Published Date

October 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 45: What Future for the Islands of the Pacific? (1944)

The first impression a visitor gets of the South Seas is of vast ocean spaces. These seas cover about one-sixth of the earth’s surface. From Honolulu to Port Moresby is more than 4,000 miles, or one and a half times the width of the United States from coast to coast. From Guam to Panama is 8,000 miles. But where the New England clipper ships once sailing these waters measured such distances in weeks, modern clippers of the air reckon them in hours.

The islands scattered through this region are really the ridges and peaks of tremendous mountain ranges rising out of the Pacific Ocean floor. Taken together, their land area totals about 400,000 square miles, or close to one-seventh the size of the United States.

But most of this total is made up of the huge island of New Guinea, which alone is more than twice the size of Japan. About a dozen other big islands, such as New Britain, which is larger than the Netherlands, fill out much of the remainder. The hundreds of small islands in the northern and eastern Pacific add up to very little in square miles of dry land.

These islands are tropical, but the smaller ones are somewhat cooled by the ocean and the trade winds. Many are high, and clothed with rich forests especially on their rainy windward slopes. But some, such as the ring-like atolls, are low, made up mostly or wholly of coral and sand. On these rainfall and vegetation are often scanty. Coral thrives in the shallow waters, so that shores are usually fringed with reefs and lagoons rich in marine life. This makes navigation difficult, however, and because of coral growth there are surprisingly few first-class harbors in the South Seas.

This pamphlet deals only with the Pacific island groups known as Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia. It is one of several G. I. Roundtable pamphlets on the Far Pacific area. Others deal with the Philippines, Southeast Asia (including the Dutch East Indies), Australia, China, and Japan.


Island Peoples

Nearly two and a half million islanders are “native” to this region: They are brown and dark-skinned peoples who were still in the Stone Age until the coming of the whites. These interesting folk, some of whom are regarded as among the most “primitive” of humans, have been adjusting rapidly to modern conditions. Considerable numbers of whites, Chinese, and other immigrant peoples have also settled in the islands, particularly around the developing ports and at scattered plantation and mining centers.

Forced by the whites to give up their old-time feuding and warfare, the native islanders must have been shocked to find their homes turned into battlegrounds. The war is bringing profound changes to their lives.

Some have seen their Western rulers driven out by the Japanese, then later have felt the weight of United Nations bombs and shells. Gray transports have loomed off quiet beaches, in a matter of hours bulldozers have torn out forests and hillsides, and miniature towns have sprung up.

In some respects American troops, with their friendly and democratic manner, and the new goods and ideas they bring, are jolting the islanders out of their former ways of life more than did the Japanese occupying forces. They are coming to know the free and easy Westerner who shares his food from a commissary much more varied than the Japanese diet of fish and rice alternated with rice and fish. They experience a military rule that is firm but just and that within the limits of security seeks to understand and meet the natives’ needs. This is sheer gain to innocent peoples who have found themselves suddenly overwhelmed by war from land and sea and air.

A Political Patchwork

Politically the islands form a strange patchwork. They are broken up into 18 separate units, including colonies, territories, protectorates, and League of Nations mandates. These are under the normal control of 8 different nations—Australia, Chile, France, Great Britain, Holland, Japan, New Zealand; and the United States. Two other powers formerly had political stakes and have left their marks—Spain and Germany.

This is one of the great colonial zones of the earth, an amazing laboratory of colonial philosophies and practices.

Next section: Why Are the Powers Interested?