In a businessman's office in this lovely corner of Micronesia there is a polished slab of mahogany into which is carved the following message:

"If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day.

"If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for life."

Roman Tmetuchi, a businessman and politician, is quick to explain its meaning."What the United States has been doing," he tells a visitor, "is giving us a fish a day."

It is his way of summing up almost universal judgement that 31 years of American trusteeship in Micronesia has created a society dependent on government jobs and benefits, an island welfare state whose people are so inundated with free handouts that they are abandoning even those elemental enterprises - fishing and farming - that they had developed before the Americans came.

"We've smothered them." agrees a veteran U.S. administrator with the trust territory government, "and it will take them a long time to come out from under this blanket."

"It is awfully hard to see anything good that the United States has done in Micronesia," adds another American who has spent years here.

More than 10,000 Micronesians - a third of the labor force - have government jobs, most of them with the territorial government which oversees 3 million square miles of water and islands. The work is easy, the wages excellent by island standards, and the bosses undemanding.

"They're really not required to do anything," says Tmetuchl, the Palauan politician. "They know they'll get their paychecks, no matter what. No one takes attendance to see if they show up. They're not accountable for any mistakes."

An American agrees. "Government jobs in Micronesia are looked upon as welfare. It sort of reminds me of a small southern town in the United States where the courthouse crowd has everyone on the country payroll and they all just sit around the courthouse lawn all day."

For those who don't want to work, there is the food dole sponsored by U.S. Department of Agriculture. Food stamps are coming soon for one island group, the Marianas. It is estimated that 95 percent of the population eventually will be eligible for free or subsidized food, because nearly every Micronesian family falls comfortably below the U.S. income standards that are applied here.

The effect on native agriculture and fishing has been devastating. Lettuce and tomatos once grew here, but now the tourists hotels fly them in from San Francisco. A thriving sugarcane industry developed under Japanese rule has been abandoned and coffee is now served with artificial sweeteners packaged in Brooklyn.

At first, the United States promoted agriculture on such islands as Tinian and Rota in the Marianas, recalls N. Neiman Craley, the territorial government administrator for administrative services. "But now there are between seven and eight thousand people in the Marianas eligible for USDA food and the farmers quit farming. There's no one they could sell their food to. The people would just say, 'why should I buy food from you when I'm already getting it free?'"

Statistics tell what has happened. In 1967, 33 million pounds of fruit and vegetables were produced in Micronesia. Then came free food and the market collapsed. In 1975, the production was down to 1.1 million pounds. The fishing catch is also far less than it was in the late 1960s.

"Any kind of work here is very hard work," observes Elizabeth Udui, an economist with the trust government. "And now you can live here without working."

The American administration is universally blamed for the development of islanders' dependency - even by the current administrators themselves. The only argument is over whether the United States deliberately conspired to promote it or merely bungled in its genuine humanitarian zeal.

In the 1950s, the United States virtually ignored its wards in Micronesia. It was fashionable to say Americans were adhering to a "zoo theory," which meant keeping the natives in their natural primitive state. Tourists and foreign investments were barred from the territory, which, at the time, the United States was planning to convert into a Pacific military bastion.

The great change began in the early 1960s when the United Nations sharply criticized the lack of development and low living standards and the Kennedy administration began pouring in funds for education, health and welfare. Since then, annual appropriations for Micronesia have shot up from about $5 million to about $100 million, and another $30 million is dumped yearly on the inhabitants in the form of categorical programs such as food, special education, and direct.

The management of these programs is described as "atrocious" by one U.S. administrator who tries to oversee them. Dispensaries are built where they are not needed because a local chief wants them near his villages. One hospital had so few patients it transformed, illegally, into a jail. Inexplicablt, one program grant for $800,000 was partly spent to ship a 22-foot cabin cruiser from Boise, Idaho, to Saipan.

"We tend to grab at those (federal) programs that are available and then use the money for something else until we get caught," said the administrator, who asked not to be identified.

The programs that are most accessible to Micronesians are those that foster dependency in the form of direct benefits.

Elizabeth Udui, the economist, points out the Micronesia is not eligible for such programs that might help people to help themselves, such as rural electrification, roads, economic development and small business loans.

It is not true, she said, that Micronesians spurn private employment. when 20 construction job opened up on a hospital site in Truk, more than 300 people applied for them.

One of the few defenders of the U.S. experience in Micronesia is Adrian P. Winkel, currently the High Commissioner for the territory.

In an interview, he ticked off the many material benefits bestowed on Micronesia by the United States since the Japanese were expelled during World War II. There are hospitals and health services that have cut the motality and disease rates, schools that guarantee high school education for everyone interested, and plenty of food.

"I get mad hearing the stories about nothing being done here," Winkel declared.

"We can't just neglect them. None of this (Federal Aid) is given unless the local people ask for it, and I am not going to sit here and play God and say who will be fed and who won't be fed.

"For the first 15 years, the U.S. rule out here was only custodial and we were criticized for operating on the 'zoo theory.' Now we are criticized for making them dependent on us by giving them water and sewer systems.

Dependency? What's the alternative?"