Martha Smith-Norris. Domination and Resistance: The United States and the Marshall Islands During the Cold War. University of Hawai'i Press, 2016. x + 249 pages. $62.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8248-4762-3.
Reviewed by Ryan Archibald (University of Washington)
Published on H-War (August, 2017)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Situated in the Central Pacific, the Marshall Islands often escape the attention of most historians of American foreign relations. Martha Smith-Norris’s Domination and Resistance: The United States and the Marshall Islands during the Cold War aims to rectify this absence. Blending diplomatic, political, and scientific histories, Smith-Norris argues that the Marshall Islands were a crucial laboratory for the weapons of US grand strategy. These developments, however, were contingent upon the displacement of Marshallese, the destruction of numerous atolls, and widespread contamination of island environments. Race was a crucial element of official and scientific justifications for the tests and forced relocation of the Marshallese. Smith-Norris convincingly demonstrates the need for more historical investigation of the multifaceted US role in the region and the full extent of human testing on the islands. However, Domination and Resistance, at times, takes the claims of strategists at face value, overrelies on the Cold War as an explanatory device, and underanalyzes some of the power dynamics it presents.
Smith-Norris establishes an ambitious agenda. She addresses five themes in the thin book: how the United States utilized the UN Trusteeship to ensure its power in the region, nuclear research, the human and environmental costs of testing, how US officials racialized the Marshallese, and Marshallese resistance. In contrast to the extant literature, Smith-Norris integrates the atolls into a single narrative to facilitate comparisons between different cases and to trace shifts in US grand strategy. Each chapter is organized in a similar fashion, focusing on one or two atolls, the testing conducted in the area, the ensuing environmental damage, and Marshallese responses to the US testing regime.
Chapter 1 focuses on the tests conducted on the Enewetak Atoll and Enewetakese efforts to obtain redress and justice. The US overtook Micronesia from Japan in 1944 and retained control over the “150,000 people living among more than 2,100 islands and atolls” through the United Nation’s (UN) Trust Territory program. In contrast to the other ten trust territories, the US had “wide latitude” over the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands since the UN classified the region as a “strategic area” (p. 4). Enewetak was selected as the first test site due to pre-existing US military control of the atoll, “its remote location,” and its proximity to other military installations (pp. 16-17). The Atomic Energy Commission’s (AEC) three series of tests (Operations Sandstone, Ivy, and Redwing) required the forced migration of the Enewetakese to an isolated island with little arable land and vegetation. Food shortages began almost immediately, and US officials routinely ignored anthropologists’ and Marshallese advocacy for increased food shipments. Smith-Norris demonstrates the Enewetakese efforts to utilize existing legal structures to halt the testing, but missile tests continued through the 1970s as the US claimed that the missile tests would ultimately benefit the region since they were crucial for “world peace” (p. 21). Most importantly, Smith-Norris reveals how US scientists used the Enewetakese as nonconsenting test subjects amidst the ICBM testing, injecting them with radioactive chromium-51 and requesting they drink contaminated water. Years of Enewetakese protest and legal actions forced the US to acknowledge its financial responsibility to restore the atoll and facilitate the return of the Enewetakese, but as of 2016, the Enewetakese have only received $1.7 million of the over $341 million awarded to them by the Nuclear Claims Tribunal.
Smith-Norris next turns to the more widely known history of the Bikini Atoll tests in the 1950s and demonstrates the extent of human testing in the region. Nuclear weapons testing began as early as 1946 and continued through the late 1950s when the US detonated several thermonuclear warheads. Bikinians immediately pressed for their right to return to the atoll after testing stopped in 1958. Despite the high presence of radiation, Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Dr. Robert Conrad advised the AEC that the atoll was safe for habitation. Conrad and his colleagues were aware of the dangers of environmental exposure, but viewed the Bikinians as test subjects who would provide scientists the opportunity to examine how radiation traveled from the environment to humans through food and water consumption. Conditions on the islands were dire through the 1970s, and a 1975 independent study revealed that “Bikinians had ten times as much plutonium in their bodies as Americans” (p. 63). Despite the finding, the Department of Energy did not relocate the Bikinians until 1978, and the Bikinians, like the Enewetakese, have been unable to receive full redress due to stipulations in the 1983 Compact of Free Association which required that the Marshallese drop all litigation against the United States.
Islanders on Rongelap and Utirik were also included in scientific studies without their consent after their exposure to radiation from the Bikini Atoll tests. Both atolls were not evacuated for two to three days post-exposure despite AEC and Department of Defense (DOD) awareness of the fallout risk. Instead, scientists immediately took blood and urine samples to compare with an unexposed control group. The most glaring example of scientific indifference was the direct “administration of radioisotopes directly into the Rongelapese and other islanders” (p. 77). Continued missile testing in the 1960s, according to Brookhaven scientists, justified more human experimentation. When thyroid cancer rates increased in the 1960s, Brookhaven scientists chose to withhold treatment from the Utirikese to compare them to the Rongelapese. Smith-Norris demonstrates that the Marshallese protested their treatment as subjects by challenging their physicians and seeking assistance from anthropologists and lawmakers.
Smith-Norris’s fourth chapter details how the US testing regime shifted in response to treaties, technological advancements, and Marshallese resistance. Testing on Kwajalein Atoll was motivated by the strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction and conflicts over Germany, Vietnam, and Cuba in the 1960s. After China’s first thermonuclear weapon test in 1967, the Defense Department used the atoll to develop an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system on the atoll. Marshallese protest heightened in response. They petitioned the Congress of Micronesia and utilized direct action tactics, including sailing ships to disrupt sea traffic and occupying areas intended for missile testing. In response, the US agreed to compensate landowners and transport residents to the islands during specific times. After the signing of the ABM and SALT I treaties, the US leased the region for five more years to test MRVs. Protests continued and targeted the military “apartheid system” established on Ebeye and Kwajalein where Ebeye workers were banned from the housing, shops, theaters, and recreational areas enjoyed by the Americans (p. 120). Continuing protests over testing in the 1980s for Reagan’s SDSI led to a renegotiated lease agreement.
Smith-Norris concludes by detailing the creation of the Compact for Free Association in the 1980s. She charts how the Marshallese organized and advocated for greater autonomy and reparations from the 1950s through the 1980s, and demonstrates that, ultimately, the United States retained its hegemony in the region through the compact. While the US largely ignored Marshallese pressure to renegotiate the relationship, by the 1980s the islands were both a political and financial liability to the US as it remained the last Trust Territory. A secret report by Reagan administration officials emphasized that the Marshall Islands remained a strategic area, and that the US should accept whatever form of government or relationship that would ensure its control in the area. The Compact for Free Association, signed in June 1983, recognized the Marshallese’s right for self-determination, acknowledged the sovereignty of the Republic of the Marshal Islands (RMI) in international relations unrelated “to defense and security,” and provided for free migration between the Marshall Islands and the US without visas or passports (p. 142). In addition, the US pledged $600 million in aid over fifteen years, additional money for remediation, and to refrain from testing or storing nuclear weapons in the area. The US retained control over the RMI in terms of “defense and security,” could prevent other countries from accessing the islands, and could establish and retain military installations. The Nuclear Claims Tribunal was also established, but remained under funded and prevented the Marshallese from seeking redress in US courts. To this day, the US retains long leases over the islands and the tribunal has distributed less than 1 percent of awarded settlements.
Smith-Norris’s work is strongest in emphasizing the human costs of the missile tests in the area, but the book falls short of fulfilling her ambitious agenda. Despite her nod towards new histories of decolonization and the environment, she does not utilize many of the analytics informed by these histories, due in part to her emphasis on the Cold War. Smith-Norris could have placed the history of science and weapons testing within a longer genealogy of colonialism and the use of colonized places and peoples as objects for scientific inquiry. Examples include public health regimes in the Philippines and Puerto Rico, and the use of Vieques, Puerto Rico, for naval weapons testing. Framing the narrative as only a Cold War story also omits how the Marshallese viewed the shift in imperial rule from the Japanese to the US. How did the Marshallese consider the US regime when compared to the Japanese? Did the US use existing Japanese colonial formations to govern, as they did in Korea, or did they discard these earlier structures, and why?
Race and resistance also remain underexamined components of her work. While she briefly details how Kwajaleinese workers protested the apartheid system on Ebeye, there are several instances throughout the book requiring further analysis. Examples include the renaming of multiple tests in the 1950s after American Indian tribes and the racial labor regime that sustained the US military’s presence. How did race and “grand strategy” intersect? While Smith-Norris’s title invokes James Scott’s famous Domination and the Art of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (1992), it is unclear how Scott’s framing advances her analysis. In only analyzing “open resistance” to testing, Smith-Norris leaves unexamined the extralegal forms and “hidden transcripts” of resistance that form a crucial component of the array of tactics wielded to confront power. Finally, given her emphasis on geopolitics and her Cold War periodization, there is a glaring absence of how the shifting terrains of the global Cold War shaped, advanced, or circumscribed Marshallese strategies and abilities to negotiate their relationship with the United States. While Domination and Resistance is successful in its documentation of the human costs of missile testing, the book’s five themes remain underdeveloped.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Ryan Archibald. Review of Smith-Norris, Martha, Domination and Resistance: The United States and the Marshall Islands During the Cold War.
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