MEASURED in terms of area or of population the Virgin Islands, acquired by the United States in 1917, do not seem very important. The fifty-odd islands and islets of this diminutive American possession cover in all no more than 140 square miles, and the three which are sufficiently large to be inhabited by settled communities -- St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix -- have a combined population of only 25,500.
There are two reasons why the Virgin Islands are interesting and important to a far greater degree than is suggested by these statistics. First, they are of strategic value to the United States. In fact, the United States bought the islands during the World War primarily for military motives. We did not want them to fall into German hands, and as long as Germany was undefeated there was the possibility that she might purchase the Danish West Indies or, by annexing Denmark, lay claim to them by right of succession. Of course, it is difficult to imagine that the United States would have permitted Germany to seize the Virgin Islands even had she overrun Denmark. Nevertheless, to make assurance doubly sure, the American Government bought them for $25,000,000 -- more than it had paid for any other territorial acquisition.
It is often said that the possession of the spacious, landlocked harbor of St. Thomas is necessary for the defense of the Panama Canal. This would appear to be true in a negative rather than a positive sense. It is not so much that the United States requires St. Thomas for its own naval purposes as that it does not want a hostile Power ensconced at a place where it could threaten American naval supremacy in the Caribbean, our mare nostrum. The expression "hostile Power" is appropriate because we must not forget that three presumably friendly Powers -- Britain, France and The Netherlands -- already possess West Indian harbors that are just as well situated for forays against the Canal as St. Thomas. The United points d'appui, there is always the fine harbor at Culebra Island, within sight of St. Thomas but administered as a part of Puerto Rico, or Samaná Bay, an excellent site that might be leased from the Dominican Republic. What the American Navy really requires to insure its complete control over the Caribbean is a base at the southern end of the Lesser Antilles in the vicinity of Trinidad. Only thus can it cover all the approaches to that sea.
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