“There’s a story I can tell you”, a fellow called Bruno Lat said to me a few years back in Hawaii. “I was 13 at that time. My dad was working with the Navy as a laborer on Kwajalein”, an atoll in Lat’s native Marshall Islands controlled by the US military. “It was early, early morning. We were all outside on that day waiting in the dark. Everybody was waiting for the Bravo.”
That day was fifty years ago, yesterday. March 1, 1954. Bravo was not the first, or the last, just the worst of America’s nuclear tests in the Pacific, a fission-fusion-fission reaction, a thermonuclear explosion, an H-Bomb, America’s biggest blast. In today’s poverty of expression, it would be called a WMD. Except that it was “ours”, and so real that days after marveling that some strange sun had lighted the western sky with “all kinds of beautiful colors”, young Bruno also took in the sight of refugees from downwind of the blast at Bikini Atoll, miserable and burned and belatedly evacuated to Kwajalein. Their scalp, he recalled, “you could peel it like fried chicken skin”.
In the standard history of Bravo, much of what happened that morning was “an accident”. That is the term Edward Teller, the bomb’s designer, uses in his memoirs. The Navy said it had anticipated a six-megaton bomb, but Bravo came in at 15. It had anticipated the winds to blow one way, but they blew another. It had not evacuated downwinders in advance because the danger was deemed slight, and anyway the budget that year was tight. It had not expected that a Japanese fishing trawler, the Lucky Dragon, would be out on the sea 87 miles from the blast, or that when it returned home two weeks later its catch would be “hot”, creating a panic in Japanese fish markets. It had not expected reports of radioactive horses in New Zealand, radioactive rain in Sydney. It really had not expected that one of the Lucky Dragon fishermen, hospitalized with radiation sickness for months along with his mates, would die. Officially the US government maintained that the cause of death was hepatitis unrelated to radiation.
Officially the Atomic Energy Commission also claimed, ten days after the blast, that the Bravo shot had been “routine” and that among those stricken Marshallese at whom Bruno Lat was gaping, “there were no burns. All were reported well.” A month later AEC chairman Lewis Strauss told reporters they were not only well but “happy” too.
Their medical records from the time tell a story of burns and lesions, nausea, falling hair and weeping sores. Dr. Seiji Yamada of the University of Hawaii Medical School reviewed them in Kwajalein three years ago, and it is a simple matter to find government reports acknowledging same, now that that particular lie is unnecessary.
The Bravo blast was so immense, so terrible that the typical comparison_”equal to 1,000 Hiroshimas”_seems almost evasive, as if there were a continuum of comprehensibility within which it might fit. The bomb on Hiroshima instantly killed 80,000 people, more or less. By crude mathematics, Bravo had the power to incinerate 80 million. Ten New Yorks? 26,666 Twin Towers, more or less? No one can grasp such numbers, and because they are crude abstractions, the easier thing, for most Americans, has been to forget the whole thing_or at best to regard Bikini as a bit of cold war kitsch, a curio in the attic of memory.
Perhaps we can imagine a mushroom cloud with a “stem” 18 miles tall and a “cap” 62 miles across, but probably not. That’s a cloud five times the length of Manhattan, vaporizing all beneath it, sucking everything_in Bravo’s case, three islands’ worth of coral reef, sand, land and sea life, millions of tons of it_into the sky, and then moving, showering this common stuff, now in a swirl of radioactive isotopes, along its path.
The Marshallese on the island of Rongelap, 120 miles from ground zero, had imagined snow only from missionaries’ photographs of New England winters. That March 1 they imagined the white flakes falling from the sky, sticking everywhere but especially to sweaty skin, piling up two inches deep, as some freakish snowstorm. Children played in it, and later screamed with pain. Unlike Bruno Lat, they had not been waiting for Bravo.
On other islands the “snow” appeared variably as a shower, a mist, a fog. The Navy had a practice of sending planes into the blast area hours after detonation to measure “the geigers”, as radioactivity was colloquially known among sailors, and the early readings over inhabited islands after Bravo are staggering. Scientists didn’t know in 1954 that a radiation dose of 30 roentgens would double the rate of breast cancer in adults, that 90 would double the rate of stomach and colon cancer, that young children were ten times as vulnerable. But they did know that 150 roentgens, noted in one of the earliest military estimates for Rongelap, were catastrophic. Yet the Navy waited two days to evacuate Rongelap and Ailinginae; three days to evacuate Utirik.
Nine years later thyroid cancers started appearing in exposed islanders who had been children during Bravo, then leukemia. Even in “safe” atolls, babies began being born retarded, deformed, stillborn or worse. In 1983 Darlene Keju-Johnson, a Marshallese public health worker, gave a World Council of Churches gathering this description: “The baby is born on the labor table, and it breathes and moves up and down, but it is not shaped like a human being. It looks like a bag of jelly. These babies only live for a few hours.”
The Marshallese say that Bravo was not an accident. Decades after the fact, a US government document surfaced showing that weather reports had indeed indicated shifting winds hours before the blast. In 1954 the United States had nine years of data on direct effects of radiation but none on fallout downwind; select Marshallese have been the subject of scientific study ever since.
In all events, as Alexander Cockburn once put it, “an ‘accident’ is normalcy raised to the level of drama”. Marshall Islanders endured sixty-seven US nuclear tests between 1946 and 1958. It has been calculated that the net yield of those tests is equivalent to 1.7 Hiroshima bombs detonated every day for twelve years. A full accounting of the displacements and evacuations, the lies and broken promises, beginning with the Bikini people’s surrender of their land to US officers who vowed “to test this new weapon which is designed to end all wars”, would fill pages. A full accounting of the health impact would fill volumes, and has never been done. Bruno Lat is not an official victim of any test, so his thyroid cancer doesn’t count; the same with his father’s stomach tumors.
Of the broken culture and broken hearts, there can be no accounting. Never to be sure if the food is poison, if the doctors are honest, if the cancer will get you next; to never know home because however beautifully its white sands shimmer beneath the dome of blue, however energetically its coconut crabs skitter among the palms, living there is lethal; to live a different kind of lethal, in a Pacific ghetto hell, unknown in the region before the displacements and the testing, and to see no way out_we don’t call those things terror. Yesterday, March 1, on the fiftieth anniversary of Bravo, the Marshallese formally petitioning the US Congress to make full compensation for the ruin of their lands and their health. They also want Congress to express “deep regret for the nuclear testing legacy”. Some had wanted an apology, but that, the majority decided, America would never concede.
*Joann Wypijewski, former managing editor of The Nation, writes about labor and politics for CounterPunch. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was originally published by CounterPunch on 2 March 2004.