America's Half-Forgotten Islands

By Colin Woodard, | The Christian Science Monitor, December 27, 1999 | Go to article overview

America's Half-Forgotten Islands


Colin Woodard,, The Christian Science Monitor


Sixty years ago, residents of this small tropical island had access to electricity, running water, paved roads, good schools, competent health care, and a regular ferry service to the main town on a nearby island of the Chuuk archipelago.

But after 40 years as a US trust territory - and another 15 years of US-funded development - Uman has none of these things.

The roads built by the Japanese before World War II have been reduced to slender footpaths. Japanese-era industrial machinery rusts in the jungles, and shrubs grow on the main dock.

With no jobs and no future, young men drift to the district center, Weno, where many regularly drink themselves into a violent rage, then attack anyone or anything around them. The neglected, supply-starved hospital has such a poor reputation that even those seriously injured in attacks prefer not to be treated.

All this in a nation of 130,000 that has received more than $1.3 billion in US grants - $10,000 per person - over the past 13 years.

This is America's half-forgotten former Trust Territory of Pacific Islands - a vast swath of the Central Pacific captured from the Japanese during World War II - a place where the contradictions of US foreign policy are laid bare.

Washington ruled this region with a mix of starry-eyed idealism and cold-hearted self-interest, a combination that lives on in its post-independence policies toward the region. The result has been disastrous for places like Uman, Weno, and hundreds of other islands in the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

"Our policy has been a complete failure," says William Bodde, former US ambassador to the Marshall Islands. "A great deal of US taxpayers' money has been wasted."

Captured from Japan during World War II, the Marshall, Caroline, and Marianas islands became a US-administered United Nations Trust Territory. The US pledged to advance the region's people toward self- sufficiency.

In the 1940s and '50s, the US exploded 67 nuclear weapons in the Marshalls, irradiating scores of islanders and forcing hundreds into exile. Hundreds more were displaced from islands on Kwajalein Atoll to make way for intercontinental ballistic missile tests.

After a 1961 UN mission accused the US of neglecting the islanders, Washington sent in large quantities of aid and Peace Corps volunteers. A representative assembly was set up, and many of the islanders elected to it soon began clamoring for independence.

The Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) - the bulk of the Trust Territory - were granted independence in 1986. Under their independence agreement - the Compact of Free Association - the Marshall Islands and FSM agreed to rent their military sovereignty to the US in exchange for tens of millions in annual payments plus access to a range of federal programs. …

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