Provocative look at a tiny republic's nuclear-defense controversy

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The Stone Age confronts the Nuclear Age in the Western Pacific. Strategic Trust: The Making of Nuclear Free Palau (PBS, Friday, May 25, 10-11 p.m., check local listings, since some stations plan to air it in June) is a stimulating, provocative piece of antinuclear propaganda produced by the Positive Futures Center. The film, narrated by antinuclear activist Joanne Woodward, jumps right into the controversy which has been raging in this republic, composed of eight tiny islands and 14,000 people.

Palau, designated a ''strategic trust'' under the United Nations Charter and controlled by the United States since World War II, voted itself a nuclear-free national constitution. The United States, which under its charter agreement is supposed to develop the area economically and politically, regards Palau as important to the strategic defense of the Western Pacific. To defend the area, it is necessary that the US have access to bases for its nuclear-powered vessels and nuclear weapons.

In addition, to defend the islands, the US insists it also needs military rights to about one-third of Palau's main island, its harbors, and two airstrips. But most important, a proposed Compact of Free Association with the US would require that a high percentage of Palauans repeal the nuclear-free clause in their constitution. They have refused to do that in one plebiscite.

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The issue is still undetermined, and a new plebiscite is in the offing, although the final decision may have to be made this year in the UN and the US Congress.

Meantime, the people of Palau - although almost completely dependent upon the US for jobs - seem determined to keep their homeland nuclear free.

The paradoxes are obvious, although the film seems to give short shrift to reciprocity. The US point of view is surveyed mainly from the islanders' perspective.

''Strategic Trust'' poses many problems for Americans. If we create a nation of consumers, are we obligated to provide them with an economy that will support that consumption? At what point should US moral responsibility outweigh the search for military advantage? If the US has obligations to native populations, what obligations does it have a right to demand of them?

These are questions only touched upon in the film but never quite resolved; the focus keeps returning to the nuclear-free constitution as a potential harbinger of similar future actions in the international community. In the end, ''Strategic Trust'' poses crucial questions that need to be carefully considered all over the world - not merely in Palau, New York, and Washington.

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