I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
In 1946, there were 167 people living on Bikini Atoll, a chain of islands in the Pacific Ocean. The U.S. government decided the isolated location, far from shipping lanes and flight paths, was a good place to test nuclear weapons. The Micronesian inhabitants were promised a comfortable place to live in exchange for surrendering their islands for the experiments.
Bikini Atoll before the Tests
People had lived on the Bikini Atoll for at least 3,600 years. The atoll is made up of a chain of 23 islands surrounding a central lagoon. It is part of the Marshall Islands, which, in 1946, was governed as a trust territory by the United States.
The military Governor of the Marshall Islands was Commodore Ben H. Wyatt. In February 1946, he travelled to Bikini to make the islanders an offer. The people were assembled and Wyatt told them that their home was needed for testing nuclear weapons. He said it was for “the good of mankind and to end all world wars.”
The leader of the Bikinians, King Juda, got together with the islanders to discuss the matter. After lengthy consultations, the king told the Americans “We will go believing that everything is in the hands of God.”
The place the Bikinians were soon to call home was the uninhabited Rongerik Atoll, about 125 miles to the east. It was not a good choice.
The atoll was uninhabited for valid reasons; the food and water supplies were insufficient to support more than a tiny number of people. The coconut palms and fruit trees yielded meagre harvests and the fish in the lagoon were inedible. In addition, there was a long-standing cultural belief among Micronesians that Rongerik was haunted by evil demons.
The people were left on the atoll with food and water supplies that lasted only a few weeks. The Bikinians began to starve and begged to be moved to a better location, but for two years their pleas were ignored.
It wasn’t until a former Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, wrote about the U.S. and its “arrogant injustice to a native people” that action was taken. Finally, in March 1948, they were moved to Kwajalein Atoll, site of a massive U.S. Air Force base. After six months of living in tents, they were on the move again. The next stop was Kili Island, far to the south.
For centuries, the Bikinians had lived a lagoon-based culture, but Kili was a single stand-alone island, completely alien to their way of life.
As with Rongerik, the island’s food supply was unable to support the Bikinians.
“The promises [the Americans] made will always be remembered by our people. They told us . . . ‘Never mind if you are living on a sandbar or even adrift on a raft at sea. We will take care of you as if you are our very own children.’ . . . We believed them, and in a way we were happy that they would be taking care of us . . . We just couldn’t understand why they wanted our island, we just knew that we had to follow their requests.”
— Bikini islander Dretin Jokdru, talking to filmmaker Jack Niedenthal in1997
The Destruction of Bikini
Meanwhile, the home the Bikinians expected to return to in a few years was being blasted apart. Called Operation Crossroads, the nuclear weapons tests were what Democratic Senator Scott Lucas called a “grandiose display of atomic destruction.”
And, they didn’t come more grandiose that the test code-named Castle Bravo, which was about 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. The scientists had expected only 450 times the magnitude.
The March 1, 1954 explosion obliterated two islands and threw a massive cloud of radioactive material into the atmosphere. This toxic cloud was carried towards inhabited islands. The military knew this was a possibility but decided not to move residents out of the danger zone.
Rongelap Atoll was right in the path of the cloud. Jeton Anjain was a Minister of Health and Senator in the Marshallese Parliament. He testified that “Approximately five hours after the detonation, it began to rain radioactive fallout at Rongelap. Within hours, the atoll was covered with a fine, white, powder-like substance. No one knew it was radioactive fallout. The children played in the ‘snow.’ They ate it.”
Within a few hours people were showing symptoms of radiation poisoning―burned skin, hair falling out, and vomiting. A couple of days after the test, the U.S. military evacuated the atoll. But, it was too late. Over the next years, the Rongelapese started getting thyroid cancers, and women were having stillbirths and miscarriages.
The disaster led, eventually, to a halt to nuclear testing in 1958, after 23 tests on Bikini.
Life on Kili Island
As their home was being vapourized, the Bikinians continued to struggle on Kili. Ships that were supposed to deliver aid had difficulty unloading food because the island was surrounded by rough seas.
Then, the Bikinians were bamboozled into signing an agreement with the United States. They gave up title to their Bikini Atoll home and relinquished the right to make any claims against the U.S. government. In exchange, they got title to Kili, a few other patches of land in the Pacific, and a small cash settlement.
The Bikinians signed the one-sided accord without any legal representation.
As though they hadn’t suffered enough, nature hit the people on Kili Island with Typhoon Lola in 1957 and Typhoon Ophelia in 1958.
Return to Bikini Atoll
A decade on, the Bikinians were still complaining to any official they could find about the conditions under which they were forced live. Boffins at the Atomic Energy Commission tested Bikini and, by 1968, said “There’s virtually no radiation left and we can find no discernible effect on either plant or animal life.”
In the early 1970s, about 150 Bikinians were resettled in their homeland. However, a few years later, they were evacuated after it was discovered toxic cesium 137 was turning up in their bodies. The level of contamination was described as “incredible.”
In 2019, LiveScience reported that researchers have found that “Bikini Atoll is still more radioactive than Chernobyl and Fukushima.” Factors of between 10 times and 1,000 times more radiation on Bikini have been found than at the sites of those two civilian nuclear reactor disasters.
Back on Kili Island, the Bikinians, now mostly descendants of the original evacuees, are facing a new threat. Global heating is causing the ocean level to rise, causing flooding and forcing the search for a new place for these betrayed people to live.
Today, a few dozen people visit Bikini Atoll each year. Mostly, they scuba dive on the obsolete warships that were deliberately wrecked to test the power of the atom bomb.
- In 2014, the Marshall Islands filed a lawsuit against nuclear-armed nations. The action in the International Court of Justice (IJC) accused the countries of not “fulfilling their obligations with respect to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.” The IJC declined to proceed with the case.
- Louis Réard was the French designer who introduced a skimpy, two-piece swimsuit in 1946. He called his creation the “Bikini” because he intended it to be shocking, just as the atomic testing on the atoll was shocking. The Vatican huffed and puffed and declared the bikini “sinful.”
- “How the U.S. Betrayed the Marshall Islands, Kindling the Next Nuclear Disaster.” Susanne Rust, Los Angeles Times, November 10, 2019.
- “Radioactivity and Rights.” Ruth Levy Guyer PhD, American Journal of Public Health, October 10, 2011.
- “For the Good of Mankind.” Jack Niedenthal, BRAVO Publishing, April 2013.
- “Castle Bravo.” Atomic Heritage Foundation, March 1, 2017.
- “The Marshall Islands Are 10 Times More ‘Radioactive’ Than Chernobyl.” Laura Geggel, Live Science, July 16, 2019.
- “Paradise Lost – ‘for the Good of Mankind.’ ” Jack Niedenthal, The Guardian, August 6, 2002.
- “Bikini Islanders Still Deal with Fallout of Us Nuclear Tests, More Than 70 Years Later.” Timothy J. Jorgensen, The Conversation, June 29, 2016.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on February 05, 2021:
It is revolting, but indicative of the colonial mentality that pervaded Western governments for centuries. Still does in some cases. Disgusting.
Ann Carr from SW England on February 05, 2021:
I too feel angry when we read of such things. Those people acted in good faith, wishing to help humanity, and were treated like dirt. How many times do we go ahead blindly, without enough research, in the name of saving the human race. They did more damage, very long term, than the whole war put together, I think.
Trouble is, we don't learn. Still we go ahead and do things through arrogance and power. Will we never learn?
John Hansen from Gondwana Land on February 03, 2021:
Occurrences like this make me so mad, Rupert. Similar testing, though not to the same extent was done at Maralinga in South Australia between 1956 and 1963 by the British.
I hate how innocent people are used and lied to for powerful nations to have their way. surely they could have chosen uninhabited islands elsewhere.
Thanks for sharing.
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on February 03, 2021:
Hey Rupert, the United States tend to be one of the most wicked nations the world over when she comes to make her word good. In this Bikini Island or Atoll case, she's not dealing with a minor military power, but pure civilians. Seriously, the manner the ICJ handle the Bikini nuclear fallout cases is not in line modern judiciary or humanity standard when it was obviously apparent that the USA deals deceively with the illiterate natives. Shame to the United State. Where is that Big Brother mindset? I pray justice will come in favour of the people.