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  • ‘A Chance to Build a New Social Order Well.’ Anthropology and American Colonial Government in Micronesia in Comparative Perspective
  • I. C. Campbell

At the end of World War 2 in the Pacific the United States retained possession of the islands of Micronesia that had made up the former League of Nations mandate administered by Japan. American determination to retain these islands was such that it was prepared to annex them outright. The fate and status of the native inhabitants was secondary to the strategic value of the islands, and not only was American agreement that they become a United Nations Trust Territory reluctant, but the unique status of a ‘strategic trust’ demonstrated the secondary importance of the population. Such motivation was not an auspicious beginning of a new era for the people, but so thorough had been the destruction of war that Micronesia seemed to be a tabula rasa for social experimentation; hence the observation of an idealistic junior officer that ‘Here is a chance to build a new social order well.’ 1

For the first six years of peace Micronesia was administered by the US Navy. The navy did not lack experience of administering civilians, having since the beginning of the century been responsible for both Guam and American Samoa. Throughout that time, however, it had not formed an office that might be a repository of experience or specialized knowledge, but rather treated territorial appointments that same as other service appointments. Officers were assigned to various civil administrative responsibilities on two-year terms for all positions from governor downward. Nevertheless, the naval administration that governed Micronesia until 1951 went to unusual lengths to make its guardianship professional and progressive. The means it chose was to seek the advice of anthropologists as the experts in social dynamics, and especially in the workings of primitive societies. Indeed, there was an impression at the time that colonial administration was best undertaken as an exercise in ‘applied anthropology.’ This deviation from the navy’s former practice was a development of wartime initiatives.

War-time Training for Civil Affairs

Notwithstanding the fact that in wartime the interests of civilian populations are often subordinated to operational exigencies, their administration must be provided for, and in anticipation of this the United States Army and Navy established Schools of Civil Affairs to prepare officers for this task. The army School of Civil Affairs was established at Charlottesville in Virginia in 1943 for the occupation of Europe, and the navy established a school at Columbia University in New York for the Japanese Pacific Islands. Other navy schools were subsequently established at Harvard, Yale, Michigan, Northwestern and Stanford Universities for the Far East generally, but most of the officers for the islands were trained at Columbia. The model for these schools was the British Army School of Civil Affairs at Wimbledon. 2 The subject matter of these courses fell into three parts: principles and procedures of civil administration, area studies (embracing the history, geography and society of the people concerned) and language study. Anthropology was prominent in the area studies on the principle that to govern a society effectively it is necessary to understand its structure and values. Anthropologists were prominent in devising and teaching these programs, and in preparing the handbooks that accompanied them.

After the war ended and American retention of the islands of Micronesia was determined, the navy continued to maintain a training school for the officers who would administer Micronesia. Micronesia was a challenge for two reasons: first, it was an extensive territory, hundreds of islands covering about 10 million square kilometres of ocean inhabited by perhaps 60,000 people speaking seven principal languages, and many variants on them. The second problem was the extent of the destruction caused by the war. At all the main centers, and many of the lesser ones, installations had been destroyed along with native housing, gardens and food trees. 3 The difficulties of government were therefore formidable, extending beyond mere pacification and control, to reconstruction and ultimately development towards a higher standard of living and the acceptance of western norms of behavior and local government. For this complex task, the navy went beyond administrative training to call on professional...

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