How History Buried an American-Made Chernobyl

Image courtesy of CTBTO.

Image courtesy of CTBTO.

Christopher Tava, Staff Writer

The guns that were orchestrating World War II ceased to litter the earth with their ammunition. To the majority of people in the United States — a group of individuals who did not entirely experience the brutal fighting of the global conflict first-hand — that moment is their last direct memory of the war. In contrast, for hundreds of thousands of native peoples in the Pacific, what the Americans would do in World War II’s aftermath would poison their homes and bring destruction to their population in the name of accumulating more power.

To fully understand how peaceful islands in the Pacific turned into nuclear testing sites tainted with nuclear fallout, it would be best to examine the history of one specific country: the Marshall Islands. Located in the region of Micronesia, it was, according to the BBC, a former Spanish colony which was sold to the Germans in 1899 before the Americans could acquire it in the Spanish-American War. The Marshall Islands jumped hands between the Germans and the Japanese following a League of Nations mandate after World War I but ultimately the country was taken by the United States because of the passing of the United Nations’ Security Council Resolution 21, which stated that the Americans were free to administer control and militarize several islands groups in Micronesia in a way comparable to colonialist-levels of control. 

At the time of the acquisition of the islands, the Cold War was receiving the first matches to its decades-long bonfire. The United States, paranoid about the possibility of the Soviet Union gaining atomic weapons, was looking for a place to test their accelerating arsenal of nuclear weapons far from America’s continental soil. They found a match in the Marshall Islands — with its atolls and strategic significance in the Pacific — and they proceeded to test 67 nuclear weapons over twelve years. Unsurprisingly, those tests brought, according to POLITICO, major destruction to the region in a way that blanketed fallout on the native vegetation and gave the area radiation levels higher than those in the infamous nuclear reactor meltdown site of Chernobyl. The native fruits and vegetables — food that the natives depended on for centuries for their food supply — were rendered useless, forcing the native peoples into eating canned foods that made them easily susceptible to conditions like diabetes and heart disease. Entire islands such as the Bikini and Enewetak Atolls became inhospitable and unforgiving, and others like Runit Island were forever fated to hold thick domes of concrete that encapsulate around 95,000 cubic yards of radioactive debris in each dome. 

From the ensuing events, people have questioned the necessity of repeatedly bombing vegetation and wildlife for the benefit of people oblivious to the moral costs. Due to its immense power over people thousands of miles away that included its ability to self-appoint political offices in the Marshall Islands, the United States had little resistance to their nuclear testing and its effects. There was no significant opposition to the explosion of nuclear devices because of an information void that would, according to POLITICO, intentionally put the Marshallese residents in harm’s way — something that the United States has denied but is a statement that is supported with now-declassified documents from the time. Ironically, it should be mentioned that the inspiration for an American classic that is well-enjoyed by the people of today — 1954’s “Godzilla” — was, according to Business Insider, born from American ignorance as to the hazards of testing nuclear weapons. In an incident, a Japanese fishing boat strayed into the testing range of an American hydrogen bomb, irradiating its entire crew and killing one crew member from exposure to dangerous levels of radiation poisoning. Due to the prominent American censorship at the time, “Godzilla” was meant to symbolize the effects and risks associated with nuclear testing.

One thing to note about the topic is that the United States stopped the nuclear testing in 1958, but that did not stop lingering effects of the fallout in the region. According to POLITICO, researchers at the time found that many Marshallese suffered from illnesses such as thyroid cancer and other conditions that can be linked to exposure to high levels of radiation. In order to put aside potential lawsuit in which the United States would be listed as the defendant, the American government and other Micronesian governments hatched out the Compact of Free Association (COFA) agreement in which the United States gives the people formerly under United States-jurisdiction the right to social services in the United States in exchange for military bases on their Pacific islands. Essentially, under the original agreement, these people can go to the United States and work in the country without visas and qualify for key Medicaid benefits. It was a mutually-beneficial deal — as it brought needs to people looking over the edge of poverty — but was compromised only by a mid-1990s Congressional welfare reform bill.

It is worth diving into that welfare reform bill due to the fact that its contents required twenty years of intense advocacy to potentially restore its damage. Based on information from POLITICO reporting, the bill listed the groups that were eligible for Medicaid benefits from their immigration status, but for some reason the people of COFA were not explicitly mentioned in the deal and thus had their Medicaid benefits taken from them overnight. In an interview with POLITICO, Holly Barker, an anthropologist who advocated for Marshallese compensation for American nuclear testing, stated that the reason the COFA migrants were left out is either because it was intentional or because the people making the deal — which included the President of the United States and leading members of Congress — were ignorant of a major geopolitical deal that impacts the migration and economic status of thousands of people. 

Evidently, it should not be surprising that this loss in Medicaid benefits was stacked on top of the COVID-19 in a way that devastated the Marshallese community in the United States. To examine an occurrence, POLITICO looked at the Marshallese population in Spokane County, Washington state. They make up only one percent of the county’s population, but make up one-third of all the COVID-19 cases in the area. That figure is staggering, and the reasoning behind it involves the Marshallese culture combined with a lack of Medicaid benefits. To focus on the culture aspect, the Marshallese live a family-oriented lifestyle where multiple generations live together and congregate for traditional gatherings of a large size. This part of their culture, along with a deep language barrier that has blocked information about the pandemic, have aided in accumulating COVID-19 cases that make the Marshallese, according to one Center for Disease Control study, seventy-one times more likely to be infected than white people. Furthermore, because these people cannot pay any potential medical bills because of their lack of Medicaid coverage, they are forced to go to their jobs — mostly at factories in the Midwest and South — where inspectors and watchdog groups have repeatedly labeled the locations as inadequate for COVID-19 preparation. That is a cycle that could have mapped its circumference multiple times had a provision not been added to the December 2020 stimulus bill that gives the migrants of COFA Medicaid access again. Although the fate of that bill was once in the air — which would have set back the progress of the COFA migrants — the signing of the bill saves the lives of thousands of people who would have otherwise not made it.

The Marshallese and the people once under a colonial-like jurisdiction by the United States are not the only individuals who have been set back because of American actions. Current American territories and commonwealths, like Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, do not have full American citizenship rights nor a voting representative in Congress in part because of blatantly racist decisions made by the United States Supreme Court. In a group of rulings labeled the Insular Cases — which occurred from 1901 to the 1970s — the Supreme Court ruled by slim margins on how the Constitution applied in overseas territories acquired from the Spanish-American War. Based on records from the Library of Congress, in the first Insular Case, Downes v. Bidwell, the Court found that the Constitution “did not apply in full” in the territories because of the preconceived notion that the “rescued peoples” of “alien races” could not supposedly understand “Anglo-Saxon principles.” Hence, the rights of those people have been severely limited because of outdated and racist priorities that immensely benefit the United States — the people of the territories have the highest levels of military enlistment in the country — with so little in return. 

Throughout the recent decades, the American people have been oblivious to the political and economic suffering of thousands of innocent individuals so that their ideas of American exceptionalism can be appeased. Students do not learn why millions of dollars are needed for COFA migrants and why hundreds of thousands of people are subjected to fewer rights than their counterparts elsewhere. If the American people do not take it upon themselves to absorb the fields of decades of injustice, one more COFA migrant will unnecessarily die from COVID-19 and one more child will be born on American soil but will have to suffer the drawbacks of not being a full American citizen.