The Marshall Islands


War Games

By David Kattenburg

Tell a friend you’re travelling to the Marshall Islands, in the central Pacific. Paradise in mind, they may beg to come along.

The Marshalls are certainly a remarkable place to visit. Not because they’re so beautiful, however—although they are—but because of their place in the history of U.S. militarism and nuclear war preparation. Listen here:


For over sixty years, the Marshall Islands have been the U.S. military’s favorite spot to test nuclear bombs, gauge the accuracy of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles and develop anti-missile defenses against those who challenge its supremacy. Without a place to carry out activities like these—in complete control, far from prying eyes—it’s hard to imagine how America could have risen to superpower status in the last half of the twentieth century. The Pentagon continues to assign huge importance to its Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test site at Kwajalein Atoll, in the central Marshalls—USAKA, for short—and is not at all amused when assertive natives, well versed in Yankee culture, start playing hardball at its expense.

As the history of America’s rise and fall moves into its second half, it’s worth revisiting its relationship with this tiny island nation in the middle of the Pacific. This is where the U.S. showcased its nuclear supremacy to the planet, and where American superiority in 21st century war-fighting technologies continues to be forged.

The Marshall Islands consist of 29 coral atolls and five islands scattered along two chains in the central Pacific, just north of the equator. Spanish sailors were the first Europeans to encounter them, in 1529, and in 1788 British naval captains Thomas Gilbert and John Marshall began mapping them. By the early nineteenth century Russians and Germans were paying regular visits, along with whalers of varied nationalities. In 1878, Germany set up a coaling station on Jaluit, on the southern end of the western Ralik (‘sunset’) chain. Seven years later—with Britain’s permission—the Germans declared themselves the Marshalls’ “protectors.” At the start of World War I, the islands were seized by Japan, which became their administrator under the terms of a 1920 League of Nations Mandate. Twenty years later, at the height of World War Two, some of the bloodiest battles between Japanese and U.S. naval forces were fought on and around Kwajalein, Enewetak, Wotje, Maloelap, Jaluit, and Mili Atolls.

Far greater destruction lay in store. The ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had barely cooled—along with U.S.-Russian relations—when Washington’s eyes turned to this tropical prize. A lonelier venue for testing its growing atomic arsenal couldn’t have been imagined. In the spring of 1946, in preparation for “Operation Crossroads,” the U.S. moved Bikini’s 167 residents to another island (“for the good of mankind, and to end all wars,” the commanding U.S. officer explained), and proceeded to detonate its fourth and fifth atomic devices above and below Bikini’s azure lagoon. “Able” and “Baker,” the tests were codenamed (America’s first three operational nukes were “The Gadget,” detonated at the “Trinity” test, in New Mexico, and “Little Boy” and “Fat Man,” dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively).

“Operation Crossroads” was a success. In April 1947, at the United Nations, in New York, the U.S. arranged to have the Marshalls turned into a “Strategic Trust,” with itself as trustee. Washington had promised to promote Marshallese public health and self-sufficiency. Instead, it began testing nuclear weapons in the northern Marshalls on a regular basis. Between April 1948 and August 1958, forty-four “devices” were tested at or near Enewetak Atoll, on the top of the Ralik chain, and twenty-one at Bikini, four hundred kilometers to the east. The total megatonnage of its testing program would be equivalent to over seven thousand Hiroshima blasts, or one a week for eleven years. Amidst growing rivalry at the Pentagon between Army, Navy and Air Force services, all three were now receiving nukes of their own. Each vied to test their systems. Bombs with all sorts of names were dropped from airplanes, detonated on boats, or beneath the warm, azure waters of Bikini and Enewetak Atolls. To find out what damage the ships suffered, how fast they sank, and how best to clean them up before they plunged to the bottom of Bikini Lagoon, dozens of U.S. warships were bombed, like toy boats in a bathtub. (Listen to audio story “Stranded on Bikini”)

The March 1, 1954 “Bravo Shot” was the biggest of the U.S.’s atmospheric nuclear tests in the Marshalls—indeed, the largest hydrogen bomb ever tested. The fifteen-megaton blast on the northwest corner of Bikini Atoll—much larger than had been anticipated—vaporized several islands and sent a dark column of radioactive coral particles and dust rocketing into the upper reaches of the stratosphere. Fatefully, winds had shifted just prior to the test, and radioactive fallout soon began drifting down on the people of nearby Rongelap, Ailinginae, Rongerik and Utrik atolls. Historians continue to debate whether or not senior U.S. authorities actually knew that winds had shifted toward populated Rongelap; whether their three-day wait before evacuating Rongelap’s sixty-four residents was intentional (unwitting American servicemen, it should be noted, were also exposed to the fallout). Before U.S. Trust authorities evacuated Rongelap, the atoll’s residents had plenty of time to wade through ankle deep ashes, taste them and drink contaminated water. Many suffered acute radioactive burns, vomiting and hair loss.

In 1957, thinking the atoll was now safe, the U.S. military moved its residents back again. “The habitation of these people on Rongelap Island,” one U.S. study noted frankly at the time, “affords the opportunity for a most valuable ecological radiation study on human beings.” Almost immediately, their bodies began absorbing plutonium and other radionuclides, and the Rongelapese were evacuated once more. Their nuclear exodus continues to this day, alongside the people of Bikini and Enewetak.

Atmospheric nuclear testing in the northern Marshalls came to an end in the summer of 1958. Missile testing at Kwajalein, in the central Marshalls—the world’s largest atoll—had already begun. “Kwaj”—as Americans affectionately call it—would be the perfect bulls-eye to fire missiles at from California and Alaska. A huge swath of the gigantic atoll was turned into a fly-path for incoming ballistic missiles, their tips hardened with depleted uranium. A host of Kwajalein’s productive islands were converted into top security command, control, and telemetry installations. Little Meck Island would be used as a launch pad for perchlorate-spewing interceptor rockets.

Of course, Kwajalein’s traditional fishers would no longer be permitted to navigate these waters at will. Likewise, there would no longer be room for them to live on the atoll’s largest and most commodious island. Kwajalein Island was now an American military base and community. Kwajalein’s native inhabitants, exiled Bikinians and Rongelapese, and other islanders now flocking to Kwajalein in search of work, would be settled on tiny, nearby Ebeye. Soon, living conditions on Ebeye became horrid. The “Slum of the Pacific,” shocked Western supporters called the place (too passionately, perhaps … Who wants their home declared a slum?). Amidst rising calls for Marshallese independence, Kwajaleiners and their international supporters staged a dramatic return to the hijacked atoll, in traditional boats.

It was wave that just kept building. Across U.S.-controlled Micronesia—from the Marshalls, west to Chuuk (Truk), Pohnei, Palau, Guam and the Northern Marianas—a larger independence movement spread. Plebiscites were held. Guam became a U.S. “territory.” Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae founded the Federated States of Micronesia. Palau—like the Marshalls—chose full independence. The Marshalls ratified their own constitution in 1979. A Compact of Free Association with the U.S. was drafted (similar to Palau’s), which came into force in 1986, following U.S. Congressional approval. In addition to formal sovereignty and a seat at the United Nations, the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) would receive compensation for damages arising from the U.S. testing program, plus an annual aid package. Islanders would also be allowed to hold U.S. passports, and to live and work in the States. In exchange for all these blessings, the U.S. would enjoy military exclusivity in the Marshalls, and—most crucially—unhindered access to Kwajalein Atoll.

Many Marshall Islanders thought the Compact was a great deal. Those with the most to loose—Kwajalein landowners, most notably—opposed it. Soon, it would be the Bikinians’ turn to be disillusioned. Over the years, the people of Bikini had received chunks of compensation for their losses: six million dollars, in trust, in the mid-1970s; a second trust fund in 1982, eventually totalling $110 million, to restore Bikini and Eneu Islands, to sustain exile communities on Kili and Majuro Atolls, and for student scholarships and off-island health care. But more was needed. Between 1981 and 1983, the Bikinians sued the U.S. government for health damages, loss of land and reconstruction costs.

It was at this point, with their lawsuits lodged at the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, that the Compact came into effect. Fatefully, Marshallese negotiators agreed to set their lawsuits aside, and (some would consider this a blunder of enormous proportions) to forego future court claims. In exchange, Section 177 of the Compact handed the people of Bikini $75 million, straight up, to be paid out over fifteen years. Half would be issued in quarterly payments to Bikinians living on crowded Majuro and desolate Ejit; the other half would go into a third trust fund issuing annual payments of five or six hundred dollars.

Section 177 of the Compact also set aside $150 million as a “full and final settlement of all nuclear-related claims,” past, present and future, plus a two million-dollar annual sum for a “Four Atoll Health Care Program”—premised on the notion that only the people of northern Bikini, Enewetak, Rongelap and Ailinginae atolls were affected by the U.S. nuclear program, and only by the 1954 Bravo shot. A nationwide radiological survey would be provided for as well. Under the terms of a separate “Section 177 Agreement,” the U.S. and RMI governments agreed to establish a Nuclear Claims Tribunal to adjudicate nuclear claims and dispense payments out of a portion of the $150 million allotment. Under the terms of the agreement, the $150 million provided to the RMI for nuclear claims was supposed to generate $270 million in proceeds, to be disbursed over the Compact’s fifteen-year lifetime. The first of those class action claims was awarded in April 2000 to the people of Enewetak: $325 million for past and future loss of their atoll’s use, and for land restoration and consequential hardships. In March 2001, the NCT awarded another $563 million to the people of Bikini.

NCT awards were a source of astonishment and consternation. Almost $900 million had been awarded—four times as much as the U.S. had provided for that purpose! Where would the cash come from? To make the gulf even more yawning, the Dot-Com bubble burst was now busy wiping $5 trillion from U.S. Stock Market values. Invested in security grade Wall Street instruments, under the terms of the Compact, the compensation fund had lost almost half its value.

For Bikini, Enewetak, and other northern atolls waiting in the claims queue, there was now only one hope. The RMI would need to petition the U.S. for more funds. The Section 177 Agreement allowed the RMI to do so, if it believed that circumstances had changed and the original agreement was “manifestly inadequate.”

This was clearly the case. To begin with, the U.S.’s $150 million contribution had been arrived at arbitrarily. Scientific/technical data on actual damages incurred, or the likely estimated sum of meritorious claims, did not factor into the sum’s negotiation between top-notch U.S. government lawyers and out-of-their-league Marshallese. Indeed, much of this information was either unknown or classified at the time. Documents declassified under the Clinton Administration—almost forty years after the end of the testing program—revealed that fourteen northern atolls had been exposed to high levels of radioactive fallout, not just the four atolls of Bikini, Enewetak, Rongelap and Ailinginae. The four hundred residents of northern Ailuk atoll, to pick one example, had been exposed to enough of Bravo’s fallout to be evacuated, one declassified 1954 document revealed, but U.S. Trust authorities hadn’t done so because it would have been too much of a bother. On Rongelap, scientists had grossly underestimated whole-body and internal exposures. On top of all this, nuclear researchers now knew that Bravo hadn’t been the only source of nuclear fallout throughout the Marshalls. Thirty-three of the weapons tested on Bikini and Enewetak had been bigger than the biggest weapon tested in Nevada.

Another crucial changed circumstance was the extent of knowledge regarding the health impacts of radiation exposure. A 1990 U.S. National Academy of Sciences study had found that radiation was almost nine times as damaging to human tissues as had been thought when the Compact was negotiated a decade earlier. In response to the new estimate, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had upgraded its radiation dose limit and clean-up criteria to 15 millirems (mrem)/year, compared to the 500 mrem standard in force at the time of the Compact’s ratification. The Nuclear Claims Tribunal had based its awards on the more stringent exposure level.

The RMI filed its “Changed Circumstances Petition” for the first time in September 2000, then again in November 2001, following the election of a new U.S. Congress. A total of $2.7 billion was requested, to cover outstanding NCT awards, for capital costs associated with providing primary and secondary health care coverage to exposed Marshallese, and for an expanded “177 Health Care Program.” Congress asked the State Department for its opinion. It would take State almost four years to respond. In 2005, it recommended that the petition be denied. Circumstances had not changed, the government declared. The NCT had used grossly inflated land valuations in arriving at its awards. Plenty of compensation had already been provided. That NCT investments had lost value wasn’t the U.S.’s fault. On top of all these arguments, State Department lawyers pointed out that the Section 177 Agreement simply provided the RMI with the option to request further funds, but did not oblige Congress to allocate them.

In spite of the rebuff, the Majuro-based NCT, proceeded to issue more awards: $307 million to the people of Utrik and Taka, in December 2006; a whopping one billion, thirty million dollar award, in April 2007, to the people of Rongelap, Rongerik and Ailinginae. With barely enough funds to keep its operations afloat, the NCT had already ceased issuing payments to the people of Bikini and Enewetak. It was simply adjudicating claims. RMI officials traveled to Washington to bolster their case for the “Changed Circumstances Petition.” A former U.S. Attorney General defended the legitimacy of the NCT’s awards—to no avail. Today, the petition continues to languish in Congress. The Republic of the Marshall Islands Supplemental Nuclear Compensation Act would authorize $4,500,000 (compared to the RMI’s $2.7 billion request) for continued monitoring of the Runit Dome at Enewetak Atoll, for an “enhanced primary health care” and cancer screening program, and for the costs of expanding occupation health coverage for nuclear cleanup workers to include Marshallese employees. According to one highly placed U.S. Senate staffer, the bill has no hope of being passed if equivalent costs cuts cannot be found elsewhere in the U.S. government budget.

As the RMI’s Changed Circumstances petition began gathering dust on House, Senate and State Department desks, and award payments ceased to flow, the people of Bikini and a host of other contaminated atolls decided to dust off their 1981-83 lawsuits. On April 12, 2006, they presented their case to the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, in Washington. Bikini’s 1980s lawsuits had been dismissed, the plaintiffs argued, on the understanding that the Section 177 Agreement would provide just compensation. But the NCT had only paid them a fraction of their award, and the Changed Circumstances Petition was now stalled in Congress. Failure to pay out NCT awards amounted to an “unfair taking” of their property rights under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the People of Bikini argued. The Bikinians demanded a total of $561,036,320, equal to their total 2001 NCT award, minus $2,279,180 paid to date, plus interest.

After months of argumentation, rebuttal and counter-rebuttal, in April 2007, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims denied Bikini’s claim. The Section 177 Agreement clearly stated that the courts would no longer have jurisdiction over the matter, Judge Christine Miller ruled. Furthermore, this was a foreign policy matter under Executive Branch jurisdiction, and an appropriations matter that only Congress could consider. Supposed judicial precedents did not apply. A subsequent Federal Appeals Court upheld Miller’s decision. In April 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to revisit the Court of Federal Claims judgement, casting judicial remedies into the void.

Now it would be the turn of Kwajalein Atoll’s traditional chiefs and second-generation leaders to take on Leviathan. Unlike the people of the Marshall Islands’ contaminated atolls, they’ve got something that the U.S. still wants. Under the terms of a Compact side agreement—the Military Use and Operations Agreement (MUORA) governing U.S. military operations at Kwajalein Atoll—the RMI had to negotiate a Land Use Agreement with Kwajalein’s traditional chiefs and landwoners, before the U.S. could start firing its missiles into the lagoon. It managed to do so in the wake of Compact I, but when the treaty came up for renewal in 2001, extending U.S. use of Kwajalein till 2066, with an option till 2086, Kwajalein’s leaders decided to go for a rent increase. They drafted an eight-point proclamation, demanding that the U.S. pay $1.4 billion up front for a fifty-year lease (versus $14 million annually), plus $6 million annually for a health and environmental risk fund. Grand total: two billion.

Pentagon chiefs must have snorted at the outrageous demand. Lines were drawn in the sand. Spared the task of having to negotiate with the Americans directly, Kwajalein landowners have stood back and watched with obvious pleasure as the successive governments of Kessai Note (a Bikinian) and Jurelang Zedkaia played the role of good cop with Washington. Although the RMI votes as it’s told at the United Nations (in lockstep beside Washington’s senior tiny ally Israel), its leaders talk a good talk. There’s not much else they can do. The traditional Marshallese way of life has all but gone extinct, but Kwajalein’s landowners still enjoy traditional, inalienable rights over the use of their land, whether the U.S. likes it or not.

The U.S. tried to entice the landowners by placing their yet-to-be-ratified fifty percent rent increase into an escrow account. Thirty million dollars later, Kwajalein landowners are still dug in. They seem to enjoy watching Washington squirm—if that’s what it’s doing—while advising the Pentagon that it should come up with a 2016 “exit plan.” Faced by the likes of North Korea and Iran, the Pentagon dearly wishes to extend its lease over the Ronald Reagan Test Site—arguably the most coveted gem in a worldwide network of command, control and communications facilities. If a land use deal fails to come through by 2016, the Pentagon will have to go somewhere else, like Guam. Anticipating such an outcome, and in keeping with the closure terms outlined in the MUORA, U.S. authorities have initiated an environmental assessment, aimed at cleaning up the mess left behind by fifty years of missile testing.

Then again, perhaps an agreement will be reached. This past October, Kwajalein landowners presented a new proposal that the RMI dutifully passed along to the Americans for review. Setting aside their initial two billion dollar demand, Kwajalein landowners are now asking for $570 million dollars to cover the costs of Kwajalein’s restoration. Their chief aim is to redevelop eighty-acre Ebeye, currently home to some fifteen thousand Marshallese living under the most disgraceful conditions – a fifteen-minute boat ride away from Country Club America. Two-thirds of Ebeye’s population will be moved to neighbouring Gugeegue and Carlson islands. Causeways connecting the three islands will be improved or constructed. Water, sewerage, waste disposal and power systems are also envisaged, along with housing, schools and recreation and health facilities.

How the Obama Administration will respond to this latest proposal remains to be seen. A positive response seems doubtful. Washington is happy to give Israel ten times that sum—every year—but some relationships are more inherently valuable, and less taken for granted than others.

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