Bikini Atoll Is Not A Beer: Pacific Islanders Speak Out via The Asia-Pacific Journal

Laray Polk

Pacific Islanders are speaking out after a Texas-based company, the Manhattan Project Beer Co, named one of its handcrafted beers, Bikini Atoll. Based on news coverage and responses on social media, people around the world are listening. An online petition asks CEO Jeff Bezos and other distributors to stop selling Bikini Atoll. It currently has 6,000 signatures. On Aug. 15, the Marshall Islands National Nuclear Commission (NNC) released an official statement calling on the Manhattan Project “to engage in dialogue with the people of Bikini to hear directly from community members about their reactions to their product.” 

NNC’s attempt at outreach and media attention in major outlets (Time, Vice, AP, Navy Times, Honolulu Civil Beat) appears to have had no impact on the company’s decision to shut down the conversation. On Aug. 13, the Manhattan Project posted a statement on social media to say it will not move off the name. It also contains a somewhat contradictory claim. The company says that through its brand and naming, it is “creating awareness of the wider impacts and implications of the United States’s (sic) nuclear research programs and the pivotal moment in world history that is often forgotten.” For exiled Bikinians, and others living in the Marshall Islands, it’s doubtful that “the wider impacts and implications” of the Manhattan Project or its successor, Operation Crossroads, will ever be forgotten. Between 1946 and 1958, the U.S. military conducted 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands.


The Manhattan Project’s continued refusal to listen to what Pacific Islanders have to say raises several questions. First, is the company legitimately engaged in building awareness through its nuclear-based nomenclature or is this mostly a marketing ploy? Second, if it’s the latter, what types of cultural conditioning might account for its unwillingness to listen and learn from people who live with the consequences of U.S. nuclear testing? The answer to the first question can be ascertained by comparing the company’s stated intent with its marketing materials posted online.


On the webpage “Our Story,” the company explains how it arrived at its peculiar nomenclature: “The group decided to formalize under the name Manhattan Project, given our creative, collaborative, experimental, and scientific approach to beer making (not to mention the plethora of cool beer names like Half-Life and Superfortress).”


The ubiquitous image of an atom, for example, did not originate from design culture, but from a structural model developed by Niels Bohr, the founder of atomic physics. Bohr helped develop nuclear weapons at Los Alamos then warned the world post-detonation, “We are in a completely new situation that cannot be resolved by war.”


Nuclear Positivity 
One place to look for engineered conditioning is in the “messianic word-pictures” of William L. Laurence, a science reporter for the New York Times. In the spring of 1945 Gen. Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project, enlisted Laurence as “a special consultant.” Groves wanted “a journalist with the credibility of the Times to shape America’s first learnings about the bomb.” Laurence agreed to infuse his regularly published articles with a particular slant, as well as write press releases for the U.S. Government.1

In this dual role, he didn’t disappoint. He was the only reporter to have access to Los Alamos, the scientists, and the Trinity detonation. He described the mushroom cloud from the Trinity blast as “a gigantic Statue of Liberty, its arm raised to the sky, symbolizing the birth of new freedom for man.” His purple prose, which often included biblical references, could be described as “nuclear positivity.” That is, finding the sunny side of A-bombs by focusing on the scientific genius of individuals and “present[ing] uranium as a friend to mankind.” 2

Laurence’s influence can be detected in Pres. Harry S. Truman’s speech delivered sixteen hours after the bomb dropped on Hiroshima: “It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East.”


Site selection had to meet certain criteria. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) told Congress “tests should be held overseas until it could be established more definitely that continental detonations would not endanger the public health and safety.” Sites also had to be a U.S.-controlled territory and in a climatic zone with “predictable winds and free from storms and cold temperatures.” According to Vice Adm. Blandy,“It was important the local population be small and co-operative so that they could be moved to a new location with a minimum of trouble.”4

U.S. military planners selected Bikini Atoll on Dec. 21, 1945.5


“Where Next?”
Two months after the U.S. detonation of the Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll, the Marshallese people sent a petition to the UN: “We, the Marshallese people feel that we must follow the dictates of our consciences to bring forth this urgent plea to the United Nations.” The lethal effects of the Bravo test, the petition explains, “have already touched the inhabitants of two of the atolls in the Marshalls, namely, Rongelap and Uterik, who are now suffering in various degrees from ‘lowering of the blood count,’ burns, nausea and the falling off of hair from the head, and whose complete recovery no one can promise with any certainty.”

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