Jack Niedenthal: The world's debt to Bikini

Roundup: Talking About History

Bikini Atoll, a small necklace of islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, is a miraculous place. Unfortunately, the only people who can truly understand how beautiful it is are those who have been there. In January, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Bikini Atoll local government submitted an 83-page application to UNESCO to make Bikini a world heritage site. The application seeks to ensure that humanity will remember for all time the devastation unleashed by the most powerful weapons ever produced and the sacrifice of the Bikinians who once lived there.

As UNESCO reviews Bikini Atoll's application, it must consider what these small coconut-tree-laden coral and sand islands have given to humanity. The allure of Bikini, part of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, is not just a function of the atoll's rich nuclear history and dazzling physical beauty. Despite 23 nuclear and thermonuclear explosions that have rocked Bikini's shores, 60-years without human habitation have left the island rich with sea life and pristine like Eden. The atoll has earned its status as a unique historical location with universal value because it has managed to fuse Cold War drama, the awesome power of nuclear weapons, human tragedy, and, yes, even pop culture. The tantalizing two-piece bikini bathing suit took its name from the atoll and has found its way into the lexicon of almost every language on Earth and it is the birthplace of Godzilla, one of the greatest movie monsters of all time.

I write the above words with no small amount of bias. I work for the people of Bikini as their liaison officer. For more than two decades I have been charged with representing their interests to the world. Indeed, as I write this I am on Kili Island for the 63rd anniversary of the dislocation of Bikini Atoll residents on March 6, 1946 at the behest of the U.S. government. It is also the 55th anniversary of the deadly Operation Castle Bravo thermonuclear bomb test on March 1, 1954.

Bikini for all its remarkable beauty is not without serious scars. The United States tested nuclear and thermonuclear weapons there from 1946 to 1958. By far the most observable reminder of the tests is the 1-mile-wide crater left from the Castle Bravo blast. One-thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima Bomb, Bravo was the largest weapon ever tested by the United States. Staged on a small island in the northwest corner of the atoll, the blast was expected to be about 3 megatons, however, U.S. military officials grossly underestimated its power. The blast reached 15 megatons and sent the ash of three vaporized islands 100,000 feet into the air, where it drifted eastward and rained upon hundreds of people living on islands to the north--who suffered the poisonous effects of radioactive fallout, including severe radiation burns, loss of hair and skin, and for many fatal thyroid and other cancers.

The United States stationed 42,000 men on Bikini to carry out the first two Bomb tests, and it brought 5,400 goats, rats, and pigs as guinea pigs, to gauge the blasts' impact on living creatures. It also anchored in the central lagoon, what would have been the world's sixth largest fleet of ships, all fully loaded with ammunition and in battle-ready condition. Among the sunken wrecks is the Saratoga, a 900-foot-long aircraft carrier, which abounds with glorious naval history and is a favorite destination for diving. Also at rest on the lagoon bottom is the Nagato, Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto's flagship during World War II. From this floating fortress, Yamamoto launched the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

The saga of Bikini Atoll and its people should serve as a reality check for the rest of the world. On Bikini you can sail across the massive crater carved into the reef by a hydrogen bomb and dive to a fleet of famous ships sunk by nuclear weapons. After experiencing the immense beauty of the atoll, you can then ponder the sacrifice of generations of Bikinians dislocated indefinitely from their cherished--and radioactive--homeland. In 1946, when the Bikinians were asked by Commodore Ben H. Wyatt if they would move away from their islands "for the good of mankind and to end all world wars," many of them believed their sacrifice was a noble one. By testing the massive destructive power of thermonuclear bombs on a proving ground instead of in an actual war, it is not hard to imagine that world leaders discovered that using such great weapons in war would be too much for any civilization--if not life itself--to endure.

This lesson must never be forgotten. We hope turning the atoll into a World Heritage Site will ensure that this remains the case, not only to remind people of the horrible power of these weapons for all time, but to honor and never forget its people's sacrifice.

More information about the history of Bikini Atoll can be found at www.bikiniatoll.com.

comments powered by Disqus