HomeHistoryBoard: NavyCommunity

August 8, 1947


To: Under Secretary Chapman
From: Irwin W. Silverman, Acting Director (initials IWS handwritten here)
Subject: Vieques Island, Puerto Rico

You may remember that the Navy Department acquired virtually all of Vieques Island, which lies just off Puerto Rico, for military use early in the war. Most of the property was acquired by condemnation from private owners. In 1944, the Navy decided that it would have no need for some parcels of the land, and no immediate need for others, as to which, however, it preferred not to lose title. Vieques Island is wholly agricultural and its loss as land which could be cultivated been very much regretted by Puerto Rico. Therefore, when the Navy indicated an intention to release some of the land, Interior, on behalf of Puerto Rico, and at its request, immediately took steps to obtain a revocable permit from the Navy for the use by Puerto Rico of those lands for which Navy had no immediate use; arrangements were made for the declaration, as surplus, of the remaining areas for which the Navy considered it had not need either present of future. The Insular Government was permitted to use this area, too, pending its sale, presumably to the Insular Government as a priority purchaser. The Puerto Rico Agricultural Company was created about this time as an agency of the Insular Government, and it was given jurisdiction over the Vieques Island; an elaborate program for resettling former Vieques inhabitants, for cultivating extensive areas, for experimenting with pineapple growing and cattle raising, was put into effect by the Agricultural Company. About 15,000 Puerto Ricans are now resident on Vieques.

For some time, there have been rumors that the Navy was going to take back, or attempt to take back, the land it had authorized Puerto Rico to use, and to acquire the rest of the privately owned property, so that the whole island would belong to Navy. As these rumors became more authoritative recently, Governor Pinero decided to talk to Under Secretary Sullivan about them. The possibility that this agricultural land and the work of the Agricultural Company might be lost to Puerto Rico was extremely serious, in view of the scarcity of arable land and the over-population on the main island. The Governor asked me to attend his meeting with Under Secretary Sullivan, which was held this morning. Vice Admiral Barbey, Commandant of the Tenth Naval District, and other high-ranking naval officers were present.

The Navy Department states that is has canvassed the South and Central American coasts and the Atlantic seaboard, and that only the Island of Vieques meets the Navy's requirements for a spot at which to practice the land manoeuvres which now form a vital part of naval training. The ideal place must have good beaches, shallow approaches, and the water temperature must be warm, to avoid danger from exposure in case the men are forced to remain in the water for long periods. Apparently all other available spots have short beaches or cliffs at the water edge, or too deep approaches, or are in too northern a latitude. The Navy is insistent upon Vieques in the interests of national defense. To carry out its plans, however, it must have some authorizing legislation and a substantial appropriation from the Congress. It is prepared to request both, but very much wants Interior's support, with which Navy feels it would stand a much better change of getting authority and funds.

In view of what a Vieques-takeover by Navy would mean to Puerto Rico, I do not see how we could, or that we should, support the proposal. However, in the course of the discussion it occurred to me that we could with good conscience endorse the Navy proposal if there were some way in which the loss to Puerto Rico of agricultural land might be made good with the financial assistance of Navy. What I had in mind, but did not disclose to Navy, would not only benefit Puerto Rico but the Virgin Islands and Interior as well.

My proposal is that the present population of Vieques be transported and resettled on the Island of St. Croix. As you know, St. Croix is entirely agricultural and very sparsely inhabited. The island could support not only the 15,000 persons now living on Vieques, but substantially many more from the main island of Puerto Rico. It is already known that the land is suitable for the growing of pineapples and for cattle-grazing, and for growing sorghum. In these three activities, employment could be given to much larger numbers than are now employed by The Virgin Islands Company on St. Croix. The sugar operations of VICO, as you know, have never been profitable, and could not be carried on at all were it not for the Federal benefit payments and the rum operations of the Company. The cane growing was continued because the land was suited for it and because it seemed to provide more employment than other activities for all that it was a seasonal one. Now that there is practically no market for the rum, the sugar operations can really no longer be justified, or carried on without substantial help from the Congress. As you know, we just asked Congress for $________ (the amount can not be read from old paper) of a loan from Treasury, and got only $250,000 which will barely carry VICO to the time the Congress reconvenes. If we could get financing for the pineapple, cattle-raising and sorghum program, the Federal Government could get out of the rum business, for which it has been criticized and questioned ever since it got into it in 1934.

Financing would come partly from the Puerto Rican government, through its Agricultural Company and its Industrial Development Company. Since funds were allotted for the rehabilitation program on Vieques, approximately the same amount might be expected to be put into a similar program on St. Croix. Of course, the Puerto Rican Legislature would have to be convinced of the desirability of this plan. Navy would have to put up some money to acquire some the property on Vieques, owned or improved by the Insular Government, and might be asked, under the plan, in addition to carrying the expense of transporting the Vieques residents to St. Croix, to turn over to the Insular Government some small vessels to be used in a ferry service between Puerto Rico and St. Croix, and Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo. Considerable trade could be built up between Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo, if transportation were available, and the Navy does have vessels in the Caribbean with it could make available to the Government of Puerto Rico. Naturally, there would also be an increased need for transportation facilities between St. Croix and Puerto Rico, if the resettlement plan were put through.

After the meeting, I discussed this proposal with Governor Pinero. He received it with enthusiasm. As he pointed out, there is more land on St. Croix than in Vieques; the pineapple operation would furnish more employment than the sugar one does; there is already a good sized Puerto Rican population on St. Croix, and reports back to the main island are very favorable. The plan would serve to alleviate some of the over-crowded conditions on Puerto Rico. Moreover, there does not appear to be any other practical alternative; something must be done about the people who will be taken off Vieques by the Navy, and it is certain that they cannot be accommodated on the main island in anything approaching a satisfactory manner.

I have not, of course, discussed the matter with Governor Hastie. I imagine there would be some initial reluctance on the part of the Virgin Islanders, especially the St. Crucians, to see an influx of Puerto Ricans. On the other hand, the future of the VICO hardly looks bright, and if VICO should cease operations in the near future, there will be no employment, or practically none, on St. Croix. If the Puerto Rico Agricultural Company and the Industrial Development Company take over, there will be plenty of jobs and the economy of St. Croix will be raised far above its present level.

Interior would stand to benefit by the proposal, too. Such of the Federal properties which VICO now administers under Interior's jurisdiction as might be useful in other than sugar and rum operations might be operated by the Puerto Rican companies. Possibly the rum and sugar operations might be retained, after all, but the Federal Government, as such, could step out of the picture as far as active management was concerned. We would not have to go the Congress for appropriations for VICO, and undoubtedly there would no longer be a need for deficit appropriations for St. Croix.

As matters stand now, Governor Pinero and Admiral Barbey are going to go over to Vieques some time next week to see exactly how much land the Navy is going to have to acquire in addition to that which it already owns or on which it has strings by way of a revocable permit. A report will then be made to Navy, in Washington.

I am quite confident that Navy will go along with us, and that we can then give Navy our endorsement of the Vieques project. Under Secretary Sullivan did say that he would be prepared to agree to assist in any reasonable plan for relocating the inhabitants of Vieques, and this seems to me to be a reasonable plan. If you will indicate your approval below, we will prepare to take up the matter on a tentative basis with Governor Hastie. If he thinks it a good idea, a conference will then be arranged with Under Secretary Sullivan and the two Governors, at which the entire proposal can be discussed and details worked out.


Under Secretary (There were no signatures at the bottom of the memo.)

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