The Contemporary Pacific 15.2 (2003) 492-494
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For the Good of Mankind: A History of the People of Bikini and Their Islands, by Jack Niedenthal. Second Edition. Majuro, Marshall Islands: Bravo Publishers, 2001.ISBN 982-9050-02-5; xviii + 264 pages, figures, maps, photographs, appendixes, bibliography, index. US$16.99.
Jack Niedenthal's work is a labor of love. After Ralph Waltz, Niedenthal was the second young American to arrive in the Marshall Islands as a Peace Corps volunteer, marry into the Bikini community, and come to devote his life to Bikinians. Niedenthal's Peace Corps service was a three-year stint on Namu Atoll between 1981 and 1984. Originally from Pennsylvania and educated at the University of Arizona, he was transformed by his encounter with Marshallese and their culture. After Namu, Niedenthal eagerly accepted an offer by Waltz to teach elementary school on Kili Island, where the people of Bikini Atoll were eventually resettled after their home atoll was selected as an American nuclear test site in 1946.
A Wisconsin lad, Waltz had joined the Peace Corps in the mid-1960s following his university education in Milwaukee. After a year elsewhere, Waltz was assigned to Kili as a teacher. He served in that capacity until Bikinians hired him as their first trust liaison officer, a position involving liaison work between Bikinians and the local Marshallese government, various agencies of the US government, the media, and other outsiders. The liaison officer also managed funds allocated by the US government as compensation and for the rehabilitation of Bikini Atoll. After Waltz's early [End Page 492] death from cancer in 1987, Niedenthal succeeded him in the position. Both men have been key players in the affairs of Bikinians and earned the trust of the people they served. As liaison officer, Niedenthal now spends most of his time at Majuro, the capital of today's Republic of the Marshall Islands.
The first edition of his book appeared in early 2001. It was well received, and the second edition was published in September of the same year. At Niedenthal's request, anthropologist Leonard Mason, who has long been associated with Bikinians, contributed the foreword to the second edition. The community at Bikini in 1946 numbered only a little over 160 people. Their initial relocation at uninhabited Rongerik Atoll was a disaster. The small atoll lacked the resources to support even the smallest of populations. Mason visited them briefly shortly after their initial relocation. On a second visit in 1948, he found them a desperate and starving people, and he was instrumental in arranging an emergency evacuation to the American military base at Kwajalein Atoll. Bikinians compared his visit with the coming of Christ who had saved his people in an earlier time. Their resettlement on Kili Island occurred in late 1948. Mason conducted research on Kili several times during his career, and he has become part of Bikinians' oral history.
Niedenthal's introduction provides a sketch of his own background. He recalls that during his teaching years on Kili, he became aware that his students' knowledge of their own people was sketchy at best, and it was then that he decided to record Bikinians' history as remembered by the community's elders. There was some urgency to the task; Bikinians who were adults in 1946 were aged and becoming fewer in number with each passing year.
The following text is divided into six sections. In the first, Niedenthal provides a brief overview of the history of the Bikini people. For readers somewhat familiar with the story of the Bikinians, it will serve as a reminder of the major events and issues that have shaped their history since the era of Japanese colonial rule between the two world wars. The uninitiated will probably wish for more.
The next section, "Interviews with the People of Bikini," provides the bulk of the book. Of its twenty-six entries, two are actually reflective pieces by Niedenthal. Twenty are translations of segments of interviews with Bikinians between 1987 and...