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BOOK REVIEW: "Day of Two Suns" by Jane Dibblin

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BOOK REVIEW: Day of Two Suns: U.S. Nuclear Testing and the Pacific Islanders by Jane Dibblin (New Amsterdam Books) 1988/1990

With world events seemingly spinning evermore out of control, particularly in light of threats by North Korea to use nuclear weapons against U.S. targets, it is important to go back and learn our history, particularly the testing of nuclear weapons – by the U.S. – on inhabited atolls in the Marshall Islands.

And so I recently read Jane Dibblin’s passionate piece of advocacy journalism – in the form of a fantastic and informative book titled Day of Two Suns: U.S. Nuclear Testing and the Pacific Islanders, which rings true today as it did when it was originally published over a quarter-century ago. And as an aside, I think the same of John Niedenthal’s 2001 book For the Good of Mankind: A History of the People of Bikini and their Islands, which also addresses the hardships and horrors experienced by the Bikinians in the face of American militarism and imperialism.

When the book first came out in 1988 – republished two years later – the Berlin Wall had not yet fallen and the Soviet Union was still whole and still a threat. And those days may be long past, but the legacy remains. Dibblin, a native of Britain, is clearly an activist, but with an investigative journalist style that leads her to do some in-depth reporting and many, many interviews with those affected by the nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands.

As we know, our build-up of nuclear weapons – an arms race during the Cold War – resulted (following World War II’s end after the dropping of two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in August 1945) – led to President Harry S. Truman’s decision to find a testing ground for this powerful, new weapon, first successfully tested at Trinity site in New Mexico on July 16, 1945.

It was decided that the Marshall Islands, which were, following World War II, under U.S. control (having been under Japanese control for several decades before that) and were viewed as good locations to test these weapons, as the atolls had lagoons, were far off of shipping lanes and had native population that did not resist being moved – at least at first.

In the introduction, Dibblin writes: “In 1954, the US exploded a 17-megaton bomb, 1,300 times the destructive force of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on the island of Bikini. ‘Bravo,’ as it was codenamed, was one of 66 tests conducted in the Marshalls by the Americans between 1946 and 1958, a crucial stepping-stone in the Cold War race for nuclear superiority.”

And while atmospheric nuclear testing ended in 1958, with President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s (reluctant) support of the Partial Test Ban Treaty, nuclear testing would go underground, largely, but Kwajalein Atoll – also with a  large lagoon and seemingly passive population, at least in the face of American bullying – “was chosen as the perfect site for the next generation of testing.”

And since those days, "Kwaj," as its known, has a naval base and army garrison where American military personnel and civilians now live and work, as missiles are tested - launched from Vandenburg AFB in California, to land over 4,800 miles away in the Kwajalein Atoll lagoon. Even though they aren't "nuclear" tests, the missiles do have uranium in them and have reportedly contaminated the lagoon over the many years of testing.

We note all that to say that the Marshallese were more-or-less "under siege" by the Americans since WWII, being forced off native atolls and homelands and forced onto crowded, smaller atolls, while also being exposed (early on) to radioactive fallout from the tests or neglect by the Americans on their islands, particularly when medical attention is needed.

For instance, following the Castle Bravo test, the inhabitants of Rongelap Atoll, east of Bikini in Micronesia, began suffering damage to their thyroids "because of the large quantities of radioactive iodine (iodine-131) produced by Bravo," ingested by the Rongelapese (who were not warned about the impending test by the U.S. authorities - deliberately, it would seem) via rainwater, coconut milk and fruits. "Babies would then take it through their mother's milk." 

As the years passed, Dibblin reports that health problems for the normally healthy Marshallese, who lived close to the land, began to rapidly decline, as Western, processed foods and drinks were imported, replacing their traditional diet. Along with this came obesity, diabetes, cancer and other problems. Dibblin holds the Brookhaven National Laboratory in particular contempt in light of their "observations" and dispassionate "treatment" of sick Marshallese, for whom they cared nothing for. 

The U.S. authorities, while holding contemptuous and racist views of the Marshallese in general (calling them "simple savages" in 1950s-era newsreels), kept them in perpetual cycle of confusion by saying their islands were safe, and allowing them to move back. And then backtracking and saying the atolls weren't safe and moving them to another location. In the meantime, their traditional culture and their family structure were disrupted and shattered in many cases, leading to all sorts of continuing health and social problems that continue to this day, leading many Marshallese to leave their Micronesian homeland, settling in places in mainland America, like Springdale, Arkansas and Enid, Oklahoma.

BEYOND MICRONESIA

Dibblin is utterly passionate in her writing and highlighting how national defense interests usurped and/or shut-down the interests of those affected by the various nuclear and non-nuclear tests over the years. But Dibblin reminds readers that similar tests - and attitudes from Western governments in places like Britain and France - were conducted in French Polynesia or on UK-controlled Christmas Island and in southern Australia on traditional aboriginal lands.

The aboriginal people - who have lived in Australia for thousands of years - had been warned by their elders over many years to not dig in certain areas and to avoid areas that had what later became known as uranium. To the aborigines, these substances were "taboo" and "pretty dangerous," as one aboriginal Australian told an inquiry in the mid-1980's. They knew it should remain in the ground and avoided. Unfortunately, tests in places like Maralinga resulted in aboriginal people being contaminated with radioactive fallout from their tests.

Barbara Flick said, according to Dibblin:"They (the elders) told us that twhen the two gods came, that is the creation of spirits, they destroyed this evil thing and put it below and said no one was allowed to touch it, but when the white men came they wanted to put their hands on it for the sake of money and it is going to destroy nearly everything on earth. I believe these things out to be stopped."

Dibblin includes information about a need for nuclear disarmament, which the Republic of the Marshall Islands has been fighting for - on an international scale - and for human rights. 

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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