American forces liberated the people of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific from a brutal Japanese occupation in 1945; the islands were designated a U.N. protectorate under the United States. Several months later, on Feb 10, 1946, the lives of these Pacific Islanders would change forever. On that date, Commodore Ben Wyatt of the U.S. Navy told the islanders on Bikini Atoll that they would need to be relocated so that the United States could conduct tests of their new weapon, the atomic bomb. This began a tragic saga for the people of the Marshall Islands. From 1946 to 1958, the U.S. would detonate 67 nuclear devices, mostly on islands in the Bikini and Enewetak atolls of the Marshall Islands. These included all American hydrogen bombs, notably the Castle Bravo test in 1954, which at 15 megatons had 1000 times the explosive power of the Hiroshima weapon. The total explosive power of all the tests was equivalent to detonating 1.6 Hiroshima bombs every day for 12 years.
Like American downwinders and Atomic Veterans, Marshall Islanders suffered serious health effects from prolonged radiation exposure. But the consequences of the 12 years of testing went far beyond this, rippling out even to today. The displacements and radioactive contamination of the environment led to major disruptions of their culture and traditional sustainable lifestyle. One result of this was a shift from a healthy subsistence diet to one that was largely based on packaged commodities from the United States. As a consequence, in two generations, Marshallese people went from being largely healthy and long-lived, to a population with high rates of obesity, diabetes, and other lifestyle diseases.
In 1986, the US and the Marshall Islands agreed to a Compact of Free Association, which gave the Marshallese sovereignty in exchange for the Americans retaining control of several islands. It also allowed the Marshallese to emigrate to the United States and work without a green card. Today, more than half of all Marshallese people live in the US, most of whom reside in northwest Arkansas. When the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the country in 2020, the Marshallese community was disproportionately affected, with infections and deaths 10 times or more than those of other communities. The Marshallese physician and medical researcher Dr. Sheldon Ricklon co-authored a CDC study documenting the devastating results of the pandemic in his community. Dr. Ricklon explained that the disparities were largely a result of the overall poor health of the Marshallese immigrants, which in turn was an echo from the damage caused by a decade of US nuclear testing on the culture and lifestyle of his compatriots.
In this episode, we hear from Dr. Ricklon and other Marshallese. They are nostalgic for the beauty of their home islands, as they recall the tragic months of COVID-19 deaths in their Arkansas community. A number of Marshallese in Springdale, Arkansas have formed the Marshallese Educational Initiative, which is working to educate their own community as well as the rest of us about their history and our role in it. Music has long played a central role in Marshallese culture. Thyroid diseases from radiation exposure damaged the singing ability of many Marshallese. But the new generation of Marshallese have continued the singing tradition, exemplified by a boy band from Springdale called Mark Harmony. After learning about their largely untaught history, they recorded a moving tribute called “Oh Sweet Marshall Islands”. The new generation hopes to make their plight more widely known, when they sing “Oh, sweet Marshall Islands, we won’t forget you, and all the things that you’ve been through.”
Glenn Alcalay is a professor of anthropology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice/City College of New York. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Marshall Islands in the 1970s, and co-founded the website Atomic Atolls. He was an advisor for the Nuclear Claims Tribunal.
Eldon Alik is Consul-general for the Marshall Islands; he was born in the Marshall Islands, and now resides in Springdale, Arkansas.
Carlniss Jerry is Director of the Marshallese Resource and Educational Center at the Marshallese Educational Initiative in Springdale, Arkansas.
Marcina Langrine is the Program Manager at the Marshallese Educational Initiative in Springdale, Arkansas.
Benetick Kabua Maddison is Executive Director and CEO of the Marshallese Educational Initiative in Springdale, Arkansas.
Jack Niedenthal lives in Majuro with his wife and five children; he is a columnist for Pacific Island Times. Until recently he served as Secretary of Health for the Republic of the Marshall Islands.
Dr. Sheldon Ricklon is a family physician and Associate Professor at the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences NorthWest and co-investigator in the Office of Community Health and Research at UAMS. In 2021, Dr. Ricklon was awarded the Dr. Edith Irby Jones Excellence in Diversity and Inclusion Lifetime Award.
- U.S. Navy Com. Ben Wyatt asking Bikini Islanders to move in 1946:
- American Experience: Radio Bikini
(1988 Academy Award-nominated documentary)
- Bikini – The Atom Island (1946 short documentary)
- WELT documentary: The Forgotten War – Bombs on Bikini Atoll
- Rongelapese Women Singing “177” at Nuclear Remembrance Day in Little Rock, Arkansas
- Bikinian Anthem sung to the Oregon State Legislature, May 21, 2015
- MARK Harmony on YouTube:
- “We Up”
- “Oh Sweet Marshall Islands”
- Anthropologist Glenn Alcalay’s website: Atomic Atolls
- Dr. Jessica Schwartz, UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music
- Atomic Heritage Foundation’s website offers a summary of US testing in the Marshall Islands, and includes links to further reading.
- Website for the Marshallese Educational Initiative (MEI) in Springdale, Arkansas
- Website for After95’s documentary “Voices Rising: Amplifying Marshallese Voices”. Includes links to YouTube videos of MARK Harmony’s trip to the islands.
- Dr. Jessica Schwartz (2021): “Radiation Sounds: Marshallese Music and Nuclear Silences”
- Walter Pincus (2021): “Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders”
- CDC report: COVID-19 Disparities Among Marshallese Pacific Islanders
- Dan Zak, Washington Post, 2015: A Ground Zero Forgotten: The Marshall Islands, Once a U.S. Nuclear Test Site, Face Oblivion Again”
- Ali Raj, Los Angeles Times, 2019: “In Marshall Islands, radiation threatens tradition of handing down stories by song”
- Susanne Rust, Los Angeles Times, 2019: “How the U.S. betrayed the Marshall Islands, kindling the next nuclear disaster”
- Dr. Jessica Schwartz, Music & Politics, 2012: “A ‘Voice to Sing’: Rongelapese Musical Activism and the Production of Nuclear Knowledge”
- Arielle Dreher, The Spokesman-Reivew, 2021: “How the legacy of nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands still affects Spokane’s Marshallese community”
- Kashmira Gander, Newsweek, 2019: “Marshall Islands, where U.S. ran 67 nuclear weapons tests, more contaminated than Fukushima and Chernobyl”
- Lucy Westcott, Newsweek, 2014: “Marshall Islands nuclear lawsuit reopens old wounds”
- Andrew Marquardt, Medill News Service, 2021: “Victims of U.S. nuclear tests on Marshall Islands demand action six decades later”
- Sally Clark, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 2022: “Nuclear tragedy in the Marshall Islands”