By Benetick Kabua Maddison, and the
Marshallese Educational Initiative team
This year marks the expiration of the Compact of Free Association, an agreement between the United States and Marshall Islands governments originally signed in 1986, in part to mitigate the damages from U.S. nuclear weapons testing. The United States conducted 67 high-yield nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands from 1946-1958, the biological, ecological, and cultural consequences of which are ongoing.
My homelands, which were characterized as tiny and scattered islands with a small, expendable population when lands were needed for nuclear tests for the “good of mankind” and for “world peace,” now looms large in U.S. national security interests in the Pacific, due to the perceived threat of China. Marshallese leaders want the Biden Administration to fairly address the nuclear legacy. It appears the administration is willing to do so. They should.
The Marshall Islands needs well-funded medical facilities with cancer specialists and educational facilities that can accommodate trained teachers until we can produce our own, along with scholarships for our youth seeking higher education, and improvements to infrastructure and communications. Addressing the needs and well-being of the Marshallese people was promised under the Trust Territory of the Pacific framework, an agreement that the U.S. government forged under the United Nations from 1947 to 1986, but never came to fruition. Under a new compact and with a Biden Administration committed to equity and justice, the United States must do better.
And what of Marshallese who have already left the islands seeking access to healthcare, education, and employment? Those of us in diaspora now make up two-thirds of the Marshallese population. How can both sides say they are committed to nuclear justice and yet not address the needs of the Marshallese in the United States?
The nuclear weapons testing legacy — the driving force behind migration and the need for a compact — has taken its toll on all Marshallese people. The ongoing consequences of the nuclear legacy, including its impact on Marshallese bodies and culture, recognizes no geopolitical boundaries.
In the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, Marshallese living in the United States were among the hardest hit of all ethnic groups. In Northwest Arkansas, where the highest concentration of Marshallese reside in the continental United States, we make up 3% of the population, but accounted for 40% of the deaths due to Covid-19 in the early summer. Part of our vulnerability was due to underlying health conditions — cancer and diabetes —that are a direct result of U.S. post-war occupation and the weapons testing legacy.
Most public benefits that were a part of the original compact have been removed over the years, chipped away by new legislation, sometimes purposeful, sometimes not. However, Medicaid was finally restored in December 2020. Most Marshallese remain without healthcare and are vulnerable.
What Marshallese qualify for under the full Compact of Free Association is unknown not just to most U.S. citizens, but to federal officials whose responsibility it is to make decisions on Marshallese eligibility. There are still issues with Medicaid enrollment, and there is confusion among U.S. officials regarding the correct documentation needed for entering and working in the United States, while interpretations of what federal financial aid Marshallese students qualify for differ from state to state.
Under the current Compact, the United States continues to designate the nuclear-affected as only those from the atolls in which the tests took place, Bikini and Enewetak, and the two atolls that received the heaviest fallout from the 1954 Castle Bravo detonation, Rongelap and Utrōk. However, according to witnesses and the U.S. government’s own documents released in the 1990s, contamination was much more widespread.
Marshallese government officials made this case to the United States in 2000 when it submitted a Changed Circumstances Petition that included evidence from newly released U.S. documents that confirm the contamination. The George W. Bush White House and Congress rejected that petition. Will this administration do better in the cause for nuclear justice?
Many of our families have migrated and continue to migrate in increasing numbers, now more and more due to climate change. For my family and all Marshallese families living in diaspora in Arkansas and across the United States, whose lands, bodies, and culture were sacrificed, we ask to be heard, to be seen, and to be treated fairly.
—Benetick Kabua Maddison, Executive Director of the Marshallese Educational Initiative. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on nuclear testing history, visit www.mei.ngo/nuclear.