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BOOK REVIEW: "For the Good of Mankind" by Jack Niedenthal

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The 2nd edition of Jack Niedenthal's book "For the Good of Mankind," published in 2001.
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BOOK REVIEW: For the Good of Mankind: A History of the People of Bikini and their Islands by Jack Niedenthal (Bravo Publishers) 2nd edition 2001

A new poll, released today, notes that more than 60 percent of Americans polled “support using U.S. troops in a conflict if North Korea invades South Korea.”

And this, in light of North Korea’s threats of launching nuclear missiles at the United States, is starting to sink in (following their two long-range missile tests in July) – the drums of war appear to be getting ever louder.

And the threat of nuclear war (which could possibly draw in Russia and China) is growing daily. (In fact, literally, as I type this, my new issue of The Economist arrived in the mail, with the alarming image of a mushroom cloud on the cover and Kim and Trump’s face in the plume, with the cover headline “It could happen”). I take a deeper look at some of this here. The future of human civilization hangs in the balance.

(Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report)

I thought of this while reading Jack Niedenthal’s important-and-sobering book, For the Good of Mankind: A History of the People of Bikini and their Islands, published (second edition) in that dark month and year September 2001, when the author, a Peace Corps volunteer and native of Pennsylvania who came to the Marshall Islands, in the west-central Pacific Ocean in the early 1980’s. That move would change Niedenthal's life forever, and help give Bikinians an extra voice in sharing their stories, as tragic and heartbreaking as many of them are.

Niedenthal admits working and living there, on several different atolls, but largely with natives of the Bikini Atoll – the lovely, island paradise in the Marshall Islands that the U.S. military chose to detonate its powerful nuclear bombs on, including the notoriously dirty and controversial Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb detonation on March 1, 1954 – has its challenges, but his time spent with the Bikinians and Marshallese people proved intensely rewarding, resulting in him staying. And with that, he married a Bikinian woman and a large family soon followed.

And because the Marshallese language is primarily oral, and not written down in an historical way we are used to in the West, Niedenthal felt called to write about the Bikinian people and their experiences, particularly for those who lived through and survived the wicked and utterly pointless Castle Bravo test that irradiated, sickened and ruined so many innocent lives – with the government’s knowledge and – apparent – approval.

As Niedenthal noted in his introduction, about the way the kind and welcoming Marshallese, “(t)his basic idea that everyone is cared for on an island is what makes America’s crime against the people of the Marshalls even more tragic. After promising that they would take care of the Bikinians as if they were their own children, the U.S. government moved the islanders off their atoll; they bombed their homelands with the most powerful weaponry ever tested in the history of the world; they destroyed their culture and way of life; then they left them to starve on place that weren’t – and still aren’t – fit for human habitation.

Like so many Americans (myself included, until about six years ago) Niedenthal knew next to nothing about the nuclear testing conducted in the Marshall Islands, with a specific focus on beautiful Bikini.

I had to educate myself as to what had happened out here in the 1940’s and 1950’s; I hadn’t a clue, which troubled me considering it was my country that caused all the damage,” writes Niedenthal.

And what Niedenthal discovered was a shock to his very core. He wanted the Bikinian stories collected and recorded, because the elder Bikinians, many who were part of the forced exodus to distant islands (Kili and Ejit, primarily, although stays at Rongerik and Kwajalein atolls occurred as well), which were not as good as their own Bikini.

And fortunately, Niedenthal was able to collect a lot of information about the intense struggles the Bikinians and other Marshallese faced during and following the 67 atomic bomb tests that took place there, testing which to this very day is affecting the Marshallese in devastating and deadly ways. At the time, immediately following World War II’s conclusion, President Harry S. Truman told the Army and Navy that they had to conduct joint nuclear exercises on Bikini (away from regular air and sea routes) and “determine the effect of atomic bombs on American warships.”

So, in early 1946, Comm. Ben Wyatt, who served as military governor of the Marshalls once those islands were out of Japanese control, met with the people of Bikini and told them that they were to leave the atoll temporarily so that atomic bomb tests could be used, as Wyatt put it, “for the good of mankind and to end all world wars.” This would be for the upcoming Operation Crossroads tests, that would commence in the summer.

The Bikinians were skeptical and not eager to leave, but their leader, King Juda, spoke on behalf of the Bikinian people and said “Men otemjej rej ilo bein anij,” translated from Marshallese as “Everything is in the hands of God.”

And with that, the Baker and Able tests went forward, but it was not until the aforementioned Bravo test - 15 megatons - that "millions of tons of sand, coral, plant and sea life from Bikini's reef, three islands (Bokonijien, Aerokojlol, and Nam) and the surrounding lagoon waters were sent high into the air by the blast. Islanders and even American service personnel on a nearby atoll were not warned of the radioactive fallout heading their way. Even Japanese fishermen were caught in the aftermath and suffered severely.

Looking back, of course, we all know better, as much as the American government is loathe to admit it. The tests were utterly devastating and tragic. And the heartlessness of American officials, the overt racism and dismissal of Marshallese concerns over the effects exposure to radiation were having on their bodies is absolutely criminal. No question. 

Many Bikinians and Marshallese were forced to leave the islands over the past decades to look for work and start over again. Many ended up in Northwest Arkansas and in Enid, Oklahoma. Nuclear refugees.

And while Niedenthal covers the horror stories that were endured by the Bikinians and other Marshallese people caught in a radioactive game of chess during those early years of the Cold War, he is also sensitive to who the Bikinian people are, where they came from, their customs and culture. And interestingly, women are held in high regard in Marshallese culture and in the book, female babies tend to be preferred to male children. 

There is Lore Kessibuki, the Bikinian who wrote their island’s bittersweet anthem, tells Niedenthal about the apprehensions the Bikinians had when the U.S. government moved them to Rongerik Atoll. It was mainly because the Bikinians believed that atoll was inhabited by an “evil demon of poison” named Litobora.

"Rongerik was once populated with thousands of demons that used the islands of that atoll for whatever purpose they felt necessary to sustein their evil ways," Kessibuki tells Niedenthal, in the years before his death in 1994. "Indeed, it was considered a form of hell." He tells the American that the demons performed the "ritual burning of fires day and night in order to prolong their evil spells - and thus increse their power."

And while Litobora eventually died on the Rongerik reef, her decaying body poisoned the reef and made eating fish (an important part of their diet, along with coconuts) from the reef a dicey proposition for the islanders. And it was a struggle, as getting fish and other food on Rongerik proved difficult and help from the Americans was sporadic at best. They eventually left Rongerik, for other atolls, but the experience made a distinct impression on those who endured those two years on "hell" island.

For those who have seen the 1988 Academy Award-winning documentary Radio Bikini, you get to see Kilon Bauno (who passed away in 1992), whom Niedenthal praises as outspoken, passionate and fearless.

Acting as interpreter, Niedenthal joined Bauno to Hollywood for the Academy Awards that year and recalled fondly "when Chevy Chase took the stage and as a joke dropped his pants. I thought Kilon was going to start to cry he was laughing to hard." The Bikinians and Marshallese love a good joke and love to laugh and have fun. He explains the transformation of the Marshallese from their traditional beliefs in gods, like the taciturn and moody reef god Worejabato, to Christianity and how that changed their culture, in both good and bad ways.

Niedenthal recalls the efforts made by Bikinians (who highly value land, since it is so rare and precious) to highlight their ongoing plight with government officials in Washington, noting a visit with then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1983. He seemed interested in their concerns, but it seemed little was done in those days in the early 80's when tensions between the US and USSR rose once again and the lagoon at Kwajalein Atoll was regularly used as a place for U.S. missiles to land, causing further upheaval for all Marshallese in the vicinity.

In 1997, when Niedenthal interviewed Bikinian iroij (a traditional leader) Dretin Jokdru about the ongoing relationship with the U.S. government (this, of course was 20 years ago). Jokdru admits that while it was good that he and his people began to be compensated for what was done to them by the government and a compact between the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the U.S. was now in place, he had many questions, particularly after decades of lies, obfuscations and deception.

Our relationship with the United States should never end,” he said. “ That was their own promise to us so many years ago and we want them to honor their own words.” Jokdru continued, saying that America has a responsibility to take care of the Marshallese, particularly in light of "how we have sacrificed for them."

The story of the Bikinians and other Marshallese starts spreading around the Pacific and beyond in the 1970’s and 80’s. A group of Bikinians, along with Niedenthal, go to southern Australia where they meet with Aboriginals who were affected by the British nuclear tests at Maralinga in South Australia in the 1950's to learn of their plight and their poor treatment by their colonial overlords. 

During these encounters of solidarity, Niedenthal says he is tired from all of the travel and press events. Nathan, a native Bikinian, chides him and says after all of his experiences since the Operation Crossroads days, he didn't know what 'being tired" was. Point taken.

There is much more in For the Good of Mankind worth noting: plenty of photos from the nuclear tests, pictures of native Bikinians, facts about the atoll and its people; the locations of the various US (and other) warships sunk in the lagoon during the tests and other important information. One thing I noted, while reading his book, is some of the superstitions the Marshallese take seriously. Ghosts and unseen entities are seemingly never far away, as Niedenthal himself has expeienced.

It should be noted that in the 16 years since the book was published, the Marshallese are being heard in a more broad way, as they discuss how climate change is affecting life on their atolls and the outmigration of Marshallese to low-paying jobs on the mainland - primarily in and around Springdale, Arkansas, where a large community of Marshallese now live.

As I wrote in April, the former Foreign Minister of the Marshall Islands, Tony A. deBrum, the “Arms Control Person of the Year” for 2016, spoke at an arms control event in Washington this year and who has been vocal about a need for nuclear disarmament. It was deBrum who led the Marshall Islands’ case at the International Court of Justice against those nuclear weapons states which have failed to meet their disarmament commitments.

The history of the Bikinian and Marshallese people continues to be written. Jack Niedenthal (who also runs a film company Microwave Films in the Marshallese capital of Majuro) has created a number of award-winning films starring native Marshallese actors, including the excellent The Sound of Crickets at Night (Ainikien Jidjid ilo Boñ)  about an elderly Bikinian and nuclear survivor who “summons a mysterious ancient deity to help reunite his family.” 

One more thing: as we also remember this week is the 72nd anniversary of the atomic attacks by the U.S. on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, let us work all that much harder - as the Bikinian and Marshallese people have and continue to do - to finally "ban the bomb - and pursue peace." 

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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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