Pacific Postcards

The Real Importance of Bikini Atoll (Eli Kleinmann)

In December 1945, just months after the end of World War II and six months removed from two atomic bombs being dropped on Japan, President Truman ordered testing to be done on nuclear bombs and their effects. To do the testing, the United States needed a place isolated and unpopulated in order to limit the damage done by the bombs. In the end, the United States decided to use the island of Bikini Atoll as the testing site. Before they could begin testing the nuclear weapons, the United States first moved the small population that lived on the Island. Since the removal of the Bikinians, the Atoll has been decimated by nuclear blasts before being reconstructed into a tourist destination. 


In his work, “Representing Place: ‘Deserted Isles’ and the Reproduction of Bikini Atoll,” Jeffrey Davis looks into Bikini Atoll and what the Island represents while mostly ignoring the Bikinians and their story. In contrast, Jack Niedenthal, the trust liaison for the people of Bikini, in his book For the Good of Mankind uses the Bikinian story as a lens to explore the history of Bikini Atoll and its people. While the treatment of the land is an important focus in his work, Niedenthal does not overlook the history of the Bikinian people. Niedenthal emphasizes finding a balance between his focus on the land and the people and demonstrates that there is a strong connection between the removal of the Bikinians and the hardships that the Atoll has taken. While the people of Bikini may have been separated from their island, the history of the island and the people are inseparable. On the other hand, Davis’s interpretation of Bikini Atoll mainly focuses on the land itself, placing too much emphasis on the land and not the people that once lived there.


Davis focuses heavily on the transformation of Bikini Atoll to accurately capture the image of the Island. From an Island cultivated by the natives, to a nuclear testing site and then finally a tourist destination, Bikini Atoll has gone through significant change in the past 100 years. Yet, the story of transformation cannot be told without also telling the complete story of the Bikinian people. After being removed from the Island, Bikinians were taken to Rogernik Atoll which paled in comparison to the beautiful Island where Bikinians once lived. This began the journey for Bikinians away from their homeland. Dropped off on this new island, the Bikinians were left with a shortage of food and an Island that could not produce enough food for the people of Bikini. After a short time on Rogernik Atoll, the Bikinians were found, “suffering severely from malnutrition.” (Niedenthal) Following their two-year stint on Rogernik Atoll, the Bikinians were moved to Kwajalein Atoll before eventually being moved to Kili Island. As the Bikinians struggled, so did the Island. In 1954 a nuclear bomb was detonated on the surface of Bikini Atoll and “the radiation levels increased dramatically” (Niedenthal) following the blast. 


Twenty years later in the 1970s, Bikinians were presented the opportunity to return home. However, contamination levels were higher than the United States believed, forcing Bikinians to make the safer choice to stay away from the Island. Despite their desire to return home, Bikinians to this day remain away from the Island because of the risks that come with living on a former nuclear testing site. Davis does not mention that the Bikinian people are still trying to return home. “At this time the people of Bikini remain scattered throughout the Marshall Islands and the world as they wait for the cleanup of Bikini to begin in earnest, mostly due to the fact that the money they have received from the U.S. government is not adequate to fund a full radiological cleanup of the entire atoll” (Niedenthal). In this instance, Davis’s lack of interest in the Bikinian people creates an unfinished narrative about the land itself. By failing to mention that the Bikinians are working to try and clean the land he does not accurately portray the image of Bikini Atoll to the reader, instead he presents an image of a land that was decimated and is now used in limited capacity. That is partially accurate but the attempt to clean the land and return to the Island is an aspect that Davis is missing but could include if his writing focused more on the Bikinian people.


Davis also does not address the impact people can have on the land itself. The Bikinians cared for and valued their land above all else because “the amount of land you owned was a measure of your wealth” (Niedenthal). They took care of their land in order to pass down the land and its value to future generations. The care that Bikinians had for their land is not something that tourists could replicate. For tourists, the land represents a nice getaway location that they will likely never see again once they leave. Bikinians however, needed the land to be prosperous to sustain them for generations. Once the Bikinians were removed from the Island, there were no longer people to cultivate and care for the land in the way that it had once been done.


Through Davis’s readings, Bikini Atoll is a place with a tragic history and a complicated present. Davis explores the idea of paradise in his readings through the island of Bikini Atoll because as many frame it, the Atoll is a place that has gone “untouched for forty years” yet as Davis notes, “if the view into the past is expanded from forty years to sixty years, it may be one of the most ‘touched’ places on the face of the planet” (Davis 619). This conceptualization of paradise surrounding Bikini Atoll is framed solely through the lens of tourism while neglecting to mention that Bikini Atoll is only what it is today because of the removal of the natives. It was nuclear testing that destroyed the Island permanently because of the radiation that it left behind, but it was the removal of the Bikinian people that was the first step in the destruction of the Island. 


Davis goes on to reference that Bikinians still call the Island home but uses this fact in the context of the relationship between the Bikinians and the tourists. In doing so, Davis’s work falls into a similar narrative that has existed about Bikini Atoll for generations. Despite the small size of the island, many Americans have heard of Bikini Atoll because of the nuclear testing that occurred there. Some have even heard that the Island is now a potential tourist destination. However, very few know the history behind the people that lived there. Davis’s writing just adds to that narrative. His emphasis on the land and the perception of it does not give readers a deeper understanding of what happened to the people that live there. 


Davis also describes the relationship between the Bikinians and the tourists as unfriendly. However, in Niedenthal’s work he provides more details about the relationship and proves that it is more mutually beneficial than Davis lets on with Bikinians teaching their history to the tourists who visit Bikini Atoll instead of letting their story be ignored. “Over the course of the visit historical documentary films are shown, complete briefings about each of the ships and their respective histories are given, and you get a tour of the island and the atoll” (Niedenthal). Despite the reality, Davis fails to mention this aspect of the relationship between natives and tourists. Instead, he continues the trend of ignoring the history of the Bikinians and the work they are doing even though Bikinians believe that their history lessons of the Island actually makes a difference. “The Bikinians feel this to be important because this allows their story to be taken away by tourists and retold to their families and friends. In short, the tourism program helps perpetuate a story the islanders never want to see go away, ever” (Niedenthal).  

Davis is so intent on the land of Bikini Atoll that he only sees the relationship between Bikinians and tourists as rivals over the land. By doing so he centers his attention on the argument over the land currently, therefore diminishing the Bikinians’ history and their story. The impact of neglecting the natives is that their history is lost. It also allows the mistreatment that they faced by the American government to be unnoticed. This trend is not uncommon for lands that were once controlled by natives who have since been removed. The history of their people is constantly ignored, similar to the way Davis has done in his writing of Bikini Atoll, and when the land is mentioned, it often is in reference to other groups of people who either desire the land or are already using it. This narrative will only begin to change once writers like Davis, who gives most of his attention to the Atoll, also recognize the story and history of the natives from there. 


What happened in Bikini Atoll was a tragedy, however, not in the way it was framed by Davis. Davis frames the tragedy as one that impacted the land and looks at how a place that is still somewhat radioactive could be considered a Paradise. The real tragedy is what occurred to the Bikinians. Since the nuclear testing began, they have been without a permanent home, spread across the Pacific and unable to return. Ultimately it is their story that should be shared. Almost 100 years after the tragedy that occurred to the Bikinian people it is time to recognize the hardships they faced and tell the world the true story of what occurred at Bikini Atoll. 


Work Cited

Niedenthal, Jack. For the Good of Mankind: a History of the People of Bikini and Their Islands. Bravo Publishers, 2013. 

Jeffrey Sasha Davis (2005) Representing Place: “Deserted Isles” and the Reproduction of Bikini Atoll, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 95:3, 607-625, DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8306.2005.00477.x

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