President Joe Biden’s second White House meeting with Pacific Island leaders last week illustrated how critical the region has become to U.S. interests. But the United States risks losing ground to China in the Marshall Islands because of Washington’s refusal to pay full compensation for Cold War-era nuclear tests. These 67 tests yielded the same level of radiation and destruction as 7,000 Hiroshima bombs, or 1.6 Hiroshima-sized bombs every day during the 12 years they were conducted. The Marshall Islands has urged the United States to address this legacy for decades, an appeal that was reiterated by the country’s president, David Kabua, the week before the White House summit. It is a moral and strategic imperative that the U.S. government pay full compensation to the Marshall Islands, and the time to act is now.
As the United States seeks to strengthen its ties with Pacific Island countries to counter China, the legacy of nuclear testing gravely weakens its relationship with the Marshall Islands and blemishes its standing in the region. Because of the Marshall Islands’ Compact of Free Association with Washington — a far-reaching agreement with economic, security and other provisions – the Pacific Islands view U.S. policy towards the country as a litmus test of U.S. reliability more broadly. An inability to resolve the nuclear legacy in the Marshall Islands will undermine trust and goodwill towards the United States as it seeks to reengage the region.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government is seeking to undermine U.S. influence in the Pacific, especially in countries like the Marshall Islands that have a U.S. military presence. The U.S. base on Kwajalein Atoll is a significant strategic asset with space and missile defense capabilities that could help protect the United States in a war with China. That makes the Marshall Islands a target — as does its recognition of Taiwan (China persuaded Solomon Islands and Kiribati to switch recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 2019 as part of its efforts to isolate Taiwan on international stage). With Beijing using the nuclear issue as a wedge between the Marshall Islands and the United States, how much longer before China threatens U.S. strategic interests?
The Nuclear Legacy
The United States captured a swath of the Pacific Islands from Japan in World War II and subsequently administered the Marshall Islands as part of a United Nations trust territory, using it as a testing ground for 67 nuclear weapons between 1946 and 1958. The U.S. military asked the people of Bikini Atoll to leave their home “temporarily” — and told them the nuclear tests would be done for “the good of mankind and to end all wars.” The residents of four atolls, including Bikini, were relocated by the United States to other islands, but fallout from the tests — some of the largest in history — spread across the Marshall Islands and beyond. Many Marshallese exposed to the fallout died from radiation sickness and cancer. Many suffered severe burns, stillbirths, miscarriages, and birth defects. Generations were displaced, and some islands remain uninhabitable, including Bikini Atoll. High rates of cancer persist to this day.
The harm to the Marshallese people goes further. In 1954, the United States detonated the Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb on Bikini without evacuating the people of Rongelap Atoll, who were living in dangerous proximity to the testing grounds — they were evacuated three days later after already being exposed to the fallout. Later, the United States resettled them on land that U.S. officials knew to be unsafe for human habitation. Then, in a secret program called Project 4.1, U.S. scientists studied the effects of radiation on them without their knowledge or consent, according to information declassified in the 1990s; one American scientist described the human test subjects as “more like us than the mice.”
In 1958, the U.S. government took 130 tons of radioactive waste from Nevada and secretly buried it in Marshallese territory in a concrete structure called Runit Dome. The U.S. government has refused to take responsibility for Runit, which may be leaking into the ocean, because it is on Marshallese territory. A U.S. Department of Energy report in 2020 stated that the dome didn’t pose a high risk, but the data did little to reassure Marshallese; the report almost entirely ignored one radioactive element that is particularly common in the country.
The Marshall Islands has never been fully compensated. In 1986, leaders in Washington and Majuro reached a nuclear compensation settlement for $150 million, which the United States calls “full and final.” The Marshall Islands considers it grossly inadequate. The Marshall Islands Nuclear Claims Tribunal, tasked with adjudicating compensation claims, later asked for a much larger sum — $2.3 billion, which would be more than $4 billion today. In addition, the Marshall Islands agreed to the 1986 settlement on the threshold of independence, when it had hardly any negotiating power, and when key information about the nuclear tests remained classified. In 2000, Majuro sought more compensation through a “changed circumstances” petition to the U.S. Congress, but U.S. policy remained unchanged.
Strategic Concerns and a Moral Imperative
Compensation is a moral imperative because of the magnitude of the harm done to the Marshallese people — those who died, those who became ill, those displaced from their islands, and every successive generation living in a poisoned environment. It is a moral imperative because the U.S. government lied and withheld information, including about the range of nuclear fallout, the radioactive waste buried in Marshallese land, and the unethical study of the Marshallese people by U.S. scientists. It is a moral imperative because nuclear testing fractured the relationship between the people and their land, which is of vital importance in Marshallese culture. The Marshallese people will live with this legacy forever.
The weight of this injustice is reason enough for compensation, but moral considerations rarely drive foreign policy — strategic concerns do. In the new era of Cold War rivalry with Beijing, it is a strategic imperative for the United States to pay full compensation to the Marshall Islands. Washington’s refusal to do so has weakened the bilateral relationship for decades, and that was before any interference from China. But now it’s an open secret in the Marshall Islands’ capital that Chinese officials hold meetings with the government and point to the legacy of nuclear testing as proof that the United States is untrustworthy. China also uses these talking points publicly, likewise with the aim of undermining the U.S.-Marshall Islands relationship and advancing its own strategic goals. If the Marshall Islands switches recognition from Taiwan to China, it will be at least in part a rebuke against Washington for refusing to pay nuclear compensation.
But China’s interests in the Marshall Islands don’t stop there. Whether Majuro switches recognition or not, Beijing has an interest in weakening U.S. influence in the Marshall Islands, undermining the Compact of Free Association, collecting intelligence on Kwajalein, and engaging in elite capture; the Rongelap Atoll bribery case, which nearly toppled the Marshall Islands government in 2018, shows how vulnerable the country is to such efforts. China will attempt to use the nuclear issue to undermine not just the U.S.-Marshall Islands relationship but the U.S. reputation in the Pacific more broadly, where anxieties are rising about American militarization.
A Turning Point?
The time to settle the compensation issue is now. The United States is renegotiating the level of Compact funding the Marshall Islands will receive over the next 20 years. In May, the U.S. government signed agreements to renew Compact funding to Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia. But negotiations with the Marshall Islands were stalled for more than a year, because the United States refused to discuss nuclear compensation, while Marshallese officials wouldn’t accept a deal without it. Now, with a deal potentially in reach, the 2023 Compact could spark the same resentment as the 2003 Compact if it doesn’t include nuclear compensation.
U.S. policymakers may believe that sticking with the 1986 settlement is a neutral position because it has been U.S. policy for decades. It is not neutral, and it comes with growing risks, as the stalled Compact negotiations show all too clearly. Information declassified over the last three decades has given even more weight to the Marshall Islands’ appeals for justice, and more information may come to light in the future that could impact the calculation of harms suffered both to date and in the ongoing legacy of nuclear testing. It should be noted that if the U.S. government pays full compensation, it wouldn’t be given to Marshallese officials to use as they please. The money would be given to the Nuclear Claims Tribunal, which would then pay compensation to claimants. There is a process for the United States to follow — the problem is political will.
The United States should initiate negotiations with the Marshall Islands to reach a new settlement for nuclear compensation. The two sides should reach an agreement that is viewed as fair by both parties, based on the latest data and on acknowledgement that new information may arise. The settlement should exceed the figure previously sought by the tribunal, because it should also address U.S. policies that were later declassified, including the burial of nuclear waste from Nevada, the knowing endangerment of the people of Rongelap, Project 4.1, and more. In addition, the United States should build an oncology center in the Marshall Islands, which currently has none (Marshallese have to seek treatment in Asia or Hawaii). When a deal is reached, the White House should make a full and unreserved apology for nuclear testing and all of the wrongs associated with it.
Finally, the U.S. government should consider what it has to gain, not what it has to lose. Paying full compensation to the Marshall Islands would strengthen Washington’s relationship with this key partner as it becomes increasingly important to U.S. defense planning, and would neutralize China’s main rhetorical weapon to undermine U.S. influence there. Paying full compensation would give the United States a higher standing in the Pacific region and the world. Paying full compensation — finally addressing the nuclear injustice after decades of inaction — is the right thing to do.