Seeking Nuclear Justice: Voices from the Marshallese Diaspora in Arkansas
March 1st marks the 69th anniversary of the Castle Bravo test on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Designated by the Marshallese government as Nuclear Victims Remembrance Day, this day is set aside to recognize victims and survivors and commemorate the ongoing consequences of US nuclear testing. Bravo was one of sixty-seven nuclear weapons tested on Bikini and Enewetak Atolls that irradiated the bodies and homelands of my people. Bravo was the equivalent of 1.7 Hiroshima bombs being detonated daily over twelve years and was one thousand times the size of the first atomic bomb test, Crossroads Able, detonated at Bikini eight years earlier.
My grandmother was only two years old when she was removed with her family from Bikini in 1946. They were told by US Navy Commodore Ben Wyatt that their sacrifice was for the good of mankind and necessary for world peace. She has never returned.
This year also marks the expiration of the Compact of Free Association, an agreement between the United States and Marshall Islands governments originally signed in 1986, in part to mitigate the damages from nuclear testing. After World War II, US soldiers liberated the Marshall Islands from the Japanese, only to occupy them in the post-war. US officials selected Bikini and later Enewetak Atoll as the sites for nuclear weapons testing. The US served as trustee of the Marshall Islands under the United Nations until the Marshallese people voted to sever the Trust relationship and the Compact ultimately was signed. The Compact encouraged Marshallese migration, allowing Marshallese to travel to the US without a Visa.
Though the Compact expires this year, most officials in Washington support its renegotiation. My homelands, which were characterized as tiny and scattered islands with a small, expendable population when lands were needed for nuclear tests, now looms large in US national security interests in the Pacific due to the perceived threat of China and North Korea. Marshallese leaders want the Biden Administration to fairly address the nuclear legacy. It appears the administration is willing to do so. They should.
The Marshall Islands needs well-funded medical facilities with cancer specialists, well-funded educational facilities and that can accommodate trained teachers until we can produce our own, scholarships for our youth to seek higher education, and improvements to infrastructure and communications. Looking out for the well-being of the Marshallese was promised under the Trust Territory framework that began in 1947, but it never came to fruition; under the new Compact, the United States must do better.
And what of Marshallese who have already left the islands seeking access to healthcare, education, and employment? Those of us in diaspora now make up two-thirds of the Marshallese population.
The nuclear testing legacy–the driving force behind migration–has taken its toll on all Marshallese people. The ongoing consequences of the nuclear legacy, including its impact on Marshallese bodies and culture, recognizes no geopolitical boundaries.
In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Marshallese living in the United States were among the hardest hit of all ethnic groups. In Northwest Arkansas, where the highest concentration of Marshallese reside in the continental United States, we make up 3% of the population, but accounted for 40% of the deaths due to COVID-19 in the early summer. Part of our vulnerability was due to underlying health conditions–cancer and diabetes–that are a direct result of US post-war occupation and the nuclear testing legacy.
Most public benefits that were a part of the original Compact have been removed over the years, chipped away by new legislation, sometimes purposeful, sometimes not. Medicaid was finally restored in December 2020. Still, most Marshallese remain without healthcare and are vulnerable. What Marshallese qualify for under the Compact–or even the Compact agreement itself–is unknown to most US citizens, including federal officials whose responsibility it is to make decisions on Marshallese eligibility of benefits.
Under the current Compact, the United States continues to designate the nuclear affected as only those from the atolls in which the tests took place, Bikini and Enewetak, and the two atolls that received the heaviest fallout from Bravo, Rongelap and Utrōk. However, according to US government documents and witnesses, contamination was much more widespread.
All Marshallese are nuclear affected.
Those of us whose families migrated and continue to migrate in increasing numbers, now more and more due to climate change and rising seas, are sincerely grateful to the United States for providing opportunities despite injustices done to our people. For my family and all Marshallese families living in diaspora in Arkansas and across the United States, who sacrificed our lands, bodies, and culture for the good of mankind, we ask to be heard, to be seen, and to be treated fairly.
Benetick Kabua Maddison, Executive Director
and the Marshallese Educational Initiative team
For more on the Nuclear Testing history, visit www.mei.ngo/nuclear