The U.S. conducted at least 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958. The nuclear test conducted at Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954, Operation Castle Bravo, remains the largest test ever conducted by the U.S. and yielded 15 megatons, almost 1,000 times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Bravo vaporized two surrounding islets and sent a plume of highly radioactive debris floating over the lagoon and into the open water. Atolls downwind of Bikini, including Rongelap and Utirik, hadn’t been informed of the tests but were showered with dangerously radioactive ash, which residents believed was snow — something they had never seen.
In the years following the test, people who were exposed burned from the radiation, became nauseous, developed thyroid problems, had loss of blood cells, and women who were pregnant miscarried. And decades after the bombings, the health problems persist with unusually high rates of birth defects and cancer among Micronesians.
Even today, the fallout impacts the environment, where it is remains unsafe to eat coconuts, other crops, and fish around these islands. As a consequence, most Bikinians have given up the dream of ever returning to their home, and many Micronesians have left their islands for America.
The anniversary of Operation Castle Bravo is a national day of mourning in the Marshall Islands.
2. The Micronesians were great navigators who journeyed originally from Southeast Asia some 4,000 years ago.
They led subsistence lifestyles off the land and ocean.
3. The Marshall Islands were ground zero for the atomic testing, but the surrounding islands in Micronesia were also impacted by the nuclear tests and the militarization of the area, during and after World War II.
Micronesia includes Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), the Republic of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), as well as other nations. All of these places have their own cultures and languages.
4. The Marshall Islands are an archipelago made up of of five islands and 29 atolls, which run in two parallel chains.
An atoll is a ring-shaped island that encircles a lagoon. The atoll sometimes only partially closes around the lagoon and may be made up of smaller islets.
5. Most directly affected during the nuclear tests were Enewetak and Bikini in the Marshall Islands.
In 1946, Cdre. Ben Wyatt told the 167 residents of Bikini Atoll that due to their home’s remoteness it had been selected as the site for the first peacetime test of the atomic bomb. Wyatt assured the Bikinian Chief Juda Kessibuki that an authority “higher than any on earth” would look favorably on such a deed and that it would be “for the good of mankind.”
7. Less than a month later, the Bikinians packed up all their possessions into a Navy transport.
They said good-bye to their home, but they did not know it would be forever.
8. Nuclear radiation impacted the surrounding atolls as well.
In 1983, Darlene Keju-Johnson spoke at the World Council of Churches Assembly in Vancouver, giving voice for the first time on an international platform to the injustices Micronesians faced as victims of the nuclear age.
She spoke in particular for the people who lived in the islands surrounding the nuclear test sites. Keju-Johnson grew up on Wotje, one of many atolls downwind of the nuclear tests at Bikini and Enewetak, and she died of cancer in 1996.
9. In 1986, the U.S. signed the Compact of Free Association with the FSM and RMI.
The agreement said the U.S. would promote self-governance and economic development so these nations could be self-sufficient. COFA citizens would also be granted the right to live in the U.S., where they can work or study and are required to pay local, state, and federal taxes. They are also allowed to join the military. In the beginning, they were eligible for many of the same benefits as citizens.
10. A deal with defense.
The U.S. military remains very active at Kwajalein Atoll, and in 2012 they performed their largest and most complex missile defense test to date.
In exchange, the COFA agreement gives the U.S. exclusive access to the Marshall Islands’ Kwajalein, the largest atoll in the world, where the $4 billion Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site is located.
11. A similar COFA contract was enacted with the Republic of Palau in 1994.
This agreement took the longest to reach because the Republic of Palau’s constitution proclaims the nation as nuclear-free. The United States, which neither confirms nor denies the presence of nuclear weapons as a policy, essentially pressured Palau to abandon its commitment to being nuclear-free.
12. Even though they are trust territories of the U.S., all three COFA nations are considered self-governing and receive their own seats at the U.N.
Palau, FSM, and RMI are the United States’ closest allies and almost always vote along with the U.S. and Israel even when other allies do not.
13. Broken promises.
In 1996, Congress restricted access to government programs for certain people in the U.S. who were not citizens, including people from COFA nations. Because of this, many COFA citizens lost their access to health care, even though they are legal residents in the U.S. paying taxes.
Meanwhile, back in FSM, RMI, and Palau, the U.S. had not lived up to its side of the agreement to promote economic development. Radiation continues to affect many islands, and Micronesians remain dependent on American assistance.
Joakim “Jojo” Peter, a Micronesian community leader from FSM’s Chuuk who is currently earning his Ph.D. at the University of Hawaii, told BuzzFeed there is still “a lot of frustration” for Micronesians, because they have “guaranteed almost forever” the continued militarization of their home while being denied access to health care.
“The fact that a couple of their island atolls are still not habitable, that is testament to a long problem. The fact that there are still people being treated for long-term illnesses, that is testament too,” Peter said. “If there are two groups here, on one side us, Micronesians, and on the other side the United States, we’ve given all we can to this, and then what are we fighting for — welfare. I mean, the weight of this is so lopsided.”
Additionally, Micronesians are concerned about climate change and rising seas, since their islands have a median height of 7 feet.
Compounded with all of these concerns, more than a third of Marshallese — about 20,000 — and more Micronesians from FSM and Palau have migrated to the U.S. in search of better education, job opportunities, and medical care.
“How do you deal with a culture that has gone through this … the trauma of going through being moved, of radiation,” said Dr. Neal Palafox, a professor at the University of Hawaii Cancer Center with a focus on Marshall Islanders, “the trauma of your culture changing.”
Micronesians mostly move to Hawaii and the West Coast, while a large community has also formed in Arkansas, where Marshallese have sought out higher-paying factory jobs at Tyson Foods.
In addition, Micronesians in seeking different options have disproportionally served in the military, and many people in Micronesia know someone who has died in the military.
Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner was born on Majuro but moved to Hawaii when she was 6. She’s a poet who gravitated toward spoken word, as a means to connect with her own culture, which relies heavily on oral storytelling, and new audiences.
In 2012, she represented the Marshall Islands at Poetry Parnassus, an international gathering of poets, with her poem “History Project.”
“I noticed so few Americans noticed anything about nuclear testing that was conducted in the Marshall Islands,” Jetnil-Kijiner told BuzzFeed about writing the poem, “and that’s really frustrating for me and a lot of Marshallese, that no one seems to be aware of this travesty that occurred — and I just wanted more people to know about the horror of it and about what we lost.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated that the Castle Bravo bombing was the largest nuclear bomb, when it was in fact the largest nuclear bomb used by the U.S. (3/1/14)