Let Their Voices Be Heard: The Legacy of the Marshall Islands and Islanders in the Nuclear Age

The “Castle Romeo” nuclear test of a hydrogen bomb in the atmosphere over Bikini Atoll, Marshal Islands.

The “Castle Romeo” nuclear test of a hydrogen bomb in the atmosphere over Bikini Atoll, Marshal Islands.

By Joanne Dufour

More than any other people on this planet, the Marshall Islanders are survivors of the two greatest threats facing humanity: nuclear weapons and climate change. Their idyllic archipelago, a sapphire entity between Hawaii and Australia, is located 5,000 miles west of Los Angeles and 500 miles north of the equator in the central Pacific. It is made up of two chains of atolls consisting of over 1,000 small islands.

The term “downwinders” generally connotes nuclear fallout victims based in the continental U.S. The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) has earned the “downwinders” title as well, as their population bore a significant brunt of U.S. nuclear testing when it comes to the energy yield under the U.S. Pacific Proving Ground program. At that time, RMI was a United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (Micronesia) administered by the U.S. from 1944 to 1979. The U.S. had the responsibility as the protective nation to guide the territory towards independence or permanent status, i.e. affiliation with the trust country permanently.

The time between 1946 and 1958 was one of cold-war-thinking where competition among the new nuclear nations was paramount and the idea of killing a nation in the pursuit of winning a war was gaining acceptance in the military. The U.S. detonated 67 nuclear bombs on, in, and above the Marshall Islands. These attacks vaporized whole islands, destroyed others so that future return was highly questionable. They carved craters into the islands’ shallow lagoons and exiled hundreds of people from their homes. Those 67 nuclear tests, in total, had the equivalent power of 1.6 Hiroshima bombs exploding every single day for 12 years.

The U.S. was not alone in testing such weapons. Over this period, nuclear powers tested an estimated 2,000 weapons, of which about 57% were American. In 1992, the U.S. conducted its 1,030th – and last – nuclear test.[1] Nevertheless, the story of the Marshall Islands was replicated in other areas by other nuclear states.

The Arms Control Association reports that “Since the first nuclear test explosion on July 16, 1945, at least eight nations have detonated 2,056 nuclear test explosions at dozens of test sites from Lop Nor in China, to the atolls of the Pacific, to Nevada, to Algeria where France conducted its first nuclear device, to western Australia where the U.K. exploded nuclear weapons, the South Atlantic, to Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan, across Russia, and elsewhere.”

But let us consider the impact of such testing on the population of the Marshall Islands under American control.

The RMI story involves:

  1. The resettlement of thousands of Islanders to Hawaii, Arkansas, Washington, Oregon, and other areas with modest ongoing support (some medical examinations but minimal, if any, treatment; no unemployment protection or environmental assistance)
  2. The premature deaths from radiation poisoning, cancer, thyroid disease, and dengue fever of thousands more (including U.S. Atomic Soldiers as they are called – troops monitoring the testing, cleanup, and transfer of radiated soil from other test sites in the Marshall Islands)
  3. Birth defects occurring for decades in women affected by the radiation
  4. The very serious impact of climate change and rising waters (now being contaminated by the radiation leakage) which threaten the very existence of this nation
  5. Environmental effects apparent today such as the prior building of cement domes in lagoons, meant to contain radioactive products but which have not worked: Radiation has leaked out of these domes and has contaminated the surrounding waters on a continuous basis.
  6. The 1954 testing of the first hydrogen bomb on the island of Bikini,
  7. The detonation of the U.S.’s largest thermonuclear bomb ever (1,000 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb) in the Castle Bravo on March 1, 1964. That bomb resulted in the highest levels of radiation Islanders were exposed to. Even neighbors as far as 1,000 miles away suffered from radiation poisoning and the effects of contaminated debris and soil. Many of those surviving downwinders who were living there at the time of testing have suffered from a highly increased incidence of several types of cancers and serious birth defects – all worsened by inadequate access to medical care on the Islands.
  8. The testing of biological weapons that followed,
  9. The remains of plutonium testing in places like Nevada being transferred as radiated soil to the Marshall Islands,
  10. The refusal of the U.S. government to pay the authorized payments for resettlement, healthcare, and other associated costs/damages like environmental effects of the testing, causing the Marshallese to organize the MI Radiation Victims Association, which the U.S. government continues to fail to recognize.

At a personal level, members of the Marshallese diaspora face the issue of what is happening to their country of origin. Whether they were exposed or unexposed, residents who grew up in relocated areas, veterans who served in the U.S. Armed Forces, or those who returned to evacuated areas not yet safe from the effects of long term radiation, the future of these survivors is seriously affected.

In a recent report published by Newsweek Magazine, a researcher from Australia’s Curtin University observed: “The suitability of the northern islands for human occupation is an issue of broad cultural and social significance, especially to descendants from these islands….For the northern Marshall Islanders food security is a very real concern and it is important for clear, relevant and reliable advice to be issued to people to clarify if breadfruit, coconut, coconut crabs, chickens, lagoonal fish or other plants and animals are unsafe to eat." The soil and the surrounding waters still contain effects of the radiation from the tests.

As to climate change, it has been very apparent that small-island developing states are identified as being at disproportionately higher risk of adverse consequences of global warming. The Marshall Islands are no exception and have been shrinking for years. Their national government has been extremely proactive in pledging to decrease emission levels since 2015 by 32%, with the goal of having a net total of zero emissions by 2050.

They appeal to the world to hear their plight and focus on efforts to address the threats of climate change drowning their nation along with the legacy of nuclear testing. Their will at this time is reflected in their support for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which monitors treaty developments, notes in its page on the RMI: “The Marshall Islands, which is in a ‘compact of free association’ with the United States, allows the U.S. military to test nuclear-capable inter-continental ballistic missiles in its territory, at Kwajalein atoll. This practice is considered incompatible with the treaty’s prohibition on assisting the development of nuclear weapons.”

In 2019 the RMI was abstaining from statements of support and encouragement of signatories to the treaty. The RMI Minister for Foreign Affairs told the UN in November 2018 that “the government’s internal consultations have prompted it to take more time in considering whether to become a state party to the treaty.” However, ICAN reports:

“The Marshall Islands participated in the negotiation of the treaty at the United Nations in New York in 2017 and voted in favour of its adoption.

In its first statement to the negotiating conference, the Marshall Islands said that it is “imperative to properly address the rights of survivors of nuclear detonation, and the role and responsibility of the international community towards them”.

In 2016, the Marshall Islands was an additional co-sponsor of the UN General Assembly resolution that established the formal mandate for states to commence the negotiations in 2017 on “a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination”.

The Marshall Islands was among 127 states that endorsed a “humanitarian pledge” in 2015–16 to cooperate “in efforts to stigmatize, prohibit, and eliminate nuclear weapons”. The pledge was instrumental in building momentum and support for convening the negotiations.”

This has been a typical response in very recent years of those nations closely affiliated with nuclear weapons possessing states, as the former depend on these affiliations for their national security.

On a domestic note, Medicaid has recently been denied to those Marshall Islanders who are living in the United States. That’s why the Association of Asian Pacific Community Health Organizations and Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum are seeking support and assistance in calling on Congress to restore Medicaid eligibility to those individuals from the 1986 Compacts of Free Association (COFA), the parting agreement ending the Trust arrangement between the U.S. and Pacific Islands. Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Representative Tony Cárdenas (D-CA) reintroduced the Covering our FAS Allies (COFA) Act W. 2218 and HR 4821. On March 6, 2020 the Washington State legislature unanimously passed a memorial (message) to President Trump to restore Medicaid benefits to this population. It is anticipated that such advocacy will soon lead to the needed change in this destructive policy.

The indigenous populations from those areas where nuclear weapons have been tested have their own stories to tell. They must be heard as well, as threats for detonating new nuclear weapons terrify our world.

[1] Andrew G. Kirk, “Doom Towns: The People and Landscapes of Atomic Testing, p.122


LA Times: How the US Betrayed the Marshall Islands, kindling the next nuclear disaster

LA Times: Letters to the Editor: It was a bad idea to nuke the Marshall Islands. Has the U.S. learned a lesson?

Washington Post: A Ground Zero Forgotten: The Marshall Islands, once a US nuclear test site, face oblivion again

Politico: They Did Not Realize We Are Human Beings

Newsweek: Marshall Islands, where U.S.ran 67 nuclear weapon tests, more contaminated than Fukushima and Chernobyl

ICAN: International Weapons Campaign Against Nuclear with views expressed over the years of debate

Washington Pysicians for Social Responsibility: Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility Statement of Support for Health Justice for the Republic of the Marshall Islands

YouTube: Their country is disappearing (video)

Pulitzer Center: A Ground Zero Forgotten: The Marshall Islands, once a U.S. nuclear test site, face oblivion again.

Barker, Holly M. Bravo for the Marshallese: Regaining Control in a Post-Nuclear, Post-Colonial World, Second Edition. Belmont, CA, 2013

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Parsons, Keith M. and Robert A. Zaballa. Bombing the Marshall Islands: A Cold War Tragedy: Cambridge UK, Cambridge University Press, 2017

COFA Alliance National Network of Washington: Press Release

TVW: COFA memorial passes unanimously in both houses of Washington State legislature.