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The Contemporary Pacific 17.2 (2005) 363-372

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The Nuclear Age in the Pacific Islands

The study of nuclear testing in the Pacific by French scholar Jean-Marc Regnault is to be welcomed. But there are a number of areas where I would place a different emphasis to explain the sources of resistance to French nuclear and colonial policy in the region.

From the beginning of the nuclear age, indigenous peoples of the Pacific have borne the brunt of nuclear weapons testing by France, Britain, and the United States. Seeking "empty" spaces, the western powers chose to conduct Cold War programs of nuclear testing in the deserts of central Australia or the isolated atolls of the central and south Pacific. But these regions were not "terra nullius," and a central feature of planning for nuclear testing was a casual racism toward the indigenous inhabitants of the region.

A striking example comes from planning documents for the 1957 British nuclear tests at Christmas and Malden Islands, code-named "Grapple."1 In November 1956, a British military report outlined possible radiation dosages for people near the Grapple nuclear tests. In the racist terminology of the time, the report notes:

For civilised populations, assumed to wear boots and clothing and to wash, the amount of activity necessary to produce this dosage is more than is necessary to give an equivalent dosage to primitive peoples who are assumed not to possess these habits. . . . It is assumed that in the possible regions of fall-out at Grapple there may be scantily clad people in boats to whom the criteria of primitive peoples should apply.2

A meeting held a week later agreed to inform the UK defense minister that "independent authorities agree that. . . . only very slight health hazard to people would arise, and that only to primitive peoples."3 [End Page 363]

Understandably, the "primitive peoples" of the Pacific were not impressed by British attitudes to their safety. In 1957, the Indo-Fijian newspaper Jagriti noted: "Nations engaged in testing these bombs in the Pacific should realise the value of the lives of the people settled in this part of the world. They too are human beings, not 'guinea pigs.'"4

This quest for human dignity underlies the emotion shown in regional opposition to nuclear colonialism. Many other examples can be drawn from the US, British, and French programs. The interconnection of racism, colonialism, and the nuclear era is fundamental, and blaming the "Anglo-Saxon powers" for leading anti-nuclear sentiment against France downplays the depth and range of opposition to nuclear testing in the Islands.

Anti-nuclear protests from the Islands predated French plans to transfer testing from the Sahara to Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls, a process that Regnault so ably documented in his 1993 book La Bombe française dans le Pacifique. In a 1999 speech,5 the late Marie-Thérèse Danielsson reminded us that there were anti-nuclear protests in French Polynesia dating back to 1950, when Tahitian nationalist Pouvanaa a Oopa collected signatures for the Stockholm Peace Appeal.

In 1956, after the UK government announced that nuclear testing would proceed at Christmas Island, WesternSāmoa petitioned the United Nations Trusteeship Council to halt the tests (at the time, Sāmoa was still a trust territory of New Zealand). The same year, the Rarotonga Island Council submitted a report to the Cook Islands Legislative Council, expressing concern and asking "that the testing area be situated at some greater distance than the Cook Islands."6

Regnault's references to Australia and New Zealand as "Anglo-Saxon powers" opposed to French nuclear policy are puzzling. In fact, it is Australia's Anglo-Protestant establishment, from Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies in the 1950s,to current leader John Howard, who are the most enthusiastic supporters of nuclear doctrines promoted by Paris, London, and Washington. Canberra can hardly be accused of encouraging Islanders to oppose the Bomb—in the 1950s, the conservative Menzies government supported the UK testing program in Australia, allowed the mining of uranium for nuclear weapons programs, and actively supported Britain...