America's retreat from the new Pacific

April 08, 1997|By Robert A. Hooper

LOS ANGELES -- When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, most Americans knew little about islands of the Pacific. Ensign P.A. Hooper, my father, was aboard the destroyer Hull on the morning of the attack and in 1942, when the Hull arrived in the Solomon Islands to support the landing of the Marines at Guadalcanal. Thousands of Americans lost their lives at Pearl Harbor and in the Pacific campaigns of World War II.

By the war's end, many Pacific islands were household words, and in the decades that followed, Guadalcanal, Santo, Tarawa, Rabaul, Truk, Peleliu and scores of others became parts of newly independent Pacific island nations, whose strategic value in the Cold War years consisted largely in denying the Soviet Union influence and control over vast tracts of the western Pacific.

Militarily, the Pacific remains an American lake. With the demise of the Soviet Union, however, the strategic and political value of the Pacific island nations declined. A once-gradual withdrawal of U.S. influence in the region has become a wholesale retreat.

Until recently, the U.S. Agency for International Development helped Pacific islanders in 10 nations fight AIDS and malaria, develop market economies, improve the lot of women and protect the fragile environment. But the agency's Pacific office closed in 1995, followed last year by the elimination of U.S. Information Agency programs serving Fiji, Tonga, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Nauru and the French Pacific Territories.

The USIA post serving Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands will be cut in 1997, and other posts in Thailand, Laos, Indonesia, New Zealand, Australia, Korea, Japan and the Philippines are on the chopping block. The U.S. consulate in Western Samoa is scheduled for closure, while the Asia Foundation, once active in supporting journalism training and democratic institutions in 11 Pacific nations, withdrew entirely in 1995 after a 70 percent funding cut by Congress. The Peace Corps will pack up this year and the Fulbright scholar program has been eliminated throughout the region.

Economic epicenter

There are regions of higher priority than the Western Pacific. But by removing our diplomats and our modest programs of education and sustainable development, we are setting the stage for a time in which the United States will be ill prepared for a Pacific basin situated at the economic and perhaps once again strategic epicenter of the world.

We must remain engaged in the Pacific and in East Asia, for we cannot rely on spy satellites and military power alone to promote our interests. The goodwill and constructive engagement we are thoughtlessly abandoning will not be rebuilt overnight or at some future time of crisis.

At Guadalcanal and in the battles that followed, scores of Pacific islanders risked their lives to rescue American aviators and sailors, including a young PT boat commander named John Kennedy. Islanders, in turn, were influenced by Americans and American values, and this proved a factor in hastening their decolonization and independence. Now, as these small emerging democracies experience the severe growing pains that accompany economic and political development, we insist that they must stand on their own and abandon them to their fate.

As Americans join the European powers in withdrawing, resource-hungry Asian nations arrive to exploit the region's tropical rain forests, fisheries and mineral wealth. ''In a climate of economic restructuring,'' writes Solomon Islander Ashley Wickham, ''our former colonial powers see us with cold eyes and new 'friends' see us with calculating eyes.''

The price of liberating the Pacific was paid in the blood of thousands of American Marines, sailors and aviators, and their remains rest along the jungle trails and coral reefs of Pacific islands. The consequence of abandoning these tiny island states and their citizens, who served us so faithfully during our hour of need, might well be borne by future generations of Americans in a conflict as yet unimaginable.

Robert A. Hooper is associate professor of communication arts at Loyola Marymount University. He wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.

Pub Date: 4/08/97

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