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 keen interest of the powers in securing territory in the South Seas is explained by the region’s very great strategic importance.

It lies between the three continental areas of the Pacific—America, Asia, and Australia. Across it run some of the main routes of world trade and communication. The islands themselves, scattered like steppingstones over the ocean spaces, serve as way stations and bases. They are sentry posts of security or, from another point of view, outposts of possible aggression.

The war has shown Americans the military value of this region and the part it plays in national safety and welfare. In particular, its harbors and anchorages, and its airfields—or places that can be turned into airfields—are keys to Pacific strategy. The Japanese attacks followed the pattern of these vital points. In turn pair counterblows trace the same pattern.

In times of peace, certain island harbors and the airways between them are essential links in Pacific transport and commerce.

To pioneers who crossed the American continent the ocean seemed a barrier. But it was and still is a highway. Westward are the millions of Asia. To the southwest are the British dominions, Australia and New Zealand—cousin lands of the United States, already linked to us by trade and common interests.

Many of the islands have considerable economic worth in their own right.

From the days of the early voyagers, South Sea ports bristled with the masts of clipper ships in the China trade, of sealers, whalers, pearlers, sandalwood traders, and guano freighters. They also harbored mission vessels and men-of-war of the Western nations. Later came steamships, which made important the strategically placed and better harbors, such as Honolulu, Suva (Fiji islands), Noumea (New Caledonia), and Rabaul (New Britain).

The development of transpacific aviation after about 1935 gave new twists to this pattern. Hitherto, neglected specks of land, such as Wake and Canton, became of the greatest significance.

After the war, indeed, the Pacific island region will have a great network of excellent airfields and seaplane landings undreamed of in prewar days.


Rivalries for Sea Lanes and Ports

Inevitably, rivalries and conflicts developed as the nations penetrating the Pacific sought control over its sea lanes and ports.

Some islands were annexed quite early. From the sixteenth century, Spain had used Apra harbor in Guam as a stopover point for its galleons and exercised dominion over the surrounding islands. France took Tahiti, with its good port of Papeete, in 1842, and New Caledonia eleven years later.

Britain acquired Fiji in 1874.

When in 1884–85 Germany began to carve out a Pacific island sphere by annexing the northeast New Guinea region and the Marshalls, it started a general grab for empire.

At this time, the United States went no further than to secure coaling stations for its ships at Pearl Harbor and Pago Pago in Samoa, and to join Britain and Germany in an ill-fated “tripartite” government for the Samoan islands. Yet American citizens had been playing an important part in the opening up of the South Seas.

Ships from New England had ranged through the islands after sandalwood and other products which could be sold to the Chinese in exchange for tea, silk, and other goods. They often wintered in the island ports, especially in Honolulu, to refit and replenish their supplies. American whalers and warships sailed through the area. In 1846 Captain Wilkes of the United States Navy led an exploring expedition through the islands, and many of the surveys then made are still the standard reference. Yankee merchants and planters built up business interests, particularly in Hawaii and Samoa, while missions gained converts. American consuls were placed at the principal ports to look after the interests of the United States and its citizens.

The United States Gains Territories

In 1898, the Spanish-American War took Dewey’s fleet to Manila Bay. It also led the United States at long last to annex Hawaii as an essential base en route to the Orient. Hawaii had by that time become a republic. Several years earlier the local white residents, mostly Americans, had overthrown the native monarchy of Queen Liliuokalani.

In 1899, the small eastern islands of Samoa, with the excellent harbor of Pago Pago, were ceded by the local chiefs to the United States. This was part of a general settlement by which Germany received the western Samoan islands, with their port of Apia, and Britain got imperial holdings elsewhere.

At the peace settlement with Spain a fateful decision was made. United States negotiators had the chance to acquire, along with the Philippines, the whole of the Spanish holdings in the South Seas—the Marianas, Palaus, and Carolinas. In that age of sea power they judged it enough to take only the island of Guam, with its good harbor of Apra. In the following year the rest of the islands were bought from Spain by Germany, to go later to Japan.

Again, after World War I, American statesmen made no attempt to gain new territory in the islands. They agreed to let the former German colonies be taken over as “mandates” by the British and Japanese. A clause was included, however, in the League of Nations Covenant that the mandates must not be fortified or militarized.

At the Washington Conference of 1921–22, the United States tried to forward the neutralizing of the South Seas by getting the powers concerned to sign an agreement not to fortify further their Pacific island territories. These agreements were later broken by Japan which, by denouncing the Washington treaties in 1937, wrecked the security system in the Pacific.

American opinion was apathetic toward this important zone for many years. United States island territories beyond Hawaii were left without any legally defined status. Even after nearly half a century, Guam and American Samoa still await legislation to fix their constitutional position. Their peoples have not been made American citizens and they find difficulty in coming to the United States because of immigration laws. Meanwhile these islands continue to be governed by the Navy under powers derived from the president.

A More Active Policy

With the development of transoceanic aviation, the United States government adopted a more active policy.

The Department of the Interior quietly tools parties of native Hawaiian youths as “colonists” to occupy Howland, Baker, and a number of other small islands in the northeast zone of the South Seas. Until then these specks of land had not been wanted by anyone and the question of their sovereignty had not arisen. But they now became vitally important as potential air bases.

The British authorities at this time took similar action, so that some competition developed. Both nations put parties ashore on Canton and Enderbury, and for a time the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack flew in rivalry. But in 1939 a joint occupation and use was agreed upon.

Soon, Pan-American Airways had a chain of excellent bases in operation for its clipper services from the United States to China and to Australia.

Belatedly, as it turned out, appropriations were made for the improvement of harbors and the construction of military defenses in the American island territories, most reluctantly of all for Guam. American engineers were at work when in December 1941 Japanese bombs rained down on these islands.

A War Footing

The territories of Britain, the Dominions, France, and Holland went on a war footing in 1939 when war broke out in Europe. These countries hastily began to build up their defenses in the islands, and to train local militias which sometimes included natives. At first these measures were designed to deal with German sea raiders, which, as in the last war, took some toll of shipping on the Pacific sea lanes. But increasingly they took account of possible Japanese aggression.

In 1940 France and Holland fell before the Germans. The French island possessions threw out pro-Vichy officials and lined up with the Free (Fighting) French movement. Military units from these islands went to the Mediterranean battlefronts. French Indo-China yielded to Japanese pressure but similar pressure failed to bring the Dutch East Indies within Japan’s Greater East Asia sphere. The Netherlanders stood firm.

Instead, with the French in the Pacific islands, the Netherlanders aligned themselves with the British countries. Americans will recall how our fleet toured Pacific waters early in 1941 to show the Japanese militarists where the United States stood amid all these tensions.

“Remember Pearl Harbor”

The attack upon Hawaii, the Philippines, and other outposts, followed by Japan’s tidal wave of conquest, brought the South Seas into the center of the national stage.

American forces began to move to strategic points in the central and eastern Pacific, including British and French territories. Huge sums of money were poured into the building of bases. Soon thousands of American homes became forever linked with the islands as white crosses marked American graves.

Our troops, in close cooperation with other United Nations forces, especially the Australians and New Zealanders, blunted the Japanese striking power in the rugged New Guinea area. So, too, did the Navy in the adjacent coral-choked seas. Mastering new landing operations and jungle tactics, our forces pushed irresistibly westward toward Asia.

Military Governments Take Charge

Behind the firing lines, military governments took charge. Australian territories, a branch of the Australian forces known as ANGAU, or the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit, restored control over the local peoples and handled relations between them and the American military forces.

In the Solomons and Gilberts, officers of the British colonial service took over. In fact, some British officials had stayed on during the Japanese occupation in remote hideouts, keeping contact as far as possible with the natives.

In these activities the United States followed a policy of not interfering with civil affairs in the regained territories of our allies. A similar pattern was carefully followed in the islands farther east where our troops went in to build bases. In the former Japanese islands, however, the United States assumed direct control. Here specially trained officers of the United States Navy and Marine Corps took over the job of military government on each island as it was occupied.

As a result of the war a number of universities have been giving special training to selected personnel in the languages and customs of the Pacific island peoples. This is a new and significant educational experiment that promises well for our relations with these people.

Military government will presumably continue in these islands until the postwar settlements are made. The differences between our system of government and that of the Japanese will provide an interesting colonial experiment. Judging by the friendliness of the island peoples toward us our methods are proving successful.

Next section: What Should Be Done?