Blown to Hell: America’s Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders

  • Published

Blown to Hell: America’s Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders by Walter Pincus. Diversion Books, 2021, 416 pp.

Popular histories of American nuclear weapons testing commonly tend toward the Manichaean, neatly dividing that period of Cold War history between perpetrators and victims. In Blown to Hell: America’s Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders, Walter Pincus rejects such a simplistic narrative, instead weaving a more intricate tale of the complex moral and technological decisions made by the United States during the early atomic age. The resulting work justifiably casts the people of the Marshall Islands, that small island nation in the Western Pacific, as victims of atmospheric nuclear weapons testing’s literal and metaphorical fallout. Yet it simultaneously paints a very human picture of those who participated in nuclear weapons testing, from the scientists who underestimated the yields of prototype weapons, to the medical doctors who devoted their lives toward the health of those affected.

Though not a credentialed historian, Pincus comes with his own pedigree, having been among the staff of The Washington Post who won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for its coverage of the war on terrorism.1 Moreover, he has deep experience as a journalist reporting on national security issues, having reported for the Post from 1966 until 2015. Indeed, he traces his own interest in nuclear weapons testing’s effects upon Pacific Islanders to his earliest days as a journalist, reinforced by a 1974 visit to the Marshall Islands. Pincus’ professional background manifests itself somewhat jarringly in the more distinctive writing style of Blown to Hell’s later chapters, given their more contemporary focus; yet his grasp of the subject matter remains evident throughout the book.

Pincus divides Blown to Hell into two halves, each arranged chronologically. The first half, dubbed “The First Tests,” traces American nuclear weapons testing from the Manhattan Project to Operation Castle in 1954. The second half, “Long-Term Problems,” picks up in the immediate aftermath of the Castle Bravo shot—the March 1, 1954, test of a thermonuclear weapon at the Marshall Islands’ Bikini Atoll, which to date remains the highest-yield nuclear weapons test in American history—and recounts the US government’s decades-long inconsistent treatment of the Marshallese following the irradiation of their homeland.

Pincus’ use of Castle Bravo as the book’s narrative focal point is not without reason, given that test’s very real consequences for the Marshall Islanders’ health and ability to return to their homeland; yet it comes at the cost of eliding discussion of subsequent nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific. Indeed, Operations Redwing (1956) and Hardtack I (1958) pass entirely unmentioned, leaving the reader with the mistaken impression that testing at Enewetak and Bikini Atolls ended with Operation Castle, and foregoing the opportunity to more closely examine the process by which the US government weighed the Marshall Islanders’ welfare against the competing demands of national security—itself a major theme of the book.2

The greatest strength of Blown to Hell is its ability to put a human face on those involved in nuclear weapons testing. Despite his evident sympathy for the Marshallese whose home islands were irradiated to the point of being uninhabitable, Pincus amply demonstrates that the scientists, military personnel, and bureaucrats responsible for conducting atmospheric nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific between 1946 and 1962 were operating at the limits of contemporary scientific comprehension.

For example, much detail is given regarding pioneering efforts to decontaminate target vessels after the second, “Baker” shot of Operation Crossroads—the pair of nuclear weapons tests which in 1946 first displaced the Marshall Islanders from their home at Bikini Atoll—bathed its target vessels in irradiated seawater. Similarly, Pincus raises the important point that in 1954, scientists expected that Castle Bravo’s yield would be six megatons, not the 15 that occurred, and that both the volume and the geographic dispersion of the resulting fallout were consequently far greater than their plans had accounted for.

But in addition to the islanders themselves, the author displays evident sympathy for those Atomic Energy Commission scientists and medical professionals who, like Dr. Robert A. Conard, devoted their professional lives to the Marshall Islanders’ well-being notwithstanding their own government’s role in the conduct of such tests. Blown to Hell thus yields a complex and multifaceted picture of the interactions between the US government and the Marshallese during and after the era of weapons testing.

That said, a significant defect of Blown to Hell lies in the inconsistency of its sourcing and argumentation. Although Pincus draws upon a diverse body of evidence, this does not uniformly speak to the US government’s treatment of the Marshall Islanders. For example, fully 14 of the book’s 41 chapters concern Operation Crossroads. Yet most of the content of those chapters concerns Joint Task Force One’s planning and execution of the tests, with the Bikinians’ evacuation and subsequent repatriation receiving comparatively short shrift—likely the consequence of the author’s heavy reliance upon US government sources. Pincus likewise describes in engaging detail the task force’s pioneering decontamination of Operation Crossroads’ target vessels, but does not examine how or whether the lessons learned from that effort might have informed projections on the probable effects of fallout upon the Marshall Islands during subsequent tests. The result is a narrative that is rich in incidental detail, but one which neglects to answer the question as to how the US government failed to predict the long-term consequences of atmospheric nuclear testing.

The problem of argumentation repeats itself, in a different guise, in the second half of the book. Pincus is at his most engaging as a writer when describing the plight of the Lucky Dragon #5, the Japanese fishing vessel at the center of international controversy when in 1954 its crew was accidentally exposed to radioactive fallout from the Castle Bravo shot. The author relates a compelling narrative grounded in the historical record, juxtaposing the maximalist positions adopted by the Japanese and American governments against the well-meaning efforts of scientists and medical professionals to ascertain what had happened to the fishermen and how to assist them.

Yet the book notably fails to tie the Lucky Dragon incident into the overarching history of the Marshall Islanders’ treatment by the US government. For example, it misses the opportunity to examine why the Japanese case received so much more public and international attention than the plight of the Marshall Islanders, beyond the simple fact that the White House exercised greater control over the flow of information in the latter case. A more comprehensive study of the Castle Bravo test’s human toll might account for the political necessity of keeping Japan on-side during the Cold War, or consider whether implicit bias played a role in the disparate treatment accorded to the “modern” Japanese and “primitive” Marshall Islanders. Blown to Hell, however, merely tees up such questions for other writers to address more fully.

Pincus’ book, though an uneven and incomplete account of American nuclear weapons testing and its consequences, remains an engaging and accessible work of popular history, which generally succeeds on its merits. It convincingly demonstrates the devastating legacy of such weapons testing upon the Marshall Islanders to a degree best suited for readers with an introductory understanding of this chapter of Cold War history. The book has the particular virtue of illustrating the diversity of the US government’s responses to unforeseen problems surrounding nuclear fallout, juxtaposing those who sought to preserve secrecy at all costs against those who, like Conard, committed themselves to the task of improving the Marshall Islanders’ lives. Most importantly, Pincus effectively demonstrates that for the Marshallese, this chapter of history remains open as they continue to experience the physical and emotional consequences of nuclear weapons testing.

Lieutenant Colonel John William Sutcliffe IV, USAF, PhD

1 “Staff of The Washington Post,” Pulitzer Prizes (website), 2024, https://www.pulitzer.org/.

2 T. R. Fehner and F.G. Gosling, Atmospheric Nuclear Weapons Testing, 1951– 1963, Battlefield of the Cold War: The Nevada Test Site, vol. 1 (Washington, DC: Department of Energy, September 2006), 208–14, https://www.osti.gov/.

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."