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  • Consequential Damages of Nuclear War: The Rongelap Report
  • Miriam Kahn
Consequential Damages of Nuclear War: The Rongelap Report, by Barbara Rose Johnston and Holly M Barker. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2008. ISBN 978-1-59874-346-3, 296 pages, maps, illustrations, notes, appendixes, glossary, index. US$27.95.

Consequential Damages of Nuclear War is an outstanding example of the practical use of anthropological research. Ten years in the making, the book is the result of a community study, conducted in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, that productively weaves together data from the [End Page 401] history of nuclear weapons testing, cultural knowledge, government documents, medical records, and—most importantly—the voices of individual Marshall Islanders. The point of convergence for these data is one of the cruelest chapters in United States history, namely the cultural genocide and environmental ruin of parts of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. The US government used some of the islands to test its nuclear weapons and the Islanders became both unsuspecting participants and victims in scientific experiments. This is a disquieting chronicle of the abuse of political power, perpetuated by lies and the energetic efforts of government officials to cover up their dishonorable tracks. Yet, by the time I reached the end of the book, harrowing as the history is, the main impression I had was overwhelming admiration for the Marshallese, whose heroic resistance, steadfast pursuit of justice, and eloquent voices provided steady anchors throughout the turbulent tale.

The authors have impeccable qualifications for carrying out their stated task, to tease out "the many and varied consequences of the US atmospheric weapons testing program in the Pacific, and to do so in ways that amplify the voice of Marshallese experience" (15). Barbara Rose Johnston is an environmental anthropologist with a background in biology. She is currently a senior research fellow at the Center for Political Ecology in Santa Cruz, California. Holly M Barker is an applied anthropologist who has worked with Marshall Islanders, both in the Pacific and the United States, for the past twenty years. Fluent in Marshallese, Barker has conducted oral histories with some two hundred Marshall Islanders, several of whose narratives contribute the "voices" to the text.

A prologue lays out the entangled history between the United States and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. From 1947 to 1986 the United States administered the Marshall Islands as one of the six entities in the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands established by the United Nations. From 1946 to 1958, the US government conducted 67 atmospheric nuclear weapons tests in the Territory (44 at Enewetak Atoll and 23 at or near Bikini Atoll). These tests unleashed the equivalent power of 1. 7 Hiroshima bombs every day for twelve years, and created an unprecedented opportunity for US government researchers to investigate the effects of radiation exposure on both the environment and human beings. Although nuclear testing ended in 1958, scientific testing on the human beings who were affected by the radiation continued into the 1990s. To this day, many islands remain too radioactive for their former inhabitants to return. When the earliest bombs were detonated, the residents living nearby on the atolls of Rongelap, Rongerik, and Ailinginae were typically relocated to other islands. Yet, with the 1954 explosion of the Bravo bomb, the most powerful hydrogen bomb ever tested by the United States, the people of those same atolls living downwind of ground zero were intentionally left on their islands to provide scientists with more data about the effects of radiation exposure on people (45–46, 95, 100, 104–105, 113). [End Page 402]

In 1983, the governments of the United States and the Marshall Islands entered into a formal agreement in which the United States recognized the contributions and sacrifices made by the people of the Marshall Islands during the nuclear testing program. The US government accepted responsibility for compensation for loss or damage to property and person resulting from that testing. In 1988 the Marshall Islands Nuclear Claims Tribunal was established, which implemented a compensation program. In 1998, Public Advocate Bill Graham asked Johnston and Barker to advise the Nuclear Claims Tribunal "on culturally appropriate ways...


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