Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Guam's shared history with Bikini

Moving day on Bikini, 1946. U.S. photo DOE

It may seem harsh to compare the military's build-up on Guam to the nuclear annihilation of Bikini Atoll. After all, the U.S. only wants to risk contamination of Guam's water supply and not blow up the island. Let's recognize this as an improvement in Pacific island relations. But the nuclear testing program was arguably one of the lower points in the U.S. treatment of Pacific islanders and is a baseline for evaluating the military's plans for Guam.

From 1946 through 1958, the U.S. exploded 67 nuclear devices, including hydrogen bombs, on the Bikini Atoll. Radiation was spread far and wide, affecting thousands of people living in the Marshall Islands, leaving problems that persist today.

The build-up on Guam gives the island difficult choices about its future. The Bikini islanders faced a difficult choice as well in 1946, and that's our starting point for comparison.

Beware of government PR.

Imagine the task facing the U.S. government on Bikini. It did not want to be seen forcibly evicting the islanders. It had to appear that the Bikini islanders had accepted the relocation as the morally right thing to do. Arriving on the atoll in a seaplane in early 1946 is Navy Commodore Ben Wyatt with the task of convincing the people of Bikini to give up their island. It's a Sunday, shortly after services and Wyatt is there to see the island's leader, King Juda.

Official Navy records reported that Wyatt told the Bikinians “of the bomb that men in America had made and of the destruction it had wrought upon the enemy” and that the Americans “are trying to learn how to use it for the good of mankind and to end all world wars.” He then asked: “Would Juda and his people be willing to sacrifice their island[s] for the welfare of all men?” The Bikinians did not wish to leave their atoll. But, in view of the United States’ defeat of Japan and Commodore Wyatt’s description of the nuclear weapons, they believed themselves powerless to resist the United States decision. (Source: Reparations lawsuit filed by the people of Bikini in 2006).

The U.S. had what it wanted from the Bikini islanders -- their consent, even if it was a fiction. But that was the story, told with the news media's help, to the mainland.

In July of 1946, just five months after Wyatt's arrival, a New York Times reporter was flown to the island to witness an unusual ceremony from the Bikini islander's new home, the neighboring island of Rongerik.

The headline and a few excerpts follow.

BIKINI'S KING GETS TRUMAN'S THANKS.
Receives Gifts as His People Are Hailed for Sacrifice -- Juda to See Next Test.
RONGERIK, Marshall Islands, July 16 -- King Juda of Bikini, head of a community of 167 souls who voluntarily gave up their native island to make way for the atomic bomb, today received the official thanks of the President of the United States in a colorful ceremony.
Representing Truman was Sen. Carl Hatch, (D-N.M.), who reportedly said this: "The President knows the sacrifice you have made and he is deeply grateful to you for that. You have made a true contribution to the progress of mankind all over the world, and the President of the United States extends to you, King Juda, his thanks for all that you have done."
As the message was translated to him, King Juda, dressed in a Navy fatigue uniform, nodded his acknowledgement. Then came a burst of applause from all the men, women and children seated behind him in a semi-circle.
King Juda was also presented with several gifts, "a pipe, a cigarette holder, matches, a carton of cigarettes and a complete set of photographs of the atomic cloud over Bikini."

Don't ask, don't listen

The U.S. didn't seek Guam's consent for the buildup. It did not ask whether it is "willing to sacrifice their island" for it (i.e. risk the water supply, the loss of 70 acres of coral, noise from live fire ranges, additional land losses, and other impacts) and assumed it would have enough political support.

But awareness and opposition to the build-up was already building by the time Vice President Dick Cheney visited Andersen Air Force Base in 2007, it just wasn't being heard in Washington. A petition circulated by the group Nasion Chamoru opposed the increased military presence. “We believe that increased militarization will put our families, friends and relatives who are living on Guam in harm’s way rather than provide safety and stability,” the group said in a statement prior to Cheney’s visit. (Navy Times)

This petition was well in advance of the environmental build-up studies and the Congressional Research Service’s recent assessment that "Guam’s higher military profile could increase its potential as an American target for terrorists and adversaries during a possible conflict."

The subsequent growth of We Are Guahan and the outpouring of concern at the recent hearings demonstrate that this build-up opposition is broadening and deepening. It is also a movement looking beyond the environmental and infrastructure issues to question the very future of the island, its identity and the legacy it wants to leave for its children.

Sen. James Webb's focus is on mitigating environmental and quality of life impacts, and not the transcendent issues. He let President Obama's administration know, after his recent visit, that the military is asking too much of the island and giving it too little in return. Webb's goal is to help Guam get millions of dollars for infrastructure help and a slower pace of development, but he wants an outcome that ensures that the Guam build-up is realized, which he calls an "issue of national strategy."

The colonialist pay a visit

Shortly after Webb's report, which included his assertion that the build-up is a "win" for Guam, the White House unveiled "One Guam, Green Guam," in advance of President Obama's visit. Its goal for Guam is to bring the island "to an end state that’s politically, operationally, and environmentally sustainable," according to the White House briefing.

The White House needed a new approach. Opposition on Guam to the build-up is increasing, thanks in part to the Draft Environmental Impact State Statement (DEIS) which makes it clear that protecting the island's environment is not the government's top priority. [The U.S. Environmental Protection assessment helps support that conclusion.]

The White House sent Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the Council on Environmental Quality, to Guam to lay a new groundwork for selling the build-up. Sutley appears at a press conference with a number of other federal officials and then says "what you see here is a commitment from the federal family." (Marianas Variety, March 23, 2010).

The phrase "federal family" is not something a U.S. official would typically say stateside. Ms. Sutley was probably attempting to show genuine concern. But it's also a paternalistic expression that reinforces a painful fact for Guam: it is a second-class citizen, unable to deal with the federal government either as a sovereign nation or state.

The U.S was similarly paternalistic with Bikini residents, who were led to believe that they could one day return to their island and that they would be cared for until such time. The Bikini islanders "agreed to leave their atoll on the understanding that the United States would provide for them while they were away from their homeland and would protect them against the loss of their lands." (Bikini reparations lawsuit).

Done Right, versus What's Right

The U.S. government is pursuing two separate goals in the build-up. The first goal is the build-up and acheiving the strategic objective. The second, less important goal, is a sustainable build-up. This is one of the things the Bikini islanders learned in their experience. Once the nuclear testing began and the strategic objective achieved, their lives took a turn for the worse despite U.S. promises to the contrary.

Supporters of the build-up want U.S. assurances that it will be "done right," meaning that there is sufficient money and planning to offset its environmental and infrastructure impacts. Whether those impacts can be addressed is unsettled. But the deeper issue of "what's right" for Guam is not a question that will be considered by White House. And the reason for this is clear.

The U.S. government's primary objective for Guam isn't "One Guam, Green Guam," but the build-up. Everything else is secondary and misdirection.

Had the Bikini islanders understood that the only thing that mattered was the evacuation of the island and not their futures, who knows how they might have responded. All anyone can do today is wonder what King Juda thought when he was handed pictures of the atomic bomb exploding on Bikini, part of the thank you gift from his new federal family.

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