Variations | A first-rate reporter in Micronesia

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FOR over 50 years, E. J. Kahn Jr. (1916-1994) wrote for one of the world’s finest magazines, The New Yorker. As a journalist, he was a “generalist.” He could write about anything, and he did.

Among the subjects of his 28 books were Frank Sinatra (1947) and Coca-Cola (1960). In 1966, his “A Reporter in Micronesia” was published, and it was about the remote and tiny Pacific islands then administered by the U.S. through the Trust Territory government. Many of the mostly stand-alone chapters of the 303-page book appeared in The New Yorker, and they probably persuaded some Peace Corps volunteers who had read them to check out Micronesia.

“[T]here are a few people anywhere,” Kahn wrote, “who are aware [of] a sprawling entity called the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, over which, for the last twenty years, the United States…has held firm sway. Nowhere, and at no time, has America had a comparable opportunity to demonstrate how its resources, skills and techniques can be used to make an underdeveloped region become, in the contemporary phrase, emergent.”

Like the former U.S. colony in Asia, the Philippines, the TT islands were — for better or worse — re-made in America’s image. It was during the U.S. administration and under its “guidance” when the TT islands — the NMI, the present-day FSM, the Marshalls and Palau — created their current political structures. In determining their future status, islands leaders had eagerly sought and received the expert advice of U.S. government officials, educators, lawyers, economists and other professionals.

Islands leaders, moreover, were very much aware that Micronesia’s “geographical dispersion and remoteness makes every undertaking more costly, probably than in any other area of the world,” as a visiting U.N. mission stated back then. In Micronesia, Kahn wrote, the “most routine of undertakings is apt to be uncommonly challenging.”

To achieve “cohesiveness, compassion, and comprehension,” Kahn said, “the learning of English is being vigorously encouraged” by the U.S. in Micronesia. “It seems a reasonable enough proposition, inasmuch as an American veneer — albeit still a thinnish coat on many of the islands — is gradually being applied to practically all of Micronesian life.” Kahn said “quite a few of the islands remote from the district centers, and some of the centers as well, still cling resolutely to their time-honored customs…but they may all be fighting a losing battle against the American way of life.”

Like many other American who visited the islands and had to learn about the region’s history, Kahn compared the bustling Micronesian economy during the Japanese administration with what it had become under the U.S. In Koror, Palau, he said, “natives comparing the frenetic Japanese Period with the infinitely more relaxed American Period that succeeded it confess that they are unable to understand how we won the war.” Japan’s “term of occupancy is sometimes…known in Micronesia as The Concrete Period.” In contrast, the American Period was The Corrugated Tin Period.

The “pride of Saipan” during the Japanese administration was Garapan, Kahn wrote. “After the invasion of Saipan there was nothing left of Garapan. Other war-torn cities have risen from their ashes. Garapan [during the American period] is still nothing.”

Kahn added that “unexploded bombs and other potentially death-dealing live ammunition are still to be found in parts of Micronesia…. The incumbent [American] administration has neither the skills nor the funds to cope with this dangerous situation. On Saipan, after the war, our armed forces tried to get rid of a lot of unexpected ammunition all at once by blowing up a dump. Things didn’t go exactly according to plan, and as a result live ammunition was spewed in every which direction, without all of it being detonated…. On Saipan, to the despair of the American authorities, small boys in search of shiny playthings persist in hammering brass burling bands off live shells they encounter.” In Koror, Palau, 20 years after the war ended, an “unexploded bomb, its tail fins visible above the ground, remains where it fell, a minute’s walk away from a beach where residents…take their children swimming. A single small bare stick marks the spot. Many…agree that this is perhaps an inadequate warning signal, and that somebody probably ought to do something about this hazard soon.”

E.J. Kahn Jr. was a delightful writer.

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