Post 79 — LB, LBJ, and KVZK (Part 1)

President Johnson in American Samoa.

President Johnson in American Samoa.

The whole island was sparkling with anticipation. Crews had been cleaning and planting for weeks, and even the rocks lining the flower beds had been given a fresh coat of paint. The marching band had finally finished plaiting their palm frond vests and had cleaned out their spit valves, an important note since the tubas rusted faster than the cars. This was the most exciting thing that had happened to Samoa since the hurricane.

KVZK was buzzing, with all four TV studios operating at the highest level. Six channels were on the air broadcasting school lessons and every single teacher was wearing shoes, even though they were only being shot from the waist up.

Larry paced nervously around his office, stopping for a moment to re-arrange the papers on his desk. He wanted to look busy but efficient, like someone who could handle teaching a variety of subjects and supervising a department in a culture that had been completely foreign to him just a few short years ago. It was important to the program that he look as professional as possible. He paused for a moment before the object hanging on the wall: it was a toilet seat that his coworkers had presented to him after he had finished the Health and Sanitation curriculum. It occurred to him that this was not exactly helping his image.

Seven miles away, the sun was blazing as the silver jet touched down at Pago Pago International Airport. The tropics usually settle comfortably in the low eighties with a cool breeze, but on this particular October 18, the temperature was hovering around 93 degrees. A tall, beefy man in a dark suit appeared in the open door at the top of the exit ramp, and the humidity smacked him in the face with no regard for his title or rank.

The band broke out with “Hail to the Chief” as the sweating leader of the free world became the first sitting president to set foot in American Samoa. Lyndon Baines Johnson was greeted heartily by Governor H. Rex Lee, and worked his way through a reception line of many chiefs and their wives. They shook hands with President and Mrs. Johnson, piling shell ulas around their necks until the weight nearly pulled Lady Bird over. LBJ’s face was turning red as streams of water poured down his temples, but somehow Lady Bird’s hair remained perfect.

Lady Bird is dressed appropriately for the heat, while her husband the President wears a wool suit.

Lady Bird is dressed appropriately for the heat, while her husband the President wears a wool suit.

(The following are excerpts from a journal kept by Presidential secretaries Walt W. Rostow and Marvin Watson – Special Assts. to the Pres.)

11:22 AM [time change]: Arrived Pago, Pago International Airport, American Samoa. 

[Margin note: The weather was warm and very sunny. Samoa gives the  impression of being an island paradise —rich verdant vegetation, browned, barefoot people, and the sound of the surf in the background.]

 [It was a very colorful scene— the band was attired in bright blue print shirts and white trousers with some kind of leaves over the shirts. The native chiefs and their wives had on brightly colored skirts and leis and many had grass shawl-like articles over their shoulders. A sign at the foot of the ramp on the fence read “Talofa! President L. B. Johnson” and had a picture of the president on it. Talofa means hello!]

11:40 AM: To the platform. There was a very warm welcome by the group gathered. Grass and straw were tossed in the air, drums beat, cheers and applause.

11:50 AM:  President and Mrs. Johnson standing as the President was presented a piece of wood by one of the Chiefs—it was unfinished wood (this was a single dried kava root— a high gift—resembling drift wood).

11:51 AM: Royal ‘Ava Ceremony, conducted by Talking Chief Pele. This was very colorful as the natives danced, chanted, and took cups of liquid to the dignitaries on the platform (the President, Mrs. Johnson, Governor and Mrs. Lee).

[Margin note: This ceremony is the supreme honor to be bestowed on a visitor. Samoan chiefs prepare the ‘ava drink from the pulverized root of the ‘ava tree. Juice is bitter in taste. (Ceremony has some parallel to ‘smoking the peace pipe.’)]

[During this it was very warm, and the President was noticeably hot, often wiping forehead with his handkerchief. He also seemed just a bit ill at ease—this was tribal ceremony, and one had the feeling of not knowing what was going to happen next.]

11:56 AM: Governor Lee introduced the President.

12:00 AM: REMARKS* by the President. There were three applauses during the speech and a very warm reception afterwards in which the natives threw straw and grass in the air. 

“I am very proud that I could be here with you today.

I can assure you that the people of the United States share my pride in what American Samoa has done to prove that destiny is really what we make it.

This island—with a population of only 22,000—has become the symbol of what many large nations may achieve for their people. It has become a showplace for progress, and a proving ground of methods to improve the lives of our fellow human beings.

And, along the way, American Samoa has taken the term “self-help” out of the bureaucrats’ dictionary and made it a living language for their people.

You have recognized that education is the tidal force of our century, driving all else ahead of it.

I am told that the pilot program of education which you have started may point the way to learning breakthroughs throughout the Pacific islands and Southeast Asia. Samoan children are learning twice as fast as they once did, and retaining what they learn. Surely from among them, one day, will come scientists and writers to give their talents to Samoa, to America, and to the world.

One requirement for good and universal education is an inexpensive and readily available means of teaching children . . .  Unhappily, the world has only a fraction of the teachers that it needs. Samoa has met this problem through educational television—which was pioneered here by your outstanding Governor, Rex Lee.

. . . It is truly a remarkable experiment. This technique—which you are helping now to improve—has the power to spread the light of knowledge like wildfire, to spread it all across the wide areas of our earth.

An American editor, who used to have nothing to say about what we were doing in Samoa, recently wrote, “Somewhere on earth there may be a more spectacular example of revolutionary change in an area and its people, but in years of roving the world’s far corners, I have not seen it.”

Go to Part 2

*Citation: Lyndon B. Johnson: “Remarks Upon Arrival at Tafuna International Airport, Pago Pago, American Samoa.,” October 18, 1966. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. 

(all LBJ information comes from http://www.lbjlibrary.net/collections/daily-diary.html)

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