There's so much we want to do,'' said Amata Kabua, the first president of the Marshall Islands. ''We're impatient to be on our own so that we can get started.'' With those words, Kabua, who was elected in 1979, sets the tone for political change and the pent-up excitement wafting from atoll to atoll throughout Micronesia.
Across 3 million square miles of ocean and 2,000 islands and atolls, the Micronesians are waiting for the United States and then the United Nations to carry out their roles in concluding the trusteeship and thereby writing an end to the political vestiges of World War II in these islands.
The September plebiscite in the Marshall Islands signaled the waning of one era spawned by war, and the foredawn of a new one nourished by peace. It was the final of four plebiscites held toward the termination of a political entity brought about by World War II: the US Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. Under the strategic trusteeship mandated by the United Nations in 1947, the US has guided the peoples under its administration toward self-determination and toward the eventual end of the trusteeship.
Big skies and big waters have nurtured peoples whose spirit is equally big. The earlier Japanese Mandate over the islands has been transformed into a peaceful outpost of democracy proudly and actively practiced by its newly self-governing peoples.
''I feel like Magellan, when he sailed off to the unknown world,'' said a 20 -year-old Ponapean. ''It's confusing, frightening, and exciting. What will happen to us? To my future kids?'' During his entire life, America had meant food, education, health care, shelter, chewing gum, the Fourth of July.
Tucked away under the wing of the US Interior Department, the islands have caught the attention of World War II buffs and scuba divers, but the general American public has almost no knowledge of Micronesia or of the American responsibilities there.
A battleground in World War II
There have been 38 full years of peace in Micronesia since the US first entered the Marshall Islands on the drive through the Pacific toward the Philippines and Japan to end the war.
A look at that war shows the area's strategic importance and explains in part its continuing effect today.
Japan had begun its occupation of Micronesia well before the League of Nations in 1920 awarded it the former German possessions. The Marianas, south of Japan, were the supply centers for the rest of the islands. From Palau, farther south, Japan administered the islands.
East of the Marianas, Truk Lagoon held Japan's largest naval base outside Japan and an important air base. Kwajalein in the Marshalls stretched Japan's reach farther east into the Pacific toward Hawaii, with several airfields under construction in 1944.
None of the islanders forget that year, 1944.
From Feb. 1, when US forces attacked Kwajalein, until the end of November with the capture of Palau after a hellish three-month-long fight on Peleliu, the native inhabitants suffered shock, starvation, destruction, and death. On tiny flat atolls or rocky islands, where thousands of Japanese and American troops fought over every yard, they could not escape the bombardments, the grenades, the banzai attacks, the tanks and mortars. The trauma was exacerbated by their innocence.
On Saipan, one-third of the native Marianan population was killed during the fighting. On Enewetak in the Marshalls, the story is told that an Army squad threw grenades down a hole; when they heard voices singing a Christian hymn they stopped, startled. Out climbed, unhurt, seven terrified villagers.
Memories and tales of that war still live with the islanders today. They do not want, ever, to be someone else's battleground again.
World War II affected American attitudes, too.
US insistence on mutual security terms in future status negotiations has been influenced by grim memories held by Pacific veterans now among US leaders at the highest levels, including Vice-President George Bush, Secretary of State George P. Shultz (who fought as a marine on Peleliu), Micronesian status negotiations ambassador, Fred M. Zeder II, and a number of senators and representatives. The importance of Micronesia as a strategic Pacific base for enemies had been made hauntingly clear; the US sees the area equally as important to the preservation of an enduring peace in the Pacific. Americans do not want ever again to fight a war started by others on those beaches and cliffs.
The end of the war also found the islanders, whose civilizations date back 2, 000 years, in cultural chaos.
They had endured up to 400 years of occupation by Spanish, German, or Japanese rulers. Populations had been decimated by imported diseases. Many cultural monuments, artifacts, and customs had been allowed to perish. In the Marianas, Magellan's 1521 landing on Guam initiated a 350-year Spanish occupation that created a language of which 40 percent is corrupted Spanish adapted into the original Chamorro language.
With the end of World War II, yet another culture was heaped onto the others - American. The imported American culture brought peace and food and later brought education and self-government, and Americans were well-liked. But the majority of the islanders hungered for the opportunity to retain their own and not someone else's customs and cultures in their islands.
Gov. Erhart Aten of Truk, Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), explains one side of the Micronesian attitude toward the United States: ''We like Americans. They are direct, honest, relatively straightforward. They have taught this generation of Micronesians almost everything. We have been educated by their school systems. We in the Federated States have gracefully adopted their form of government because we think it's the best form of government.
''I think we will always want to be with the United States,'' he continued, ''in recognition of many things - US might, US capabilities, US relationships with other parts of the world - we want to be with the US. It would never occur to us to associate with any other nation.'' At the same time, however, Governor Aten and most Micronesians agree that their delicate, subtle, but swashbuckling little islands have not always benefited from the Goliath hand of the US federal government.
They cite examples of a rigidly enforced, though inappropriate US regulations; education programs ''plucked from Iowa and transplanted here''; the US dole which has created a welfare economy and dependence on handouts; disruption of family traditions; the enforcement of alien customs.
The Republic of Palau's Lazarus Salii, ambassador for trade and status negotiations, presents a further problem: ''The failure of the (US) to ensure the economic development of the Republic puts in jeopardy the light of sovereignty so carefully nurtured by the US these long years. Funds are needed to develop not only basic infrastructure such as roads, power, and adequate water and sewer, but also basic industries which capitalize on our marine and agricultural resources.''
Ambassador Salii states that the basic policy of his nation is that ''political independence must be accompanied by economic self-sufficiency. Without a stable economy providing security and opportunity, no country can be assured of political stability.'' He believes, as do most Micronesians, that the US ''failed to accept this self-evident concept'' in the past. Larger US capital improvement and health programs are now under way.
Despite criticism prevalent throughout Micronesia, Ambassador Salii echoes Governor Aten in expressing the positive feeling most Micronesians have toward the US: ''Only the United States is capable of moving a people long accustomed to foreign bondage to the fine appreciation of democracy, freedom, and justice. For this achievement my people will be spiritually linked, and indeed, as our desire for free association indicates, politically linked to the US for a long time to come.''
The islanders choose a political future
Their previous experiences with hardships strongly influenced the Micronesians as they at last exercised their rights of self-determination.
The Northern Marianas determined that their people would have political and financial stability by petitioning for and receiving commonweath status in union with the Americans who had brought them the gifts of freedom and human dignity.
The Federated States of Micronesia, and the republics of Palau and of the Marshall Islands, chose to assert their national identities in friendship with the US but as masters of their own small countries. They rejected commonwealth status and separated into three nations. They also rejected immediate, full independence, in order to gain protected time during which to test their new governments and develop their economic resources. They proposed an imaginative compromise - free association.
The decisions of these peoples in 1969 disappointed the US. But when their determination was recognized, the US entered into negotiations to enable them to build toward these goals while gradually turning over responsibility to newly trained Micronesian leaders.
The unprecedented free association relationship became formalized in a compact that was approved by the citizens of all three countries this year.
The Compact of Free Association with separate bilateral agreements offers a mutually supportive 15-year period during which the three new nations will receive financial aid to help them move toward self-sufficiency; they will be sovereign in all but defense matters. The terms of the compact enable them to build toward full independence with a financial planner's dream: a known, dependable, adequate income for 15 years. Their defense needs will be borne and guaranteed by the US, which will also leave open other political options for the future and stand ready to help as needed.
In turn, they yield for 15 years something precious to them: defense options which the US considers vital as insurance against possible changes in Pacific area political dynamics, although some fear this could make them targets. Radical critics interpret the security options as an intention to turn the islands into military bastions.
A different opinion comes from a ranking official of the Federated States of Micronesia:
''If there's war, it will be 100 percent war, and we'll be on the side of freedom anyway, so what difference does it make?''
Some Micronesians even feel offended that the US finds it necessary to put the defense agreements in writing. The Micronesians also agree to foreclose the entire area to any third power for military purposes. They hope the vast ocean area, the size of the US, will remain open and at peace.
Additional advantages to the US include:
* Termination of the trustee-ward relationships with which most Americans are uncomfortable and the development of new ones based on friendship among fellow democracies and kinship through free association.
* The assurance that the new nations will have the resources and time to improve their standards of living and become ever stronger members of the community of democracies.
* The confidence that Pacific island Americans, including Hawaiians and American Samoans as well as the Marianans, will be protected into the 21st century, and that the US will have the capacity to meet international treaty obligations with Pacific allies.
* The savings of personnel, time, travel, per diem, and general operating costs related to the 21 federal agencies now directly or tangentially involved in Trust Territory affairs. Direct cash savings may be consumed by adjustments for inflation over the 15 years.
* The ability to express American altruism in ways that do not impose US programs or customs.
* The presumption that present and future Marshallese needs related to relocation or exposure to radiation after the US nuclear testing from 1946 to 1958 have been met.
President Reagan's personal representative for Micronesian status negotiations, Ambassador Zeder, plans to present the compact to the Senate and House for action after the Christmas recess.
The recent deaths of Sen. Henry Jackson and Rep. Phillip Burton, both leaders in Trust Territory matters, leave vacuums that may affect the vote. However, while argument is expected, President Reagan's strong backing of the compact in support of the acts of self-determination of the Micronesian peoples will help its passage.
It will then be the turn of the UN to terminate the trusteeship. This could take place during 1984, the 40th anniversary of the year in which Micronesia knew war and began to be reacquainted with self-government