On the Map
The flag of Bikini Atoll looks a lot like the American flag. It has the same red and white stripes. Five neat rows of white stars fill the dark blue box on the top left corner. The resemblance is intentional.
Unlike the U.S. flag, with fifty stars that symbolize the fifty states, the Bikinian flag has twenty-three white stars. Each star represents one of the islands that encircles the Bikinians’ lagoon. On the top right corner of the Bikinian flag, there is a row of three black stars; they represent the Bikinian islands that were obliterated by U.S. nuclear testing.
Below, there are six Marshallese words, “MEN OTEMJEJ REJ ILO BEIN ANIJ.” Juda, a Bikinian leader, responded with this phrase in 1946 when the U.S. Military Governor of the Marshall Islands informed the Bikinian community that the United States planned to use their islands to test atomic weapons “for the good of mankind.” In English, Juda’s phrase translates to “everything is in God’s hands.”
Next to the words are two more black stars. These stars represent the two islands where many Bikinians live today: Kili and Ejit. Far from Bikini, they are on the opposite side of the flag from the twenty-three stars of Bikini Atoll to underscore the distance—physical and otherwise—between the Bikinian people and their home atoll. For seventy-seven years, many within the community have sought to return home. For seventy-seven years, the United States has impeded their return. The Bikinian flag is a symbol, created to serve as a reminder to “the people and the government of America that a great debt is still owed by them to the people of Bikini.”
Bikini Atoll is part of the Marshall Islands, a country that is missing from the mental maps of many Americans despite its central location (in the middle of the Pacific Ocean!) and its strategic significance to the United States during World War II and the Cold War. Today known formally as the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the islands remain significant both to the people who call them home and to the United States.
Located about halfway between the Hawaiian Islands and Australia, the country is a constellation of low-lying coral atolls (rings of reefs and islands around a lagoon) like Bikini and a handful of solitary islands spread across seven hundred fifty thousand square miles of ocean. These islands and atolls form two chains that mirror one another; the eastern side is known as Ratak, or sunrise, and the western atolls and islands are Ralik, or sunset.
Land is precious in the Marshall Islands, in part because there is so little of it. The total combined landmass of the Marshallese archipelago is only about seventy square miles, making it slightly larger than Washington, D.C. Many of the islands are narrow—close enough to hear, if not see, the ocean or the lagoon from almost anywhere—and most rise only a few feet beyond the high tide line. It is an ocean nation. As such, much of the country regularly experiences severe flooding and coastal erosion, shifting rainfall and coral bleaching, all exacerbated by climate change. And, for many who are otherwise unfamiliar with the Marshall Islands, it has been climate change and the prominent role that Marshallese climate activists are playing globally that have drawn the attention of the international community.
In 1944, the U.S. military captured the Marshall Islands from Japan; the islands and atolls had been part of Japan’s Pacific Empire since the First World War. By the end of World War II, the United States controlled all of the Marshall Islands, along with neighboring Palau and what are known today as the Federated States of Micronesia and Northern Mariana Islands.
In 1946, while the Marshall Islands were under U.S. military rule, the U.S. military revealed a plan to conduct a series of atomic “experiments” at Bikini Atoll. The announcement came in the midst of intense debate about whether atomic power should be overseen by civilians or military leaders, held by the United States or regulated by an international body. At the time, the United States was the only country in the world with atomic weapons.
Weeks later, American military personnel, scientists, and film crews descended on Bikini where they captured the exchange between the U.S. Military Governor and Juda, whose words the Bikinians subsequently memorialized on their flag. Then, the U.S. military removed the Bikinians from their islands and detonated two atomic weapons there.
The following year, the U.S. occupation of the region was sanctioned by the United Nations. Christened the Trust Territory of the Pacific (TTP), the terraqueous zone comprised an area larger than the continental United States. U.S. officials pushed for it to be designated a “strategic area.” The designation limited international oversight and largely eliminated any mechanisms for accountability: as a “strategic area” (as opposed to a “non-strategic area”), the administering power—the United States—was accountable only to the U.N. Security Council (where the United States had veto power) rather than to the entire General Assembly. The atomic tests that the military conducted on Bikini in 1946—while the Marshall Islands were under U.S. military rule—were the basis for designating the area “strategic,” limiting outside oversight and legitimating the U.S. occupation of the islands and their continued use for nuclear weapons testing. And because it was a “strategic area,” when Marshallese people appealed to the United Nations to stop the Americans’ nuclear testing, the United States claimed that the designation gave it the authority to continue to conduct nuclear testing there. As U.S. Representative to the United Nations Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. explained in a memo to the U.S. State Department, “The Trusteeship Agreement of 1947…was predicated upon the fact that the United Nations clearly approved these islands as a strategic area in which atomic tests had already been held. Hence, from the very outset, it was clear that the right to close areas for security reasons anticipated closing them for atomic tests.”
Per the 1947 Trusteeship Agreement, as the administrator of the region, the United States agreed to promote the political, social, and economic development of the people. This included a legal obligation to “protect the inhabitants against the loss of their land and resources” as well as to “protect” their health.
The United States did not fulfill this obligation. Over the next decade, the U.S. military tested sixty-five additional nuclear devices in the atmosphere, on the land, under the waters, and around the people of the Marshall Islands. In all, twenty-three of the tests—including the two from 1946—took place at Bikini Atoll.
Since 1946, members of the Bikinian community, including Juda, have expressed a steadfast desire to return home. They have attested that losing their islands has been traumatic because when the United States took their homeislands, the Bikinians lost the place where their history unfolded and where their ancestors are buried. In the 1954 petition to the United Nations pleading for an end to the nuclear testing, the Marshallese authors described the significance of their relationship to their land: it “is the very life of the people. Take away their land and their spirits go also.”
In 1979, the Marshall Islands declared its independence.
The Bikinian community, now largely comprised of the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of Juda’s generation, remains in exile with no clear way to return home to islands that are still contaminated by radiation from twenty-three American nuclear “experiments.” And although the communities from the other atolls that the United States used for nuclear testing, or which were affected by fallout from the tests on Bikini, have been resettled on their homeislands, the impacts linger.
Radiation from twelve years of U.S. nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands has poisoned twenty-three Japanese fishermen, hundreds—and more likely thousands—of American military personnel, and generations of Marshallese people. Long-term effects and illnesses have included leukemia and fertility issues such as miscarriages, stillbirths, jellyfish babies—babies born with transparent skin and no bones. Since the United States began experimenting with nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands, Bikinians and the other Marshallese communities whose land was taken by the U.S. military and whose people were exposed to radioactive fallout have pressed the U.S. government for adequate recompense.
“No nuclear, no compact.” It has been a rallying cry in the Marshall Islands for the past few years, as negotiators from the Marshall Islands and the United States worked to update the Compact of Free Association, the treaty that has structured political, economic, and military relations between the two countries since 1986. The Compact was renegotiated or amended in 2003 and again in 2023. (The United States also has separate Compacts with two other former Trust Territories, Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia, which is comprised of four island states: Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae, and Yap. The U.S. government refers to the Marshall Islands, Palau, and the Federated States of Micronesia as the three “Freely Associated States,” their populations having voted against becoming U.S. territories or commonwealths.)
The Compact and the status it conveys on Marshallese people enables them to come to the United States to live and work without a visa. Marshallese people, like the members of the other Freely Associated States, are eligible to enlist and serve in the U.S. military. Because they can live and work in the United States but do not have—and in most cases, cannot get—U.S. citizenship, in many of the U.S. cities with large Marshallese diaspora communities—Springdale, Spokane, Honolulu—Marshallese people face substantial barriers to accessing healthcare, education, and public services.
Meanwhile, the Marshall Islands remains critical for U.S. national security in the Pacific. The United States operates a military base on Kwajalein Atoll and, as part of the Compact, claims exclusive access to the lands, waters, and air of the archipelago. The United States also continues to conduct intercontinental ballistic missile tests there.
On October 16, 2023, representatives from both countries signed an agreement to amend the Compact. While the newest Compact contains funding that the Marshall Islands can use to address the continuing impacts of U.S. nuclear testing and seeks to redress some of the challenges faced by Marshallese communities in the United States and U.S. military veterans in the Marshall Islands, it does not resolve the challenges posed by the legacies of U.S. nuclear testing, nor does it absolve the United States.
In the Marshall Islands, where land is precious— “the very life of the people”—the history of nuclear testing and the demands it has made on Marshallese islands, bodies, and culture inform the way the country is confronting the climate crisis. As Marshallese organizer, poet, and climate activist Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner explains, “we are fighting so hard against climate change so that we don’t lose the rest of our islands.”
The Marshall Islands is—and has been—on the map, even if many Americans have missed it, even though U.S. nuclear testing obliterated entire islands, and despite the fact that climate change poses what may be an existential threat to the nation. The Bikinian flag serves as a reminder of how the histories of the United States and Marshall Islands have been linked. It serves as a reminder that the Marshall Islands has been central to U.S. security and military interests since the Second World War. And it serves as an opportunity to engage and to learn from these histories.
Carleigh Beriont is a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government where she teaches about the intersections of religion, politics, and public policy. She has a PhD in American religious history from Harvard University. She is currently revising her book manuscript, “For the Good of Mankind”: Marshallese, Missionaries, Militaries and the Making of American Empire in the Pacific, 1857–1957, which examines the roles played by religious ideas and actors in justifying American involvement in the Marshall Islands during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
 Approximately 20,000 Marshallese people live in the United States. However, unless they were born here, they are categorically excluded from attaining U.S. citizenship. On maps and mental maps of the United States and U.S. empire, see Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (New York, 2019). For how Americans imagined the Pacific, see Jeffrey Geiger, Facing the Pacific: Polynesia and the U.S. Imperial Imagination (Honolulu, 2007). On Micronesia see David Hanlon, “Micronesia: Writing and Rewriting the Histories of a Nonentity,” Pacific Studies, 12 (March 1989), 1–21, and on the Marshall Islands see Teresia K. Teaiwa, “bikinis and other s/pacific n/oceans,” Contemporary Pacific, 6 (Spring 1994), 87–109.
 Government of the Marshall Islands and the World Bank, “Adapting to Rising Sea Levels in Marshall Islands,” October 21, 2021, https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/8c715dcc5781421ebff46f35ef34a04d. Jon Letman, “In the Face of Climate Change, the Pacific Leads Boldly,” The Diplomat, March 1, 2023, https://thediplomat.com/2023/02/in-the-face-of-climate-change-the-pacific-leads-boldly/.
 Letman, “In the Face of Climate Change, the Pacific Leads Boldly.”
 Marshall Andrews, “A-Bomb Tests on 97 Ships Begin in May,” Washington Post, Jan. 25, 1946, p. 1.
 United Nations Charter, Chapter XII: International Trusteeship System, https://www.un.org/en/about-us/un-charter/chapter-12.
 The United States Representative at the United Nations (Lodge) to the Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952–1954, United Nations Affairs, Volume III, ed. Ralph R. Goodwin (Washington, 1979), Document 948, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1952-54v03/d948.
 “Trusteeship Agreement for the Former Japanese Mandated Islands Approved at the One Hundred and Twenty-Fourth Meeting of the Security Council, April 2, 1947,” International Organization, 2 (June 1948), 410–14. The United States had not anticipated that Marshallese people would try to hold it accountable for how it administered the region, but rather was worried, primarily, about criticism from the Soviet Union and later India. See the correspondence in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952–1954, United Nations Affairs, Volume III, ed. Ralph R. Goodwin (Washington, 1979), Documents 931–67, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1952-54v03/subch9.
 Quoted in Giff Johnson, “Back to Bikini,” New Internationalist Magazine (no. 291, June 1997), available at Internet Archive, https://web.archive.org/web/20231115145553/https://newint.org/features/1997/06/05/bikini/.
 Giff Johnson, Nuclear Past, Unclear Future (Majuro, Marshall Islands, 2009).
 Holly M. Barker, Bravo for the Marshallese: Regaining Control in a Post-Nuclear, Post-Colonial World (Belmont, 2004).
 Shannon Tiezzi, “Camilla Pohle on the Risk of the US Under-Delivering in the Pacific Islands,” The Diplomat, June 20, 2023, https://thediplomat.com/2023/06/camilla-pohle-on-the-risk-of-the-us-under-delivering-in-the-pacific-islands/. See also Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment, “A Call for the United States to Acknowledge and Address the Harm Caused by Nuclear Weapons Testing in the Pacific and to Meet Its Obligations to the Marshallese People,” Dec. 12, 2022, https://swuraniumimpacts.org/a-call-for-the-united-states-to-acknowledge-and-address-the-harm-caused-by-nuclear-weapons-testing-in-the-pacific-and-to-meet-its-obligations-to-the-marshallese-people/.
 Pete McKenzie, “U.S. Government Moves to Expand Health Care to Pacific Veterans,” New York Times, June 24, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/06/24/world/asia/health-care-pacific-veterans.html.
 Chad Blair, “US, Marshall Islands Renew COFA Treaty for Another 20 Years,” Honolulu Civil Beat, Oct. 18, 2023, https://www.civilbeat.org/2023/10/us-marshall-islands-renew-cofa-treaty-for-another-20-years/.
 “Marshallese Poet Draws Attention to Nuclear Dome,” Radio New Zealand, May 14, 2018, https://www.radionz.co.nz/international/pacific-news/357334/marshallese-poet-draws-attention-to-nuclear-dome?fbclid=IwAR0TVTO8B3190xMDfDytno1Y5NmD-DAcgDc9iq2pXPqAUACKNmOJomCpIZw.