A ground zero forgotten: The Marshall Islands, once a U.S. nuclear test site, face oblivion again via The Washington Post

A boy and his grandfather are fishing in the shallows off their tiny island, a dot of green in the sapphire eternity between Hawaii and Australia. The flash comes first, silent and brighter than the sun, from a four-mile-wide fireball beyond the horizon. The sky turns blood red. Wind and thunder follow.

Even 61 years after, Tony deBrum gets “chicken skin” when sharing his memories of the largest American nuclear-weapons test — the biblical, 15-megaton detonation on Bikini Atoll, 280 miles northwest of his island. Its flash was also seen from Okinawa, 2,600 miles away. Its radioactive fallout was later detected in cattle in Tennessee.

“We pause today to remember the victims of the nuclear-weapons testing program,” deBrum says to a couple hundred people seated in a convention hall in Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, a little-known nation that was entrusted to the United States as a primitive society 68 years ago.


From 1946 to 1958, the United States conducted 67 tests in the Marshall Islands. If their combined explosive power was parceled evenly over that 12-year period, it would equal 1.6 Hiroshima-size explosions per day.

This is not something one gets over quickly.

Payday at Bikini Jack’s

“Washington — and this is just my personal opinion — I think they’re going out of their way to wash their hands of the Marshalls,” says Jack Niedenthal, a Pennsylvanian who arrived in the islands with the Peace Corps in 1981 and eventually became one of their unofficial representatives to the United States. “You look at what they spend on Iraq and Afghanistan, and it’s billions upon billions. For four bullets into a tree in Iraq, they could fix this entire place.”


In 1954, the “Castle Bravo” test, the one deBrum talks about, detonated with 1,000 times the force of the Hiroshima explosion. It hurled into the sky a massive plume of pulverized coral that drifted eastward and fell like ashy snowflakes on the people of Rongelap and Utirik atolls. Several days after Bravo, after children had eaten the ash, American servicemen and several hundred Marshallese residents were evacuated from Rongelap and Utirik.

The following month, the Marshallese filed a complaint with the United Nations, which after World War II had conveyed the islands to the United States as a “trust territory.”

“Land means a great deal to the Marshallese,” the complaint said, adding, “Take away their land and their spirits go also.”

The United States, which had pledged to usher the islands to self-determination, replied that “no stone will be left unturned to safeguard the present and future well-being of the Islanders.”

Fifty-four tests followed on Bikini and another atoll, named Enewetak. The U.S. government viewed the 1957 resettlement of Rongelap as an opportunity to study subjects who, while uncivilized, were “more like us than mice,” as the Marshallese were described in a meeting of the Atomic Energy Commission. Many more tests, at much smaller yields, continued stateside in Nevada, with American “downwinders” enduring their own sagas of government deception and failing health.

The years since 1958, when testing ended in the Marshalls, have been fraught with contentious science, legal battles, false starts and halfway resolutions. Bikini and Rongelap atolls were resettled and then re-evacuated because of lingering contamination. As part of a “compact of free association” in 1986, the United States granted the Marshall Islands its independence and a “full and final” cash settlement of $150 million — which included individual trust funds for the test atolls, Bikini and Enewetak, and the fallout atolls, Rongelap and Utirik.


The problem? These sector grants are decreasing yearly until 2023, when they expire. Plenty of treasure has already been lost in the clumsy merger between a Western economy of cold hard cash and a feudalistic society in which traditional chiefs and landowners hold sway.

What Americans consider welfare, the Marshallese consider normal historical function: Fish, coconuts and other perishables were given to the chief to distribute promptly and fairly, to avoid waste and to keep the peace. Then America, with its deep pockets, became the de facto high chief.

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