawaii, Lee corralled help from quarters long concerned with the territory’s neglect. From Rear Adm. Henry G. Clark of the 14th Naval District came a pledge of aid in getting construction contracts, plus the temporary loan of a battalion of reserve Seabees and equipment. Albert B. Pratt, a former Seabee, promised to take a leave of absence as head of Pearl Harbor’s public-works department to supervise road building and give Samoans on-the-job training. Architect George J. Wimberly, creator of some Hawaii’s most attractive Polynesian-type structures, was enlisted to design an auditorium for the SPC meeting, which later could Governor H. Rex Leebe used for school and public functions.

Back in Samoa, Rex Lee called the island chiefs together, pointed to the boatloads of men and equipment arriving from Hawaii. “Now you’re going to get some of the things you’ve been yearned for- first of all, a road,” he said. The chiefs quickly recruited 900 workers, and some joined in themselves as road-gang foremen.

With Lee everywhere at once, checking, prodding, approving, Pago Pago’s appearance changed markedly. The waterfront was swept clear of the over-the-water latrines. Villages were made pin-neat and planted with flowers. Some 5500 gallons of good paint were flown in, sold at cost, and Samoans painted everything in sight. Ready by the time the SPC delegates arrived were: the jet airport with its 9,000 foot runway; 15miles of 20-ffot-wide macadam roads leading to the beauty spots of the island of Tutuila; 29 new teachers’ housing units with modern plumbing; three new buildings for Samoa’s high school, capable of caring for 300 visitors; the handsome new civic auditorium; a new power plant-and 20,000 immensely proud Samoans

Representatives from 23 Pacific states and territories, plus observers from the U.N., could scarcely believe their eyes. Critics who came to carp praised American Samoa as “a first-rank model of how to govern Pacific islands.”

In a Hurry. Now Lee plunged into his plan to make Samoa independent of outside support. Education, as he saw it, must be his main thrust. Reforming the primitive education system by gradual steps would take decades. An absolute necessity was “an explosive upgrading.” But what kind?

The notion came to Lee in a flash that the answer lay in television not as a supplemental aid but as the core of teaching. It was a revolutionary idea for Samoa, which had no television. But once the high cost of setting it up was met, TV education would be comparatively inexpensive, for a small group of instructors, of top quality, could reach a maximum number of students.

Impressed but skeptical, the Congressional appropriations committee granted Lee $40,000 to explore the idea. A study team from the National Association of Educational Broadcasters, headed by Vernon Bronson, reported after on-the-spot examination that ETV was indeed “the best potential tool for the task.” Congress then approved and appropriation of $1,583,000 for a three-channel system.

The NAEM began rounding up and training engineers, technicians and ETV teachers from all over the United States. In early 1963, contracts were let for equipment and for the erection of a 226-foot transmitter atop 1,700-foot Mt. Alava across the bay from Pago Pago.

When getting to the transmitter site proved a problem, engineers swung a 5,100-foot cable across the harbor cannily estimating that the aerial tramway would pay for itself as a tourist ride. It provides a spectacular view as far as Western Samoa, 77 miles away.

The Samoans erected 26 consolidated schools to replace the 45 tumbledown village schools. And with the opening of the 1964 school year, KVZK-TV beamed its first signals to the new schools. The specially prepared elementary lessons are on three main levels; each lesson, whatever its subject matter, lays heavy emphasis on oral English.

Finding experienced top teachers eager to have a go at it proceeded rapidly. Typical are Roy and Mildred Cobb of Louisville, Ky. While Mildred settled in at Utulei supervise the production of ETV curricula, Roy went to Nua, 15miles distant, to get the first consolidated school, serving four nearby villages, is the standard by which others are judged. It comprises six concrete-and-red-wood buildings of two classrooms each, playground, and beautiful flowered grounds planted and maintained by the villagers. There are 275 pupils, nine Samoan teachers and six trainees.

Standing Room Only.  After a year of trial. Has Samoa’s experiment in TV teaching been successful? “Outstandingly so,” say authorities. Dr. John W. Harold, Samoa’s director of education and formerly executive director of the Iowa State Education Association, reports: “tests show that young Samoans not only are learning twice as fast as formerly, but are retaining their knowledge much longer.” Attendance averages 98 percent in all schools.

Last September, Samoa’s high schools also turned to TV teaching, served by three added TV channels. To the single high school at Utulei are being added three spanking new ones: one at Leone (now completed), another on the island of Tau, and a third at the eastern end of Tutuila. The basic plan calls for a complex of circular, Polynesian-style buildings, all hurricane-proof, providing 5,540 square feet of space.

At night, the new schools become community centers, packed to the standing-room-only stage with older Samoans eagerly imbibing lessons in farming, home beautification, sanitation, the principles of government and democracy. Newscast in both Samoan and English are featured nightly, as are travelogues showing how other people live and solve their problems.

American Samoa’s ETV system has been studied by international agencies and by technicians from many countries. Its implications for underdeveloped areas everywhere are significant, since the broadcasts could just as well go to 2,500 schools simultaneously as to Samoa’s 25, for only a modest additional cost. With the encouragement of Governor Lee, methods of adapting the TV teaching to their own needs are now being studied by Western Samoa, where KVZK-TV’s telecasts come in lound and clear, and by the Tonga Islands.

Making Money. Other accomplishments in American Samoa have been scarcely less imposing. Attracted by generous tac incentives, a number of new companies have settled on government-owned land, proviging welcome work and wages for hundreds. Local commerce had long been a monopoly of a few island traders. With funds from the government-owned Bank of Samoa, a number of vigorous young Samoans have started flourishing little businesses of their own. A pair of brothers, for example, now runs a combined commission business and tours agency. Two others now operate their own construction business. Other private enterprises include an island newspaper, Samoa’s first laundry, a barber and beauty shop, a retail clothing store.

With the islands’ exotic beauty, attractive people and the handsome new jet airport-finest in the South Seas-tourism was made to order for Samoa. Three years ago, Lee Helped island leaders to form the Samoa Development Corp. “If anyone is to profit from Samoa’s tourist attractions,” he said, “it will be Samoans.” Today, the fine new Polynesian-style hotel is 100-percent Samoan-owned, with 1,200 shareholders, who purchased $10 shares through time payments and payroll deductions. All shops and services-Polynesian handicrafts, fishing boats, car rentals-will eventually be run by Samoans trained by an international hotel-management concern.

Among SDC projects soon to be realized is a modern shopping center in Pago Pago, complete with Laundromats and an air-conditioned supermarket. The broad base of stock ownership is already channeling dividends to the remotest villages and scores of Samoans, partly supported by government scholarships and partly by the SDC, are now in mainland and Hawaiian colleges learning the skills they need to run their own affairs.

Food and Facilities. Most Samoan farms had produced only scant crops of such diet basics as taro, breadfruit and bananas. One of Lee’s first acts was to rejuvenate the government’s weed-grown experimental farms. Extension agents showed the islanders how to step up the quantity and variety of their products. Intercropping was started, free transplant of seedling were provided, farm machinery was rented out, insecticides and fertilizers were sold at cost. Suitable strains of poultry and pigs were brought in.

The result: Samoa’s average production per acre has almost doubled since 1961. Overall, food prices are at an all-time low. Many farmers now own machinery, bought on time. And today in Samoa’s traditional open-air, grass-roofed shacks stand more than 500 large white refrigerators.

Another of Lee’s early acts was to launch engineering studies for a comprehensive sewage-disposal system for the Pago Pago bay area, then to begin a long-term program aimed at providing, largely with the people’s own efforts, sanitary facilities in each village, including laundry and showers. The possession of a private water toilet has now become a Samoan status symbol.

Health and Welfare. With the help of imported specialists, a control program ha sharply reduced the incidence of pulmonary troubles, filariasis, intestinal parasites, anemia and other diseases. Malnutrition in the young, due to a faulty diet and alarmingly fatal to infants, was attacked through a school-lunch project and home-demonstration programs. To cut down the islands’ birth rate, long one of the world’s highest, a drive to teach birth control was recently launched.

Lee wangled from Congress a three-million-dollar appropriation to build a badly needed new hospital. The ancient hospital’s services had been largely in the hands of a dozen “Samoan medical practitioners” (SMP’s), bright young Samoans trained at the Central Medical School in Suva, Fiji, but without enough education to qualify for medical degrees. A number of scholarships have now been established for Samoans in stateside schools of medicine, to supply top medical talent for the future.

Price Tags. Since his goal was to make Samoans self-sufficient politically as well as economically, Lee boldly surrendered many of his powers, laying in the lap of the legislature, formerly a rubber-stamp body, the responsibility for enacting and enforcing its own laws. How well the Samoans have responded is indicated by the legislature’s action in early 1963 when it overwhelmingly voted “to join our fellow Americans in paying federal income taxes” the only American territory voluntarily to take on this burden. When one legislator, egged on by a well-to-do island merchant, spoke against and the income tax as “colonialist” and “undemocratic,” whole phalauxes of his fellow chiefs arose to cry him down. “We have never been less colonialist or more democratic,” declaimed High Chief Rapi Sotoa, president of the senate. “This makes us real Americans at last!”

In 1963, the income tax produced $212,600; in 1964, $947,000; in 1965, some $1,186,000-an amount almost equal to the entired annual Congressional appropriations for Samoa in pre-Lec days. The steady climb of Samoa toward economic independence is equally marked. For fiscal 1966, local revenues are estimated at $3,011,000almost a fourfold growth over 1961.

Congressional appropriations over the past four years have totaled more than 30 million dollars. With most of his construction program financed, Lee’s budget request for fiscal 1966 is down to $3,795,000. “With the rate of economic growth anticipated,” he says, “American Samoa should become self-sufficient by 1975.” Says Congressman Michael J. Kirwan of the House Committee on Appropriations: “Seldom in our history has an investment in people shown such prompt and satisfactory returns.”

Keep It Samoan. Word has spread. SO many people from other South Sea island groups have tried to crowd in that Samoa had had to restrict immigration. Two delegations came recently from New Zealand’s Tokelau Islands, nosed about for days, then sought out Governor Lee to say, “we are sent by our council of chiefs, who decided that we would like to cede our islands and become a part of the United States.”

But will all this development mean the loss of Samoa’s charm, the abandonment of its appealing culture? Not at all, says Lee. “All we do is aimed at keeping Samoa Samoan.” The island chiefs unanimously agree. As High Chief T. Le’iato told me: “If we lose any of our old ways, it will be because we choose 10, not because changes are being forced upon us.”

When, last year, word reached Samoa that a representative of an Iron Curtain country had risen in the U.N. to call American Samoa “a familiar example of colonialist conquest,” the legislature flew into an uproar. “Let us make it plain,” said one spokesman, “that American Samoa is no colony, but a part of the United States-by choice. And let no one come calling here to force us apart from our brothers, the mainland Americans!”

 

 

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