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Detonation of the nuclear device Ivy Mike during Operation Ivy in the Marshall Islands. (Photo: Getty/Bettmann)

The Shameful US Nuclear History in the Marshall Islands

After decades of interfering in the island nation with nuclear testing, disposal of radioactive waste, and human experimentation, U.S. leaders are considering a formal apology.

Edward Hunt

 by The Progressive

Some U.S. officials are considering whether to issue a formal apology to the Marshall Islands, a small island nation in the Pacific Ocean that the United States subjected to years of nuclear testing and human experimentation during the Cold War. 

Last month, several members of Congress introduced resolutions that, if approved, would offer an apology to the people of the Marshall Islands who suffered from nuclear testing and the disposal of radioactive nuclear waste.

From 1946 to 1958, the United States detonated sixty-seven nuclear bombs in the Marshall Islands, destroying entire islands and causing serious health problems for local residents, including cancer.

"Our government used the Marshallese as guinea pigs to study the effects of radiation and turned ancestral islands into dumping grounds for nuclear waste," said U.S. Representative Katie Porter, Democrat of California, who introduced one of the resolutions into Congress.

The Marshall Islands, home to about 50,000 people, are located 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii. The nation consists of two island chains that include several small islands and low-lying atolls. Its total landmass, which is threatened by rising sea levels, is around seventy square miles.

From 1947 to 1986, the Marshall Islands were part of the U.N. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. Since then, the nation has remained under indirect U.S. control through a compact of free association, in which the United States is the dominant military power in the region in exchange for providing economic assistance to the islands. 

With these economic provisions set to expire at the end of 2023, U.S. officials have been trying to renegotiate the compact, which provides about 21 percent of the islands' expenditures. As Marshallese leaders have been pressing their concerns about the ongoing effects of past nuclear testing, U.S. officials have been struggling to arrange formal negotiations. 

"We made clear through our ambassador there that we're ready for formal negotiations," State Department official Mark Lambert told Congress last month. "We have not received a response back."

From 1946 to 1958, the United States detonated sixty-seven nuclear bombs in the Marshall Islands, destroying entire islands and causing serious health problems for local residents, including cancer. The United States also conducted experiments on the Marshallese people, transported soil from a nuclear testing site in Nevada to the islands, and experimented with lethal biological weapons, all without the knowledge and consent of the Marshallese people.

"A formal apology is long overdue to the Republic of the Marshall Islands for the harmful legacy of U.S. nuclear testing," Senator Edward Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, said in a March 1 statement.

This legacy includes Runit Dome, a dumping ground for radioactive soil and debris built by the United States in the 1970s. Although the site is capped by a concrete dome, its interior has been leaking, raising concerns about its effects on the surrounding environment.  

At a Congressional hearing last October, Biden Administration officials offered contradictory accounts of U.S. responsibility for the leaking site. Energy Department official Matthew Moury claimed the Marshallese government is fully responsible for the dome, but Interior Department official Nikolao Pula disagreed, saying that the United States bears "some appearance of responsibility" to work with the Marshallese government. 

Frustrated by the Biden Administration's lack of transparency, Porter accused the State Department of spending "a considerable amount of time" coaching the witnesses "on what not to say." She said an apology to the people of the Marshall Islands from the United States would be a necessary first step toward repairing the relationship. 

"It's very hard for me to understand how we have recognized what we have done with this testing, and how we have accepted and acted on responsibility if we haven't even issued an apology," Porter said. 

Many U.S. leaders insist that the United States has already taken full responsibility for its years of nuclear testing, citing an agreement with the Marshall Islands that refers to a "full settlement" for all claims related to this testing. The settlement included a payment of $150 million. 

But what these U.S. officials fail to acknowledge is that the agreement leaves open the possibility of additional compensation, particularly for changed circumstances, such as new information about the nuclear programs. 

"It said that if new information came to light or the $150 million proved inadequate, the Marshallese could ask to reconsider the deal," Porter noted.

With negotiations over the compact stalled, several Congressional leaders are growing increasingly concerned about the implications for the U.S. military presence in the region. Without some kind of settlement, they fear that the United States could lose access to a strategically important part of the Pacific Ocean.

The islands are home to the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, one of the military's most important missile ranges. It is used by the U.S. military to test offensive and defensive ballistic missiles, including hypersonic missiles that fly several times faster than the speed of sound. 

"The Ronald Reagan test site is vitally important for our ballistic missile testing," Defense Department official Siddharth Mohandas told Congress last month. "We test hypersonics there."

For this reason, some Senate leaders are giving more serious consideration to the idea of issuing a formal apology to the Marshallese people. At a hearing last month, U.S. Senator Mazie Hirono, Democrat of Hawaii, pressed three officials from the Biden Administration on the recently introduced resolutions. "It is very important to the peoples of these nations that we formally apologize," Hirono said.

The administration officials claimed to have no knowledge of the White House's position on the matter, leaving Congress with questions about whether the officials would prioritize the issue. 

"I would very much like all of you to get back to me as to why we cannot support a formal apology," Hirono said. "I'd say that it's long past time."

© 2021 The Progressive
Edward Hunt

Edward Hunt

Edward Hunt writes about war and empire. He has a PhD in American Studies from the College of William & Mary.

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