Solomon Islands -- Wana Wana Island is reached by canoe.The beach is white sand. The path into Rarumana village is lined with flowers, coconut palms and cool leaf houses. There are gardens and corpora sheds and a little store selling orange soda pop.

The famous man in the village is Ben Kevu, who has been to America. He is 70 years old and as trim and straight as the day, 36 years ago, he helped rescue John Kennedy and his crew from a nearby island.

He retells the story, surrounded by women and children who laugh at his jokes and fill in the gaps in his memory. He mimics the sound of the Japanese airplanes that buzzed his boat that day, mimics Kennedy and recalls that in a moment of danger the oarsmen in his canoe sang "Jesus Loves Me."

He wonders about his old friend, Frank Nash, the American sergeant involved in the coast-watching operation on Wana Wana during the war. From a magazine many years old, he has a picture of a Zenith radio he would like to have to hear the Voice of America. That would be one of the few products of Western Civilization on Wana Wana. Even the old canoes, carved out of tree trunks, remain in use.

Ben Kevu's island, in the main, is the South Pacific celebrated in the musicial after the war.Most of the Solomon Islands are that way, untouched by automobiles, factories, resort hotels and the money chase. There is an easy pace to life. The sun is warm, there are betel nuts and strong family and tribal ties. The quest for "development" has not become a national craze.

The Americans can take some credit -- or blame -- for this. They have pursued, since World War II, a policy of noninvolvement. It has been a diplomatic success, if nothing else.

The American ambassador for the Solomons is a quiet lady who lives in another country, nearly 1,000 miles away. There are no consular offices, military bases, CIA stations or AID missions. The only official presence is an unobtrusive Peace Corps contingent.

The real presence is a fond idea of America that transcends the diplomtic and financial transactions that ordinarily bind nations and people together.

One of the Pesce Corps workers, Peter Haney, tried to deson be it:

It's not just affection. It is peverence. Americans are revered in the Solomon lalands."

That may be an excessive judgment. But there is no doubt that the bonds are strong.

There was a memorable scene bore last July when the Solomons celebrated their independence from British rule. Bands and colorful military units from many countries paraded to appreciative applause. When the American unit came into view -- two young sailors carrying the flag -- a great ovation erupted that went on and on and has become a little legend of its own.

This emotional or mystic attachment, whatever it is, came out of the war. It resonates in Ben Kevu's nostalgia and draws back to the islands each year old soldiers and sailors who became legends in their youth.

They can sit on the arrace of the Mendana Hotel in Honiara and look out on Iron Bottom Bay and Tulagi Island 20 miles in the distance. The five Sullivan brothers and 700 others went down in those waters with the cruiser Juneau, left to die by a sister ship, the Helena. The Hornet, the Atlanta, battleships, freighters, transports and submarines lie somewhere out there in the Slot, the deep passage running between the islands from Bougainville in the west past Choiseul, Vella Lavella, New Georgia, Santa Isabel and Guadalcanal. Kennedy's boat was sunk in the Slot. The President Coolidge was torpedoed there with 1,000 jeeps aboard.

After one of these battles the Japanese admiral, Isoyoku Yamamoto, composed a haiku for Iron Bottom Bay:

Contemplating the moon, I mourn the enemy's sacrifice.

Beneath the moon stretches a sea at whose bottom lie many ships .

Guadalcanal is redolent of this history. The old control tower. sturdy and intact, still stands at Henderson Field, where Marines won the first American land victory of the Pacific war. Beyond the field looms Bloody Ridge where Edson's Raiders won their glory. There are cenotaphs and monuments for the battles at Mount Austen and the Tenaru and Matanikau rivers. Out in the villages, relics of the war are preserved as family treasures -- guns, helmets, shall casings and aircraft parts. The native heroes are men like Kevu and Jacob Vouza, the heroic Marine scout. There is still a flattering nickname for an American, "one-way Joe," the warrior whose inner compass took him only one way -- toward the enemy. There is still a name for that enemy, too. It is "Jap."

"We were very much attracted by the Americans," an island historian has written, "a people who apparently loved fighting and followed it with enthusiasm (just like curselves).

"The Americans did not know what to do with their pay and paid absurd prices for trivial things. They left more than 150,000 American dollars on Malaita. They seemed to be a very generous people, much richer and far more generous than the British. Add to this that the Americans talked to us continually of the wickednees of colonialism..."

This experience contributed to a pathetic revolt by the islanders against British rule immediately following the war. The uprising, under the banner of "Marching Rule," was fueled by the belief that the Americans would come back, bringing independence and wealth. There were letters to President Truman, pleading for American intervention. They were never answered. The movement was suppressed but the image of the good American stayed alive.

It is useless to guess whether that image would have survived a larger American presence in the years after the war. The material products of the industrialized countries have enormous appeal to the island people who were head hunters and cannibals when Ben Kevu was born. American culture -- the music, movies, television -- spreads through the world like a chain reaction, and these things are being absorbed. But massive interventions of wastern money and western institutions can fracture primitive and traditional societies. That is happening under American rule in Micronesia, where vast subsidies have destroyed the natural economy and created a kingdom of dependency with its attendant pathologies.

The Solomons have thus far escaped that. Outboard motors are in use on many canoes. Small planes, using the old airstrips built during the war, fly into some of the islands. A telecommunications system is being developed. British and Chinese traders are supplying consumer goods. But the people, as they have for thousands of years, depend for life on the land and the sea; 90 percent of them live in the villages as farmers and fishermen.

There are yams and sweet potatoes, bananas, breadfiuit, green vegetables and fruit. Cattle herds are increasing, along with the pigs and chickens. Shoes are for Europeans and in the remote villages clothes are not a necessity.

Paradise? Not exactly.

There are 200,000 people in the Solomon Islands. Life expectancy in 1970 was about 40 years. The illiteracy rate was 87 per cant. "Whiskey," someone said, "is starting to spread through the islands like religion did 100 years ago."

In Gizo town -- population 1,500 -- the Kasolo Hotel has a tiny dining room where two or three customers gather each day for a tasteless meal prepared by an untutored local chef.

Dr. F.G. Joseph, a witty and sardonic Jamaican physician on assignment for the World Health Organization, points to a small refrigerator in the corner. There is a one-inch gap between the door and the frame.

"Ah, you notice," he says. "Of course it doesn't refrigerate the food very well. But it is very convenient for the cockroaches."

He constantly encounters problems of this kind -- serums that go bad because of improper refrigeration, unsanitary medical instruments and hypodermics, superstitions that inhibit medical care.

There is malaria in the islands, leprosy and tuberculosis. People are not eating enough fish and they have no milk. There are protein deficiencies in their diets.

"For breakfast," the doctor says, "these children are eating chewing gum. What are we to do?"

His old friend, Ray Burns, an Australian cattleman and butcher, is working with the government to develop cattle herds and slaughter houses. He has similar stories of the backwardness and ineptitude of the islanders.

As we leave the hotel, a barefoot boy who got the clothes washed, bows and says:

"Goodbye, master."

Tipping is not allowed.

America dealt with its wards in Micronesia with an avalanche of money. It pours in today at the rate of $150 million a year, which works out to somewhere between $6,000 and $10,000 per family. An artificial system of government employment has been created. The people are being separated from the land and the old ways of subsistence. There is an extensive educational apparatus preparing young islanders for an American way of life. And there are new forms of social pathology -- suicide, crime, alcoholism.

I asked an official in the Interior Department's Office of Territories what the future held for the Micronesians.

The reply was a paraphrase of Aristotle: "I'd rather be unhappy as a Socrates than happy as a pig."

The British policies in the Solomons have been cautious. Their subsidies are $11 million a year, principally for the support of the bureaucracy. Development plans are modest and directed almost entirely toward agriculture and fisheries. There are timber operations, a palm oil estate, a new rice farm and a livestock program.

The contrast with the American effort in Micronesia is striking and provokes the unanswerable questions: Which way is better? How rapidly should great powers deliver to ancient cultures the fruits and liabilities of western civilization?

On a grander scale, it is like the small dilemma of Ben Kevu, who would bring to Rarumana the Voice of America. CAPTION: Map, Solomon Islands, Richard Furno, The Washington Post; Picture 1, 90 percent of the people live in the villages., Richard Harwood, The Washington Post; Picture 2, Ben Kevu, Richard Harwood, The Washington Post