I was fishing for mackerel in the morning with my grandfather when the bomb was dropped. I was nine, but something like that you never forget…. We knew the tests were being done, bombs were being dropped. We had seen and heard some of them before. But this was different.… It was not a boom. Atomic and hydrogen bombs don’t do that. They don’t boom. They rumble. Like thunder. The sky turned completely red.… The beach was red, the ocean was red, the fish in my basket was red.
SUCH ARE the harrowing words of one survivor of the US Nuclear Testing Program (NTP) in the Marshall Islands, which took place from 1946 through 1958. The man was remembering the 1954 test, code named Castle Bravo, which was the detonation of the largest nuclear device by the United States up to that point. Writer, lawyer, and activist Julian Aguon collected stories in his book, What We Bury at Night: Disposable Humanity. The book is a people’s history of the Pacific Islands of Micronesia since World War II, written by one of the region’s most vocal critics of American militarism in the Pacific.
Aguon’s book describes the fates of the islands of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands and Guam at the hands of the United States. The Trust Territory was conferred upon the United States by the United Nations in 1947, with the stated goal of ushering the islands toward independence and self-determination. The actual history played out differently. The book recounts how the United States divided the Trust Territory into separate political entities. These became the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), the Republic of Palau (Belau), and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CMNI). The legal status of the mandate territories and Guam varies, but the histories and the realities they face today are very similar.
The US military shapes the landscape of Micronesia in various ways. Throughout the economically depressed island chain, US military recruitment is high. The Saipan Southern High School, located in the CMNI, is considered to have the highest rate of military recruitment of any high school in any US state or territory. The United States is in the process of carrying out a massive buildup of its military presence in Guam. This involves, among other things, transferring 8,000 marines and 9,000 of their family members from Okinawa, adding six nuclear submarines to the three currently stationed in Guam, and expanding Navy and Air Force occupation of the thirty-mile-long island.
Perhaps the most egregious example of US militarism in Micronesia is the extensive nuclear testing there. Aguon notes that the United States exposed inhabitants of the Marshall Islands, where it tested 67 atomic bombs in the twelve years of the NTP, to 1.7 times the radiation of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
The contempt for Micronesians on the part of the United States, and its denial of their rights, ran right to the top of the power structure. Commenting on the fates of Marshallese who suffered because of nuclear testing, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger infamously said, “There are only 90,000 people out there. Who gives a damn?”
If the United States had simply used Micronesia as a site to test weapons without regard to the people or environment, that would be bad enough. But policy was actually worse than that. Beyond indifference to the lives of Micronesians exposed to nuclear fallout, the US government used them as test subjects in an experiment to measure the effects of exposure to extreme levels of radiation. Dr. Merrill Eisenbud, one of the leading scientists of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), said the following of Marshallese people as the AEC and Department of Defense carried out the NPT:
It will be very interesting to go back and get good environmental data, how many per square mile, what isotopes are involved and a sample of food changes in many humans through their urines, so as to get a measure of the human uptake when people live in a contaminated environment. Now, data of this type has never been available. While it is true that these people do not live, I would say, the way Westerners do, civilized people, it is nevertheless also true that these people are more like us than the mice.
The program that used unwitting Marshallese as human subjects in a criminal experiment was started in 1953 and called “Study of Response of Human Beings Exposed to Significant Beta and Gamma Radiation Due to Fall-Out from High Yield Weapons,” or Project 4.1. Project 4.1 continues to this day, involving medical treatment—and study—of the survivors of the Nuclear Testing Program.
This colonial attitude complemented the colonial treatment of Micronesians. Under its trusteeship, the United States negotiated with the countries of Micronesia to define their independence. The Republic of the Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia both became independent in 1986 with the signing of nearly identical Compacts of Free Association. The United States maintains unlimited access to the RMI and FSM for military purposes in a policy known as “strategic denial,” in which Washington denies other powers military access to other countries. The United States also manages the countries’ foreign affairs. In exchange, residents get the “right” to volunteer for US armed forces, visa-free travel to the US, access to US federal social programs, and US economic aid. All of these are important in the lives of the RMI’s and FSM’s residents because US-driven free-market policies have devastated the economies of the two nations, destroying economic independence and self-sufficiency.
The Republic of Palau became an independent country when its Compact of Free Association came into effect in 1994. Palauans waged a heroic struggle to forbid the United States from allowing nuclear weapons on Balau, which drafted the world’s first anti-nuclear constitution in 1981. Aguon describes in painful detail the violence and intimidation that the United States organized to terrorize the anti-nuclear movement into accepting the unconditional rights to Palau that the United States enjoys in the FSM and RMI. In a partial victory, the United States still retains the option to store nuclear weapons on Balau and is entrusted with the island’s military “defense.” Otherwise, though, Balau determines its own foreign policy.
The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands is not independent and is in political union with the United States. Though its residents are US citizens, they do not have the rights thereof—not even the non-voting delegate to Congress that Puerto Rico, Guam, and the US Virgin Islands “enjoy.” The CNMI is US land but US federal labor laws do not apply. Items manufactured in Saipan, therefore, can be tagged “made in the USA,” but under conditions that would be illegal in the US mainland. Guam is distinct from the other islands of Micronesia, as it was captured by the United States in 1898 following the Spanish-American War. It remains an “unincorporated territory” of the United States, where residents are American citizens without American rights. These are case studies in twentieth and twenty-first century colonialism.
Julian Agon’s short but powerful book is an important volume. Washington’s empire is extensive, and Micronesians are among its most marginalized subjects. Though their islands have been, and continue to be, the site of operations central to US military strategy, they are ignored and neglected by the US government and media. Aguon’s book is an introduction to a story of abuse and resistance, whose relevance grows as the US eyes the Asia-Pacific as the pivot of American power in the twenty-first century.