Journey To The Nuclear Lagoon
new internationalist 131 January 1984
Friday 11 March London
The MX is important because it is so accurate that it can knock out enemy missiles in their silos - and so give the US a ‘first strike’ capability.
The dispossessed islanders are now living in slum conditions but are fighting back. ‘We cannot,’ they say, ‘prevent a super-power from developing nuclear weapons. But we can ensure that our islands will not be used for such a purpose.’ Last year they re-occupied some of their territory.
Tuesday 14 March Washington
Bill Kincade has more clear-cut views on what drives the arms race. The Arms Control Association of which he is Director is on top of a modest black skyscraper on the fashionable side of town. Bill sees fear and technology as the heart of the issue. Deterrence he says is ‘psychopolitical - based on the need to keep up with all new developments’. The way to stop the arms race is to reduce fear.
Wednesday 15th March Washington
Washington’s subway is bright, fast and noiseless and delivers you to the very bowels of the Pentagon. An escalator climbs up to the military activity with the atmosphere getting seedier as you rise. Shocking, really, that the nerve centre of the world’s greatest military power looks so much like the concrete innards of a football stadium.
In Media Relations first names appear as quickly as possible. ‘Let me tell you, Chris’ regularly punctuates the discussion. Lots of talk about ‘concept definition’ and ‘validation of technology’. In this version it is the President who takes the decisions and asks for a ‘time-urgent, hard-target-kill capability’ and the Air Force and the aerospace industry which dutifully oblige. I’m not convinced.
Thursday 17th March Washington
He cannot understand why the Kwajalein people will not settle for nine million dollars a year on a 30-year lease for their islands to be used as a target range. He blames ‘ambulance-chasing lawyers’ on a fat percentage and seems genuinely perplexed that the people from this tiny island nation (do they still climb coconut palms?) will not just take the money and shut up.
Monday 21st March California
Demonstrators start to arrive around 6.00 a.m. At 8.00 a.m. everything is happening Arrests are well under way, baton-carrying soldiers are drafted in and helicopters swing overhead. A passive trio of Buddhist monks chant and drum. TV crews scamper around as one group after another lies down in front of the incoming traffic to be arrested.
Most of the slogans are anti-MX and anti-Reagan but a few have focussed on the Marshall Islands connection: ‘There are people on the end of this missile test’.
Tuesday 22 March Los Angeles
Wednesday 23 March Honolulu
In July 1982 the Kwajalein people took their own unofficial action and re-occupied their island for four months. ‘Operation Homecoming’, says Giff was an important step towards re-kindling their aspirations. Very few of the islanders are anti-nuke, however; money and land are still the big issues for them.
Saturday 26 March Marshall Islands
The Marshall Islands is made up of dozens of atolls and it is these which are the attraction as targets. An atoll is a sunken volcano that leaves a string of low islands enclosing a shallow lagoon. The missiles are actually aimed for a splashdown in the lagoon from which they can easily be retrieved by divers. All the sensitive tracking equipment can be conveniently mounted on the islands around the lagoon.
The international airport atMajuro has the informal atmosphere of a Greyhound bus terminal in a mid-west town and as I come in I bump into Tony de Brum the Minister of Foreign Affairs on his way out. Majuro is a small town with a few official buildings, a couple of hotels and a restaurant where Senators play the poker machines and to which the British contract workers running the new power station bring their wives.
The town is livelier at the moment because of a court case between different Kwajalein islanders. They are arguing about how the payments from the US for the use of their island should be shared out. One group wants the split to be based on numbers of people and sizes of land-holding while the other favours the traditional method of chiefs and big landowners getting all the money and then making informal cash handouts to dependents. Two expensive US lawyers and a retired judge are working on the dispute.
Monday 28 March Kwajalein
I was expected, it seems, but no clearance yet from the Department of Defense. Onto the plane comes a short, tubby, acne-scarred security man with pistol and reflective sunglasses. Politely he escorts me off, says no-one will speak to me and after an hour in the waiting room puts me back on the plane to Majuro.
Wednesday 30 March Kwajalein/Ebeye
But the concentration of US dollars and a phenomenal birth rate have pushed the population from one thousand to ten thousand in just twenty years - a recipe for overcrowding, squalor and decay.
Julian Riklon, my guide to the island, is a quiet and serious young man who for many years worked on a Marshallese translation of the Bible. Now he is secretary of one of the Kwajalein action groups.
‘You know when the missiles are coming,’ he tells me, ‘They put a red flag on the quay which means that you mustn’t sail into the lagoon. If they cQme at night you can see them like shooting stars right overhead.’
Julian introduces me to Almira, a woman exposed to radio-active fall-out in Rongelap atoll during one of the atomic tests in 1954. She has had a number of miscarriages and once gave birth to a living, breathing, shapeless mass - ‘jellyfish babies’ the women call them.
Almira originally moved to Kwajalein because of the hospital. Her husband is a US citizen from Hawaii and a contract worker on the base for the past 18 years. They can only live together on Ebeye, however, as she needs a permit to visit Kwajalein and cannot stay there. Now he fears that his contract will not be renewed as one of the ‘reprisals’ for Operation Homecoming.
Almira is afraid of more accidents; she thinks there is a connection between the previous tests and those today. So she would. like to see the Americans leave - but not if that meant no more jobs on Kwajalein.
Thursday 31 March Majuro