The abuse of the Marshall Islands by the US – Izzy S

Global awareness is the focus of interest this term at RHS. With many of these stories being focused on what is happening right now, I thought I would take a different stance on global awareness and speak about the lesser-known historical atrocities committed by the US. The treatment of the Marshall Islands under the US through their nuclear testing programme is something that is not widely known but is an equally horrifying story for not only us as global citizens but for those directly implicated, even its own serving men. 

The Marshall Islands is located slightly west of the international date line in the Pacific Ocean remotely situated almost halfway between the Philippines and Hawaii. The remote location of these Islands made it possible for the US to gain control after WW2 and carry out these atrocities in secret without any repercussions from the public.

The Marshall Islands

During WW2 the US officially took back the Marshall Islands, who like other Pacific Island nations had previously been occupied by Japan. The United Nations then assigned the USA to administer authority over the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands thinking that these collections of Islands would be safe in their hands; however, they thought wrong. The Marshall Islands became the nuclear testing site for America in the Cold War programme; which was looking more desperate than ever in the wake with competition in the ‘Arms Race’ with rivals the USSR. Shockingly, between the years 1946-1958, 67 nuclear bombs were detonated on these Islands leaving extreme environmental scars with many of the Islands being vaporised and lagoons being destroyed.

Japanese capture of the Marshall Islands during WW1 when they were part of the Entente seeking to exapnd their Pacific sphere of influence , the Islands were also occupied during WW2 but this time were allied with Germany fighting allied powers

Environmental impacts on Bikini atoll are severe. Once the Island was graced with a coral reef and a beautiful lagoon until various nuclear experiments were carried out which included tests to determine the impact of atomic bombs on naval vessels. The bomb known as ‘Baker’ sank 8 war ships and produced a mushroom cloud that inundated the sea and sky leaving Bikini a nuclear wasteland. But it isn’t just the environmental damage that is criminal, impact on the natives has been catastrophic. Many inhabitants of Bikini were kicked off their land only for them not being able to return due to the lethal levels of radiation and the nuclear wasteland of the surrounding ocean.  The Marshallese were ‘temporarily’ relocated to another island of Kili where 548 inhabits who are descendants of the original inhabitants reside it’s been over 60 years and they have still not been able to return and will not for a long time due to the radiation. Originally, a US Naval commodore urged the Marshallese to relocate for the good of mankind and insisted that they were helping the world become a better place by enabling the US to perfect atomic weapons which could prevent future wars in the promise that one day they would return to their beloved home land. 

Commodore Wyatt addressing the Marshallesse

Some did return in 1969 but were evacuate in 1978 when health concerns over radiation became apparent, this was not the first time they were subject to the effects of extreme radiation as a consequence from an American nuclear test. In 1954, the Marshall Bravo test exposed the atolls of Rongelap, Utirik and Aliningnae to nuclear fallout where their residents suffered from burns and radiation diseases. They were all unaware of the effects of nuclear testing not only to their own health but their homeland many of them became subject to serious health defects.

Children of the Marshall Islands suffering with radiaiton flesh burns

American soldiers also suffered unknowingly due to the governments secret handling over this operation. On Enewetak atoll, soldiers were given the task to dispose of the radioactive soil and biological weapons into a dome. Many of these atomic veterans recall that the main safety briefing they were given was to ‘watch out for sharks’ there was no mention of the nuclear hazards. They ate the seafood which was contaminated, washed and drank in waters that were contaminated and the safety suits that were given were only ever worn for the photos. After their 6-month tour was served, many reported that their bones had become brittle, they had been diagnosed with various forms of cancers and even their children suffered from birth defects. Gaining compensation years later was difficult for the simple reason that the US doesn’t define them as atomic veterans meaning they can’t receive radiation compensation.

Soldiers digging the ‘Dome’ unaware of the threat of the radiaiton, Atomic Veteran on the left experiencing radition related cancer

The Dome also proved to be ineffective. Alarmingly, in recent years due to rising sea levels, radiation has been leaking from it into the Pacific. Climate scientists have been concerned surrounding the stability of the structure itself claiming that extreme weather patterns such as typhoons have the potential to break open the dome and spread the highly radioactive debris. Leaving the Marshall Islands not only vulnerable to rising sea levels and extreme weather patterns but to further damage by nuclear radiation. 

The Dome on Enewatak Atoll

So why has the US not addressed this? Firstly, the nuclear testing site of the Marshall Islands is thousands of miles away from mainland America, meaning its own citizens would never bear the consequences of a nuclear test gone wrong and they wouldn’t be left to deal with the waste caused afterwards. They still deflect, saying that the nuclear waste site is the Marshall Islands responsibility, even though the US department of Energy has been tasked with monitoring it indefinity. Colonial undertones also suggest that the Marshall Islands were small, remote and unimportant where officials completely disregarded the Marshallese’s extensive history having first settled in the 2nd millennium BC. In 2022, the modern day outcomes show the legacy of mistrust the US has left with Marshallese residents reporting the impacts to the sea temperature and their fishing industry with thousands of fish washing up on their shores.

Aerial footage of Atomic bomb testing, these bombs were 10x more lethal than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Unfortunately, the residents of these islands may be the first climate refuges for these many reasons. The declaration promised to them in 1946 by the US Naval commodore has never been upholded, they will never return to their inhabitable ancestral land. The sacrifice they made for the ‘good of mankind’ has never been fully repaid or recognised by America and they still don’t have the support needed to build sea defences and prolong there habitation on their Islands. 

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