The Marshall Islands Tried to Keep the World’s Nuclear Powers Honest

Matthew Gault
Jun 9, 2015 · 6 min read

The tiny republic knows the cost of nuclear weapons better than most


On paper, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons is pretty great. It’s an evolving agreement between nations aimed at stopping the spread of nukes, disarming existing weapons and encouraging the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

In reality, many of the countries who signed it either weasel out of its obligations or simply ignore them. At a May 2015 meeting of member nations at the United Nations headquarters, one of the attendees called bullshit.

“For far too many years, these circular negotiations on nuclear non-proliferation have failed to listen closely to those voices who know better,” Tony deBrum, the Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Marshall Islands — a tiny republic in the Pacific ocean — said.

DeBrum and the other Marshall Islanders know better, perhaps better than anyone alive. That’s because they’ve suffered the consequences of nuclear weapons more than most countries.

“How many in this room have personally witnessed nuclear weapon detonations?” deBrum asked. He had. It was one of the defining moments of his life.

At the end of World War II, the United States took control of the Marshall Islands away from Japan. The area became an American Trust Territory. Washington quickly betrayed that trust.

In 1946, the Pentagon began testing nukes in the waters off the Marshall Islands. From ’46 to ’58, the U.S. detonated 67 nuclear weapons in the waters. The Islands and its people have never been the same.

DeBrum was fishing with his grandfather in ’54 when the military detonated the Castle Bravo bomb. It was the largest nuclear explosion ever created by America and it led to one of the worst radiological disasters in history.

“[My grandfather] was throwing the net and suddenly the silent bright flash — and then a force, the shock wave,” de Brume explained.

“Everything turned red — the ocean, the fish, the sky, and my grandfather’s net. And we were 200 miles away from ground zero. A memory that can never be erased.”

The Marshall Islands still aren’t completely habitable.

“From the 1950s through the late 1980s,” Robert Alvarez wrote at The Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences. “U.S. nuclear weapons officials consistently opposed the establishment of radiation protection standards in the Marshall Islands, because such standards would have interfered with a possible resumption of nuclear testing in the Pacific.”

American scientists at the time viewed the Marshallese as test subjects for the effects of radiation poisoning. “That island is safe to live on but is by far the most contaminated place in the world and it will be very interesting to go back and get good environmental data,” one scientist noted during a meeting of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in 1956.

“These people do not live … the way Westerners do — civilized people,” the scientist continued. “It is … also true that these people are more like us than mice.”

So … what were the effects on these less than civilized peoples? Holly Barker — a celebrated anthropologist interviewed Marshall Islanders throughout the ’90s. The women she spoke with described horrifying births.

“Two [of my children died],” one woman said. “One of them was born defective. It didn’t look like a human. It looked just like the inside of a giant clam.”

“I, too, gave birth to something less than human,” another woman remembered. “What I gave birth to was normal in every aspect except that the top of the skull had not fused and remained open like the cracks of a coconut that has not completely split.”

“I think he died in my stomach before I gave birth to him,” another woman said of the twins she birthed. “When he arrived he was all spongy and smelly. When you squeezed his head or belly, water would rush out. His eyes popped out. His body was decomposed.”

These kinds of birth defects are so prevalent on the islands that the population has developed many words to describe the “monsters” conceived from America’s nuclear testing. They are grape babies, jellyfish children, marlins and devils.

For those reasons and so many others, the Marshall Islands brought litigation against nine nuclear powered countries — including America, Britain and Russia — back in 2014. The island republic filed nine separate cases in the international court of justice in The Hague.

It argued that these countries had failed to live up the the standards of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty they had all signed. According to Article VI of the treaty, nuclear powered states must pursue disarmament.

They aren’t working fast enough for the Marshallese. “More than four decades after signing and ratifying the NPT,” the court documents charge. “The U.S. maintains and continuously modernizes its nuclear arsenal.”

The Marshallese filed a separate case against Washington in the American federal court system. The defense asked a federal judge to dismiss the case on the grounds that the Marshall Islands lacked the proper authority to file such a case.

Federal judge Jeffrey White agreed with the defense and dismissed the case on Feb. 3, 2015. Which is complete bullshit. The Marshall Islands may lack nuclear arms, but it certainly has the moral authority to call out the nations who signed the NPT when they aren’t playing by the rules they agreed to.

“It should be our collective goal to not only stop the spread of nuclear weapons, but also to truly achieve the peace and security of a world without them, and thus end the cycle of broken promises,” deBrum told those members during the recent treaty conference.

He went on to praise America and the international community for their continued stand against a nuclear armed Iran. “If only such resolve was carried into the NPT,” he added.

“No one can keep a straight face and argue that 16,000 nuclear weapons are an appropriate threshold for global safety.”

He’s right. It’s one thing to have nukes, test nukes and build more nukes. But to sign a treaty saying you won’t, then do nothing to follow the edicts of that treaty is the height of political hypocrisy. The Marshall Islander said it best.

“Perpetuating the status quo, patting ourselves on the back and expecting accolades for making zero progress at this NPT Review Conference is totally unacceptable.”

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Matthew Gault

Written by

Contributing editor at Vice Motherboard. Co-host and producer of the War College podcast. Maker of low budget horror flicks. Email my twitter handle at gmail.

War Is Boring

From drones to AKs, high technology to low politics, exploring how and why we fight above, on and below an angry world

Matthew Gault

Written by

Contributing editor at Vice Motherboard. Co-host and producer of the War College podcast. Maker of low budget horror flicks. Email my twitter handle at gmail.

War Is Boring

From drones to AKs, high technology to low politics, exploring how and why we fight above, on and below an angry world

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