The Marshall Islands has a history unlike many other small island countries in the Pacific.
Not the least of which is the fact that it has experienced more nuclear detonations per capita in its territory than any other country.
Learn more about the Republic of the Marshall Islands and what makes it special on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
I’ve done several episodes now on very small countries. I’ve always been fascinated by these places and how they came to be. Perhaps the most interesting story is that of the Marshall Islands.
The Marshall Islands is one of only four countries on Earth that consist entirely of coral atolls. The others are Kiribati, Tuvalu, and the Maldives.
As with other atoll nations, they are all at or very close to sea level. The highest point in the Marshall Islands is only ten meters above sea level, and the average is close to sea level.
There isn’t a lot of land. In terms of land area, it is the 189th largest country in the world, just slightly larger than Liechtenstein.
Because there isn’t much space, there also aren’t many people. The population of the Marshall Islands is only 54,000, which ranks it 187th amongst the nations of the world.
The Marshallese people are broadly classified as “Micronesian”, however, unlike Polynesians, there is greater variation between different Micronesian groups.
It is believed that the Marshall Islands might have been first settled by humans as early as 3,000-5,000 years ago, but this is an estimate as there is little evidence to be found one way or the other. There is no written record, and given the nature of atolls and the materials which exist on them, there is little in the way of artifacts.
The first recorded European sighting of the islands occurred in 1526 by the Spaniard Alonso de Salazar. He did not land, nor did he make contact with the people who lived there.
Three years later another Spanish explorer, Álvaro de Saavedra Cerón, tried to land on one island, where the locals threw stones at his ship. He then succeeded in landing on another island, where they traded with the locals for fresh water and provisions. That island might have been Bikini or Enewetak.
Other Europeans arrived and brought western diseases with them, for which the native people had no immunity and, as in many places, there was widespread death.
In 1788, the British navigators’ John Charles Marshall and Thomas Gilbert visited the islands. The Gilbert islands, which are part of the nation of Kiribati, were named after Gilbert, and the Marshall Islands were named after Marshall on western maps.
For the most part, there was very little in the way of European contact. There weren’t any resources on the islands, and the people who lived there tended to be very hostile to visitors.
In 1824 an American whaler crew that mutinied landed on one of the islands and were massacred down to just two people.
1834, 1845, 1846, and 1852 all saw ships land in the Marshalls, which were violently attacked, often with their entire crews being killed.
The islands were recognized by Europeans as a Spanish possession in 1874, but that really didn’t mean much as it was really just lines on a map. The Spanish had no actual presence on the islands.
Germany made an actual attempt to acquire the Marshalls, actually sending ships there and negotiating treaties with the rulers of the various islands, and the Spanish didn’t do much to stop it. Germany purchased the islands from Spain in 1885.
The people who lived there had absolutely no say in the matter.
The islands remained in German control until the outbreak of World War I, when they were taken over by the Japanese.
The Japanese territory was lost in 1944 during the Battle of the Marshall Islands in World War II to the United States.
After the war, the newly created United Nations established the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, a collection of former Japanese islands to be administered by the United States.
I’ve already done an episode on the Trust Territory of the Pacific, but for the purposes of this episode, what is relevant was the decision by the United States to use the Marshall Islands for testing of their atomic weapons.
Beginning in 1946, the United States detonated 67 nuclear weapons over and under the islands in the Marshalls. This included the largest nuclear device ever detonated by the United States, Castle Bravo, in 1954.
The equivalent of over 108,000 kilotons of explosives was detonated on the Marshall Islands, primarily over the islands of Bikini and Enewetak, through 1958.
Prior to the nuclear tests, the entire populations of Bikini and Enewetak were relocated to Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands.
Unexpectedly, during the Castle Bravo test, 2 inches or 50 millimeters of radioactive fallout fell on the island of Rongelap, which had not been evacuated.
The residents of Rongelap were evacuated within two days, but many people suffered symptoms of acute radiation sickness, including vomiting, hair loss, and skin burns.
As I covered before, the various island groups in the Trust Territories of the Pacific went their own way starting in the 1970s. The Marshall Islands became an independent country in 1979 and a member of the United Nations in 1991.
While they were legally an independent country, they developed a very unique relationship with the United States. This was codified in the 1986 Compact of Free Association.
The United States signed a Compact of Free Association with all three of the now independent countries that were part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific.
What does the Compact of Free Association mean for the Marshall Islands? Quite a bit. It is by far the most important relationship it has with any other country by a wide margin.
For starters, the Marshall Islands are part of the United States Postal System. Yes, you heard that correctly. You can send a package to Majuro for the same price you can send something across town if you happen to live in the US.
This means that the Marshall Islands has both a state and zip code. The state code for the Marshall Islands is MH, and the zip code for all of Majuro is 96960. I discovered this fact when I walked past the Majuro post office when I visited back in 2007.
Before I visited the Marshall Islands, there was a diplomatic spat when the Postmaster General in the US unknowingly changed postage rates to the Marshalls as international rather than domestic.
The United States also has paid and continues to pay the Marshall Islanders compensation for nuclear testing conducted in the 40s and 50s. Over three-quarters of a billion dollars were paid between 1956 and 1998, and when the Compact of Free Association was renegotiated in 2003, another $3.5 billion was promised to be paid over the next two decades.
Citizens of the Marshall Islands may live and work in the United States without having to apply for a visa or a green card. Likewise, Americans can travel and live in the Marshall Islands indefinitely without any prior approval.
Likewise, Marshallese citizens can join the US military, which is often viewed as a good, guaranteed job and a fast track to US citizenship.
The US military also has a unit of engineers that works on projects in the country and medical ships that occasionally stop to perform examinations for civilians.
The biggest thing the United States gets in return is the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site located on Kwajalein Atoll. This is a testing site for defensive missile and space technology. The United States has about 2,500 people on Kwajalein, including military contractors and their dependents.
One of the five base stations for managing the Global Positioning System is located in Kwajalein.
One of the implications of the Compact of Free Association is that about a third of the entire population has left the Marshall Islands and is now living in the United States.
About 20,000 Marshallese people are scattered across several US states, but their biggest population is in a very surprising place: Springdale, Arkansas.
Located in the Ozarks, it is home to the largest population of Marshallese outside of Majuro. The migration of Marshallese to Springdale is the result of a single Marshallese man by the name of John Moody.
Moody was a student in the United States in the late 1970s when he got a job at a Tyson chicken plant in Springdale. Word of the good jobs and affordable living in Springdale spread throughout the Marshallese community, and people began moving to Springdale.
Families would often move piecemeal, with one family member coming over, getting a job, and then saving up enough money to bring over their relatives. Slowly, a community developed with churches and other institutions, which drew even more Marshallese.
They have an odd status in that they are not citizens, but they are also not legal immigrants.
While the capital of Majuro is by far the largest city in the Marshall Islands, the next largest, Ebeye, an island on Kwajalein Atoll, has a very unique distinction. It is one of the most densely populated places on Earth.
It only has a population of about 15,000 people, which isn’t a lot, but they are all crammed into an area of only 0.14 square miles or 0.36 square kilometers.
That means that the density of Ebeye is 107,000 people per square mile or 41,600 people per square kilometer. I recommend you take a look at a satellite image to see just how crowded it is.
Despite the nuclear testing which took place on the island, you can actually visit Bikini Atoll. The residual radiation on the island is pretty close to natural background radiation at this point. The only thing that isn’t recommended is eating any food grown on the island.
As astonishing as it might seem, the coral reefs on Bikini are some of the best in the world. This is mainly due to the fact that there has been no permanent human presence on the island for over 60 years.
Bikini Atoll was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010. The first and only such site in the Marshall Islands.
The future of the Marshall Islands is very much in doubt.
One of the biggest threats is rising sea levels. This is something that threatens all atoll nations. Already high tides are starting to flood parts of islands that were never before covered with water. The low elevation of the entire country means even a slight increase in sea levels can be devistating. Majuro has already seen severe flooding during storms.
The other major concern is the economy. Atolls have no natural resources. The location of the Marshall Islands doesn’t put it in the middle of any shipping routes. Bringing anything to the Marshalls is expensive, and there is little land, so there is effectually no manufacturing. This is why so much of the population has migrated to the United States.
The other big issue hanging over the Marshalls is the renegotiation of the Compact of Free Association with the United States. The current agreement expires in 2023, and the next agreement may very well determine the country’s future.
If you should be so inclined to visit the Marshall Islands, it isn’t actually that hard. There is really only one option to get there, and that is the island hopper flight on United Airlines. It leaves from Honolulu and stops in Majuro and Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands before continuing on to Kosrae, Pohnpei, and Chuuk in Micronesia, before finishing in Guam. The next day it does the same flight in reverse.
The only restriction is that you can’t get off the plane in Kwajalein unless you have prior approval because of the military base.
You can stay in each of the islands on the route for however many days before picking up the flight again to continue your journey.
There isn’t a whole lot of tourism to the Marshall Islands, so there isn’t a lot of choice for accommodations in Majuro. On the plus side, odds are you will find rooms available. The number of people who visited in 2019 was just 6,100, ranking 200th in the world for tourism.
The Marshall Islands is a small country that many people are not even aware exists. Despite its small size and population, it played an outsized role in the history of the 20th century. Its future, and whether it can even exist as a country going forward, has yet to be determined.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The executive producer is Darcy Adams.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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Thank you, sharons70! The enthusiasm in my voice is quite real. I really do enjoy doing the show and the topics that I cover.
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