The US left the Marshall Islands with a toxic nuclear legacy – and a looming environmental disaster

The Marshall Islands, a stereotypically picturesque getaway in the Pacific, is the scene of a looming ecological catastrophe. The toxic legacy of nuclear weapons testing remains with the Marshall Islanders.

The Marshall Islands, located midway between Hawaii and Australia, was the site where the US conducted nuclear weapons testing, such as exploding their first functioning hydrogen bomb. Reefs and atolls were pulverised by these tests, 67 in all.

The nuclear weapons testing, conducted between 1946 and 1958, left a staggering legacy of ecological damage and associated health effects. The US authorities buried irradiated soil from the ‘ground zero’ of the weapons tests, the Enewetak and Bikini atolls in a massive concrete bunker. Decades after the military had stopped testing, the Runit Dome was constructed to store the waste from the numerous underwater and atmospheric nuclear explosions.

While weapons testing ceased, the nuclear waste problem did not go away.

The Washington Post reported, in May this year, that the concrete dome facility housing the radioactive waste was cracking. An ageing structure, as the dome is cracks, and sea levels rise due to climate change, lethal plutonium-239 waste threatens to leak into the Pacific. Water has begun to penetrate the dome, sparking fears of an environmental nightmare scenario for the Marshallese. Rising sea levels, and the increasing occurrence of typhoons and severe weather events are impacting the structural integrity of the concrete dome.

In the 1980s, the US military built a concrete dome – a ‘kind of coffin’ according to current UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres – to house the radioactive debris and waste. As a result of disrepair, and the increasing effects of climate change, the dome is cracking threatening to unleash an environmental catastrophe in the Pacific Ocean.

The US authorities did not admit to the Marshallese that they had transported tonnes of radioactive waste from Nevada to the atolls. The US military also did not disclose that they had conducted biological weapons testing in the Marshall Islands, in particular on Enewetak atoll.

Cracks have developed in the dome after decades of exposure

A study commissioned by the US Department of Energy in 2013 acknowledged that the Runit Dome is leaking while however downplaying the possibilities of environmental damage and health risks. Climate scientists have insisted that the Pacific waters are rising, and warming, and thus present a growing threat to the old concrete structure. Not only would the bunker be damaged, but groundwater reserves would become polluted.

After the US withdrew its forces, having occupied the islands in 1944 in the days of World War 2, the United States government accepted responsibility for compensating the Marshallese and cleaning up the toxic legacy of nuclear waste. However, the Marshall Islands authorities reported that compensation has been woefully inadequate, and cited a history of distrust towards the US.

The US signed a Compact of Free Association with the Marshall Islands – coming into force in 1986 – in which the latter gained nominal independence. As part of this compact, the US was released from all liabilities arising from the nuclear weapons testing and storage of plutonium waste in the dome.

The Los Angeles Times, in conjunction with the Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, sent teams of reporters to the Marshall Islands five times over a period of 15 months. They documented the ongoing environmental damage, and outbreaks of disease, that afflict the atolls.

From the Los Angeles Times:

“Marshallese leaders acknowledge that America doesn’t bear full responsibility for their nation’s distress. But they say the United States has failed to take ownership of the environmental catastrophe it left behind, and they claim U.S. authorities have repeatedly deceived them about the magnitude and extent of that devastation.”

The dome itself, containing 3.1 million cubic feet of radioactive soil, debris and plutonium, is the consequence of the US saddling the Marshall Islands with a polluting legacy. No other country has to face such potentially devastating consequences from nuclear testing – not even Belarus and the Ukraine, the nations immediately affected by Chernobyl.

Nejre Joseph is now 72 years old. At seven years of age, living on Rongelop Atoll with her family, she witnessed the largest thermonuclear explosion ever conducted by the United States, codenamed Castle Bravo. The nuclear weapons test, carried out on Bikini atoll in 1954, was in the words of Joseph, like watching two suns rise – the usual sunrise and then the explosion. This was the first weaponised hydrogen bomb detonated by the US military.

The fallout from that test rained down a white powder over hundreds of miles, contaminating the water, marine life, and the food and homes of the islanders. People on and near the atolls experienced skin burns, nausea, burning and eventually cancer. The Marshallese were unwitting human guinea pigs for the US military, which was testing the effects of radiation exposure on the human body.

Joseph has suffered radiation poisoning and has had her thyroid removed. She has been taking thyroid medication her whole life. Her example is typical of the health impacts suffered by the Marshallese in the aftermath of US weapons testing.

If the relevant authorities handling the fallout and consequences of the Chernobyl or Fukushima disasters had simply poured concrete on the area and left it, there would be howls of outrage in the media. Stinging condemnations would issue forth from international bodies, and activist-environment groups would find a receptive media willing to broadcast their message. The Marshall Islands are the forgotten ground zero.

This however, is a catastrophe which originates in, and is nurtured by, the actions of the United States. In our corporate media, outrage is selectively deployed against official ‘enemy’ nations – Russia, China, Iran, North Korea – the list is endless. The arrogance of our imperial overlords are rarely if ever questioned. A kind of tribalism is encouraged and promoted – surely we do not do things like that.

Do I think that the Marshallese are super-fantastic people deserving of special privileges? No, I do not. Do I think that there are no other equally important issues deserving of attention? No, I do not. Every political leader must take responsibility, and be accountable for, their decisions and actions. The US has consistently denied, or at least avoided, taking full responsibility for the mess which their predatory actions have created.

The Marshall Islands is where the Cold War legacy of nuclear weapons meets the modern, ongoing problem of climate change. Marshallese Islanders were exiled frim their homes, left in impoverished conditions, and with horrendous health impacts. The United States is a cowardly environmental vandal, damaging the lives of the Marshallese, and refusing to accept culpability. It is time to hold them to account.

Trump, his advisor and the perverse solidarity of white nationalism

In a bundle of leaked emails obtained by the Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC), Stephen Miller, senior political advisor to the Trump administration, expressed and recycled ultranationalist far right and white nationalist viewpoints. Miller, employed by Trump since the 2016 election campaign, regularly emailed his views to the rightwing Breitbart news outlet. Miller restated white supremacist and ultraright talking points, and is an architect of the Trump administration’s policies.

The emails by Miller, covering the period from March 2015 to June 2016, reveal the white supremacist thinking that underlies much of the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant and racist policies. Miller lamented the demolition and removal of Confederate statues across the nation – monuments to the slave-owning states. He advocated the ‘great replacement’ conspiracy theory, a racially-paranoid view that sees white populations being systematically ‘replaced’ by immigration from nonwhite countries.

The ‘white replacement’ conspiracy theory is not only bonkers, it motivated far rightist and fascistic killers from Christchurch to El Paso. This perspective provides a perverse sense of solidarity – aggrieved victimhood along white nationalist lines. Such views have influenced the Trump administration’s policies against undocumented immigrants and refugees, denouncing them as a ‘security threat’ and ordering their deportation.

There is nothing particularly surprising about finding a white supremacist political advisor in the White House. However, there are a number of observations to make regarding the place of Miller in such a prominent position in the halls of political power. Earlier this year, Representative Ilhan Omar suggested – in a tweet – that Miller is a white nationalist. Her comment was met with volcanic rage from the rightwing Twittersphere.

Omar’s tweet – greeted with howls of outrage and scornful condemnations by the conservative bloviators – has been vindicated with the most recent revelations. Miller has not only directed his advice along white nationalist lines, he has resurrected racist literature from the recent past. One book that Miller approvingly cites, along with other white nationalists, is the French novel The Camp of the Saints.

The novel, published in 1973 by Jean Raspail, sets out a fictional dystopian scenario – France, a white European power, is overrun by teeming swarms of nonwhite and darker-skinned immigrants from Africa and Asia. Nonwhites, portrayed as ravenous and savage, gradually overwhelm white, Christian France – an early statement of the ‘white genocide’ conspiracy theory.

The portrayal of immigrants and refugees as ‘invaders’ pervades and underlines the immigration policies of the US administration. As refugees from Honduras and other Central American countries set out towards the United States, the Trump government denounced them as ‘criminals’, and began militarising the US-Mexico border. Honduras and El Salvador are afflicted by inequality and poverty. These outcomes are the results of decades of US regime-change policies implemented in Latin America.

The white nationalist fixates on the alleged racial threat posed by the nonwhite refugee, yet refuses to see the economic and political policies that turn those nations – such as those in Central America – into unliveable, poverty-stricken countries. In the wake of Hurricane Dorian, which hit the Bahamas in September this year, the Trump administration’s response to refugees from that disaster was to deny asylum – on the spurious pretext that ‘gang members might be’ among those seeking refuge.

While the mainstream corporate media has focused criticism of Trump on his mental state, narcissistic mindset and duplicity, this perspectives avoids discussion of a deeper malaise. It is not so much that Trump the individual has a fragile ego and frail mind – that may very well be the case. It is the fact that Trump personifies a free-wheeling, free-market white supremacist nationalism which is the scandal of the American political system.

Trump’s skulduggery, his vulgarity and deceitful behaviour are all appalling – but that behaviour is underscores by a white nationalist outlook. His campaign rallies have featured open calls by him and his supporters for vigilante violence against his opponents. When his acolytes chant ‘send her back‘ in reference to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, they are actively encouraging extrajudicial violence against their political opponents.

Alexander Hurst, writing in the New Republic magazine, states that when immigrants and refugees are routinely described as criminals, invaders, rapists, murderers and animals, vigilante violence against said immigrants in the predictable result. In fact, the United States has a long tradition of vigilante violence, in support of racist state measures. Throughout the history of American settlement, frontier-violence by white settlers was directed at the indigenous communities, abolitionists, ethnic and religious minorities, and civil rights campaigners.

Racial violence against ethnic minorities is not a relic of a long-distant past. The civil rights movement was historic and its accomplishments were game-changing. But let us not draw a false finish line under the issue of racism in the United States because it formerly elected a black president. The presence of Miller as a senior advisor indicates that white nationalism is being codified into institutional bigotry.

Vann Newkirk II, writing in the Atlantic magazine, states that the real scandal of the Trump White House is not the financial malfeasance or corrupt dealings overseas, but its platforming of white nationalist views and policies. Embracing bigotry is not just an academic exercise, but has real-world human consequences.

30 years after the Berlin wall came down, we live in a world enclosed by walls

This month marks 30 years since the removal of the Berlin Wall. Border controls restricting the movement of people between East and West Berlin were demolished. This event was portrayed as ushering in a new period of the free movement of peoples. The wall had come to symbolise the ostensibly tyrannical nature of the former East German government, and its determination to stop free and unrestricted travel for its citizens.

The dividing wall was denounced by American politicians and the intellectual commentariat as an imposition on the inalienable right of Eastern Europeans to enjoy, among other things, freedom to travel. The Berlin wall indicated, for Western audiences, the punitive nature of an undemocratic regime. Surely a government that relies on walls is only demonstrating its politically bankrupt character?

The foreign ministers of Hungary and Austria at the time went one step further – performing a publicity stunt by symbolically cutting the barbed wire fence between their respective nations. This media-friendly PR move was meant to indicate the commitment of European nations, formerly enemies, to break down barriers, opening up a new era of cooperation.

This particular opening of the Eastern bloc border – the so-called ‘Iron Curtain’ – contributed to the restoration of capitalism in the Eastern European nations. The integration of the Eastern European countries into the global capitalist economy led to the formation of an enlarged European Union and the abolition of immigration requirements within the Schengen region.

Thirty years after the Berlin wall came down, the European Union has implemented a series of militarised borders, becoming a garrison against the entry of refugees from non-European nations. Hungary has gone so far as to authorise the deployment of the army to prevent refugees from entering the country. European countries are resurrecting electrified razor-wire borders, hermetically sealing its external borders, denying refugees any entry points. These measures are combined with the abolition of the 1995 Schengen area provisions for internal borders.

Not only have militarised borders been erected in Europe, the United States administration of Donald Trump openly campaigned on a pledge to build a militarised border wall along the US-Mexico border. Demonising Hispanic immigrants as criminals and economic parasites, the Trump administration has pushed on with its determination to build a barrier as part of his xenophobic political platform.

Across the capitalist nations, heavily-fortified borders are being implemented, in particular to stop the movement of refugees and asylum seekers. The hype about welcoming the free movement of peoples has evaporated. Walls and borders do not necessarily have to be physical structures – Australia has enacted a policy of mandatory detention of refugees, involving a series of legislative and coercive measures that punish the most vulnerable – the refugees themselves.

It is no exaggeration to state that Australia’s policy of institutionalised cruelty against refugees is an inspiration to ultra-rightist parties and their conservative supporters around Europe. Former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott has given several speeches at conferences in Europe portraying refugees as basically cheats and fraudsters attempting to unfairly secure a place in the wealthier nations. Such punitive border measures are rationalised by picturing immigration as a civilisational threat.

The European Union has turned the entire Mediterranean sea as a maritime barrier against African refugees, with no expense being spared in turning that sea into a graveyard for approaching refugees. The United Nations has noted that this year marks the sixth year during which the refugee and migrant death toll in the Mediterranean has topped 1000. Migrant and refugee fatalities have become an almost regular feature of maritime traffic in the Mediterranean sea.

One of the African nations from which refugees are fleeing, and which is itself a transit point for asylum seekers from sub-Saharan Africa, is Libya. The latter has been in a state of fractured political and economic chaos since the 2011 European-led war of regime change against former Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Having once been a stable nation providing a unmatched level of prosperity for an African nation, Libya has been in a shambles economically as a direct result of policies pursued by the European powers.

Having created a failed state directly across the Mediterranean, the European Union washes its hands of all responsibility in producing an outflow of refugees. Instead, the militarisation of the Mediterranean is the preferred, xenophobic response of countries which once praised the free movement of peoples. The European Union has been outsourcing the refugee problem, by paying the Libyan authorities – at least the ramshackle tottering semblance of a government that the EU recognises – to house refugees in dangerous detention camps.

Sally Hayden, freelance journalist and writer who covers migration and refugee issues, wrote that the EU is funding a Libyan coast guard to prevent refugees from reaching European shores, and thus detaining them in makeshift camps in Libya. The refugees are at the mercy of rival militia groups and economic exploiters. The Italian government has been particularly duplicitous in pushing the refugee problem back into Libyan hands.

The 2017 Memorandum of Understanding between the Italian government and the Libyan authorities in Tripoli institutionalised a system of detention camps, where refugees face inhumane conditions. Such an approach only creates a pool of people vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. These immigration and refugee policies, while implemented in Libya, are designed and carried out by Italian and EU authorities.

In the immediate aftermath of the Berlin wall’s demise, the East German politicians who gave the orders for their border guards to use lethal force were put on trial and held accountable for their actions. Will we see the architects of the EU’s harsh and deliberately cruel refugee policies being held accountable for the deaths their decisions have caused?

While we remember the fall of the Berlin wall, let us not fool ourselves – Europe has erected thousands of kilometres of walls since that time. Building walls not only gives us a sense of xenophobic insularity; they project imperial power over the immigrant and refugee outsider. Walls, razor-wire and surveillance are not purely defensive measures. They have become the new status quo in relations between capitalist states.