Between 1946 and 1958, the United States detonated 67 nuclear and thermonuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands, a legacy that is commemorated today on the 70th anniversary of the Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb test. This nuclear legacy still reverberates in the Marshall Islands today, straining its relationship with Washington and creating a fissure that Beijing is exploiting as it seeks to increase its regional influence.

Residents cross between islands during a rising tide on Majuro, Marshall Islands, on Nov. 4, 2015. Majuro is home to former residents of Bikini Atoll who were relocated in the 1940s. (Josh Haner/The New York Times)
Residents cross between islands during a rising tide on Majuro, Marshall Islands, on Nov. 4, 2015. Majuro is home to former residents of Bikini Atoll who were relocated in the 1940s. (Josh Haner/The New York Times)

The Marshall Islands has a different relationship with Washington than any other Pacific Island country. Along with the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau, it grants the U.S. military access to its islands, airspace and territorial waters under the Compact of Free Association (COFA) while receiving U.S. funding and other benefits. But unlike these other two countries, there are serious cracks in the U.S.-Marshall Islands relationship because of the nuclear legacy. Disagreement over nuclear compensation stalled bilateral COFA funding negotiations in 2022 and 2023, and there remains deep mistrust in the Marshall Islands of the U.S. government.

The Marshall Islands has been part of U.S. strategic thinking since the end of World War II because of its location, and hosts a U.S. military base that could play a crucial role in a conflict with China, suggesting that a positive relationship between the United States and the Marshall Islands is vital. But Beijing is invoking the nuclear legacy to criticize and weaken the U.S. relationship with the Marshall Islands and the broader region. The Marshall Islands is one of only three Pacific Island countries that still recognize Taiwan.

Today, the impact from a total of 116 megatons of U.S. weapons testing leaves many unresolved concerns among Marshallese, including health issues, compensation, community displacements and cleanups. This anniversary has become a time of serious reflection for many Marshallese citizens about Bravo and the nuclear testing program.

1,000 Hiroshimas in One Day

Imagine living on a small, isolated necklace of tropical islands and waking up to see the sun rising in the west. Then a salt-like rain begins to fall, making people’s skin burn and peel, causing nausea, vomiting and hair loss. This was the experience of 82 people living on Rongelap Atoll in the Marshall Islands on the morning of March 1, 1954, in the wake of the most powerful weapon ever detonated by the United States. Codenamed Bravo, it was equivalent to 15 million tons of TNT, 1,000 times the strength of the Hiroshima bomb. It was detonated on Bikini Atoll, less than 100 miles from Rongelap.

U.S. nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands began eight years before in 1946. The people of Bikini were asked to leave their islands by U.S. Commodore Ben Wyatt “for the good of mankind and to end all world wars.” The United States’ promise to the people of Bikini, often repeated by elders today, was that “no matter if the Bikinians found themselves on a sandbar or adrift on a raft at sea, they would be taken care of as if they were the children of America.” They were told that if their homeland “did not turn to glass” after the tests, they could return.

Bravo caused fallout to drift onto the inhabitants of islands to the east and south. Declassified documents show that on that day the winds were blowing east, and the U.S. government knew that inhabited atolls would be in their path. U.S. military teams stationed nearby were warned to seek shelter, but no one warned the Marshallese people.

The U.S. government later said that Bravo’s 15 megaton yield was a surprise. But in 1995, Giff Johnson, editor of the Marshall Islands Journal and one of most prolific chroniclers of the nuclear program, discovered a Joint Task Force-7 report stating that U.S. officials predicted a blast between 12 and 20 megatons.

After experiencing highly radioactive fallout from Bravo, the people of Rongelap and Utrok waited two and three days, respectively, before the United States evacuated them. Some islanders affected by Bravo were not evacuated. By the early 1960s, the Marshallese began to suffer from thyroid tumors and numerous birth defects. As of 2004, cancer was the country’s second leading cause of death.

Starting in the 1950s, a secretive U.S. medical program called Project 4.1 studied the effects of radiation on the islanders, leading Marshallese to accuse the United States of using them as guinea pigs after the program’s declassification in 1994. To this day, Project 4.1 still causes deep mistrust of the United States.

Displacement is another modern legacy. The people of Bikini made an abortive return to their islands in the early 1970s after the U.S. government declared resettlement safe. But it wasn’t safe. In the late 1970s, it was discovered that Bikinians had ingested more cesium-137 — a radioactive isotope of cesium — than any population on Earth. In 1979, they left again and have not returned.

The people of Rongelap are also displaced from their island. The U.S. government encouraged them to resettle Rongelap in 1957, but after many fell ill, they sought to re-evacuate. The U.S. government did not assist with the evacuation; Greenpeace did instead.

Likewise, the people of Enewetak cannot live on their northern islands because of radiation levels. In the 1970s, the U.S. military conducted a radiological cleanup of the southern islands of the atoll and buried the contaminated soil on Runit Island in a concrete dome.It contains an estimated 95,000 cubic yards of radioactive debris, and is threatened by erosion and rising seas.

‘It’s About the Restoration of Our Dignity’

The impacts of nuclear testing — from cancer to displacement to environmental contamination — still plague the Marshall Islands today, damaging its relationship with the United States. The Marshall Islands’ top priorities in its relationship with Washington are twofold: receiving more nuclear compensation and an apology from the White House.

The two countries have conflicting positions on compensation. In 1986, under the COFA, the U.S. government appropriated $150 million in nuclear compensation to be divided among the “four atolls”: Bikini, Enewetak, Rongelap and Utrok. The COFA established a Nuclear Claims Tribunal to adjudicate compensation claims, and it later sought $3.4 billion in today’s dollars from the United States. The amount includes personal injury awards and environmental compensation and remediation.

The Marshall Islands is still seeking this full amount, whereas the U.S. government considers the $150 million a “full and final” settlement. In 2022 and 2023, this became a heated factor in U.S.-Marshall Islands negotiations over broader COFA funding. The agreement reached in 2023 did not include more nuclear compensation, to the disappointment of Marshallese negotiators.

“Just because the nuclear compensation funding ended with the first Compact, the nuclear testing legacy didn’t go away,” says Johnson.

Meanwhile, the White House said in 2023 that it “acknowledge[s] the nuclear legacy” and remains committed “to addressing the Republic of the Marshall Islands’ ongoing environmental, public health concerns, and other welfare concerns.” It’s not clear yet how this will be implemented.

“The U.S. should pay up and just basically compensate the people and then say, ‘I’m sorry,’” says Minister Hilton Tonton Kendall, the senator from Rongelap.

“First things first, the United States needs to apologize,” says Minister Jesse Gasper Jr., the senator from Bikini.

Many Marshallese also believe that compensation to date has unfairly excluded atolls other than Rongelap and Utrok that were also affected by Bravo.

“I feel strongly that the overall nuclear legacy narrative should change,” says Ariana Tibon-Kilma, chair of the Marshall Islands National Nuclear Commission. “The entire Marshall Islands has been contaminated. This whole ‘four atoll theory’ is a U.S. narrative and not accurate.” Four northern atolls — Bikini, Enewetak, Rongelap and Utrok — were most gravely affected by the nuclear tests.

Health care is also a major concern in the Marshall Islands, which has no oncology center. Tibon-Kilma believes, along with an apology and compensation, it is crucial to bolster the country’s inadequate health system, including hospitals, clinics and medical expertise. “Prioritizing healthcare is a form of justice that can benefit our entire population,” Tibon-Kilma says.

The future for Marshallese nuclear survivors remains unclear, but what is clear is that friction between the Marshall Islands and the United States is not going away. Nuclear justice is a cause that many Marshallese believe needs to be continually raised until it is resolved. It also constitutes an easy wedge for China to use against the strategic U.S.-Marshall Islands partnership.

“What is needed is for the United States to begin responding adequately to its nuclear legacy,” says Johnson. “It would be a much better picture for the U.S. government to own up to it in a partnership agreement with the Marshall Islands. They should just recognize this is good for everybody, this isn’t penalizing the U.S., and it’s not a fight. We are partners.”

Tibon-Kilma spoke about the responsibility of her generation carrying this burden forward. “I would like to see a future in which every Marshallese fully understands the nuclear history and the effects that the nuclear legacy has had on all of our lives, because the more educated we are the better choices we will be able to make.”

There is a deep sense of frustration in the Marshall Islands that this issue has not been resolved or taken seriously enough. “For a long time, we’ve tried to get the United States to acknowledge what they’ve done,” says David Anitok, the senator from Ailuk and envoy for nuclear justice. “They’ve always come up short of fully acknowledging what we sacrificed for the people of the United States and the world.”

“Many of our people see the 70th anniversary of Bravo as a painful reminder of what hasn’t happened,” says Desmond Doulatram, co-chair for the Liberal Arts Department at the College of the Marshall Islands. “It’s about the restoration of our dignity.”

Jack Niedenthal is the former secretary of health and human services for the Marshall Islands, where he has lived and worked for 43 years. He is the author of “For the Good of Mankind, An Oral History of the People of Bikini,” and president of Microwave Films, which has produced six award-winning feature films in the Marshallese language.

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