On May 21, 1956, the United States performed its first air drop of a thermonuclear (hydrogen) bomb. While the Soviet Union accomplished a similar feat the year before with a fraction of the payload, the success of the U.S. test touched off a new chapter in the nuclear arms race. But that historic and consequential test was just one of 23 nuclear weapons tests that the United States performed over 8 years at and around Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. In honor of Asian-American / Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we offer a brief overview of U.S. nuclear weapons testing at Bikini Atoll, the fallout caused by the tests, and the trauma inflicted on the local people that persists to this day.
The tests that made up Operation Crossroads were decided in early 1946, just a few months after the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The weapons used were atomic bombs similar in scale to the ones used on Japan. The 167 Bikini Atoll inhabitants were told of the decision after the fact, and were convinced by U.S. Army officials to temporarily evacuate the atoll to the uninhabited Rongerik Atoll 120 miles away. The Bikinians soon found that the new atoll could not be adequately farmed, but it was not until anthropologist Leonard E. Mason visited Rongerik Atoll in January 1948 that the U.S. government realized the Bikinians were starving. By then, the United States had completed two weapons tests but canceled the third due to the overwhelming radioactive contamination of the area from the first two. The Bikinians could not return.
Testing resumed in 1954 with Operation Castle, a series of experiments to test designs for new thermonuclear (hydrogen) bombs many times more powerful than the ones used on Japan. This series began with the now-infamous Castle Bravo test, the largest nuclear explosion the United States has ever caused. The blast was twice as powerful as scientists had predicted, completely vaporizing three islands, and produced enormous amounts of radioactive fallout that spread across the Marshall Islands and fell upon the people living there, including the displaced Bikinians on Rongerik Atoll. Over a thousand people ultimately came down with symptoms for acute radiation syndrome, and one Japanese fisherman died as a direct result, causing an international public outcry. But testing continued through the rest of 1954. Two years later, the United States started a new round of tests under the name Operation Redwing, including one specifically ordered by the Department of Defense to intimidate the Soviet Union: Operation Redwing Cherokee. This was the only test of the series not expressly for weapon development, and the first time the United States had successfully detonated a thermonuclear weapon dropped from a plane, demonstrating to Soviet rivals the U.S. capability to deliver such a weapon in war. All the tests in the Redwing series were named for Indigenous American nations -- following the longstanding American tradition of claiming and militarizing Indigenous names. Despite being dropped 4 miles off-course, the United States made its point. The Soviet Union, however, responded with an acceleration of their nuclear weapons program that would not slow for several more years.
While the literal nuclear fallout from the tests irradiated the islands, the metaphorical fallout came in the form of an international public outcry to end all such nuclear tests forever. As the destructive power of these weapons increased, and as the influence of the anti-nuclear movement in the United States grew, it became clear that the arms race would likely only end in one of two ways: disarmament or death. Then, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, forcing many on both the U.S. and Soviet sides to reevaluate the international strategies they had been pursuing. Thus, in 1963, the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty prohibiting the vast majority of nuclear weapons tests and significantly slowing the arms race. In the decades since, Bikinians have made a few attempts to resettle their old home, but have suffered severe effects from the radioactive contaminants as a result and were forced to evacuate. Although some studies suggest that human habitation is now possible on Bikini Atoll, because the radiation has worked itself into the ecology over the ensuing decades, no food grown or caught there is safe to eat. Just a handful of people live on Bikini Atoll now as caretakers: testing the soil for radiation, leading dives for tourists, and keeping the atoll for the time when Bikinians can return. Until then, the surviving original Bikinians and their descendants, which now number in the thousands, are scattered across several other Pacific islands, the United States, and other countries -- victims of what might be called the first nuclear diaspora.
Today, as the People’s Republic of China has replaced the Soviet Union as the United States’ greatest rival, concerns are rising over new Chinese nuclear reactors and the possibility of developing weapons from them. US ambassador Robert Wood recently said at a UN conference, “Despite China’s dramatic build-up of its nuclear arsenal, it continues to resist discussing nuclear risk reduction bilaterally with the United States,” signaling the possibility of a reduction of US nuclear arms as well. But despite the rhetoric, the United States has taken no steps to ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which came into force in January of this year. As the nation who first brought these doomsday weapons into the world, as the only nation to ever use any of these weapons in war against a foe, and as the possessor of the second-largest and arguably most sophisticated nuclear arsenal on the planet -- the United States is morally obligated to dismantle its nuclear arms, to join the United Nations’ call to ban all such weapons, and to help to forge a path to a new chapter of international peace and cooperation.
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“Castle Bravo.” Atomic Heritage Foundation. Accessed 18 May 2021. https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/castle-bravo
“Concerns grow over China nuclear reactors shrouded in mystery.” Al Jazeera. Accessed 18 May 2021. https://www.aljazeera.com/economy/2021/5/19/concerns-grow-over-china-nuclear-reactors-shrouded-in-mystery
Niedenthal, Jack. “A Short History of the People of Bikini Atoll.” Bikini Atoll. Accessed 18 May 2021. https://www.bikiniatoll.com/history.html
“Operation Redwing.” Nuclear Weapon Archive. Accessed 18 May 2021. http://nuclearweaponarchive.org/Usa/Tests/Redwing.html
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“Revisiting Bikini Atoll.” NASA: Earth Observatory. Accessed 18 May 2021. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/83237/revisiting-bikini-atoll
“Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.” United Nations: Office for Disarmament Affairs. Accessed 18 May 2021. https://treaties.unoda.org/t/tpnw
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