Photo: M.X. Mitchell, 2016, sunset over Majuro lagoon, Long Island, Majuro Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands.
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 close of 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 Marshall Islands became an offshore site of Cold War experimentation in the physical, biological, and social sciences. Between 1946 and 1958, the United States detonated 67 nuclear weapons at Bikini and Enewetak atolls. From the initiation of testing through the present day, these experiments furnished scientific data about nuclear weapons’ destructive capabilities as well as their biological and environmental effects. At the same time, Islander communities—especially those forced to migrate because of testing—served as important sites of applied social scientific experimentation in governance.
For Marshall Islanders exposed to radiation and those whom U.S. administrators removed from their contaminated home atolls, strategic trusteeship created high barriers to meaningful legal and political participation in nuclear issues. But contestation over weapons testing also demonstrated how legal and scientific knowledge and practices created new opportunities participation.
Photo: U.S. Government, 1946, Bikinian elder Lokiar being loaded onto a U.S. Navy transport ship.
Tracing these themes across a series of related legal cases, I explore how U.S. administrators, Marshall Islanders, and antinuclear activists understood and called upon law and science to support disparate visions of relationships between governments, people, and natural environments marred by technogenic change. America’s novel and contested Pacific frontier represented a central proving ground—not only of nuclear weapons and scientific principles, but also of global governance. Marshall Islanders' struggles and triumphs offer a window into pressing questions over the meaning of American democracy in an interconnected world.
Photo: Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, 1976, ceremony returning Enewetak Atoll to its people.