1 July 1946: the US launches nuclear tests on the Marshall Islands

Elektra Klitsa

The Marshall Islands is a relatively small country in the Pacific Ocean, consisting of a few dozen coral atolls including thousands of small islands. The insular country is situated at about  middle distance between Papua New Guinea and Hawaii and is on average at just two metres above sea level. Despite their immense natural beauty, they are known as one of the most dangerous places on the planet, due to the many years of nuclear testing by the US military after the end of World War II. 

On 1 July 1946, the first nuclear tests took place on the Marshall Islands – dozens would follow in the next months and years. From 1946 to 1958, the small island cluster was turned into a nuclear “guinea pig” by the United States, while its inhabitants were cheated, expelled and finally left to live with the consequences, including the nuclear waste. 

Their new “toy” 

The flattening of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed an estimated 225,000 people instantly, while millions more died later or had to spend the rest of their lives enduring the effects of radiation. Almost one year later, the US government wanted to see how far its new killing “toy” could go. 

A documentary from 1988, “Radio Bikini”, is reporting on the first nuclear tests at the Marshall islands, and starts with an excerpt from a speech by US President Harry Truman: 

“Not long ago, an American plane dropped a bomb on Hiroshima. This bomb has more power than 20,000 tons of TNT. It is the atomic bomb. It is the harnessing of the basic power of the universe. […] We thank God that it has come to us, instead of to our enemies; and we pray that He may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes. 

But in order to use it “for God’s purposes,” they first had to test its limits and effects, as well as its various versions, and also check the different effects it could have, depending on whether it explodes on the ground, in the air, or in the water. They therefore needed a place providing these possibilities, away from US soil and… with expendable inhabitants. 

Something good for humanity… 

So, in 1946, representatives of the US government “explained” to the Bikini Atoll residents that they needed a place to conduct the experiments that would allow for the new destructive power they had discovered to be turned into something “good for humanity“. They were asked to consent to their transfer to neighbouring islands and they did so, believing they were applying “God’s will“. Or at least, this is the story as presented by the US military, government and media. The 167 Bikini residents had actually no choice of course, being confronted by the most powerful military force on the planet. Kilon Bauno, leader of the islanders, describes on “Radio Bikini”: 

“An American came to Bikini. He said he was the most powerful man in the world. He said he wants to drop a bomb on Bikini. He said that America wanted to use Bikini and that we had to leave. We didn’t really know what was going on. We were very confused. […] It’s hard to express how sad I was when we were leaving. We looked back and saw them burning all our houses. […] We were so sad that no one was eating anything while they were moving us from Bikini to Rongerick Island.” 

“Operation Crossroads” 

The first two tests, called “Operation Crossroads”, were intended to assess the effects of a nuclear explosion at sea and the amount of destruction it could inflict on an enemy fleet. On 1 July 1946, a military aircraft dropped an atomic bomb among decommissioned military ships near the Bikini coast. Some of them sank immediately, while the rest were left floating half-destroyed. 

After the “success” of the first test, the army leadership’s optimism about the effectiveness of its new weapon increased significantly and the second test was immediately scheduled for July 22. 

In the next three weeks, before the second test, neither the inhabitants of the nearby islands nor the naval force accompanying the operation were alerted of the need to take measures to protect themselves from radiation. 

According to John Smitherman, a member of the American fleet, the sailors spent all their time on the deck of the ships in the least possible clothing because of the high temperatures: 

“I don’t recall during my time there them ever saying a word about radiation to us crew members either… we actually didn’t even know the word.”  

The second test was another bomb exploding this time in the water, and it was considered an even greater success. The military leadership kept telling the sailors they had nothing to worry about. 

A year later, John Smitherman returned home with serious health problems. Over the next few decades, the doctors who attended him were forced to gradually amputate his lower limbs. In his interview in the documentary “Radio Bikini”, his left arm appears swollen to the point of not looking anything like a human limb. He died of cancer shortly after the interview, in 1983. Many others suffered the same fate, either after or before Smitherman, who said, he didn’t even know what caused their deaths.   

Castle Bravo 

A few years and dozens of nuclear tests after the “Crossroads”, in March 1954, the optimism of the US war staff had increased even more. They now felt ready to take a further step. The nuclear test, codenamed “Castle Bravo“, constituted the largest ever test conducted by the US military and was the first hydrogen bomb explosion in history. The power of the explosion proved to be at least twice as powerful as the US military’s expectations, and was 1,000 times more powerful than the one that destroyed Hiroshima. Its effects expanded to a much larger area than originally estimated. Thus, retrospectively, the army evacuated the inhabitants of at least three other islands (Rongelap, Rongerick and Yutterick). 

In the ABC network documentary “The Dome” (2017), Lemeyo Abon describes the explosion: 

“The earth shook. When we saw the bright light and heard the loud noise, most of us were very scared … Some of the children didn’t know what snow was, so they named it: oh, it’s snowing! It’s the first time we’ve seen it…” 

The radioactive “ash”, the remnants of the blast that the children mistook for snow, never allowed the residents of the islands where it dropped to return home. They remained forever “nuclear refugees”, far from the islands that were their home, though close enough for them to not stop longing for them on a daily basis. 

Cemented tomb 

The tiny island Runit, which is part of the Enewitok Atoll, had been full of craters thanks to the nuclear testing, as had many other islands. In one such crater, the US government decided to “bury” the radioactive waste from the tests by covering it with a concrete dome. Speaking about “The Dome”, Professor Michael Gerrard, a specialist in climate change, explains: 

“The bottom of the dome is simply what’s left after the nuclear explosions. It’s permeable soil. No attempt was made to seal it and therefore the seawater can penetrate the dome. […] the United States has admitted that a major hurricane could disintegrate it, leading to the leakage of all the radioactivity inside.” 

He also explains that, as sea levels rise because of climate change, the radioactivity leaks from the concrete dome into the water will increase. He finally says that the “tomb”, as locals call it, is neither marked nor guarded whatsoever, even though approaching it is highly dangerous and in theory forbidden. 

Decades after the tests, local residents are still living with their effects and within spitting distance of the radioactive waste. They fish and farm, trying to survive in a country doomed for hundreds, or even thousands of years due to the effects of radiation. They are getting sick with cancer more and more often, and more and more children are born with genetic mutations. 

Exotic holidays 

Jim Androl, a U.S. Army veteran and member of the crew who sealed the concrete tomb, describes how he ended up at Runit: 

“They asked me if I wanted to spend the last six months of my service on a tropical island […] we were told that everything was safe, we wore shorts, short-sleeved shirts, hats and those boots used in the jungle [… ] we couldn’t get even a paper mask, but we were able to fish, eat seafood and drink the water, there were no restrictions on anything […] you were perfectly safe according to the military…” 

A similar “holiday” in the heavenly landscapes of the Marshall Islands was promised to some 4300 American soldiers. They were not informed about their destination or their tasks once deployed, they were given no uniforms or other protective equipment, they received no training; they were sent to Runit and were tasked to cover with concrete the crater where the nuclear test waste was deposited. Many of them fell ill soon after their return and eventually the supposed free holiday cost them their lives. The US government refused not only to compensate them, but not even  provide them with medical care. 

Independence and compensation 

Finally, the Marshall Islands, which had been occupied by the US during World War II, “were granted” their independence in 1986 and after the nuclear testing programme was over. Along with independence, they received some compensation, which was interrupted though in 2009. Thus, the unpaid debt is estimated at USD 2.2 billion. At the same time, most individual legal actions by local residents against the US and claims for compensation remain pending. In any event, the actual unpaid debt to people and nature is incalculable. 

“One world, or none” 

The nuclear-mania which developed over the decades following World War II, and the nuclear race between the US and the Soviet Union (which conducted even more destructive nuclear tests in Kazakhstan and in the Arctic), found considerable resistance around the world and in the US itself. 

Almost immediately after the first atomic bomb was dropped in Hiroshima, a short film called “One world or none” was released. The film explained the threat that nuclear weapons represent, describing the devastation the atomic bomb would have caused if dropped on American cities such as New York or Chicago, and warned that humanity must choose between a single world without weapons of mass destruction or none. 

The title of the film became the slogan of the movement that developed during the Marshall Islands nuclear tests, demanding an end to the “experiments” and to the use of nuclear energy for war purposes in general. 

What about peace purposes? 

The film draws the conclusion that nuclear energy may pose a huge threat in the context of the war industry, but it could become a beneficial force for humanity if used for peaceful purposes. This idea was exploited in the following decades, when the first nuclear power plants were built alongside the development of nuclear weapons, in order to provide electricity to several regions of the world. 

Later, of course, the facts proved that harnessing nuclear energy “for peaceful purposes” can also be deadly dangerous. 

In April 1986, one of the reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine exploded and we are all aware of the dramatic consequences. It is estimated that the released radioactivity affected a total of 6.8 million people, while gradually spreading across Europe. Some 220.000 people were forced to evacuate within a 30 km radius from the explosion site. The anti-Soviet propaganda of the West exploited the accident to the full.  

In reality, of course, the US itself has not done any better in terms of nuclear energy. A few years before Chernobyl, one of the reactors at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania overheated and leaked radiation. The incident is considered as the most serious nuclear accident in the United States. 

The most recent and perhaps the most catastrophic accident in the history of nuclear power occurred in March 2011 in Fukushima, Japan, caused by a powerful earthquake and a consequent tsunami that struck the region. The huge wave passed over the plant’s protective wall, rushing inside and causing a blackout, which then led to the overheating and of three nuclear reactors and to them exploding. Radioactivity was released not only into the air but also to the local sea, spreading across long distances into the Pacific Ocean. 

The question comes naturally: do we need more proof to stop using nuclear power altogether, both in war industry and energy production? Despite the enormous risks and the immeasurable disasters and human losses, nuclear power is still being marketed by many as a “green” alternative to fossil fuels. 

More than seven decades after the discovery and first use of nuclear energy, the profits of the nuclear industry continue to endanger the planet. These devastating effects demand massive action, so that the nuclear industry is banned around the globe, forever. 

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