On Bikini, tens of thousands of U.S. troops occupied the atoll in preparation for the tests. Crews cut down trees and cleared the land to build watchtowers and recreational facilities for the troops, including two clubs and a concrete basketball court. The joint U.S. Army-Navy task force ultimately conducted two atomic tests in the Crossroads series that summer, Able, an airdrop test conducted on July 1, and Baker, an underwater detonation on July 24. Charlie, the scheduled third test, was canceled.
The U.S. Navy placed 95 vessels, including the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Saratoga, in Bikini’s lagoon to test the effects on naval vessels for future defensive military design, tactics and offensive usage of weapons. Hundreds of animals were strapped to the decks to monitor the blast’s radiological effects.
The United States officially took over governance of all the Marshall Islands in 1947, when the United Nations authorized U.S. rule through a Strategic Trust. Part of the U.S. charge was “to protect the inhabitants against the loss of their lands and resources” and to “protect the health of the inhabitants.” For the Bikinians in particular, the United States was not fulfilling its promises.
Within months of their relocation to Rongerik, the Bikinians were starving. The atoll lacked potable water, sustainable food sources, and was 1/6th the size of Bikini. The fish caught during certain parts of the year were poisonous and many believed the atoll was a place of evil spirits. After two miserable years the U.S. military eventually moved the Bikini people to Kwajalein Atoll, where they were temporarily housed in tents beside the U.S. military base. They were given the option to move to Wotho, an atoll they would share with its permanent residents and be under the authority of the local chief, or to move to uninhabited Kili Island. The majority of Bikini people voted for Kili and were relocated in the fall of 1948.
Used to fishing and food gathering in a calm lagoon, the Bikinians struggled to acquire food on Kili, an island surrounded by rough ocean waves for the majority of the year. Kili had served as a valuable source of copra under German administration, and the Americans encouraged their relocation to Kili, believing that the Bikinians would transition into agriculturalists. Because the Bikinians could not fish in the ways they were accustomed, they were forced to depend on coconuts and U.S.-provided food supplies, which were deposited infrequently. Once again the Bikini people were left to fend for themselves in an unfamiliar environment. Kili quickly came to be viewed as a prison and a place of hunger.
Housing on Rongerik, Feb. 1948, and tent city on Kwajalein in 1948, photos by Leonard Mason. A small boat in the surf off Kili in Dec. 1963, photo by Robert Kiste. All three photos from the Robert C. Kiste Collection, UHawaii, Manoa.
Driven by desperation, in 1951 Bikinian leaders signed an agreement with U.S. officials that stated the Bikinian people would give up their claims to Bikini, which fell under U.S. jurisdiction rather than the Trust authority, in exchange for three islands on nearby Jaluit Atoll, $25,000 in cash and a $300,000 trust fund. The Bikinians had no legal representation when the agreement was signed; it would take six years before interest from the trust fund would be distributed.
Bikinian representatives complained to U.S. Trust representatives about their situation at Kili at every opportunity, but annual reports by U.S. officials to the Trusteeship Council described the Bikinians as satisfied with their new settlement. By 1952 some two dozen Bikinians had left Kili on their own boats and gone to other islands.
Internationally, Cold War tensions between the United States and Soviet Union escalated after the Soviets conducted their first successful detonation of a nuclear weapon in 1949. As part of the ensuing arms race, the Atomic Energy Commission, which was now in charge of U.S. testing in the Marshall Islands, began experimenting with fission and hydrogen technology. The first of those tests were to be conducted on Enewetak Atoll in 1952. Two years later the Castle series brought tests back to Bikini.
On March 1, 1954, the United States detonated its most powerful nuclear weapon, the 15 megaton Bravo test, which carried irradiated coral dust from the three islands it vaporized in the form of fallout over inhabited atolls of Rongelap, Ailinginae, and Utrok. The snow-like substance coated the people, foodstuffs, and water, and within hours the people were suffering from the effects of radiation poisoning.
The 15 megaton Castle Bravo detonation on Bikini, March 1, 1954, and the pattern of fallout onto inhabited atolls.
Other atolls as far away as Namdrik felt the effects of Bravo. Witnesses describe how the entire sky turned red. The Bravo detonation scarred Bikini Atoll with a mile-wide crater at the detonation site. In addition to Bravo, several tests produced significant fallout with a much wider contamination zone than the four atolls of Bikini, Enewetak, Utrok, and Rongelap, which the United States would later recognize as the only effected atolls.
Prompted by the impact of Bravo, more than a hundred Marshallese leaders submitted a petition directly to the United Nations requesting that tests be stopped. The petition, dated April 20, 1954, cited the increasing danger from tests, pointing to the inhabitants of Rongelap and Utrok specifically, and expressed concern by the increasing number of Marshallese removed from their lands. The petitioners also requested that funds be set aside for those who may be moved from their homes, but stopped short of asking for compensation for those already removed.
Crater left by the Bravo detonation on Bikini Atoll.
The initial response by the U.S. Representative to the United Nations Henry Cabot Lodge was to question whether or not the Marshallese had been influenced by an outside agent to craft such a letter, and to censor press reporting of the Marshallese petition. Pressured by the Soviets and the council delegation from India, Lodge asked the State Department to appoint Marshallese petitioner Dwight Heine to the U.S. Delegation to mitigate further damage. Despite motivations, U.S. officials announced that the Navy Department and Department of Interior would work to settle claims of the people of Bikini and Enewetak for the use of their lands.
Fierce criticism by some members of the Trusteeship Council continued into the summer and fall due to publicity of injuries caused by fallout from Bravo to Japanese fisherman and to the people of Rongelap and Utrok, though the U.S. publicly downplayed the extent of the damage. U.S. officials at the United Nations were also concerned by mounting criticism in the press regarding the situation on Kili. International pressure mounted as well. India Prime Minister Nehru questioned the legality of U.S. nuclear testing in a Trust Territory and asked that it be brought before the U.N. General Assembly and the International Court of Justice; India also called for a moratorium on nuclear tests.
Picking up dried copra, Aug., 1963, and waiting to load copra, Sept., 1957, photos by Robert Kiste, Robert C. Kiste Collection, UHawaii, Manoa.
LIFE ON KILI
Consequently, U.S. officials began to take on a slightly more involved role in the Marshall Islands. For the Bikinians, this meant that the United States would push them -- a people skilled at fishing and sailing -- to become an agriculturally-based community with the goal of becoming economically self-sufficient. Kili had been favored as a relocation site by U.S. officials because, under German administration, the island had produced tons of copra annually; U.S. officials hoped to see similar output from the Bikinians. The plan, supervised locally by agricultural project director James Milne, was to have the Bikini people work the land to produce breadfruit, papaya, copra, and other fruits and vegetables. Other ambitious plans were also set to build a fish pond and bottle syrup from the boiled stems of coconut blossoms for export.
Additional community development projects included building family housing on Jaluit and to improve communication and transportation between Jaluit and Kili. U.S. Navy officials believed providing access to Jaluit's lagoon would temper criticism of the inability to fish off Kili. Construction costs were to be paid for by AEC funds, while lump sum payments to the Bikinians were to be paid by Congressional appropriations and distributed through the Trust Territory Government. Still, funds were distributed haphazardly.
Public pressure to compensate Bikinians and Enewetakese for their lands mounted over the next several years. U.S. newspapers and magazines began reporting more frequently about the post-Bravo plight of the Islanders and the Japanese government frequently sent survey vessels to the Pacific Proving Grounds to measure the effects of tests on plant and marine life. Following a visit by a U.N. mission to the Marshall Islands in February-March, 1956, the team reported that the displacement of the Bikini and Enewetak people would likely be permanent and urged the United States to settle all land claims without delay.
In November 1956 the office of the Commissioner of the Trust Territory announced that the Bikinians would receive $325,000 ($300,000 of which to be placed in a trust) and the Enewetakese would receive $150,000 in an agreement that would give the United States rights to use both atolls - the same agreement made years before but that had not been paid.
In 1957 and again in 1958, Bikinian crops were damaged or destroyed by typhoons, and what few families who had relocated to Jaluit, were forced to return to Kili. By 1958, U.S. attentions turned elsewhere, however. The United States stopped testing in the Marshall Islands after twelve years and 67 detonations that yielded more than 108,000 kilotons. Twenty-three of those tests were conducted on Bikini, including the two largest detonations, Bravo (15 megatons) and Yankee (13.5 megatons) Even though the testing had ended, U.S. responsibilities to administer the Trust Territory and with it, the health, welfare, and property of its population remained. Once again the Bikinians, along with other Marshallese, suffered due to U.S. neglect. The AEC continued to monitor radiation levels on Bikini, periodically, and used the Rongelapese and Utrokese as test subjects to measure the effects of radiation on human beings.
RETURN TO BIKINI
For another ten years the Bikini people waited for their safe return to Bikini Atoll. Then in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson announced that Bikini was safe and the Bikinian people could be relocated. AEC scientists concluded that though the atoll was still radioactive, once it was cleaned by U.S. personnel, it would be livable. Despite the headline grabbing announcements in the United States, the people on Kili did not receive official word until weeks later. Trustee Commissioner Norwood informed the Bikini people of the news, but explained that there was no money to pay for the relocation and it would likely take an additional two years before the Bikinians could return.
Norwood and Trust officials took nine Bikinians with them to Bikini to inspect the atoll. The Bikinian leaders lamented that it was not same. Lore Kessibuki (1914-1994) said that the island "has nobody, half their bones have disappeared." After the visit Lore pressed Trustee officials for compensation by the United States to the Bikini people for all the damages; no promises were made.
In 1969 U.S. military and civilian contractors began disposing of radiated metal and industrial debris. Rather than removing the materials from the atoll completely, they buried them or dumped them in the ocean. The Department of Interior then began constructing cement housing, a school, dispensary and other structures, but plans fell behind and funding was inconsistent.
BIKINI STILL UNSAFE
By 1974, under 100 Bikinians had relocated. Most remained on Kili or elsewhere in the Marshall Islands because they were concerned for their safety, and rightly so. Sporadic AEC tests showed that food sources and ground water was contaminated, but there was no clear recommendation from the United States as to whether or not living on the atoll was safe or dangerous to its inhabitants. In 1975 the Bikinians filed a lawsuit in U.S. Federal Court in Honolulu demanding that comprehensive, scientific tests be conducted.
Headlines in the United States heralded that Bikini Atoll was safe. The announcement was made by the Johnson administration in 1968 and based on recommendations from the AEC.
It took another three years for such tests to be conducted, which showed that among the roughly 140 Bikinians living on Bikini Atoll, most tested whole body counts with radiation levels that were twice the maximum level. In the fall of 1978 Trust officials removed the Bikinians from their ancestral lands once again. Though Bikinians made requests to relocate to Hawaii or Florida, U.S. officials denied those requests and returned the majority to Kili, while some opted to stay on Majuro Atoll, specifically Ejit.
BIKINI IN THE COURTS
On March 16, 1981, the people of Bikini filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government in the U.S. Court of Claims, in part, for violation of their Fifth Amendment rights under the Constitution of the United States. In what become Juda v. United States, the Court agreed that the Bill of Rights applied to the Bikinians; though not citizens, the Court found that the Bikini people had been granted special benefits by the United States that other foreigners did not have. The case was halted while representatives from the United States and newly-formed Republic of the Marshall Islands governments negotiated the Compact of Free Association -- an agreement that the Bikinians rejected during the plebiscite vote. Ultimately, Juda and other cases, including lawsuits filed by Enewetakese, were dismissed in 1987 after the Court ruled that it no longer held jurisdiction to hear the cases. Under the Compact, all cases against the United States were to be dropped and the RMI would hold jurisdiction over all past, present, and future consequences of the testing. Section 177 of the Compact was supposed to ensure "just and adequate settlement" of claims. A Nuclear Claims Tribunal (NCT) was established to hear all such cases related to nuclear damages. Woefully underfunded at $150 million, the NCT eventually awarded the Bikini people $563,315,500 in 2001 - an amount the NCT could not pay.
In September 2000, the RMI government submitted a Changed Circumstances Petition to the U.S. government. U.S. President Bill Clinton's administration (1992-2000), under pressure from U.S. citizens who were "downwind" of U.S. nuclear testing in the United States, released tens of thousands of previously classified documents held at the Department of Energy (formerly AEC) and held hearings about the impact of testing at which Marshallese representatives were called to testify. The declassified documents revealed, among other findings, that the AEC had conducted a secret study on the people of Rongelap without their consent, Project 4.1, and that contamination was more widespread in the RMI than the United States had previously admitted. With this new information the Marshallese could request additional compensation from the United States as specified by the Compact. Article IX of the Section 177 Settlement Agreement provides that "if loss or damage to property and person of the citizens of the Marshall Islands, resulting from the Nuclear Testing Program, arises or is discovered after the effective date of this Agreement, and such injuries were not and could not reasonably have been identified as of the effective date of this Agreement, and if such injuries render the provisions of this Agreement manifestly inadequate," the Marshallese Islands government may request that the U.S. government compensate the Marshallese for such injuries by submitting a request to the U.S. Congress.
However, the U.S. Congress and the administration of President George W. Bush (2001-2008) refused to grant the $3 billion request. A report, released by the Department of State on January 4, 2005, denied that a larger area was contaminated. Also, the U.S. government argued that the R.M.I. request did not take into account the newly amended Compact (2004) in which the United States had already agreed to provide millions of dollars for Marshallese healthcare and education.
The Bikinians filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in April 2006 again contending that the United States violated the 5th Amendment, which states, in part, that the U.S. government shall not deprive a person "of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." John Weisgall, the Bikinians' long-time attorney, added the failure of the U.S. government to fund Bikinian claims adjudicated by the NCT to previous arguments. After years of litigation, on April 6, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the case.
Despite the legal setbacks, the Kili-Bikini-Ejit Local Government continues to seek compensation for damages and the safe return to Bikini Atoll. In 2016 the KBE government, working through the Office of Insular Affairs in the Department of Interior, has secured substantial grants to improve the lives of the Bikini people and will continue to push for just and fair compensation for damages and the rehabilitation of Bikini Atoll.
Sources & Suggested Readings:
Jack Neidenthal, For the Good of Mankind: A History of the People of Bikini and their Islands. Amazon Edition, 2013.
Holly Barker, Bravo for the Marshallese: Regaining Control in a Post-Nuclear, Post-Colonial World, 2nd ed. Belmont: Wadsworth, 2013.
Barbara Rose Johnston and Holly Barker, The Rongelap Report: Consequential Damages of Nuclear War. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2008.
Giff Johnson, Don’t Ever Whisper; Darlene Keju: Pacific Health Pioneer, Champion for Nuclear Survivors. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013.
Jessica A. Schwartz, “A ‘Voice to Sing’: Rongelapese Musical Activism and the Production of Nuclear Knowledge,” Music and Politics, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Winter 2012).
Jessica A. Schwartz, "Marshallese Cultural Diplomacy in Arkansas," American Quarterly, Vol. 67, No. 3 (Sept. 2015): 781-812.
Jonathan M. Weisgall, Operation Crossroads: The Atomic Tests at Bikini Atoll. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1994.
James J. Whittle, "Juda v. United States, An Atoll's Legal Odyssey," American University International Law Review, Vol. 4, No. 3 (1989): 655-698.
April L. Brown, "No Promised Land: The Shared Legacy of the Castle Bravo Nuclear Test, Arms Control Today, Vol. 44 (March 2014).
Source material utilized for this essay came from various articles and books, including those recommended above, as well as numerous primary sources, including government documents and articles published in the New York Times and Washington Post, among others. For more information, contact albrown at mei dot ngo