In the wake of World War II, in a move closely related to the beginnings of the Cold War, the United States of America decided to resume nuclear testing in the Pacific Ocean, on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall archipelago. After the displacement of the local inhabitants, 67 nuclear tests were carried out from 1946 to 1958, including the explosion of the first H-bomb (1952). Bikini Atoll has conserved direct tangible evidence that is highly significant in conveying the power of the nuclear tests, i.e. the sunken ships sent to the bottom of the lagoon by the tests in 1946 and the gigantic Bravo crater. Equivalent to 7,000 times the force of the Hiroshima bomb, the tests had major consequences on the geology and natural environment of Bikini Atoll and on the health of those who were exposed to radiation. Through its history, the atoll symbolises the dawn of the nuclear age, despite its paradoxical image of peace and of earthly paradise. This is the first site from the Marshall Islands to be inscribed on the World Heritage List.
Outstanding Universal Value
In the wake of World War II, in a move closely related to the beginnings of the Cold War, the United States of America decided to resume nuclear testing. They choose Bikini Atoll in the Marshall archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. After the displacement of the local inhabitants, 23 nuclear tests were carried out from 1946 to 1958,. The cumulative force of the tests in all of the Marshall Islands was equivalent to 7,000 times that of the Hiroshima bomb. Following the use of nuclear bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Bikini tests confirmed that mankind was entering a “nuclear era”. The many military remains bear witness to the beginnings of the Cold War, the race to develop weapons of mass destruction and a geopolitical balance based on terror.
The violence exerted on the natural, geophysical and living elements by nuclear weapons illustrates the relationship which can develop between man and the environment. This is reflected in the ecosystems and the terrestrial, marine and underwater landscapes of Bikini Atoll.
The nuclear tests changed the history of Bikini Atoll and the Marshall Islands, through the displacement of inhabitants, and the human irradiation and contamination caused by radionuclides produced by the tests.
The Bikini Atoll tests, and tests carried out in general during the Cold War, gave rise to a series of images and symbols of the nuclear era. They also led to the development of widespread international movements advocating disarmament.
Criterion (iv): Bikini Atoll is an outstanding example of a nuclear test site. It has many military remains and characteristic terrestrial and underwater landscape elements. It is tangible testimony of the birth of the Cold War and it bears testimony to the race to develop increasingly powerful nuclear weapons. In the wake of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, the Bikini Atoll site confirmed that mankind was entering a nuclear era. It also bears witness to the consequences of the nuclear tests on the civil populations of Bikini and the Marshall Islands, in terms of population displacement and public-health issues.
Criterion (vi): The ideas and beliefs associated with the Bikini nuclear test site, and more generally with the escalation of military power which characterized the Cold War, are of international significance. These events gave rise to a large number of international movements advocating nuclear disarmament; they gave rise to powerful symbols and to many images associated with the “nuclear era”, which characterized the second part of the 20th century.
Integrity and authenticity
The integrity of the property is acceptable, in view of the simultaneous presence of the remains of human artifacts and the process of natural recomposition which has followed the use of the nuclear bombs. In a very exceptional way, the degradation of the human artifacts by the natural elements forms part of the cultural process illustrated by the property. The integrity of the testimony of the property must be strengthened by the appropriate use of the considerable mass of documentary material associated with the site and its history.
The site has not undergone any substantial reconstruction; human presence there has remained very limited because of the radionuclides produced by the explosions. The authenticity of the material elements constituting the property is unquestionable.
Protection and management measures required
The main threats to the property are the effects of climate change and the presence of stocks of bombs and fuel in the underwater part of the property. The property is protected by the Historic and Cultural Preservation Act (1991). The legal protection and traditional protection in place are appropriate, but they must be reinforced to include the protection of the land-based military remains. In view of the changeable nature of the property, which is slowly returning to a natural state, conservation takes on a specific meaning in this case, and it may be considered therefore that no specific programme to preserve tangible remains is necessary. However, it is essential to ensure safety by dealing with any remaining military risks, to draw up a detailed inventory and to ensure regular monitoring of the constituent parts of the property. The management system is adequate, but it must be confirmed, and must be strengthened in several areas, particularly as regards the Bikini Divers Group, visitor reception and interpretation, the Peace Museum and the documentation centre.
The emergence of the atolls forming the Marshall archipelago is relatively recent. The arrival and settlement of the Micronesian populations in the islands goes back to the 4th and 3rd millennia BCE. Their lifestyle, which remained largely traditional over a long period, was based on fishing, and the gathering of fruit, coconut in particular.
The traditional Micronesian way of life was little affected by the visits in the 16th-18th centuries of the first European explorers such as Captain Marshall, after whom the islands were named. The same was true of the first colonial episode, as a German protectorate at the end of the 19th century. Coconut plantations were developed. After World War I the islands were made a Japanese mandate by the League of Nations.
In the inter-war period the Japanese considered the Marshall Islands to have strategic importance and turned them into a strong military site. During the Pacific War a substantial American naval force of 40,000 men captured the outpost at Kwajalein and the archipelago in February 1944, following a hard-fought battle which resulted in the deaths of the entire 8,000-strong Japanese garrison. The Americans then counted the Marshall Islands as territory conquered in battle against the enemy.
The use of atomic bombs by the US Army on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima (6 August 1945) and Nagasaki (9 August 1945) led to the unconditional surrender of Japan and the end of World War II. However, these military actions took place just after a number of major agreements between the Allies: the territorial divisions made at Yalta (February 1945), the end of the war in Europe (May 1945) and the Potsdam Conference, and finally the San Francisco Conference that created the United Nations (June 1945). The use of nuclear weapons had suddenly changed the balance of power between the Allies. Nuclear disarmament and/or nuclear non-proliferation under the control of the United Nations immediately became an issue and a major source of disagreement: the USSR pressed for disarmament as a priority whilst the USA, the only nation to possess atomic weapons, wanted non-proliferation at any cost. The issue was increasingly keenly debated at several international meetings during the winter of 1945- 46, particularly at the 1st General Assembly of the United Nations (January 1946). The principle of the United Nations having a controlling power over nuclear weapons was recognized, but the Americans and the Soviets were unable to reach an agreement on how to implement the decision.
Suspicion became the keynote of relations between the former allies over a long period. The Cold War had just begun between the West and the Soviet Union. The Soviets, excluded from the occupation of Japan (February 1946), shortly afterwards announced the formation of a Communist government in North Korea. In the spring, military tensions between the two blocs that were beginning to emerge developed in various regions of the world.
This was the context in which President Truman gave his approval to a plan proposed by the US Army to resume nuclear tests on an isolated Pacific island. The Bikini Atoll at the north-eastern tip of the Marshall archipelago, which shortly before had been the core of the Battle of the Pacific and was still occupied by American troops, was chosen. The inhabitants of Bikini Atoll, who numbered just over one thousand, were evacuated in March 1946 to the neighbouring atoll of Rongelap. Extensive preparations then took place on the main islands of the atoll to create the necessary military base, including command and firing control bunkers and logistical installations. Tens of thousands of military personnel were involved in the operations.
The first two tests at Bikini took place on 1 and 25 July 1946, under the codename Crossroads. They consisted of an air strike (Able) followed by a underwater strike (Baker), on the same position in the east of the lagoon. There were two objectives: on the one hand to stage an impressive display of American nuclear power, and on the other to carry out a military study of the direct impact of a nuclear explosion on a naval fleet.
The Russians' development of a nuclear weapon capability (1949), followed by the Korean War (1950), led to the intensification of the Cold War. The Americans then developed thermonuclear weapons, in the form of the massively powerful hydrogen bomb. In October 1952 the H-bomb was tested for the first time at Bikini, in a 10,400kt explosion (Ivy Mike), 800 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. This was the first man-made nuclear fusion, and was carried out using cores of deuterium, a heavy isotope of hydrogen (resulting in the name ‘hydrogen bomb‘). An operational version, the most powerful ever made by the Americans, was tested in March 1954 (Castle Bravo, 15,000kt), and this was followed by three other firings of similar power in 1954, all of them at Bikini.
Twenty-three tests were carried out at Bikini between July 1946 and August 1958, including the most powerful explosions ever conducted by the US Army. The neighbouring site of Enewetak Atoll, a little over 300km to the west, was also used from 1948 to 1958 (44 explosions). The Bikini inhabitants were relocated several times from one atoll to another. Those on Rongelap were authorized to return to their island in 1957, but the return proved a failure as the high degree of cesium-137 pollution made food grown on the islet hazardous.
Following the dropping of the two bombs on Japan and the spectacular Operation Crossroads tests at Bikini, a series of symbols and images began to impinge upon international public opinion, and this awareness was bolstered by the many nuclear tests carried out in the 1950s by the Americans, the Russians, and the British (from 1952). They acquired a considerable value and have played a major role in post-World War II history right up to the present day. The huge nuclear mushroom cloud emerging in a few seconds above the ocean is an image universally associated with such explosions. Initially created in Japan, the monster Godzilla emerging from the sea has become a popular icon of nuclear terror and its infinite power of devastation. Reflecting the international diffusion of American culture in the post-war period, the fashion of the two-piece bathing suit was launched in Paris under the name ‘bikini.' The theme of nuclear explosions in the Pacific was taken up by various artists, including the painter Salvador Dalí and the film director John Huston.
From a political viewpoint, the balance of terror born out of the Cold War was perfectly illustrated by the parallel development of nuclear weapon testing by the two blocs. Soviet efforts to catch up with and overtake the Americans culminated in the 50 megaton Big Ivan thermonuclear bomb (tested in 1961).
These events marked the course of a new nuclear age which was suddenly opening up for mankind. After beginning at Hiroshima in 1945, it was followed up less than one year later at Bikini, at a time when the warring nations of World War II were officially at peace. It was thus inevitable that a powerful anti-nuclear feeling should develop. The Japanese fishing boat irradiated in 1954 by the Castle Bravo test was to become a symbol; the irradiation of the populations of the Marshall Islands also raised concerns in international opinion. Several conferences then took place. Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein published a celebrated manifesto protesting against the Bikini tests. The years 1954-55 marked a turning point as the fears inspired by military nuclear capabilities, which until then had been shared only by limited circles of specialists, spread to international public opinion. A powerful popular movement calling for an end to tests and for nuclear disarmament was launched, a movement which had failed to take hold at the time of the creation of the United Nations Organization at the end of World War II.
Pressure of public opinion, together with the advances made in the digital simulation of nuclear tests, a new field of technological and military progress, led the US Government to take a unilateral decision to end nuclear tests (1958). This gave the USA the opportunity to revive its diplomatic efforts to ratify a non-proliferation treaty, at a time when new players were preparing to join the nuclear club, including France (whose first test was conducted in 1960).
From 1967 onwards the US authorities considered the possibility of the Bikini people returning to their atoll, and this led to work to clean up radioisotope contamination This was carried out from 1970 onwards, backed up by an agricultural production programme. Medical follow-up of inhabitants showed, however, high levels of human contamination as a result of consuming food produced on the atoll and water from its wells. The atoll had therefore to be evacuated once again in 1978.
Long after the ending of nuclear tests, the Marshall Islands remained subject to an exceptional legal status from the viewpoint of international law. They were still the site of a large-scale American conventional military presence in the Western Pacific. The legal situation was only gradually normalized during the 1980s, leading ultimately to the independence of the archipelago in 1990.
Source: Advisory Body Evaluation