America's dilemma: US is torn between its responsibility and the Marshalls' economic freedom
Majuro—Any time there is a discussion on solutions to the current situation in the Marshall Islands in the decades-long aftermath of the 67 U.S. nuclear and thermonuclear tests from 1946 to 1958, you need to begin with this promise made to the people of Bikini by Commodore Wyatt on a Sunday morning after church beneath the Ground Zero coconut palms on Bikini Atoll in 1946: "No matter where you go, even if you are adrift on a raft at sea or stranded on a sandbar, we will take care of the Bikinian people as if they were America's children."
These words aren’t in any legal documentation from that era; this was strictly a verbal, moral commitment by the United States to our elders, which in this part of the world means more than something typed onto a piece of paper with a bunch of signatures at the bottom.
Those words spoken to the people of Bikini on that morning in 1946 have been repeated by our elders through the decades as if they emanated from the Bible because this is what the United States was asking of the people of Bikini: To give up their cherished homeland, their “Jolet jen Anij” (Gift from God), for “the good of mankind and to end all world wars” so the U.S. could test their newly designed nuclear and thermonuclear weapons. They needed a proving ground and Bikini was isolated enough from the rest of the world, and therefore perfect for this massive military operation.
The Bikinian decision-makers at that time felt like they had no choice, even though in the U.S. propaganda films (the U.S. military had half of the world’s motion picture film on Bikini at that time) made it look like the islanders were being “asked” by the U.S. for their “permission” to use their islands. America in the Pacific had just defeated the Japanese in WWII in some of that war’s bloodiest battles, so the islanders’ perception of the situation was astoundingly clear: if America is “asking” us to move, we move.
The commodore asked Juda, the leader of the Bikinian people at the time, 26 times on film—in different ways— if the Bikinians would be willing to move from their homeland to make way for the weapons testing. Juda’s response never wavered, not once. Juda kept repeating his now famous response to Commodore Wyatt—his words are sewn into the Bikinian flag— “Men Otemjej rej ilo Bein Anij” (Everything is in God’s Hands). In the final take, Commodore Wyatt, obviously frustrated by Juda’s ominous words, stands up, brushes off his khakis, and retorts in an offhand, matter-of-fact tone, “Well, everything being in God’s hands, it cannot be other than good.”
I make these historical references to get to this statement: The United States has a moral, unending responsibility toward the nuclear victims of the Marshall Islands. This form of responsibility and commitment isn’t colonialism as some have suggested; it is the reverse of colonialism.
The United States made the horrific nuclear mess out here, which included the 1954 Bravo shot on Bikini, a hydrogen bomb explosion that was a thousand times greater than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic blasts from WWII. Bravo irradiated the entire northern Marshall Islands and the people living on Rongelap and Utrōk and other atolls in the area at that time. Another huge part of the “mess” is the Runit Dome on Enewetak, which is filled with nuclear waste that will be poisonous “forever.”
America has to deal with the nuclear victims “forever” because this situation will never go away. And every time America does something to screw up our lives— like what it did to the people of Bikini over the last seven years with the blatant abuse of their trust funds by the Bikinians’ own corrupt leaders because the U.S. decided to drop their oversight of these funds— we are coming back to you, America, with very loud voices.
The people of Bikini had trust funds in place along with a well-honed system that was something to be proud of. From 1982 up until 2016, we were accountable and auditable. We had two trust funds that took care of our people’s day-to-day needs and also with quarterly compensation payments. The Resettlement Trust Fund spun off $220 million that helped take care of our families.
Then in 2017, Doug Domenech, then assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, left our trust funds in the hands of our incredibly corrupt leaders. The department’s decision was based on a hastily devised resolution from the KBE Council. There was neither a public hearing in the Marshall Islands nor a warning to the U.S. Congress which had created the trust fund.
In a February 2018 hearing, KBE leaders gave the U.S. Congress a misleading reassurance that they had the ability and a plan to take care of the trust funds and provide for our future.
The Resettlement Trust Fund is now gone, from a total of $71 million the last time the fund was fully audited in 2016 to zero in 2023 with no transparency nor accountability at all.
The solution to all of this is simple: The United States and the RMI must design and create trust funds that have ironclad rules, restrictions and reporting requirements that will adequately ensure the long-term viability of these funds, and at the same time allow the nuclear victims in the RMI to do their own budgeting within those restrictions in order to benefit as many islanders as possible. This “wheel” has already been invented and is viable. The successful trust fund roadmap is already there for all to follow. Ultimately, the final goal of any trust fund should be “fairness” to as many of the beneficiaries as possible.
Jack Niedenthal is the former Secretary of Health & Human Services for the Marshall Islands, where he has lived and worked for 42 years. Niedenthal is the author of “For the Good of Mankind, An Oral History of the People of Bikini.” He is the president of Microwave Films, which has produced six award-winning feature films in the Marshallese language. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org