Test Cases: American Law, Nuclear Weapons, and Extraterritorial Power in Postwar Oceania
How did America's nuclear imperialism unfold in the Marshall Islands? What did it mean for Islanders and for the changing shape of American democracy and territoriality offshore?
"Bikini is not some faraway little atoll pinpointed on an out of the way chart. Bikini is San Francisco Bay, Puget Sound, East River. . . . It isn't just King Juda and his displaced subjects about whom we have to think or to forget."
David M. Bradley, MD, 1946, Observer of Operation Crossroads at Bikini Atoll.
Photo: U.S. Government, 1946, "Bomb versus Metropolis," showing detonation from Bikini Atoll superimposed over the New York City skyline.
My first manuscript project, Test Cases, is a sociolegal history of the United States' nuclear weapons testing program in the Marshall Islands. Following a series of episodes from the World War II to the present, I use nuclear weapons testing and contamination as a window into the United States' post-war extraterritorial imperialism.
Although the United States exercised near complete control over the Marshall Islands following World War II, the islands were not a part of U.S. sovereign territory. Hoping both to foreclose the Pacific from use by hostile nations and to leverage Pacific islands for military purposes, U.S. officials created a sui-generis legal entity, a "strategic trusteeship," under the auspices of the United Nations.
Photo: U.S. Trust Territory Government, n.d. 1950s, Map of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands.
Under strategic trusteeship, the United States offshored its most devastating nuclear weapons detonations. Between 1946 and 1958, the United States detonated 67 nuclear weapons at Bikini and Enewetak Atolls. By the time the United States entered into the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963, halting all above-ground nuclear explosions, fully 80 percent of U.S. atmospheric nuclear yields had been released in the Marshall Islands. After the detonations ceased, Islanders were left to face the enduring consequences on their bodies and ancestral lands and waters.
As the lasting effects of radiological contamination became clear, Marshall Islanders and U.S. allies called strategic trusteeship into question, using legal conflict to test the boundaries of U.S. power. They mobilized law, Indigenous knowledges, and Western scientific knowledges together to fight for redress for harms to Islanders' bodies and ancestral atolls and to press for Marshallese self-determination.
Photo: U.S. Government, 1946, Bikinian elder Lokiar being loaded onto a U.S. Navy transport ship.
Test Cases uses these legal conflicts to excavate new territorial formations of U.S. power and Indigenous dependency in the post-war period. Disputes over nuclear detonations exposed the limits of strategic trusteeship, the boundaries of Islanders’ belonging in the U.S. polity, and the offshore expansion of U.S. environmental harm. By tracing Islanders’ knowledges, experiences, and legal and political mobilizations, Test Cases establishes Oceania as a central site of U.S. nuclear and environmental politics and Indigenous Islanders as key actors in the global politics of technogenic harm—from the enduring legacies of radiological contamination to present-day struggles with climate change.
Photo: Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, 1976, ceremony returning Enewetak Atoll to its people.