For the Good of Mankind
Reviewed by Nick Wreden (Korea 197476)
THE LAST PARAGRAPH of Jack Niedenthals book, For the Good of Mankind: A History of the People of Bikini and their Islands, describes the symbolism behind Bikinis complex flag. The 23 white stars in the upper left-hand corner represent the islands of Bikini Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands in the south Pacific. Three black stars in the upper right-hand corner symbolize the three islands that were vaporized by a 1954 atomic bomb test. Two more black stars in the lower right-hand corner represent the two islands where most Bikinians now live, about 425 miles south of their homeland. The Bikinian phrase, Everything is in the hands of God, runs near the bottom. That was the reply of the Bikinian leader when the U.S. asked the Bikinians to move for the testing of atomic weapons for the good of all mankind. The striped background closely resembles the U.S. flag to remind others, says Niedenthal, that a great debt is still owed by them to the people of Bikini.
Niedenthal was posted to Micronesia in 1981 as a PCV. He had a epiphany that most Volunteers who find themselves adrift amid dramatically different cultures and ways of thinking: Your only two choices are to change the way you think and live, or go home.
Niedenthal both changed the way he thought and made Micronesia his home. He married a Bikinian and has four children. He is responsible for the trust set up by the U.S. government as a form of reparation for the extensive atomic bomb testing on Bikini Island during the 1950s. Fluent in Marshallese, he has worked extensively with world media concerning Bikini Island, and is now active in helping promote Bikini Island, with its extensive fleet of sunken aircraft carriers, submarines and other Japanese and U.S. ships as a world-class diving destination. Profits from book sales go to the people of Bikini.
The great debt still owed is based on the nuclear testing, code-named Operation Crossroads. In 1946, a U.S. commodore traveled to Bikini to ask the 167 Bikinians to leave Bikini Island for atomic bomb testing. They were replaced by 242 naval ships, 156 aircraft, 25,000 radiation recording devices and 5,400 experimental rats, goats and pigs these facts are a good example of the depth of research behind the book.
The Bikinians then went on a Job-like odyssey, first to Rongerik Atoll, which was 1/6 the size of tiny Bikini and was considered uninhabitable. There the Bikinians rapidly suffered from starvation and fish poisoning, and within two months were begging the U.S. authorities to restore them to their homeland. Plans were made to transfer them to another island, but instead the people of another island that was to be a nuclear test site were moved there. After two years of near-starvation, the Bikinians were moved to Kwajalein Atoll, where they were housed in tents beside a massive military airstrip. After six months, they were moved to Kili Island, where again they suffered from starvation. Atomic testing continued on Bikini Island until 1958.
In 1972, some Bikinians returned to their homeland, reassured by U.S. government promises that radiological clean-up now made it safe to live on the island. But, in the mid- to late 1970s, additional scientific studies determined that radioactivity still remained a threat, and the people were advised to eat only one homegrown coconut per day and depend on imported food for the rest of their sustenance. Finally, in late 1978, the Bikinians were moved off their island once again.
After that move, the people of Bikini were the recipients of three trust funds to pay for everything from construction to scholarships. Finally, in the mid-1990s, some people of Bikini returned to their homeland, although debate about the best ways to rid the island of its toxic legacy continues. One bright hope for the future is a dive center to explore the many one-of-a-kind wrecks scattered around the atoll.
The book examines this and other history of the Bikinian people through a mix of oral histories, scientific reports, personal reminisces and even diving schedules. This is both the books greatest strength and greatest weakness. It is probably the most complete history of Bikini Island, and will continue to be a reference touchstone for future studies of the Marshall Islands and even the south Pacific. However, it is disconcerting to go from oral histories concerning the mythological beginnings of the island to the EPA Dose and Risk Assessment Philosophy referencing the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act. Even many of the submerged ships are described.
Most interesting are the oral histories captured by the author, many of which reflect the island-to-island exodus. These include stories about spiritual ancestors. The most feared mythical god was Worejabato, who killed two twins guilty of the sin of vanity. He then made a home out of seaweed, so even today seaweed from Bikini is believed to have medicinal power. Also interesting are the stories about the Japanese occupation. As one said, When they were nice, they were very good to us, but when they were in a rotten mood, they could be very mean.
The cultural observations are superb. For example, Niedenthal describes the three phases of a Marshallese funeral. The first phase is similar to a Western wake, except that dollar bills are dropped into the coffin. The second phase is the burial, where stones have to be laid at the bottom of the grave to avoid the low water table. Finally, six days later, there is a great feast to release the spirit of the deceased from earth.
In many ways, this book resembles the scrapbook that every PCV keeps, except that the scrapbook reflects more than 20 years of living among and fighting for the Bikini people. Sometimes the pieces are highly interesting, such as noting that the two-piece bathing suit was named bikini to capitalize on media interest in the atom-bomb testing; at other times, a sharp editors hand is missed, such as an out-of-place description of a search for a missing friend in Las Vegas, of all places.
Nick Wreden was a PCV in Korea 1974-76. His recent book is FusionBranding: How to Forge Your Brand for the Future.