The US Devastated the Marshall Islands — And Is Now Refusing to Aid the Marshallese People

The Marshall Islands was the site of a massive 1954 US nuclear bomb test and dozens more nearby. The tests absolutely devastated the small island nation, but the US — including President Joe Biden today — has steadfastly refused to make real amends for it.

The mushroom cloud created by the Castle Bravo nuclear test on Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954. (US Department of Energy / Wikimedia Commons)

Early in the morning of March 1, 1954, the United States detonated what was then the most powerful nuclear bomb in history at Bikini Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands. Known as Castle Bravo, the test ignited a four-mile-wide fireball, vaporized entire islands, contaminated more than seven thousand square miles of ocean, and spread radioactive fallout across continents.

Almost seventy years later, the fallout from this explosion and dozens of others conducted nearby is still doing damage to the health and livelihood of the Marshallese people. According to a statement written by several concerned members of Congress in late January, the State Department is trying to shirk the economic and infrastructural obligations that America promised to this tiny island nation after its nuclear onslaught.

The maintenance of the United States’ imperial project requires the subjugation of less powerful nations all over the world. The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) is no exception. The nominal provisions that America has made to repay the people whose lives were destroyed in service of this imperial project — the same provisions that the Joe Biden administration is quietly trying to do away with — have never come close to addressing the horrors of the islands’ colonial past or guaranteeing its people a survivable future.

A Nuclear Test That Proved Disastrous

The United States formally took possession of the Marshall Islands in 1944 after ousting the Japanese, who had controlled them since World War I. Almost immediately, the islands — which occupy a total area about the size of Washington, DC, spread over an ocean area larger than Alaska — became a strategic American military stronghold in the Pacific. The United States built a base that’s still active today on Kwajalein Atoll, and by 1946, the US was using the country’s northern waters as a nuclear testing ground.

Over the following twelve years, the military tested a total of sixty-seven nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands. The most famous and most devastating of these was Castle Bravo, which remains the most powerful artificial explosion ever generated by the United States. Bravo exploded with a yield three times greater than predicted by its engineers and a thousand times greater than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

While the bomb was detonated at Bikini Atoll, whose inhabitants had been evacuated in 1946 in advance of the first nuclear tests, the combination of unforeseen yield and a shift in the wind ignored by military brass brought heavy concentrations of fallout to nearby Rongelap and Rongerik Atolls, where many Bikinians had been relocated eight years earlier. Those atolls were not evacuated by the US Army until two days after the Bravo test. The intervening forty-eight hours were disastrous for the unsuspecting islanders:

We had heard about snow from the missionaries and other westerners who had come to our islands, but this was the first time we saw white particles fall from the sky and cover our island. . . . We kids were playing in the powder, having fun, but later everyone was sick and we couldn’t do anything. . . . Toward the evening, our skin began to burn like we had been out in the hot sun all day. The next day, the problems got worse. Big burns began spreading all over our legs, arms, feet, and they hurt very much. Many of us lost our hair.

In the years following Castle Bravo, rates of cancer, thyroid disorders, stillbirth (including “jellyfish babies” born without bones), and congenital birth defects skyrocketed in the Marshall Islands. To this day, the Marshallese suffer these conditions at some of the highest rates in the world.

The Tomb Is Leaking

Between 1977 and 1980, the United States collected and sealed the radioactive sand and sludge from its nuclear program in a massive concrete structure, Runit Dome, on Enewetak Atoll, along with 130 tons of irradiated soil from a testing site in Nevada and contaminants from clandestine American biological weapons tests.

The Bikini Atoll nuclear test site, photographed on October 1, 2005. (UNESCO / Wikimedia Commons)

For a time, the United States nominally maintained responsibility for “the Tomb,” as the structure has come to be known. But a 2019 Los Angeles Times report revealed the consequences of the United States’ failure to properly monitor or maintain the Runit Dome: under the joint pressures of time and rising seas, the Tomb is leaking. Those leaks are triggering ecological devastation in the ocean surrounding Runit Island: bleaching coral, killing fish, and causing massive algae blooms.

Compounding the issue, in recent years, the policy of responsibility has quietly changed, and in early 2022, the Biden State Department adopted the position that the maintenance and cleanup of the Runit site are the sole responsibility of the Marshallese, confirming the long-held fears of Marshallese officials that the United States would eventually shirk its responsibilities.

“[H]ow can it be ours? We don’t want it. We didn’t build it. The garbage inside is not ours. It’s theirs,” former Marshall Islands president Hilda Heine told the Times.

The United States is sticking a nation of sixty thousand people with a sophisticated, expensive, and dangerous task that both sides know the Marshallese government can’t carry out itself. Fixing the leaks in the Runit Dome and cleaning up the waste that has already been spilled could cost billions of dollars, an impossibly tall order for a nation whose GDP ranks 203rd in the world. As sea levels continue to rise, the damage to the Runit Dome will only worsen, threatening the surrounding areas with catastrophic levels of radioactive waste.

Breaking the Compact

In 1986, seven years after the United States formally recognized the sovereignty of the Marshall Islands, the Ronald Reagan administration signed the Compact of Free Association (COFA), which defined the United States’ relationship and obligations to several Pacific states it had once occupied. COFA required the United States “to address past, present and future consequences of the nuclear testing program, including the resolution of the resultant claims.” America has failed to achieve that mandate in every respect.

The original document, which expired in 2003, allowed Marshallese citizens to immigrate to the United States to live and work without visas and gave the US armed forces exclusive access to Marshallese water and airspace. Crucially, it also prevented the Marshallese from bringing further legal action against the United States for its nuclear weapons testing.

COFA was renewed under the George W. Bush administration for an additional twenty years, which makes 2023 a critical deadline for defining the future relationship between the two nations. (In 2004, the countries also established a joint trust fund, with a view toward developing greater “budgetary self-reliance” in the RMI by 2023.) But if early moves from the Biden administration are any indication, the Marshallese will be left to go it alone in the face of numerous worsening crises.

In January, Representative Katie Porter tweeted the contents of the statement that the Natural Resources Committee sent to Daniel Kritenbrink, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. In that letter, the committee detailed numerous failings by the Department of Energy (DOE) to carry out its obligations to the Marshallese.

Most damning of these is the DOE’s failure to conduct its mandatory periodic radiochemical testing of the groundwater surrounding the Runit Dome, despite having been ordered to do so in 2012. But according to the committee’s letter, blame belongs not to the DOE but to the State Department:

In the course of oversight of the DOE and environmental monitoring of Runit Dome, the Department of State has blocked DOE document production without justification and made misleading statements to Congress. . . . The Oversight & Investigations Subcommittee of the House Committee on Natural Resources held a hearing during which a DOE official promised to provide documents to the Committee by November 1. The Committee did not receive the documents. . . . The Committee subsequently learned that the State Department was preventing document production by refusing to approve the release of the documents, over the objections of DOE.

Besides blocking the release of necessary environmental oversight documents, the State Department has also made efforts to mislead Congress about the extent of the administration’s ongoing commitment to the Marshallese:

During the December 14 briefing . . . State Department officials asserted that the U.S. is proposing to maintain its current level of economic aid to the Marshall Islands under a new COFA, when in fact the U.S. plans to discontinue postal services and allow education programs to lapse. The State Department also asserted that the security provisions of COFA continue “in perpetuity” even if economic provisions expire, a statement directly contradicted by Title IV of COFA itself. In response to questions about the U.S. nuclear legacy, State Department officials noted that the U.S. has provided more than $1 billion for resettlement and other activities in the [R]MI, but neglected to mention that this figure includes military spending and factors in roughly 70 years of inflation.

This is how American imperialism functions: extract what you can at whatever human cost it takes and give as little back as possible.

The Wilson cloud from nuclear test Baker, part of Operation Crossroads, on July 26, 1946, just offshore of Bikini Atoll. (US Army Photographic Signal Corps / Wikimedia Commons)

The official position of the United States where nuclear victims are concerned is that the initial $150 million settlement awarded in the 1980s was “full and final.” But in 1988, a joint tribunal of the United States and Marshall Islands had actually arrived at a required payout of $2.2 billion. The transcript of a 2010 hearing by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs indicates that because the initial fund established to pay out these claims to the Marshallese was “grossly inadequate,” only about $4 million had been awarded in the years since the compact was signed.

The United States no longer needs these islands to test its nuclear capacity or demonstrate America’s unshakable commitment to building a weapons arsenal of apocalyptic proportion to the Soviet Union. But the US government continues to exploit them to further the lucrative project of perpetual global war. The Cold War is long over, but Kwajalein Atoll still hosts the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, the operations of which were recently handed over to Raytheon and General Dynamics in a $502 million contract. The Marshallese people, and their lands and waters, have been the collateral damage of this profitable enterprise for the better part of a century.

America’s stated national security priorities are fundamentally at odds with the survival of the Marshall Islands. It was in the interests of “national security” that these dozens of bombs were detonated, that these generations of people were made to suffer such incalculable horrors, that a once-pristine ocean ecosystem was destroyed for all time. The Bikinians were promised that their evacuation was “for the good of mankind and to end all wars.”

But the US government has spent seventy years using the Marshall Islands to test missile defense systems that justify a permanent state of war. The islands were once used as a cudgel to threaten the Soviet Union; now, they serve as a cudgel to threaten China. To Western national security pundits, the Marshall Islands are a chess piece; to the Marshallese, they are a home rendered less livable with each passing year.

What We Owe

Given the Biden State Department’s quiet malfeasance on the issue, there is little reason to be optimistic that anything resembling justice for the Marshallese people will come in 2023, when the current version of COFA expires. (To the extent that Western media outlets cover that looming deadline, it’s typically framed as a tactical crisis, not a humanitarian crisis. Were the RMI to cut ties with the United States, the logic goes, China would be first to come calling in hopes of securing a strategic partnership.)

Were the United States actually interested in a modicum of justice for the Marshallese, Congress might demand a robust COFA renewal in 2023 and demand that the Biden administration reclaim responsibility for the cleanup and maintenance of the Runit Dome. Congress might pass the bipartisan Compact Impact Fairness Act, currently stalled in committee, which would restore Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) benefits, stripped by Bill Clinton’s welfare reform bill in 1996, to Marshallese people residing in the states.

The United States could also acknowledge and begin to meet the demands of the Marshallese people themselves, laid out in a 2019 report by the Marshall Islands National Nuclear Commission. The commission still holds the United States responsible for the $2.2 billion figure agreed upon more than thirty years ago, and its findings lay bare the ways in which the dedication of resources to the United States’ imperial project has stripped funding from so many other necessary pillars of a functioning nation: health care, housing, education, and environmental stewardship. (This demand for nuclear reparations isn’t unprecedented: “Downwinders” in Nevada, Utah, and New Mexico are making a similar push to expand the available compensation for the increased cancer rates and other health problems they’ve suffered since the first bombs were detonated at White Sands, New Mexico, and at the Nevada National Security Site outside Las Vegas.)

There is a Marshallese proverb: jouj eo mour eo, laj eo mej eo. “Kindness is life, cruelty is death.” This is not so much an aphorism as it is a statement of fact for a people whose lives have for millennia been so difficult as to be unsurvivable without community and cooperation. (The significance here runs so deep that the piece of the traditional Marshallese sailing canoe — on which the Marshallese people first traversed the Pacific and settled the islands — that supports the weight of its passengers is called jouj: “kindness.”)

Seventy-six years ago, the United States took advantage of that ethos of kindness and cooperation to launch a nuclear testing program that has devastated entire generations of Marshallese lives while furthering America’s capacity to wage endless war. It is long past time to begin the process of materially addressing those wrongs.