Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Ecocide in the Pacific

Photograph Source: Vladimir Kud – CC BY 2.0

I remember talking to an environmentalist from Illinois sometime in the 1980s. The conference we met was about pollution. He said to me, what you heard about chemical waste dumping is only the tip of the iceberg of the amounts of wastes already buried.

In fact, no one will ever know the mountains of wastes that have been buried or dumped into rivers, lakes, seas and oceans in violation of the law or with the consent of local and national authorities.

The EPA is still struggling to lessen the dangers of illegal pollution and burial of toxic wastes in places throughout the country. The EPA baptizes these gangster operations “superfund” sites.

One such water dumping of DDT wastes came to light in late 2020 by David Valentine, a curious professor of the University of  California, Santa Barbara. He discovered something like 500,000 barrels of DDT littering the ocean floor: a criminal act of pollution that turned out to be the “most infamous case of environmental destruction off the coast of Lost Angeles.” The dumping started in 1947 and continued until 1982, twelve years after the founding of the EPA in 1970. The dumping of DDT was near the Catalina Island. It could not have taken place without the tacit agreement of California and national governments.

In addition to the industry burying or dumping its wastes, the largest violator of national and international environmental laws is the US military. Its gigantic arsenal of weapons and monumental amounts of munitions and  wastes create a nightmare of disposal and effects on human and environmental health.

Disregard for Americans by the US military

In 2017, Judge Mark Toohey from Kingsport, Tennessee, called me to discuss the uneasiness he felt in being in the neighborhood of the Holston Army Ammunitions Plant burning weapons in open pits. He had read my book, Poison Spring, and thought I might have some suggestions for him.

Judge Toohey said to me:

“I had no idea of the numbers of asthmatics, children and families across the U.S. who have had to endure life threatening exposure to open burning by our own military, with the full blessing of the EPA. It is simply a sad state of affairs when we, as a nation, place cost savings above the health of our citizens.”

What Judge Toohey said did not surprise me. My experience at EPA had broadened my understanding of the power of those with wealth and power: corporations, industries, large farmers, billionaires, and governments. They use outright coercion or corruption to accomplish their goals.

Political power and the law

When I was teaching at the University of New Orleans, 1992-1993, the Dean of engineering did not give me a van to drive my students to explore the conditions of pollution in the “cancer alley,” the 100-mile corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

“If I give you a university van,” he said, “the industry will accuse me and the university of bias.” I ignored him and the students and I drove a few of our cars and had a very interesting and learning experience in visiting a couple of factories in the cancer valley.

Laws mirror ideals of civilization and, in some cases, improve living for both humans and wildlife. But the Army in Tennessee had enough power and disregarded the law. State and federal officials did not think it was important to protect people from the deleterious doings of the Army burning munitions out in the open – a routine practice in the colonies. Besides, the chemical industry was at the center of business at Kingsport.

Is the military above the law?

If the military can harm American citizens during times of peace, and not for any “strategic” reason, what would it do during times of war?

One can only speculate the changes taking place in the human mind during war. Can US warriors respect Americans at home and the natural world of the United States when, for decades, they killed enemy warriors and civilians by the thousands and millions and committed ecocide on a large scale?

This is not a hypothetical question. The answer is no. They cannot. The mayhem of war has domestic repercussions, most of them unpleasant.

The Army in Tennessee does not respect its American neighbors because it has been brought up in the lawlessness and violence of real and theoretical wars. It knows the civilian authorities, though superior to it, don’t dare or are not willing to exercise their power.

The Army is accustomed to dump and pollute. That’s what war is all about. During WWII and, for several decades during the Cold War, the US military has been trashing the world.

War pollution

American soldiers faced their greatest enemies in the Pacific fighting the Japanese.

Japan was the only country fighting during WWII that violated international conventions forbidding weapons of mass destruction. It built industrial facilities for the manufacture of biological weapons in Manchuria, China. Japan fought the Chinese with conventional and biological weapons. The Japanese, in fact, used Chinese prisoners in their testing of warfare agents.

The US, however, surpassed Japan in its military ferocity. It bombed Japan into the stone ages — and submission. The atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki told the Japanese what would happened to all of them, if they continued to resist.

Those atomic bombs, in addition, told the world who was the new hegemon. They were a prelude to decades-long campaigns of bombing unruly or revolutionary people. Furthermore, the atomic bombs sparked the development of far more powerful weapons of mass destruction.

The US, almost literally, circled the globe with more than 800 military bases located in more than seventy countries. It could not stand the communist Soviet Union (Russia), armed with atomic and hydrogen bombs, just like its own weapons of mass destruction. China was another enemy that the US military planners had under their bombing radars.

Then the Korean War gave Americans a taste of communist China.

The Vietnam War, however, drove America to the mad house. There was no reason for that war, save for hubris and the delusions of imperial grandeur.

Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia were peasant societies in southeast Asia. In attacking them, America faced a green jungle and invisible enemies with small conventional arms. So, the US started a futile but ecocidal war against rice fields and tropical forests. The weapons of choice included herbicides (Agent Orange) and bombs.

This useless chemical-biological war in Indochina was a result of the ideological and military strategies of the Cold War of the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s. Both America and its Western allies, France and England, and their opponents, the Soviet Union (Russia) and China, were armed with weapons of mass destruction.

Bombs of mass destruction

In the process of developing those ecocidal and genocidal weapons, they tested them at home and their colonies. They made mistakes and had accidents. They accumulated enormous amounts of extremely long-lasting and deadly wastes. In addition, they harmed those who built the weapons, and the soldiers that guarded them. The radiation fallout contaminated water, food, and land – both at home and in the Pacific.

In the heat of existential threats, which the nuclear-armed “superpowers” created, they forgot about human and environmental health. They buried, burned, and dumped their nuclear bomb and chemical and biological warfare wastes into the seas and oceans.

The US dumped its toxic stuff, including lead, dioxin, plutonium, and herbicides, into the Pacific.

Ecocide in the Pacific

An investigative journalist by the name of Jon Mitchell revealed the horror of the pollution of the Pacific by the US military. His book, Poisoning the Pacific: The US Military’s Secret Dumping of Plutonium, Chemical Weapons, and Agent Orange (Rowman and Littlefield, 2020) is about ecocide and political irresponsibility.

Mitchell spent ten years writing this extremely important book. He used the Freedom of Information Act and received ten thousand pages of government (State Department, military, and CIA) documents. Moreover, he interviewed whistleblowers, former military base personnel, including Japanese and Americans who were victims of the decades-long poisoning of the Pacific.

The deadly harm from the Cold War and the nuclear bomb testing is awesome. In the 1950s, Britain tested mustard nerve gas on hundreds of Indian soldiers. It also tested nuclear bombs in Australia and the Pacific. France turned to its colonies in Algeria and French Polynesia where it tested about 200 nuclear weapons. China and the Soviet Union (Russia) did the same thing.

American scientists and engineers and soldiers tested the weapons and put them in storage. They disposed the wastes of the weapons of mass destruction. They became the first victims of the new radioactive power of their weapons.

Mitchell documents systematic ecocide from the dumping of huge tonnage of hazardous bomb waste in the Pacific where the United States started testing its extremely powerful and radioactive and deleterious hydrogen bomb in the 1950s.

This was conventional wisdom during the Cold War. Like Christian monks destroying Greek temples in the fourth century were certain their destruction was a blow against the “idolater” Greeks, Americans poisoning the Pacific in the 1950s thought they were doing god’s work and saving us from godless communism. It mattered not at all that such activities violated the human rights of the Pacific island people engulfed by the bomb fallout.

The epicenter of American ecocide in the Pacific included Japan, Okinawa, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands. The US military tested 67 nuclear bombs alone on Marshall Islands, displacing its population and giving it a permanent fallout. In addition, the US military exploded dozens of nuclear weapons in the Western Pacific. Those tests included biological and chemical warfare agents.


The result of the Cold War weapons testing was predictable. Fallout covered this region of the Pacific with an indelible footprint of pollution from poisons, radiation, dioxin, and depleted uranium.

“During the last eighty years, no nation’s military has damaged the planet more than that of the United States. Since 1941, the United States has been at almost constant war, causing extreme environmental contamination,” writes Mitchell.

In fact, Mitchell reminds us that the word ecocide was coined to describe the vast destruction of the forests of Indochina by America’s Agent Orange.

Mitchell’s book sheds light on the dark age of the US military and politics. How could American politicians be so blind or arrogant for so long? Didn’t they learn anything from Hitler’s Germany? Where were the graduates of Harvard, MIT and other universities? Or where were this country’s environmentalists?

Mitchell says the American acts against the natural world, especially in the vast Pacific, dumping poisons and radioactive pollution, have been so destructive and ecocidal, that he is branding them war crimes against humanity.

Read this well-written, timely, and powerful book. It should make you mad as hell, ammunition you’ll need to fight and stop our continuing war on Earth.

Poisoning the Pacific even shocked me. I have been studying pollution and environmental politics for decades and, yet, I was astonished with this history of deliberately destroying significant sources of life and beauty in the Pacific.

We need to learn from this riveting and incisive story to control our military, instruct our soldiers to respect the natural world at home and abroad.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.