When the Sky Was Red


Editor's Note: This Saturday, March 1st, marks the 60th anniversary of Castle Bravo, the United States' most powerful nuclear detonation to date. To better illuminate this oft-forgotten issue, we are republishing Narayan Subramanian's piece from our Spring 2013 edition.

“The sky turned red and it rained for four days straight. If there was ever a time you thought the world was going to end, it was that day.”

These terse words sound like lines straight out of a sci-fi thriller; but, in fact, they are Minister Tony de Brum’s personal account of the effects of Castle Bravo, the largest nuclear test in US history. This was just one nuclear test out of the 68 that the United States conducted over a 12-year span (1946-1958) in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Measured by their power, these nuclear tests amounted to 1.6 Hiroshimas per day over that period – a fact little known to the world community.


The Marshall Islands are part of the Micronesian island chain in the Pacific Ocean extending from Hawaii to the Philippines, and consists of 34 volcanic islands that are home to a population of around 70,000 people. The country, strategically located just south of Japan, played an important role in World War II, and the United States officially wrested control of it from the Japanese in 1944 as part of its retaliation to the Pearl Harbor attack. In the aftermath of the conflict, the Marshall Islands was admitted to the United Nations as a Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, along with most of Micronesia. But the fate of the Marshall Islands would soon change. In 1946, the United States decided that the islands would become its official nuclear test site. The objective of this testing was twofold: first, to gain a better sense of the nature of nuclear bombs; and second, to serve as a deterrent to the Soviet Union.

From the beginning, the Marshall Islands had little say in determining the policies that were carried out by the United States in its territory. This is reflected in the fact that, prior to even speaking to the Marshallese about the proposed nuclear tests, the US Senate had already passed Joint Resolution 307 authorizing the testing of atomic weapons in the Marshall Islands. When Commodore Ben H. Wyatt finally approached the Marshallese on behalf of the US Navy, they were entirely misled. Knowing the Marshallese were extremely religious people, the first request made to the people was couched in Biblical terms. The Marshallese were compared to the “children of Israel” who were saved by the Lord and led to the “Promised Land.” The Marshallese people would be helping to create peace for the “betterment of humanity,” insofar as the nuclear tests would serve to “silence the evil forces” in the world. Having endured suffering under the Japanese and disoriented by their newfound “freedom” under the United States, the islanders ended up accepting the proposal. A leader of the Bikini Atoll people even went so far as to proclaim that “if the United States…want[s] to use our…atoll…which with God’s blessing will result in kindness and benefit to all mankind, my people will be pleased to go elsewhere.”

Despite their illusions of freedom, however, the Marshallese were never informed fully of the potential dangers that would arise from nuclear testing.  The US government and its scientists, on the other hand, were fully aware of the effects and possible doomsday scenarios associated with the tests, and this information was intentionally withheld out of fear that it would deter the islanders from going along with the plan. The United States swiftly began the preparations for its testing program, removing the local islanders from the various testing sites.

All kinds of nuclear tests were conducted between 1946-1958, from standard aerial tests to underwater tests. In the process, entire atolls were vaporized or rendered completely uninhabitable, such as Bikini Atoll. One of the most famous mushroom cloud pictures in the world was taken during an aerial test over Bikini Atoll in 1946. The most well known test, Castle Bravo, was carried out on March 1, 1954 – the largest nuclear test to date in US history, with a blast 1000 times greater in power than the Hiroshima bomb.

What made the Bravo test especially significant was the fact that the detonation was carried out despite repeated warnings that the winds were blowing in the direction of inhabited islands. Furthermore, the effects of the lithium isotope present in the fuel was severely underestimated, resulting in an explosion that was three times greater in magnitude than what was predicted by scientists. The explosion itself could be seen up to 250 miles away and left a crater a mile in diameter on the atoll.

The impacts of Castle Bravo were immediate and devastating. The fallout drifted hundreds of miles, affecting populated islands. Rongelap Atoll experienced a snowfall of ash, which at first was a “wondrous sight” to many of the inhabitants, but quickly became alarming as the islanders began to experience radiation burns from it. Within 72 hours, hundreds of Marshallese were evacuated and began to receive emergency treatment for hair loss and severe skin burns.

Shortly after the tests, the US Atomic Energy Commission issued a public statement claiming that Castle Bravo was a “routine atomic test” with some Americans and Marshallese “unexpectedly” exposed to some slight radiation. Not a single mention was made publicly about the serious injuries that were endured. Even worse, other residents were left largely unaware that everything they were drinking and eating was contaminated. The day of the Bravo test would later become known as “the day of two suns.”

Perhaps the most chilling response to the test by the US government was Project 4.1, a study of the humans exposed to significant beta and gamma radiation due to nuclear fallout. The Marshallese were divided into two groups (“exposed” and “control”) to observe the short- and long-term effects of the nuclear contamination. The 1954 study was highly secretive and only declassified in 1994, in order to avoid negative public backlash.

The US response to the nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands fit with a general pattern of denial that was seen in the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear events. When Japan released reports describing the radiation injuries experienced by the survivors of the blasts, the US government quickly labeled the reports as “anti-American propaganda.” The US scientists even went on to insist that there could be no conceivable deaths other than the ones that occurred during the initial explosion.

Despite the clear negative effects of the nuclear testing, the testing continued until 1958. Just two months after the Castle Bravo test, the Marshallese filed a petition stating that the people were “fearful” of the dangers of the weapons testing and “concerned” with the human displacement that was occurring. They went on to demand that all lethal weapons testing in the area be “immediately ceased.” The US continued the nuclear tests, paying no heed to the first petition. A second petition was filed two years later in 1956. A US government representative responded this time stating that as long as a threat of aggression existed, “elementary prudence require[d] the United States to continue its testing” and future testing would be “absolutely necessary for the well-being of all the people of this world.”

This unilateral control over policy in the Marshall Islands precluded the possibility of fair and equitable negotiations about how to adequately compensate the Marshallese for their suffering. Estimates suggest that only $350 million in the 50 years after the nuclear testing has been provided as compensation for the nuclear testing thus far. This amounts to $15 per person annually. This level of compensation hardly accounts for the many secondary effects of the nuclear testing such as the contamination of fish reserves and harbor areas, which are central to the island economy.

Throughout the testing years, the Marshall Islands was still a UN Trusteeship, meaning it never had the full rights of a sovereign country. Under the trusteeship agreement, the United States was expected to help the Marshall Islands attain self-government or independence. This, however, was never the objective of the United States, as revealed by the declassified National Security Action Memorandum No. 145 (NSAM No. 145), signed by President John F. Kennedy on April 18, 1962. Kennedy writes in NSAM No. 145 that it is “unlikely that the Trust Territory could ever become a viable, independent nation” and therefore, “it is in the interest of the United States that the Trust Territory be given a real option at the appropriate time to move into a new and lasting relationship to the United States within our political framework.” Later on in NSAM No. 243 signed in 1963, Kennedy approved a mission to “gather information and make recommendations” on US policy moving forward in the region to achieve the objectives stated above.

Credit: straight.com

The mission’s report is quite damning. From the outset, the report states that it aims to lay out recommendations which would “secure the objective of winning the plebiscite and making Micronesia a United States territory.” A plebiscite is a vote held in a country in which the people express an opinion on their choice of government. The report goes on to urge the President and Congress to come to agreement on the guidelines for US action in the next few years and specifically cautions that, “the United States will be moving counter to the anti-colonial movement that has just…completed sweeping the world.” Unequivocally then, the policy of the United States was to develop a policy that would leave the Marshall Islands with no choice but to submit itself to the control of the United States.

This is precisely what occurred in 1983 when the Compact of Free Association (COFA) was signed. COFA gave the Marshall Islands access to many US domestic programs, the ability for the Marshallese to freely immigrate to the United States, and general financial assistance. For the United States, COFA meant that it would be able to conduct military operations freely within the Marshall Islands territory and, specifically, Kwajalein Atoll would become a missile-testing base. When COFA went into force in 1986, the Marshall Islands officially attained independence, contrary to President Kennedy’s prediction, but in a de facto sense the island nation was still far from independent.

The people of Bikini Atoll, displaced by the nuclear testing for almost 35 years, filed a suit against the US government in Juda v. United States. The case was at first suspended in 1983 because COFA negotiations were ongoing – the hope was that COFA would adequately address the reparations issue. Later, when COFA entered into force in 1986, the court then dismissed the case on the grounds that it lacked jurisdiction because section 177 of COFA was to govern all claims related to the past, present, and future of the nuclear testing program.

COFA provided a fixed $150 million settlement and a Nuclear Claims Tribunal was created to “adjudicate claims for personal injury and property damage.” Marshallese citizens thus no longer had access to U.S. judicial system for any future claims due to the precedent established by the Juda ruling. To make matters worse, the Nuclear Claims Tribunal, has been severely underfunded and the US government has largely ignored most of its rulings.

To date, there is a $17 million shortfall for personal injury claims and $1.1 billion shortfall for property claims that have been awarded by the tribunal. Moreover, the United States has consistently refused to release all classified documents related to the nuclear testing such as Project 4.1 (note that Project 4.1 was only declassified in 1994, 11 years after COFA was signed). Even in the declassified documents provided by the US government, thousands of pages have been blacked out or deleted. Among these documents is the radiation exposure data for all sixty-seven tests the United States carried out. How, then, was the Marshall Islands ever supposed to fairly negotiate with the United States if it was never given the vital information it needed to hold the United States accountable for its actions?

A closer look at section 177 of COFA leads to complex legal questions. Article IX of the agreement addresses “changed circumstances,” allowing additional funding to be requested from the US Congress if new injury is “discovered after the effective date” of the agreement and if the “injury could not reasonably have been identified” prior. However, in Article X, the Marshall Islands agreed to an “espousal provision,” which terminates all legal proceedings against the United States related to the nuclear testing. COFA, according to Article X, was supposed to provide a full settlement of all past, present, and future claims via the Nuclear Claims Tribunal.

How was Article IX supposed to be invoked if Article X settled all nuclear-related claims? And why would the Marshall Islands government agree to a provision that legally shut the door on all future claims? Minister de Brum explains that “espousal was ultimately the price of freedom…without espousal the US government threatened the veto of trusteeship termination and perpetuate colonial status.”

The Marshall Islands in fact filed for a “changed circumstances” petition in 2000 to the US Congress, claiming that declassified information by the US Department of Energy and the US Department of Defense revealed new information indicating that the magnitude of the testing had been greater than what was previously known. The US government filed a counter-petition asserting that the Marshall Islands petition did not “meet the set criteria for changed circumstances.” Moreover, the US government continues to assert that section 177 legally exempts it from owing any further reparations.

Contrary to the United States’ previous statements regarding the nuclear matter, President Bill Clinton in 1994 appointed the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments to investigate any unethical human experiments that were undertaken by the United States and make recommendations to prevent such an occurrence from happening again. The committee concluded that there was insufficient evidence to prove intentional human testing in the Marshall Islands.

The committee did conclude, however, that there was demonstrated cultural insensitivity and an unwarranted conflation of patient care and research on the part of the United States in the Marshall Islands. For this, the committee recommended that the US government issue individual apologies along with financial compensation, something that has, tellingly, yet to be done.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the committee’s report was its concession that that the greatest harm from the US nuclear testing was the “legacy of distrust” that it created due to the US government’s intentional denial of access to previously classified documentation on the matter.

As recently as September 2012, the Marshall Islands continues to press the United Nations to help rectify the human rights violations it endured due to the nuclear testing. Calin Georgescu, the UN Special Rapporteur on the effects of toxic and dangerous waste on the enjoyment of human rights, released a report detailing his findings on the effects of the nuclear contamination in the islands and their human rights ramifications. His report confirms that the Marshallese are still affected by the nearly irreversible environmental damage caused by the radiation. The report also goes on to endorse the claim that the US government hampered the Marshall Islands’ ability to adequately negotiate the terms of its independence by withholding key information.

The US response to the report was not surprising. The representative stated that the United States “acknowledged and acted responsibly upon the negative effects of the nuclear testing” through “the full and final settlement of all claims related to the testing contained in the 1986 Compact of Free Association.” By relying on such a legalistic formality, this response allows the United States to get away with ignoring the continuing appeals by the Marshallese for justice.


So what legal recourse does the Marshall Islands have moving forward? According to Columbia University law professor Michael Gerrard, a frequent advisor to the Marshall Islands government, the Marshall Islands has little to no legal recourse. He states, “The courts have held that it’s mostly a political question whether the United States pays more compensation. The Marshall Islands have lost at every turn in court.” With regard to the little legal recourse that the Marshall Islands has, Gerrard argues that the recent report from the UN Special Rapporteur creates “if not a wedge, at least a sliver, which could allow someone to argue that it was a human rights violation for the United States not to have carried through on the recommendations of the Nuclear Claims Tribunal.” Even in this circumstance, however, the United States wields much more power in the United Nations system than the Marshall Islands, not to mention the fact that the Marshall Islands still depends on the United States for much of its funding.

The only hope for the Marshall Islands is to garner support from other countries to put pressure on the United States to take steps to address its nuclear legacy. Thus far, Algeria, Australia, Cuba, Malaysia, Maldives, and New Zealand have all expressed support for the Marshall Islands’ cause based on the Special Rapporteur’s Report. While the United States possesses considerable power in the United Nations, the collective pressure from these countries could at the least push the US government to further declassify some of the vital information related to the nuclear testing. The declassification of information is necessary not only for the Marshall Islands to receive justice on the nuclear issue but also for its current residents to seek preemptive medical attention to address the harms of lingering radiation.

The woes of the Marshall Islands unfortunately do not end at the nuclear issue. Today, the country exists barely meters above sea level, making it one of the most vulnerable countries to the effects of climate change-induced sea level rise. With its very physical territory threatened, the Marshall Islands is now faced with questions that even the most powerful countries such as the United States would not be able to answer. Where will the Marshallese people go? What would their legal status be if they were to relocate? Will the country be able to retain its statehood or the distinct culture to which its citizens are accustomed? Many of the same themes that play out around the nuclear issue play out here as well. The United States refuses to take accountability for being the largest emitter of carbon and, once again, the victims are countries like the Marshall Islands that have played little to no role in contributing to the problem.

It is possible that the nuclear legacy may, in fact, end up helping the Marshall Islands navigate the developing climate crisis. As part of COFA, the United States agreed to let Marshallese people freely and indefinitely immigrate into the United States without a visa. As a result, Springdale, Arkansas today happens to be home to over 4,000 Marshallese. There are obvious concerns associated with allowing Marshallese to indefinitely immigrate without any opportunities to become legally permanent residents or share the same rights as US citizens. At this point, however, this seems to be the best option for the Marshallese people in the coming decades. This unfortunately puts the Marshall Islands government in a political catch-22: should the government continue to press for justice on the nuclear issue and thereby risk the current benefits the US government provides, or should the government pivot to focusing exclusively on dealing with the climate issue? In either case, the nuclear legacy is one that will never be forgotten by the Marshallese people for generations to come even if their land is lost. The physical and mental wounds – and the cultural memory of a deep historical injustice – will persist far beyond the small islands that were repeatedly battered by nuclear bombs.