AMERICAN Samoa, a group of six tiny, picturesque islands, comprising the eastern part of the Samoan archipelago, and inhabited by nearly nine thousand Polynesian natives, has been under the American flag for twenty-eight years. Yet Congress has never specifically extended the sovereignty of the United States over these islands nor established a government for them. To remedy this situation Senator Hiram Bingham, who is well informed on Pacific affairs, has introduced a bill which passed the Senate on May 10 of the present year and which appears likely to pass the House in the near future. In addition to regularizing the constitutional status of the islands, the bill provides for the appointment of a commission of six -- two Senators, two Representatives, and two Samoan chiefs -- to make recommendations to Congress regarding necessary and proper legislation.

Samoa has played a larger part in American foreign relations than its small size would seem to warrant. Some four decades ago friction with Germany over these islands was so acute that American and German naval ships threatened each other in Samoan waters, with guns loaded and decks cleared for action, until the great hurricane of March 15, 1889, left them all stranded wrecks on the sandy beaches and the coral reefs of Apia Harbor. Two international conferences, at Washington in 1887 and Berlin in 1889, failed to solve the perplexing Samoan problem. Finally, in 1899, Great Britain, Germany and the United States agreed by a tripartite convention to divide the archipelago between the two latter powers, Germany receiving the larger and more populous islands, those lying to the west, and the United States those to the east, including Tutuila with its bay of Pago Pago, the best naval base in all the South Seas. Germany administered her islands until August 29, 1914, when they were captured by an expeditionary force from New Zealand, which for some decades had coveted them. In the post-war settlement Western Samoa was awarded to New Zealand as a Mandate.

The constitutional status of American Samoa presents interesting problems. The tripartite convention of 1899 did not grant sovereignty to the United States. The three powers had previously acknowledged Samoa to be independent, and by this convention Great Britain and Germany merely renounced in favor of the United States all their "rights and claims over and in respect to" the eastern islands. But the chiefs of this group formally ceded their islands to the United States, April 17, 1900, and July 14, 1904; and President Roosevelt officially accepted the cession. It is upon this cession, according to our Navy Department, that the sovereignty of the United States rests. It is claimed by some, however, that the President has no constitutional authority to accept territory and extend American sovereignty over it. Senator Lenroot has recently advanced that contention. Whatever the legal bearing of such a claim, however, it is clear that in several cases territory now indisputably under the sovereignty of the United States has been acquired by no other authority than that of the President. Midway and Wake Islands in the Pacific and Horseshoe Reef near the outlet of Lake Erie are well-known instances. Even if it be assumed that Congressional action is legally necessary, it is a matter of dispute whether such action has or has not been given in the case of American Samoa. Certainly it has not been given by any direct, formal vote, nor has Congress accepted the cession of the chiefs; but on several occasions it has passed acts recognizing that American Samoa is under the sovereignty of the United States. The clearest instance was the Joint Resolution, approved March 4, 1925, which stated: "That the sovereignty of the United States over American Samoa is hereby extended over Swain's Island, which is made a part of American Samoa." Swain's Island, it should be added, is a mere dot in the Pacific, some 210 miles from Tutuila, with a total population of 87, most of them natives. It has been in possession of an American family since 1856, and when its national status was challenged a few years ago it seemed best to the Administration to assert American sovereignty by an Act of Congress. Under the circumstances the constitutional status of American Samoa is hardly open to dispute. From acts of Congress and decisions of various governmental departments it is clear that it is a possession of the United States

but not an integral part of it. The constitution and laws do not apply to it; it has its own tariff; and the inhabitants, while not citizens of the United States, owe allegiance to it. Senator Bingham's bill does not attempt to alter this constitutional and political status. It formally regularizes it by accepting, ratifying and confirming the cession of the islands by the native chiefs.

No form of government has ever been established by Congress for American Samoa. The validity of the present administration by the Navy rests upon an Executive Order, signed by the President on February 19, 1900, which formed the eastern islands into a naval station of the United States and placed them under the jurisdiction of the Navy Department. Each Commandant of the Naval Station is given by the President a commission as Governor of American Samoa, and as such has absolute power. He is the Executive, the Legislature, and the Supreme Court. Whether this unlimited autocracy is benevolent depends largely upon the character of each individual governor. The wisdom of continuing this form of government or of supplanting it by a civil administration is now a warmly disputed issue. Quite naturally the Navy approves of the present system. An official of the Navy Department in testifying recently before a joint Congressional committee, said: "I believe it is the best insular government in the world today." The present Secretary of the Navy states officially that the Navy Department sees no need of additional legislation or of any change in the form of government.

The Navy indeed can point to much of which it may rightfully be proud in Samoa. It has carried out the policy of Samoa for the Samoans: it has protected them, suppressed wars, built roads, established schools, improved health and sanitary conditions, advanced the economic situation by keeping taxes low and supervising the sale of the entire copra crop to the highest bidder at prices which bring more to the natives than in the nearby New Zealand Mandate. Under its administration the population has increased, since 1900, by over fifty percent. Although the Naval Governor is theoretically absolute, subject to the supervision of the Navy Department, he has retained the Samoan customs and the native local government, and is advised yearly by an assembly of Samoan chiefs and district representatives. The Navy claims that the great majority of the Samoans are satisfied with the existing government and wish it to be retained; and that any unrest has been due to outside influences. This favorable view is shared by some civilians, including Senator Bingham.

But there are also critics, some of whom are men of standing and with no personal interests in the islands. The natives, too -- whether they are satisfied or not at present -- evidently wished, in the recent past, that a civil administration should be substituted for that of the Navy. The chief criticism relates to the form and nature of the government rather than to specific abuses, although a serious native unrest in 1920 led to the introduction of important reforms which had long been demanded, including the establishment of a public school system and the publication of an audit of public expenses. To meet the alleged dissatisfaction of the natives and their desire for self-government, Senator Lenroot introduced a bill in 1926 which would have led to a civil form of government, but it failed to pass. The chief objection to a purely civil government would be the expense. At present the Naval Governor and the nine heads of departments of American Samoa are all officers or members of the Navy and serve without any expense to the island treasury. A great share of the medical and sanitary budget is also carried by the Navy. It would be difficult for the nine thousand natives to support a government of the present standard if they had to bear the entire financial burden. Senator Bingham's bill would continue for the present the Naval administration by giving the authorization of Congress to the officials appointed by the President. Any change in the form of government will evidently depend upon the report of the commission of six, which will doubtless visit American Samoa before making any recommendations.

In the neighboring but more populous islands of Western Samoa general conditions are similar to those in the American group. But New Zealand, despite all its successful experience with the Polynesian Maori in its own homelands, has aroused far more native opposition in its Mandate than has the Navy in American Samoa. Shortly after the Mandate was awarded, both natives and whites expressed keen dissatisfaction; at present the unrest has become so acute that the Government has banished the wealthiest trader from the islands, and many chiefs from their villages, and has sent cruisers to maintain

order. Meanwhile the opposition is carrying on a passive resistance, with the result, in the words of the New Zealand Prime Minister, "that sufficient mischief has already been done to prejudice the prosperity of Samoa and the Samoans for many years to come." Some of the natives have even expressed a desire for the extension of American rule over the Mandate, an attitude due in part to the success of the Navy in excluding influenza entirely from American Samoa in 1918-19, at the time it was sweeping over the Mandated islands and causing the death of some 7,000 natives, twenty percent of the total population.

Even if civil administration should supplant that of the Navy, it would not lessen the value of the chief asset of American Samoa -- the harbor of Pago Pago. Although all American Samoa is technically a naval station, it is the area owned by the United States Government on Pago Pago bay, acquired by treaty with the natives in 1878, which is "the naval station proper." Pago Pago, the best harbor in the entire South Pacific, is formed by the encircling walls of a submerged volcano, with a narrow opening leading into waters which are sheltered from all storms. But the increase in the size of the modern warship, and in the number of vessels in a cruising fleet, have somewhat lessened its former value. A recent Commandant of the Station has said: "It has a very great value, and the only trouble now is that as a base in 1872 it seemed a big harbor; today it is a very small harbor." It is now used as a coal and supply base, but it is unfortified, and by the terms of the Washington Treaty of 1922 it cannot be fortified for the present. An additional use for it which is already envisaged by naval officers is as an airport, both naval and commercial, particularly as part of a San Francisco-Hawaii-Samoa-Australian route.

Important as is American Samoa, its value would be greatly increased if the United States had additional islands south of the equator. North of it, Hawaii, Midway, Guam and the Philippines make a convenient bridge from San Francisco to China. But to the south, from Panama to the Philippines, Samoa is the sole American possession. It has frequently been pointed out during the past two or three decades that the acquisition of the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador, and some or all of the French islands -- Tahiti and the Marquesas -- would add much to the importance of Samoa. As is generally known, Secretary Knox made a tentative offer for the Galapagos in 1910, but public opinion in Ecuador forced the President of that country to break off the negotiations. As to the French islands, there is no indication that the American Government has ever made an effort to obtain them. But they seem of little value to France, which has largely neglected them. This fact, and the frequent unofficial suggestion that they might properly be accepted as part payment of the war debt due from France to the United States, led the French Ministry of Colonies to issue a statement, on September 30, 1920, that no cession of French Oceania was considered or would be considered. Nevertheless, it is not entirely impossible that one day these islands will become American stepping-stones from Panama to Samoa.

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  • GEORGE H. BLAKESLEE, Professor of History and International Relations in Clark University, an American specialist in Pacific problems at the Washington Conference
  • More By George H. Blakeslee