Nuclear Testing and Aftermath in the Pacific: Finding a Voice in Mainstream Memory

Nuclear Testing and Aftermath in the Pacific: Finding a Voice in Mainstream Memory

Rie Hinze

Rie Hinze has lived in the United States, Japan, and Germany. She developed a research interest in nuclear history in the Pacific Islands while studying abroad at the School of International Liberal Studies at Waseda University in Tokyo. She is currently majoring in global studies and computer science at Arizona State University, and aspires to be a software engineer.



Marshall Islander communities have been devastated by US Cold War nuclear testing and have endured lasting hardships. Unlike Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which hold prominent seats in American national consciousness, repeated US transgressions against Pacific Island communities have escaped mainstream American memory because of power relations, and certainly not for lack of dissenting Islander voices. The Marshall Islands are small and remote enough, both in size and world politics, that Islander grievances have been drowned out by US narratives that insist the US has already paid its dues and is therefore permitted to ‘move on.’ An even more effective distancing strategy than downplaying past crimes is omitting nuclear testing and its consequences from Cold War discourse altogether.

This paper seeks to outline the extent of damages inflicted upon Pacific Island communities by US nuclear testing and hegemony, as well as identify specific historical contexts that have distilled Islander narratives to a murmur. This paper also considers the viability of, and obstacles to, broadcasting Pacific Islander perspectives by attaching them to Japan’s more popular nuclear narratives.


US Nuclear Legacy in the Pacific

Crimes against Humanity

In accordance with the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty in which Japan renounced its claim to Micronesian territory previously granted by a 1919 League of Nations mandate,[1] two thousand islands were reclassified as the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI) and thus transferred to US control. In Washington’s view, the TTPI offered the ultimate solution for where to establish nuclear testing sites: the area was completely under US control, isolated by ocean, and far removed from the public eye.[2] Moreover, the AEC “felt that the tests should be held overseas until it could be established more definitely that continental detonations would not endanger the public and safety.”[3]

On July 1, 1946, the US detonated a nuclear bomb on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, the first of 68 nuclear tests to be conducted in the region until 1958.[4] The most infamous test was Castle Bravo, a hydrogen bomb “equivalent to 17 megatons of TNT, [with] 1,300 times the destructive force of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and … specifically designed to create a vast amount of lethal fallout.”[5] The US had overseen evacuations for Rongelap and Utrik Atolls in the Marshall Islands, 120 miles south and 300 miles east of Bikini respectively, prior to all previous tests. However, shortly before Bravo, the Department of the Interior redrew the “danger zone” so that Rongelap, Rongerik, and Ailinginae barely fell outside of its perimeter,[6] rendering evacuations supposedly unnecessary despite knowledge that Bravo would be the most lethal test yet.[7]

The trivialization of Islander safety was made especially clear by the order for the Navy, but not Islanders, to evacuate for Bravo.[8] While American meteorologists were also left in the danger zone, they were at least provided shelter and instructed to wear protective clothing and refrain from eating or drinking.[9] The Rongelapese were not even informed that Castle Bravo would take place.[10] Even after detonation and the US military witnessed the sheer destructiveness of the H-bomb, there were no immediate rescue operations, leaving the people of Rongelap and Utrik amidst toxic fallout for 48 and 72 hours respectively before the Navy received orders to relocate them.[11]

Subsequent to the test, the inhabitants of irradiated atolls exhibited “nausea, vomiting, and rashes … burns, hair loss, and other illnesses.”[12] Officially, the AEC reported to the media that, “There were no burns. All were reported well,”[13] although even conservative estimates of 200 roentgens of radiation exposure qualified as “a potentially lethal dose.”[14] The Islanders were especially affected because winds on the test day “unexpectedly” blew in the direction of the atolls, which carried fallout right to them. Declassified documents that surfaced later revealed that the wind change was not unforeseen, and former AEC safety chief Merril Eisenbud testified in a 1994 Committee of Natural Resources hearing that Air Force meteorologist Colonel Lulegian had sent him a “highly classified” report before Bravo detailing the great dangers of proceeding with the test, and that, “For some unexplained reason, that report was recalled within a few days after [he] had received it.”[15] In the same hearing, legal counsel to the people of Bikini, Jonathan Weisgall, stressed that Bravo was “deliberately set off despite the fact that AEC officials knew exactly which way the winds were headed.”[16]

National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger summed up his sentiments on the testing two decades later with, “There are only 90,000 people out there. Who gives a damn?” [17] All of these factors eventually led to Marshallese suspicions that they had been exposed to radiation as “guinea pigs,”[18] and it was revealed several decades after Bravo that a confidential US government report, commonly referred to as ‘Project 4.1,’ had in fact studied how radiation affected the Marshall Islanders.[19] The researchers had found that the “dosage spread of the different groups nicely cover[ed] the range of estimated operational tolerance,”[20] and that their findings were useful because “the groups of exposed individuals were sufficiently large to provide good statistics.”[21]


Health Problems and Medical Malpractices

Following the test, the Rongelapese people were stranded with nothing but contaminated resources, and they were not instructed to avoid consuming irradiated foodstuffs in any case.[22] After finally being relocated to Kwajalein two hundred miles away, they were given periodic, and often invasive, medical examinations that lasted from the 1950s to early 1970s.[23] At times, the procedures entailed obtaining “biological samples” for practices that “had little or no connection to the individual health and treatment needs.”[24] One woman recounted the following experience:

Three times a day for three months, the Rongelapese women were told to undress and stand naked at the lagoon’s edge. The women would cry from embarrassment and try to cover their genitals with their hands. … [The male Rongelapese translators] … tried to avert their eyes whenever possible but their presence by their naked mothers and sisters was mortifying.[25]


In 2010, Dr. Neal Palafox testified before a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, identifying three factors that caused illnesses in the Marshallese population as a result of nuclear testing, the first being “high-dose radiation exposure.” Islanders experienced “Severe nausea, intractable vomiting, severe burns, hair loss, [and] hypothyroidism” immediately after Castle Bravo, and many developed thyroid cancers soon after. The second factor was “long-term, low-dose radiation,” which led to the development of dozens of different types of cancer decades after radiation exposure.[26] Non-cancerous illnesses also manifested in the form of “hereditary defects, heart disease, strokes, digestive, respiratory and blood disorders.”[27]

Palafox called the third illness-inducing factor to be the “Destruction of ancestral lands and social disruption,” explaining that such destruction has led to PTSD and health problems associated with “forced dietary patterns and lifestyle.”[28] He maintained that the US has done “very little” to address the latter two factors, and criticized the medical care provided for having been served “in an acute, as-needed function, without much forethought to developing a systematic health system to meet the ongoing needs of the affected populations.”[29] Palafox made clear that Marshallese people were suffering and dying as a direct result of nuclear testing.[30]



The US relocated entire communities to Islands that could not sustain them. Bikinians were first moved to a neighboring atoll in the Marshall Islands called Rongerik, which was considerably smaller and less fertile, and Bikinians requested permission to return home within two months of their settlement.[31] Their request was denied, and they began to suffer from malnutrition. They were relocated to Kwajalein Atoll in 1948 and later to another unsustainable Island called Kili. Like the Bikinians, the displaced people of Enewetak and Ujelang also became dependent upon US aid because of severe lack of resources in their relocated areas.[32]

In 1957, the US government told the Rongelapese people that their land was safe for re-habitation despite private findings that harmful amounts of radiation lingered.[33] Similarly, the AEC told Bikinians that they could return home in 1968, and some families indeed moved back, only to be told seven years later that neither local foods nor water from wells should be consumed because there were “higher levels of radioactivity than originally thought.”[34] Unsurprisingly, the lingering radiation caused health problems, and a 1973 study confirmed that thyroid tumors had developed in 69 percent of Rongelapese children who had been younger than ten years old when Bravo took place.[35]

The people of Rongelap moved to Kwajalein Atoll’s Mejatto Island to escape the radiation, but in 1958, the US claimed Kwajalein — the largest island on Kwajalein Atoll — as ballistic missiles testing grounds.[36] As a result, Kwajalein’s landowners found themselves relocated to Ebeye, a small sixty-six acre Island that was originally home to only 16 people, but had to accommodate 9,500 new residents by 1988. While US military transformed Kwajalein into a “fine slice of California lifestyle,” Ebeye turned into what is now often referred to as the “slum” or “ghetto of the Pacific.”[37]

Although US initiatives added more land to Ebeye in the 1990s and some Islanders moved to Enniburr to escape overcrowding, more than 15,000 people remaining on Ebeye and Ennibur endure land and resource scarcities.[38] They both have a 90 percent unemployment rate, and most who work commute by boat to serve as “domestic servants, cooks, maintenance workers and groundskeepers for US personnel on Kwajalein Island.”[39]



US Initiatives and Investigations

In the 1960s, UN representatives who visited the TTPI were appalled by the lack of economic development – many of the buildings that had been built by Japanese settlers were demolished during WWII, and US officials had not seen fit to rebuild infrastructure. Polio had also hit Ebeye and other Islands, and Kennedy understood the need for better publicity when the outbreak caught the attention of the international press.[40] He therefore called for the establishment of better health and educational programs.[41]

As for suspicions surrounding human radiation experiments, the matter failed to be addressed for decades until rising outcries finally caused the Clinton administration to launch the White House Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (ACHRE) in the 1990s.[42] The ACHRE investigated multiple cases of possible human radiation experiments during 1944 and 1974, as it was “common for physicians to use patients as research subjects without the patients’ knowledge or consent” during that period.[43] However, the ACHRE also noted that physicians were entrusted with “considerable moral authority” during that time, which is why obtaining consent was not as much of an issue then as it is today.[44]

By today’s standards, it is clear that Marshallese people were treated unethically given that the procedures lacked fundamental communication and consent. The ACHRE found that radiation research on the “exposed” population was “directly integrated with the management of their health care,”[45] while “consent for tests and treatment appears to have been neither sought nor obtained.”[46] Although it was commonplace during that time for physicians to operate with autonomy, ACHRE did distinguish that even then, it was unacceptable to carry out research without the patients’ consent when the patients themselves were not expected to benefit from the study.[47]

Ultimately, the ACHRE assessed that Marshallese people had not been intentionally exposed to radiation, as it found “no evidence to support the claim that the exposures of the Marshallese, either initially or after resettlement, were motivated by research purposes.”[48] The ACHRE accepted Dr. Cronkite and Dr. Conrad’s justification for the aforementioned “Project 4.1,” which claimed that the study was primarily intended to benefit the Marshallese.[49]

In fact, the ACHRE suggested that the nuclear tests had “provided the government an opportunity, and some would say a duty, to collect needed information on radiation effects on human beings.”[50] Considering the known deference to researchers’ decisions during the era of experiments and the Committee’s lofty language about the need to gather information in light of such an “opportunity,” the ACHRE seemingly did not deem human radiation research out of the realm of ethical bounds given the context of the period.

After extensive investigations of potential US human radiation experiment cases, the “Findings for the period 1944 through 1974” section of the Final Report reflected:

The Committee’s inquiry focused on research conducted by the government to serve the public good — the promotion and protection of national security and the advancement of science and medicine. The pursuit of these ends — today, as well as yesterday — inevitably means that some individuals are put at risk for the benefit of the greater good.[51]

The document then asserted that transparency was necessary, but qualified the statement by insisting “it is equally important that, the historical record having been spelled out, we as a nation move forward.”[52]

The language in these closing paragraphs is troubling because it is convenient to speak of the sacrifice of a small, non-American population for the sake of the “public good” when Committee members themselves were unlikely part of any community that would be subject to any unwitting, hazardous biological research. This focus on a forward-looking mentality is also convenient in its propensity to leave discussions about past wrongs and responsibilities behind. It is important to note that the Marshallese people had to fight for this information, and it was only through their research, activism, and suspicions, as well as those of other communities, that the ACHRE ultimately launched this investigation.

Perhaps Marshallese reflections on their role in radiation experimentation would not be wrought with so much disgust and anger if the US had pursued more transparent measures. Explanations about medical procedures and dangers posed by the nuclear tests were “inadequate well into the 1960s.”[53] The ACHRE acknowledged that the “inaccessibility of [medical and government] records, combined with a history of inadequate disclosure of hazards known to US researchers, has contributed to a climate of distrust.”[54] Many Marshallese people still question whether they were truly the intended as beneficiaries of human radiation research given evidence that later came to light, such as the US’s knowledge of the winds blowing in the direction of the atolls on the day of the H-bomb test and the last minute redrawing of the danger zone.

The ACHRE has provided the most comprehensive investigation on US human radiation experiments to date, so it has set a tone of finality on the matter that persists to this day. Although the ACHRE might have been ready to set sights on the future, many Marshallese people still feel that the case is far from closed.



Compact of Free Association

In addition to nuclear testing and consequent illnesses, lasting damages from US control of Micronesia have resulted from continued US exploitation of the region for its own political and military ends after the Cold War. Kennedy supported some of the most significant medical and infrastructural advances in the Pacific Islands of his time, but he also oversaw the drafting of the confidential Solomon Plan in 1964, the seed for policy that would eventually foster the region’s indefinite dependence on the US. The Plan aimed “for a huge infusion of money and procedure to bind Micronesia to USA,”[55] and proposed a “rapid Americanisation program, while at the same time giving an appearance of self-government.”[56]

Before resorting to coercive measures, the US proposed that the TTPI voluntarily transition to commonwealth status. When no Islands except the Mariana Islands accepted the offer, the US turned to a strategy in line with the Solomon Plan. Namely, from the 1960s to 1980s, the US supplied an intentionally insufficient amount of aid working up to its proposal of a Compact of Free Association to render the region increasingly dependent.[57]

The Solomon legacy was realized through the Compact in 1982. The former TTPI fragmented into several sovereign states, but the Compact tied the new states to the US by determining “the nature and amount of US economic assistance, and plac[ing] full authority and responsibility for security and defense matters with the USA.”[58] These new states would depend on the US for almost 70 percent of their annual revenue[59] in exchange for carrying out their foreign affairs in consultation with the US.[60] After great internal division, all states ratified the Compact. The Republic of Palau (ROP), Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), and Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) later joined the UN, but the Compact still limits their genuine participation because they must vote in line with US interests. Kimie Hara explains the key terms of the Compact:

Many economic provisions, including federal financial and program assistant, as well as the defense provisions, expired on the Compact’s fifteenth anniversary for the FSM and RMI (2001), but renegotiation resulted in new twenty-year agreements in 2003. For the ROP, US economic assistance expires in 15 years (2009), and its defense responsibility in fifty years (2044). The Compact itself has no expiration date, thus Free Association continues, unless both parties agree to end it.[61]

With terms skewed so clearly in favor of the US, what with aid quick to end but defense and resource responsibilities virtually indefinite, the Compact has no foreseeable end.

When the Compact was ratified in 1982, President Reagan appeared on TV to address the former TTPI and said, “we have come to know and respect you as members of our American family, and now, as happens to all families, members grow up and leave home.” With his patronizing language, Reagan spoke as if America, the benevolent parent nation, had the Islanders’ best interests in mind, but Dibblin assessed Reagan’s statement and economic strong-arming as confirmation of “a virtual US annexation of the islands for military purposes, a denial of self-determination and a shrugging off of responsibility for past actions.” [62]




Per Section 177 of the Compact, the US was to allocate a $150 million lump sum to account for “all past, present, and future consequences” of its nuclear activity in the region and to establish a Nuclear Claims Tribunal.[63] In exchange, the Marshall Islands would no longer have any legal right to challenge the US about nuclear testing unless it could demonstrate new damages.[64]

The US Embassy outlines the history of compensation on their Marshall Islands and Majuro web page, which states, “the United States provided a total of more than $604 million to the affected communities”.[65] Of course, physical, environmental, and psychological devastation on such a scale cannot begin to be wholly compensated, but there are a number of concrete failings with the compensation package. The Compact only assumes responsibility for Bikini, Enewetak, Rongelap, and Utrik.[66] However, a confidential 1978 Department of Energy (DOE) report revealed that “eleven other atolls or single islands … received intermediate range fallout from one or more of the tests.”[67]

Other misleading DOE reports have created revisionist interpretations of the extent of damages. The Compact’s medical terms were based on a radiological survey conducted by the DOE in 1978, rather than records from the 1940s-50s when radiation levels were at their peak.[68] The “exposed” group of people were defined as those who were present on specific islands when Bravo took place, while the “unexposed” group constituted anyone not present on those atolls.[69] However, Pacific Islanders have a culture of movement, and many traveled or returned to those irradiated atolls in 1958 when radiation levels were still high, causing members of the “unexposed” group to develop some of the same symptoms as the “exposed” group.[70] Although “unexposed” Islanders’ development of the thyroid diseases and cancers were clearly caused by lingering radiation in the islands that the “unexposed” group traveled to, the DOE’s willful ignorance of the culture of Islander movement, which led to blurred lines between “exposed” and “unexposed” groups, enabled it to obtusely conclude that Islanders must be naturally prone to these ailments.[71]

Jack Ading, a Senator for the Marshall Island Nitijela, testified before the Committee of Foreign Affairs in 2007 to outline Enewetak and Ujelang’s struggles following nuclear testing.[72] Ading recalled that his people and other Marshall Islanders filed lawsuits with the US Claims Court in 1982 for land damages, inadequate rehabilitation, resettlement claims, and exile hardships.[73] However, under the Compact of Free Association, the US was able to dismiss all claims and defer them to the Nuclear Claims Tribunal, which assessed in 2000 that due compensation amounted to $386 million. However, the Tribunal has not distributed more than $1.6 million because of insufficient funds, i.e. it has allocated “less than 4/10 of one percent of the actual award.”[74] By the time of Ading’s testimony in 2007, Tribunal funds had run dry.



Pacific Islander Protests

The Pacific Islander anti-nuclear test and waste movement of the 1970s was deeply tied to their independence movement. As mentioned previously, all of the Islands but the Mariana Islands, which had the deepest history of colonization, rejected the proposal of becoming US commonwealth territories.[75] Their simultaneous fights against the Compact also demonstrated deep mistrust and resentment toward the US. The atolls that had been subject to the greatest injustices from nuclear testing – Bikini, Rongelap, and Kwajalein – voted overwhelmingly against the Compact.[76] Many of the Islanders who did vote in favor understood the economic state of dependency under which their Islands had fallen and “included a written opposition to one section which curtailed the rights of those injured by radiation to pursue their compensation claims in US courts.”[77] Palau was particularly steadfast in its objections to US terms. The Palauan constitution banned all nuclear activity and thereby challenged the proposed Compact, which would enable the US to transport nuclear-armed vessels. It took US threats of reducing economic aid and no fewer than eight plebiscites for the Palauan government to eventually amend its constitution and sign the Compact in 1994.[78]

After making little headway with expressing grievances to the US, Islanders have voiced their concerns through international frameworks. In the 1950s, the Marshall Islands unsuccessfully appealed to the UN for a total ban on nuclear weapons in the area.[79] Although the US government issued a statement of “deep regret” in response, it increased censorship in the region because of raised international public concern.[80] Islanders have also testified at the Nuclear Claims Tribunal,[81] testified at numerous hearings, and have formed the Marshall Islands Radiation Victims Association after making little headway with compensation appeals.[82]

Marshallese people have even created a unique “radiation language” as a form of resistance. Refusal to translate English words associated with toxic experiences into their own languages symbolizes a rejection of hollow explanations and placations.[83] For example, referring to radiation as “paijin” (poison), doctor as “tokta,” and molar pregnancies as “kiraap” (grape) to name a few loaned words, signifies a stark consciousness of past crimes and is not to be confused with pidgin language, which is developed gradually over time.[84] At first, the tie between “grapes” and stillborn infants might be unclear, but the stillborns’ resemblance to “grapes” is a direct consequence of pregnant women’s exposure to radiation. Women who had been exposed to fallout also experienced much higher instances of cancer, fever, and miscarriages.[85]

Another culturally inspired form of activism is politically-conscious ceremony and song. Every year, Rongelapese people channel their frustrations and hopes into the Nuclear Victims’ and Survivors’ Remembrance Day ceremony, which is held on the anniversary of Castle Bravo.[86] They prepare speeches and perform songs that lament damages and commemorate the people who have suffered or died as a result of nuclear testing. Although the world may have forgotten about nuclear testing in the Pacific, Islanders themselves remember, and their active memory ensures that the conversation continues.



Alliance with Japan?

It would stand to reason that the Marshall Islands would enlist Japan’s help in projecting their nuclear history to the international community. After all, Japan is geographically close, it has historical, albeit de facto colonial, ties with Micronesia, and it has its own nuclear victim narratives, not only with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also with Castle Bravo. Bravo irradiated the Japanese fishing boat The Lucky Dragon, causing one sailor to die and the others to develop health problems.[87] That, coupled with widespread concern over irradiated fish sent to Japanese markets, ultimately helped launch the Japanese anti-nuclear movement in the 1950s.[88] However, factors such as military dependence on the US and a stratified relationship with the Pacific Islands restrict full partnership.


Japanese-Pacific Islander Relations: Selective Remembrance

In terms of drawing upon shared history, Japanese nuclear victims have indeed banded together in solidarity with not just Pacific Islanders but other nuclear victims as well, at international events such as World Conferences Against A & H Bombs.[89] However, Japanese nuclear memory tends to focus on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and omissions or cursory mentions in textbooks about the Pacific Islands during the Japanese League of Nations mandate era has led to younger generations missing that connection.[90]

The lack of remembrance was demonstrated in the wake of Japan’s devastating tsunami and earthquake in 2011, when the Marshall Islands, a nation with fewer than 60,000 people, swiftly raised $10,000 in relief efforts.[91] Many Japanese people, unaware of Japan’s link to the Marshall Islands, were surprised by the donation.[92] For their part, Marshallese people were equally surprised by the lack of remembrance, given that Japanese settlers had once outnumbered Islanders in certain areas during peak Japanese control. Even after those settlers had returned to Japan at the onset of WWII, they were replaced by a great number of Japanese soldiers who “left behind entire ghost towns and abandoned industries” after the war.[93] The lack of remembrance can be in part explained by grief and trauma associated with defeat, which could have rendered older generations unwilling to discuss Japanese involvement in the region.[94] At the very least, many Islanders expected Japanese people to remember shared grief caused by US nuclear testing, but the fact remains that especially younger generations tend to know little about the Marshall Islands, let alone about their interwoven past.


Cold War Hierarchies           

The greatest roadblock to enlisting Japan’s help for the Islanders’ cause is that Japan aims to stay on good terms with the US because its national security depends on it. The 1960 Security Treaty states that the US will come to Japan’s aid in case of attack.[95] Therefore, despite Japan’s consistent demonstrations of anti-nuclear sentiment, its stance on non-proliferation has been complicated by its dependence on the US, a not nearly so antinuclear country.[96] This power imbalance limits Japanese opposition to its most powerful ally.

A lingering Cold War hierarchy has also weakened the bond between Japan and Pacific Islands. In the hierarchy, the Islands are outliers, the US reigns supreme, and, although Japan is a highly-esteemed ally, it is also subordinate. Japan’s subordinate role has been exposed repeatedly through US insistence that Japan drop or revise Article 9 of its constitution that forbids Japan from having an army, the very peace article that the US made Japan adopt at the end of WWII. The US almost immediately regretted commanding Japan to adopt the new constitution with this provision, and as early as 1955 when Japan’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party was founded, Japan’s right-wing set sights on amending the clause to appease both nationalists and the US.[97]

When George W. Bush took office in 2001, bipartisan specialists drafted a report on Japanese-US Relations that identified Japan’s pacifist constitution as a “constraint on the alliance,” and underlined the need for Japan to adopt unhindered military capabilities.[98] The report also enumerated additional actions that Japan should take, such as “improv[ing] its economy” by opening markets. McCormack notes that “The fact that ‘maturity’ in the relationship would be reached to the extent that Japan submitted to the US agenda was a pointer to how immature the relationship really was,”[99] underlining Japan’s subordinate status. Therefore, Japan responded to 9/11 by passing an Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law that enabled it to send 24 naval ships that would supply one half of allied fuel, effectively stretching the limitations of Article 9.[100] McCormack interpreted this move as “Japan’s entry into the war against terror and submission to American strategic leadership.”[101] However, overwhelming public support of the peace article has made it difficult for the Japanese government to make major amendments.[102]

The 1960 Security Treaty, US pressures on Japan to change policies “for the sake of the alliance,” and Japan’s willingness to stretch its constitution in part to appease the US, all reinforce the hierarchy in which the US presides on top. Since Marshallese grievances about nuclear testing directly contest US narratives, Japan is unlikely to become the champion for creating awareness about those issues in the near future.


Japanese-Pacific Island Relations: Selective Cooperation

Ironically, Japan has clashed with the Pacific Islands over nuclear matters because of its nuclear power industry. Japanese ships began transporting nuclear waste to and from French and British reprocessing plants in 1992.[103] Pacific Islander leaders voiced strong opposition to these voyages, citing concerns about possible accidents and hijacks.[104] In the previous decade as well, Japan had announced plans to dump radioactive waste into the ocean several hundred miles north of Maug, an island group belonging to the Northern Mariana Islands, only to be met with swift Islander protests that led to eventual suspension of the plans.[105]

The Multilateral High Level Conference on South Pacific Tuna Fisheries (MHLC) process also led to disagreements, as it proposed to set up a commission to monitor fishing quotas – an idea that Japan opposed[106] because it had enjoyed free fishing in FIC waters until the UN ratified the concept of the 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the late 1970s.[107] Thereafter, Japan had managed to lower fishing tolls by setting up a fisheries grant aid in certain Islands in order to “assist in the building of fisheries in developing countries and also [serve] as an indirect subsidy to the fishing industry toward the payment of access fees.”[108] Alexander observed that “the linking of access to fishing grounds with aid has been a point of contention” with the Islands.[109]

In the 1990s, Japan demonstrated goodwill to the Pacific Islands by erecting the Pacific Islands Center in Tokyo and holding the first Japan-South Pacific Summit.[110] These initiatives were carried out with the dual purpose of solidifying a relationship with the Pacific Forum Island Countries (FICs) and boosting Japan’s own credibility for candidacy as a UN Security Council member.[111]

The Japan-South Pacific Summit of 2000 upheld the connection between the two regions, but the agenda was also guided by politics. The themes of the Summit included youth initiatives, disease and crime prevention, aid to refugees, and environmental and cultural preservation.[112] Overall, the Summit was successful, but Alexander points out that “two of the areas of greatest concern to the FICs, nuclear shipments and the MHLC process, were not addressed.” [113]

Brushing over nuclear shipments and quota issues at the Summit seemed to indicate that Japan was willing to engage the Islands so long as Islander interests did not conflict with their own. Moreover, true cooperation is limited when relations between Japan and the Pacific Islands are mostly framed in terms of assistance, which innately creates a benefactor-beneficiary dichotomy.[114]




The US was by no means the only country to have exploited and relocated populations during the Cold War for nuclear weapons tests, but that is no excuse for its misconduct. Through these tests, the US has wreaked environmental havoc, introduced radiation-linked health problems, and has turned generations of Islanders into indefinite exiles. Islanders have also suffered from downplayed medical concerns, pressure to relocate to irradiated lands, inadequate compensation, and lack of acknowledgement in popular history. The US has confirmed that it conducted non-consensual human radiation research on Islanders, and that communities supposedly outside of the danger zone were, in fact, exposed to hazardous amounts of fallout. Although Islanders had first hoped that US presence would signify a break from centuries of imperialism, what they received instead was unethical and prejudiced treatment as an isolated, US-controlled sphere that much resembled a colonialist one. Even after the giving up official jurisdiction over most of the Islands, the US used economic pressures to force Islands formerly under its control to bow to its political will and submit to sustained militarized presence in the region.

Japan may seem like a natural ally to help Pacific Islanders reach wider international audiences. For the most part, however, Japanese nuclear memory tends to be inward looking, and while the Lucky Dragon was tied to Bravo and played an instrumental role in spearheading Japan’s own anti-nuclear movement, the pillars of Japanese nuclear memory rest on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Aid-defined relationships with the Pacific Islands have created a power dichotomy that restricts full Japanese support. Furthermore, the Pacific Islander desires are exactly at odds with Washington’s interests. Because of Japan’s subordinate status to the US in a lingering Cold War hierarchy, Japan may be reluctant to go out of its way to assist Pacific Islands with such controversial matters. Japan demonstrates solidarity only when convenient, and the US can shed responsibility by ignoring the Pacific Islands altogether.

Cold War narratives have a gaping hole where the history of US nuclear testing and its consequences belong. For the Marshall Islanders, nuclear testing did not take place “in the middle of the ocean,” nor did the Cold War end peacefully. They have suffered from a classic case of silenced losers’ narratives, which is ironic given they did not lose in the conventional sense of defeat at war –they lost merely by existing as small islands in a realm of colossal players, and they happened to be swallowed into US control through a simple land transaction. Nonetheless, even in the face of enormous opposition, Marshall Islanders have fought to make their voices heard by sending UN envoys, going to court and hearings, holding ceremonies and protests, and reaching out to a global network of nuclear victims. Marshall Islanders have persisted in carrying out this conversation against all odds, and we should finally listen.



[1] Kimie Hara, “Micronesia and the Postwar Remaking of the Asia Pacific: ‘An American Lake’,” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus (2007).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jane Dibblin, Day of the Two Suns: Nuclear Testing and the Pacific Islanders. (London, Eng: Virago, 1988), 20.

[4] David Hanlon, Remaking Micronesia: Discourses over development in a Pacific Territory 1944-1982. (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1998), 186.

[5] Dibblin, “Day of the Two Suns: Nuclear Testing and the Pacific Islanders.” 24.

[6] Barbara Rose Johnston and Holly M. Barker, Consequential Damages of Nuclear War: the Rongelap Report. (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2008), 95.

[7] Dibblin, “Day of the Two Suns: Nuclear Testing and the Pacific Islanders.” 24.

[8] Zohl de Ishtar, “Nuclear Proliferation: Poisoned Lives, Contaminated Lands: Marshall Islanders are Paying a High Price for the United States Nuclear Arsenal,” Seattle Journal for Social Justice 2 (2004): 289.

[9] Johnston and Barker, Consequential Damages of Nuclear War: the Rongelap Report. 97.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Dibblin, Day of the Two Suns: Nuclear Testing and the Pacific Islanders. 26-28.

[12] Ishtar, “Nuclear Proliferation: Poisoned Lives, Contaminated Lands,” 290.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Johnston and Barker, Consequential Damages of Nuclear War: the Rongelap Report. 96.

[15] Merril Eisenbud. Statement to the House, Committee on Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. Radiation Exposure form Pacific Nuclear Tests, Hearing, Feb. 24, 1994 (Serial 103-68), 71.

[16] Jonathan Weisgal. Statement to the House, Committee on Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. Radiation Exposure form Pacific Nuclear Tests, Hearing, Feb. 24, 1994 (Serial 103-68), 29.

[17] David Vine, Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia.

(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 183.

[18] Darlene Keju-Johnson, “For the Good of Mankind.” Seattle Journal for Social Justice 2, no. 1 (2003): 311.

[19] U.S Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments. Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments: final report. (Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press, 1995), 587.

[20] Operation Castle, Pacific Proving Grounds, Joint Task Force-7, Report of Commander Task Group 7.4, 1954. On file at the Embassy of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Washington, DC.

[21] Armed Forces Special Weapons Project, Operation Castle: Summary Report of the Commander (Albuquerque, NM: Armed Special Weapons Project, January 30, 1959), 71-72.

[22] Johnston and Barker, Consequential Damages of Nuclear War: the Rongelap Report. 98.

[23] Ibid., 106.

[24] Ibid., 174-5.

[25] Jessica Schwartz, “A ‘Voice to Sing’: Rongelapese musical activism and the production of nuclear knowledge.” Music and Politics 6, no. 1 (2012).

[26] Neal Palafox. Statement to the House, Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and the Global Environment. Oversight on the Compact of Free Association with the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI): Medical Treatment of the Marshallese People, U.S. Nuclear Tests, Nuclear Claims Tribunal, Forced Resettlement, Use of Kwajalein Atoll for Missile Programs and Land Use Development. (111th Cong., 2nd sess.,2010), 62.

[27] Ibid., 63.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid., 64.

[31] Dibblin, Day of the Two Suns: Nuclear Testing and the Pacific Islanders. 22.

[32] Ibid., 23.

[33] Ishtar, “Nuclear Proliferation: Poisoned Lives, Contaminated Lands,” 290.

[34] Ibid., 291-2.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid., 294.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid., 294-5.

[39] Ibid., 295.

[40] Dibblin, Day of the Two Suns: Nuclear Testing and the Pacific Islanders. 170.

[41] Hara, “Micronesia and the Postwar Remaking of the Asia Pacific.”

[42] Holly M. Barker, Bravo for the Marshallese: Regaining Control in a Post-nuclear, Post-colonial World. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson, 2004), 39.

[43] U.S. Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments. Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments: final report. (Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press, 1995), 771.

[44] Ibid., 771.

[45] Ibid., 564.

[46] Ibid., 598.

[47] Ibid., 771.

[48] Ibid., 585.

[49] Ibid., 588.

[50] Ibid., 564.

[51] Ibid., 770.

[52] Ibid., 774.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid., 585.

[55] Hara, “Micronesia and the Postwar Remaking of the Asia Pacific.”

[56] Ishtar, “Nuclear Proliferation: Poisoned Lives, Contaminated Lands,” 298.

[57] Dibblin, Day of the Two Suns: Nuclear Testing and the Pacific Islanders. 176.

[58] Hara, “Micronesia and the Postwar Remaking of the Asia Pacific.”

[59] Ishtar, “Nuclear Proliferation: Poisoned Lives, Contaminated Lands,” 298.

[60] Hara, “Micronesia and the Postwar Remaking of the Asia Pacific.”

[61] Ibid.

[62] Dibblin, Day of the Two Suns: Nuclear Testing and the Pacific Islanders. 180-1.

[63] Holly M. Barker, Bravo for the Marshallese: Regaining Control in a Post-nuclear, Post-colonial World. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson, 2004), 24.

[64] Ibid., 24-5.

[65] U.S. Department of State. Embassy of the United States for Majuro and Marshall Islands. “The Legacy of U.S. Nuclear Testing and Radiation Exposure in the Marshall Islands.” 2015.

[66] Barker, Bravo for the Marshallese. 35.

[67] Dibblin, Day of the Two Suns: Nuclear Testing and the Pacific Islanders. 29.

[68] Barker, Bravo for the Marshallese. 35.

[69] Ibid., 37.

[70] Ibid.

[71] Ibid., 39.

[72] Jack Ading. Statement to the House, Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and the Global Environment. An Overview of the Compact of Free Association between the United States and the Republic of the Marshall Islands: Are Changes Needed? Hearing, July 25, 2007 (Serial 110-127), 82.

[73] Ibid., 89.

[74] Ibid., 90.

[75] Dibblin, Day of the Two Suns: Nuclear Testing and the Pacific Islanders. 175.

[76] Ibid., 180.

[77] Ibid.

[78] Hara, “Micronesia and the Postwar Remaking of the Asia Pacific.”

[79] Schwartz, “A ‘Voice to Sing’.”

[80] Ibid.

[81] Ibid.

[82] Barker, Bravo for the Marshallese. 37.

[83] Ibid., 83.

[84] Ibid.

[85] Ibid., 84-5.

[86] Schwartz, “A ‘Voice to Sing’.”

[87] Matashichi Oishi and Richard H. Minear, The Day the Sun Rose in the West Bikini, the Lucky Dragon, and I. (Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2011), 42.

[88] Wesley M Sasaki-Uemura, Organizing the spontaneous: citizen protest in postwar Japan. (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2001), 120.

[89] Joseph Gerson, “Nuclear witness: The globalization of hibakusha.” Peacework 291, no. 16 (1998).

[90] Greg Dvorak, “Who Closed the Sea? Archipelagos of Amnesia Between the United States and Japan.” Pacific Historical Review 83, no. 2 (2014): 350.

[91] Dvorak, “Who Closed the Sea?” 350-1.

[92] Ibid., 350.

[93] Gavan McCormack, Client state: Japan in the American embrace. (London: Verso, 2007), 341.

[94] Ibid., 358.

[95] Ibid., 56.

[96] Ibid., 179.

[97] Gavan McCormack, Client state: Japan in the American embrace, 57.

[98] Ibid., 62.

[99] Ibid.

[100] Ibid., 63.

[101] Ibid., 64.

[102] Ibid., 57.

[103] Ronni Alexander, “Japan and the Pacific Island Countries.” Revue Juridique Polynésienne 1, no. 1 (2007): 129.

[104] Ibid.

[105] Ibid., 128.

[106] Ibid., 136.

[107] Ibid., 132-3.

[108] Ibid., 133.

[109] Ibid., 134.

[110] Ronni Alexander, “Japan and the Pacific Island Countries” 138.

[111] Ibid., 137.

[112] Ibid., 138.

[113] Ibid.

[114] Dvorak, “Who Closed the Sea?” 368.


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