As a result of nuclear testing on the Marshall Islands 60 years ago, many of the Marshallese Islanders still suffer today. Yet, few Americans know about this shameful chapter of history. Today, June 30, which marks a painful anniversary for many in the South Pacific, is just another day for those unaware of the atrocities that took place there. This year, I hope the anniversary might open the eyes of people in America and around the world: We must acknowledge the damage done in the past and rise up out of our apathy to ensure such horrors are not perpetrated again.
I became aware of the nuclear testing program initiated after World War II from a friend who witnessed the aftermath of the devastation first hand. Rick Asselta was sent to the Marshall Islands as a Peace Corps volunteer to help comfort islanders whose homes and lives were destroyed by the testing. Between 1946 and 1958, the American military tested 67 nuclear weapons at Bikini and Enewetak. Prior to the first of these tests, the islanders were evacuated to other atolls, more than 100 miles away, and, as a precaution, the inhabitants of three other atolls were moved temporarily.
In 1952, the first hydrogen bomb was tested — at 10.4 megatons, it was some 750 times larger than the Hiroshima bomb. In 1954, an even larger hydrogen bomb was detonated. On the eve of this test, code-named Bravo, weather reports indicated that atmospheric conditions were deteriorating, and on the morning of the test, the winds were blowing strongly toward a number of U.S. ships as well as several inhabited islands, including Rongelap and Utrik. Nevertheless, despite the clear danger to the people on these islands, the bomb, 1,000 times the strength of the Hiroshima bomb, was detonated. Great clouds of gritty, white ash rained down on several atolls, affecting many people, including some American weathermen.
It would be two days before people were moved from Rongelap, the worst affected island, and another day passed before Utrik was evacuated. The islanders suffered skin burns, and their hair fell out. Yet, in a statement to the press, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission stated that some Americans and Marshallese were “unexpectedly exposed to some radioactivity. There were no burns. All were reported well.” Subsequently, the commission drafted a report, not publicly released, in which it concluded that the Bravo fallout may have contaminated as many as 18 atolls and islands. Some years after that, an additional survey by the U.S. Department of Energy revealed that yet other atolls and islands had been affected by one or more of the tests, including five that were inhabited.
Three years after Bravo, in 1955, the inhabitants of Utrik were allowed to return because their island “was only slightly contaminated and considered safe.” Two years later, Rongelap was declared safe “in spite of slight lingering radiation” and the people returned. A chilling report was issued at this time by Brookhaven National Laboratory scientists, who stated that although the contamination was considered perfectly safe “the levels of activity are higher than those found in other inhabited locations in the world. The habitation of these people on the island will afford most valuable ecological radiation data on human beings”
In 1963, nine years after their exposure to Bravo, the first thyroid tumors began appearing among the people of Rongelap. Thirteen years later, 20 of the 29 Rongelap children who were under 10 years old at the time of Bravo had developed these tumors. At the same time, it became clear that people exposed to lower levels of radiation were still at risk — there was simply a longer latency period before health problems appeared.
Eleven years after the last nuclear tests, in 1969, the commission announced that Bikini was safe for rehabilitation. However, the Bikini council was not satisfied by this assurance and only a few families returned to their homes. How fortunate — six years later, a U.S. Department of the Interior official reported “higher levels of radioactivity than originally thought” — some ground wells were too radioactive for safe use, and several types of staple foods had to be prohibited. Six years after returning home, the few families who had returned to Bikini were moved yet again when additional testing showed that they had sustained an “incredible” 75 percent increase in radioactive cesium.
Before staging this ghastly series of tests in the Marshall Islands, home of a gentle people with an ancient culture, the United States, in its role as administrator of the area, undertook to “protect the inhabitants against the loss of their lands and resources”.
Unfortunately, this promise was hardly fulfilled.
Eventually, in 1977, Congress approved a nuclear cleanup of Enewetak Atoll. Of course, compensation in dollar amounts has been negotiated for the abused and exploited islanders, though not nearly enough.
Nor was nuclear testing the only horrifying test program inflicted on the Marshall Islands. Project Shipboard Hazards and Defense was part of a United States chemical and biological warfare test program that was conducted during the 1960s. Project SHAD was designed to test the vulnerability of U.S. warships to attacks by biological and chemical agents and to develop procedures to respond to such attacks. In 1968, biological agents, live staphylococcal enterotoxin type B, Bacillus globigii and uranine dye, were sprayed in aerosolized form, not only over six military ships, but also over part of the Enewetak Atoll. Those tests were linked to a sudden nationwide outbreak of a very severe flu-like disease in the Marshall Islands, which caused some deaths.
Subsequently, many U.S. servicemen complained of health problems they believed had resulted from their involvement in SHAD. It was the complaints of these veterans that eventually led to the above disclosures by the U.S. Department of Defense, through the Freedom of Information Act.
How many other people, in how many other countries have suffered, I wonder, during the testing of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons? That governments are still developing and testing nuclear bombs — along with chemical and biological weapons — is a crime against humanity that surely can never be justified or forgiven.
I have a small wooden carving made by an old man who, despite the risk of radiation, returned to his island. It was his home, he said, where he had known a carefree childhood until foreign nations determined to use it to test their devil’s weapons. He gave it to Rick, who has given it to me. I carry it with me as a symbol of the indomitable human spirit, and also as a reminder of the atrocities that were perpetrated that we must, somehow, prevent from ever happening again.
Jane Goodall is a U.N. Messenger of Peace and a recipient of the Gandhi-King Peace Award for Nonviolence. To learn more about the Jane Goodall Institute, go to www.janegoodall.org.
Rick Asselta is Roots & Shoots Coordinator of University Programs at Western Connecticut State University