Variations | TT heart JFK

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E.J. Kahn Jr., in his amusing 1966 book “A Reporter in Micronesia,” wrote that for some Trust Territory islanders, President John F. Kennedy was “their best American friend in this or any other world.”

The Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands was administered by the U.S. “on behalf of the United Nations,” and it consisted of six districts in the Micronesian region: the Marianas (except Guam), the Marshalls, Palau, Ponape (Pohnpei), Truk (Chuuk) and Yap. Saipan was the capital.

Kahn said as president, JFK “was genuinely concerned about the islanders’ affairs, though he naturally could not devote too much of his time to so small, untroublesome, and undemanding a group; as a sailing man, he was also genuinely pleased when some Micronesians sent him a model outrigger canoe. He was beguiled with its reversible sail, and put it in the Fish Room of the White House.”

When JFK was assassinated, Kahn said the only American living on one outlying TT island, who had the only radio there, “hesitated at first to pass along the news. To many of the natives, a government is inseparable from the man who presides over it; to them, Kennedy was the United States.”

When he toured the islands in the mid-1960s, Kahn visited the Yap jail and found out that “the only pictures that the prisoners have on display are of saints and of Kennedy.”

On the first anniversary of JFK’ death in Nov. 1964, Kahn said “a sculpture of his head, commissioned in Japan, was unveiled in front of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church…on Saipan. (A Spanish priest said the first mass on that island four hundred years ago.) The Saipanese rather hoped that some of the Kennedy family might attend the ceremonies. No one did, but the hosts saved face, having refrained from sending out any invitations until four days ahead, when there would hardly have been time for an acceptance and appearance.”

Before JFK’s head was unveiled, it was on display in the mayor’s office. “An old Saipanese woman walked in — she had certainly been alive as far back as The German Period, and very probably had known The Spanish Period, too. [She] looked at the sculpture [and] burst into tears,” saying, “This was my president.”

Kahn said it was “a memorable day on Saipan, for that same night, in the main square of the Spanish-looking, white-washed-stucco village of Chalan Kanoa, the drawings were held in a raffle for the benefit of the municipal scholarship fund. The chances cost a dollar a piece [$1 in 1964 is now worth $8.29], and the promoters of the raffle were so lavish with prizes that although they took in over thirty-five hundred dollars [worth about $29,000 today], they netted only four hundred [about 3,300 in today’s dollars]. First prize was a pickup truck and second prize a refrigerator. Both were won, to the dismay of a few Saipanese, by itinerant Filipino construction workers, who late that night hoisted Prize No. 2 onto the back of Prize No. 1 and drove whoopingly away.”

In Koror, Palau, Kahn said, the natives were unhappy with their American district administrator’s decision to put up a sign identifying T Dock as the “Koror Marina.” Within a few hours, Kahn wrote, “they had covered the second of the two words with a thick coat of black paint.” Why? “Loving Kennedy as they did, they were damned if they were going to let anybody put on public display the name of Lee Harvey Oswald’s wife.”

It was JFK who “set up a small mission of his own to visit Micronesia and make recommendations on what the United States could or should do to speed up its progress toward whatever it might be going.” The head of the inspection team was Anthony M. Solomon, the future Assistant Secretary of State for Economic Affairs. At that time, “following a business career in Mexico and a wartime stint as economic director of southwest Iran,” Solomon was a lecturer on international economic relations at Harvard.

In their indispensable book published in 2000, “National Security and Self-Determination: United States Policy in Micronesia (1961-1972),” Howard P. Willens and Deanne C. Siemer wrote that Solomon understood “the White House dissatisfaction with the administration of the Trust Territory, and the disintegrating economic situation there.” He also had to “ ‘accept and not challenge’ the military and national defense imperative that the United States be able to deny foreign powers any military involvement in the Trust Territory.”

It was the Solomon report that confirmed what the islanders were experiencing under the American administration: “The current per capita income of the Micronesians was little over one-third of what it had been in 1939 under the Japanese.” Regarding the TT government itself, the Solomon report stated that “a major obstacle to the overall development of the Trust Territory is the creaky functioning of the quasi-colonial bureaucracy in the Trust Territory government.” The report added that “unqualified American officials with remarkable long periods of bureaucratic longevity, many from the days of Navy military government, are more the rule than the exception.”

Kahn said JFK liked most of the Solomon report’s ideas “and was on the point of implementing them when he was killed.” Kahn said the report had “never been made public — principally, one suspect, to deprive the Russians of any further critical comments about Micronesia they could berate us with at U.N. meetings.”

According to Willens and Siemer, it was in Dec. 1963 when the State Department classified the second volume of the Solomon report at the “Confidential” level — it was not going to be released to the public. The second volume discussed economic recommendations. The report’s first volume, which listed political findings and conclusions, was classified “Secret.”

Willens and Siemer said the “cloak of secrecy may have protected the incoming [LBJ] administration from the inconsistency between the substance of the report and what the United States was telling the Micronesians and the United Nations. But it also gave the report (which soon became ‘infamous’) a ‘cachet of malevolence’ and an ‘aura of mystery and suspicion’ that negated the value of ‘a very well done assessment of the economic and social potential of the Territory….”

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