The U.S. Needs to Acknowledge the Entirety of its Nuclear Legacy, and it Doesn’t Stop at Hiroshima

May 27, 2016

President Obama arrived today in Hiroshima while in Japan for the G7 summit, making it the first by a U.S. president to the site since the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb at the end of World War II. The White House emphasizes that this visit will not be a reflection on the decision to use an atomic bomb or an apology for what many see as a dark chapter in U.S. history. Rather, the visit to Hiroshima will be, as his deputy national security advisor Benjamin Rhodes describes, a “forward-looking vision focused on our shared future.”

While to many this Hiroshima visit represents a symbolic step towards nuclear non-proliferation, a significant promise of Obama/Biden 2008 Blueprint for Change, the United States continues to deny and overlook its nuclear legacy that extends beyond the WWII attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The United States’ nuclear indiscretion did not stop with the decision to decimate Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear bombings in 1945. It only amplified as it detonated 67 nuclear bombs between 1946–1958 on a small country known as the Marshall Islands.

The Republic of the Marshall Islands is an island country in the Pacific, with a population less than 70,000 people spread over 29 different coral atolls. Following WWII, the United Nations entrusted the Marshall Islands to the United States to help it reach self-determination, but instead of protecting the islands, over the 12-year time-span from 1946 to 1958, the United States tested the equivalent of 1.7 Hiroshima bombs daily. In 1954, the United States tested its largest bomb called ‘Bravo,’ detonating with 1000 times the force of the Hiroshima bomb.

For years to come, the United States continuously tested its nuclear arsenal on Bikini and Enewetak atolls, waiting until after the bombs were detonated to resettle inhabitants to nearby islands. Instead of helping victims, the U.S. used the resettlements as opportunities to study the negative health effects of nuclear testing.

The Marshall Islanders quickly became the lab rats of the nuclear age, as the very country given guardianship over the Islands subjected them to the detrimental effects of nuclear testing. Not only were they forcibly removed from their homes, but they were exposed to radiation that drastically increased cancer, birth defects, and miscarriage rates on the islands.

One particularly horrifying birth defect was deemed the term “jellyfish babies” by Marshall Islanders. They were born human babies, but they were shaped like jellyfish — they had no arms or legs. Darlene Keju-Johnson, a prominent Marshallese activist that passed away from breast cancer in 1996, described this kind of baby in her speech at the World Council of Churches in Vancouver, where she said, “it is a colorful, ugly thing that is not shaped like a human being, but it moves. It is breathing. It is a human baby.”

In April 2014, the Republic of the Marshall Islands filed a suit against the United States, among the other “nuclear nine nations,” in the International Court of Justice The Hague for violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. However, the United States — along with Russia, France, China, Israel and North Korea — does not accept the compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ. This leaves the Marshall Islands battling for recourse without any true forum to establish accountability.

The United States needs to acknowledge its nuclear legacy beyond its typical WWII narrative. The U.S. detonated 67 bombs in the Marshall Islands, knowing that tens of thousands of unsuspecting people would be exposed to detrimental radiation. It carelessly pursued a horrific crime against humanity, with the sole purpose of pursuing nationalist nuclear interests.

The Marshallese are the victims of the nuclear age. If President Obama truly wants to encourage nuclear non-proliferation, the United States cannot continue to ignore a fundamental aspect of its disturbing nuclear legacy. The Marshall Islanders were violated of their right to a healthy, sovereign state merely because their voices were drowned out in the Cold War, nuclear arms race discourse. Without acknowledging the nuclear atrocities of the past, we cannot move forward towards a just global society, free of nuclear weapons.