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Turning Our Backs on the Marshall Islands, Again

Last March 1, I was in the Marshall Islands, tiny atolls in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Bravo test. On March 1, 1954, the United States dropped a 15-megaton hydrogen bomb 1,000 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It was one of 67 nuclear weapons tests conducted in the Marshall Islands by the U.S. between 1946 and 1958. But while many of the islanders had been evacuated in previous tests, on March 1 the people of four tiny atolls were not. In fact, they were not evacuated until for four days after the massive explosion whose radioactive cloud spread over an area about the size of New Jersey.

While this story is horrible in and of itself, documents declassified during the Clinton administration appear to point to the decision by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to make the Marshall Islanders into human guinea pigs. It appears that there was an AEC project, named Project 4.1, whose purpose was to study the effects of radioactive fallout on human beings. Despite its public statements otherwise, it seems that the AEC decided three days after the Bravo test to make the Marshall Islanders into research subjects. It is unclear whether the Marshallese actually received medical treatments for the exposure to high levels of radiation or whether they just received tracers which helped researchers know how human beings were responding, but we do know that they have suffered extraordinarily high levels of cancer, particularly of the thyroid. Moreover, the second and third generations also have high levels of cancer and immune system diseases. Women and girls who were originally exposed during the Bravo tests also experienced high levels of stillbirths, miscarriages and deformities in their babies. “The only thing I could think of was Nazi Germany,” said then U. S. Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary upon first learning about these experiments when some documents were declassified.

With the release of these documents in 1993, the survivors from the Bravo test petitioned the U.S. government for additional compensation to help pay for the health care and clean-up needs. Under a compact signed by the governments of the U.S. and the Marshall Islands in 1983, the U.S. agreed to pay $150 million into a trust fund. Some additional funds were awarded to specific groups of survivors. But while the commission managing the trust fund has awarded over $1 billion in damage claims, less than one percent of that money could be paid and there are thousands of claims still pending.

Shortly after the beginning of this year, however, the Bush administration rejected the petition for changed circumstances, telling the U.S. Congress that it should not award further compensation to the Marshall Islands. The irony, of course, is that the U.S. is telling other governments that they must take full responsibility for their actions, when we refuse to take responsibility for ours. To make whole the people of the Marshall Islands to treat their illnesses and clean up their islands would take only a few days of the funds we are spending in Iraq and Afghanistan. This year the survivors of Enewetak, Rongelap, Utrik and Bikini islands sponsored their own commemoration of the Bravo test by inviting survivors of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown to share their experiences. They found that government cover-ups and misinformation were common to both experiences.

More than half a century after one of our nation’s most shameful actions, we must tell the truth, admit our guilt and pay fully for our actions. Only if we make amends to the people of the Marshall Islands can we move forward into the future with integrity and truth.

BERNICE POWELL JACKSON is Executive Minister of the Justice and Witness Ministry of the United Church of Christ on the national level and also one of the vice-presidents of the World Council ofChurches.

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