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  • The documentary youre about to watch is a Nebula originalthat means it was funded

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  • pricing, and that's available only by going to CuriosityStream.com/Wendover. Now, to the

  • Marshall Islands. Now. The legend is that the Marshall Islands

  • were created by a god whose name was Lowa. He descended on the atoll Ailinglaplap. And

  • he created the islands by saying Lowa and islands and there were islands. Lowa and people

  • and there were people. Lowa and fish and there were fish and on and on like that.

  • So our land, you know, like our mothers, you know, they provide for everything and our

  • ocean--same thing. We've always thought about the ocean as our

  • friends right now it's becoming a threat to us. You know when you find a globe and you

  • give it a whirl and it goes around and around and around and then as the going slows, your

  • eyes come to rest on a dash of color that has never caught your attention before? A

  • spot that sits on the part of the sphere you normally spin right past? An island so isolated

  • that youre not even sure how you’d explain where it is? Somewhere whose story is seen

  • as insignificant? A land that’s lost to most of the world; left out of the history

  • books apart from a passing mention? That place is herethe Republic of the Marshall Islands.

  • But unknown, untold, unremembered places aren’t unique. What makes the Marshall Islands

  • story singular is not that’s it’s unrecognized from above, but because it’s under siege

  • from below, and it’s only when you see it from in the middle that you can understand

  • why. Go on, take a look. You won’t have the chance for long.

  • We can talk more about the end of their world later, but first I’ve got to tell you about

  • what weve got here. It’s a small nation, the Marshall Islands, with a bit over 50,000

  • residents and 70 square miles of land, split up into 29 atollsthin rings of land encircling

  • saltwater lagoons. While significant populations can be found on 13 of those atolls, over half

  • of the Marshallese people can be found on this one, Majuro. About 28,000 live on the

  • capital atoll, and none of those 28,000 live more than a few-minutes walk from the ocean.

  • The furthest you can get from the water is about 2,000 feet or 600 meters inland, but

  • that’s an anomaly. In most spots, water flanks you closely on both sides. In some

  • spots, the atoll gets so thin that you could stand in the lagoon and have a conversation

  • with someone standing in the ocean. Life on a remote, sunny, coral atoll may sound

  • idyllic, but the population density of Majurogreater than that of Bahrain, Bermuda, or Bangladeshhas

  • not been kind to the mother atoll. In a part of the world usually thought of as pristine,

  • sparse, and pastoral, Majuro is instead gritty, overcrowded, and urbanized. It’s far from

  • an island paradise. “Based on the 2011 census, which is the

  • last census we had, the average household size on Majuro was about seven people and

  • household income is about sixteen thousand dollars in that neighborhood file. Sixteen

  • thousand divided by seven. You know, if you can, that can be a challenge. That can be

  • tough.” Here’s the problem: some places are poor

  • because they haven’t yet seized their opportunity. Others are poor because they have no opportunity.

  • Majuro is in that second category. “Characteristics of the economy here in

  • the islands is, you know, you're looking at fish, coconuts, people, I mean, outside of

  • that our natural resources are fairly scarce, and then combined with our challenges with

  • education and skills attainment, it makes it even more challenging with people being

  • laid off her third largest natural resource. There are some major inhibitors for sustaining

  • economic growth, expanding the economy here in the islands.”

  • Like many small islands nations, the Marshall Islands doesn’t have too much in the way

  • of natural resources worth exporting, and even when it does manage to produce something

  • people might want to buy, the cost of shipping it to those potential buyers will have pumped

  • up the price so much that it’s no longer worth it. One of the very few things they

  • make decent business of selling abroad is copra, or dried coconut meat, which is produced

  • mainly on outer atolls and then brought into Majuro for processing. It’s a work-intensive

  • process mostly conducted by families who form informal assembly lines, getting paid 50 cents

  • a poundand even that low wage is the result of heavy government subsidies.

  • Because creating viable export goods is so difficult, most of the jobs in the Marshall

  • Islands are either in government, or the subsistence economyin other words, most people in the

  • Marshall Islands are providing services or making goods exclusively for the Marshall

  • Islands, which leaves very little opportunity for growth. But, the country does have one

  • tiny little asset that keeps it runningits location. A location that makes the Marshall

  • Islands attractive to one of the world’s biggest businessesthe US Military. The

  • American military presence can be found mainly on Kwajalein Atoll, which serves as a key

  • test site for the US ballistic missile defense system, among other purposes. In the end,

  • it’s simple logic: The US Military wants access to the Marshall Islands, the Marshall

  • Islands wants money and security, and thus, an agreement existsthe Compact of Free

  • Association. “So the Compact of Free Association, it

  • basically lays the foundation for the relationship between the United States and the freely associated

  • states.” “One section of the compact deals with the relationship between our peoples

  • and it allows for qualified citizens to live and work and study in the United States without

  • a visa. There is another section of the compact that generally governs economics and it provides

  • for grants and services, all kinds of USG assistance coming to the Marshall Islands,

  • and the third big section of the compact has to do with security provisions. The United

  • States is the guarantor of security in the Marshall Islands.”

  • It’s difficult to overstate the significance of the compactit’s the basis for the

  • entire modern economic and political system of the Marshallsand while each of the three

  • sections has an enormous impact on the country, perhaps none is more consequential than the

  • second: financial aid. “The Marshalls are heavily dependent on

  • money from donors or from the United States. That's a tremendous part of the national income,

  • upwards of 70, 80 percent.” “The U.S. provides approximately 100 million dollars

  • every year to the RMI as a combination of grants and services and programs.”

  • Now, it’s a big world out there, and there are quite a few places the US could send $100

  • million a year to in exchange for military access, so why here? Why is there this strange

  • partnership between one of the world’s largest superpowers and one of the world’s smallest

  • countries? Well, like most strange things, it came as the result of millions of years

  • of chance and circumstance. About 70 million years ago, 29 ancient volcanoes

  • in what we would now call the North Pacific came to life and spewed out lava which quickly

  • cooled and built up into under-ocean volcanic structures until they grew so much that they

  • emerged above the water and became islands. Around these islands, coral began to form,

  • eventually coalescing into what’s known as a fringing coral reef, which encircled

  • each island. Time went on, the dinosaurs ruled, then died or became birds, then mammals started

  • mattering, and so on and so on, and as that all happened those islands were slowly eroding

  • and undergoing subsidencethey slowly sunk into the sea. Eventually, the islands disappeared

  • under the ocean, but the coral reefs that had formed around them remained. It is these

  • 29 rings of coral, called atolls, that make up what’s now known as the Marshall Islands.

  • Sometime, millions of years later, but 4,000 years before today, the first Marshallese

  • settlers arrived on the islands, coming from either here, here, here, or hereor some

  • combination of those places. They split the atolls into two chains: the eastern Ralik,

  • or sunrise chain, and the western Ratak, or sunset chain. From those early Marshallese,

  • eight clans emerged, of which, four became dominant. Thechee-teaconquered Northern

  • Ralik, thearab-ra-joeytook southern Ralik, and theroo-may-yourclan conquered

  • nearly all of Ratak, but then gave nearly all of it to their offspring, of therah-no

  • clan. These early Marshallese wore traditional clothing,

  • which looked like this, lived in large community-based homes, which looked like this, and practiced

  • a religion that involved complex dances and tattoos, which looked like this.

  • The first Western explorers to find the Marshall Islands were Spaniardsand there were a

  • few of them. The first one was this guy, in 1526, then this guy in 1529, and then this

  • guy in 1530. Over the next three hundred years, more explorers stopped through the Marshallsincluding

  • Frenchmen, Russians, and this guy, British Captain John Charles Marshall in 1788, after

  • whom the islands were named on Western maps. Technically, during this time, the Spanish

  • claimed sovereignty over the Marshall Islands as part of the Spanish East Indies, which

  • included all of this, but that claim was largely just theoretical. The Spanish never had a

  • formal administration, never tried to exert influence, and never even really visited apart

  • from those early explorers, whose only real impact had been giving the Marshallese European

  • diseases. Much more relevant to the actual history of

  • the Marshalls was the presence of these people: Boston missionaries who first arrived in 1857

  • aboard the Morning Star. They landed here, on Ebon atoll and were met by Chief Kabua,

  • whose great, greatsome number of greatsgrandson was the first president of the Marshall Islands,

  • and whose some greater number of greats grandson is the current president. Chief Kabua allowed

  • the missionaries to stay there, where they began spreading Christianity throughout the

  • islands. Not only were they teaching them about this guy and this book, they also actively

  • changed Marshallese culture, even going so far as to ban traditional tattooing and dancing

  • because they referenced the traditional Marshallese religion.

  • Soon, the Marshall Islands changed even more, as the first genuine Western settlers, the

  • Germans, began to make residence in the islands. In 1875 they signed a Treaty of Friendship

  • with Chief Kabua, and developed a consulate, trading posts, and economic ties, eventually

  • buying the Marshalls from Spain in 1885, the same year they worked with Chief Kabua to

  • make the Marshall Islands an official German protectorate. Also, importantly, they brought

  • in more missionaries who spread even more Christianity.

  • But then, in 1914, the Germans decided to invade here, which led to here invading here,

  • and then here invading here, and then here invading here, and then here invading here,

  • and also, not that many people paid attention to it, the Japanese invading here: the Marshall

  • Islands. Japan took the Marshalls in part for strategic reasons, in part for economic

  • reasons. After all, even in the final years of German rule, they controlled over 80% of

  • the island’s trade. Once World War I ended and all these people got together to sign

  • the Treaty of Versailles, the Council of the League of Nations gave control of the Marshall

  • Islands to the Japanese. While in power, they expanded their administration, introduced

  • Japanese culture, and moved about 1,000 Japanese citizens to the islands.

  • But then, because of some things going on here and here and also here, the Japanese

  • decided to drop bombs here, which led to the United States entering World War II and eventually

  • taking the Marshalls from the Japanese in 1944. And then came this:

  • When the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it began a new

  • chapter in the world’s history: the nuclear age. For some, it was exciting. There were

  • mushroom cloud cakes, Miss Atomic beauty pageants, and talk of unlimited clean energy, unparalleled

  • military dominance, and an everlasting world peace. But, of course, the enduring legacy

  • of nuclear weapons is not peace or energy, but destruction. And while what happened in

  • Hiroshima and Nagasaki can be found in any book of modern history, there’s another

  • chapter of the nuclear story that’s told far less often: that of the Marshall Islands.

  • So what happened at the end of World War 2 was there had already been three nuclear

  • weapons detonatedone in New Mexico and then Hiroshima and Nagasakibut the United

  • States at that time, not just the United States, the Russians, toothey wanted to increase

  • their knowledge about the new nuclear testing, and so they needed a testing ground, and when

  • they looked around the globe, they needed several requirements for a proving ground

  • for their nuclear testingit had to be out of the way of major airline and shipping routes,

  • had to be under the control of the United States, had to have a really wide area lagoon

  • to anchor the ships to do the testing with, somewhere really far out of the way, and they

  • looked around the map and they saw Bikini.” Bikini Atoll sits at the northern end of the

  • Ralik chain, 2.3 square miles of land encircling a 229 square mile lagoon. It was perfect:

  • the right size, the right shape, the right location, and the right political status,

  • as the US had been given jurisdiction over the Marshall Islands at the end of the war.

  • And so, onto tiny Bikini Atoll, the United States moved in 42,000 personnel on 242 ships,

  • and began to experiment with the greatest power ever unleashed by mankind.

  • First there was the Crossroads Able bomb, 21 kilotons, far greater than Little Boy,

  • the 15 kiloton bomb dropped on Hiroshima; then, Crossroads Baker, 23 kilotons; but these

  • were nothing compared to what came next: Castle Bravo. Detonated on March 1, 1954, this bomb

  • produced the most powerful explosion the world had ever seen—15 megatons; one thousand

  • times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. For the United States, it was a triumph: the

  • greatest example yet of nuclear technology’s potential. For Nerje Joseph, on neighboring

  • Rongelap Atoll, it was the start of a long nightmare.

  • My name is Nerje Joseph. I come from Rongelapand then I was in Rongelap in 1954, nuclear detonation.”

  • Nerje was only eight on Bravo Day. Today, at 74, she still remembers it vividly.

  • When it went off we didn't know what was going on but, we saw lots of different colors.

  • It looked like a rainbow.” “Later that day, there were a lot of powders that fell

  • from the sky and we didn't know what it was and it looked like snow. They covered their

  • land, hair, skin, and their drinking water and when they wanted to drink water, they

  • had to get rid of the powder to be able to drink water.”

  • That powder, of course, was nuclear fallout: pulverized pieces of coral laced with radiation

  • that had been shot up into the air, and carried by wind onto Rongelap. But the people of Rongelap

  • had no idea what it wassome of the kids even stuck their tongues out and let it fall

  • into their mouths, thinking it was snow. Despite the enormous danger posed to the people of

  • Rongelap, the US didn’t evacuate them for two days. By that time, the radiation sickness

  • had started to take hold. “I remember there was an airplane that came

  • in and people with uniform with medals on them came and stopped them from drinking and

  • eating food on the land.” “After they took us to Kwajalean that's when we started

  • feeling sick. We started throwing up, having diarrhea, we were feeling really cold and

  • we were aching all of our body.” Of the hundreds of people on Rongelap that

  • day, Nerje is one of just ten who are still alive. No one on Rongelap died that day, but

  • that doesn’t mean the bomb didn’t kill them. Many fell victim to thyroid cancer,

  • which has been linked to the fallout from Bravo, and none have been able to return to

  • their home. “I want to go back, but I don't know that

  • I can, because they told me that it is still nuclear active.”

  • The collateral damage of nuclear testing isn’t limited only to the people of Rongelap. There’s

  • another group of victims, whose pain began before a single bomb was detonatedthe 167

  • inhabitants of Bikini atoll. To the United States, once they’d identified Bikini as

  • a suitable test site, its people were more of an afterthought than an obstacle.

  • They ask them if they're there, they'd be willing to move for the good of mankind

  • and to end all world wars. And Judah, the leader of the Bikinians, he just keeps standing

  • up and saying the same answer every time he says [speaking in Marshallese], which iseverything's

  • in the hands of God.’ And if you know what I know about Marshallese culture, if someone

  • said to me, if I asked them if I could do something, they said everything's in the hands

  • of God. That's about as much as a no as you're ever gonna get. I mean, it's in the hands

  • of God. You better be careful, but if you watch today, the twenty six takes of the same

  • shot that the Commodore stands up dust off his pants. In the end, he says, well, everything

  • being in the hands of God, it cannot be other than good, and off he walks.”

  • With that, the people of Bikini were evacuated, and while they were told, of course, that

  • they would one day be able to return to their home, thatlike so many things the Marshalls

  • were told as nuclear testing beganwas a lie. After they were evacuated, the Bikinians

  • underwent a grueling saga, placed by the United States here, on uninhabited Rongerik Atoll,

  • which they soon discovered had toxic fish and land where nothing grew.

  • So but I think the US looked at Rongerik and looked at bikini: ‘palm trees, beach,

  • looks the same.’ You'll just go there and they dropped them off there, the Bikinians

  • and they starved." After two years, they were moved to tents

  • here at Kwajalein base, then finally here, to Kili Island. And meanwhile, with each bomb

  • the Americans detonated, more and more of the Bikinian’s land was vaporized. The little

  • that remained was laced with nuclear radiation that wouldn’t dissipate for thousands of

  • years. “And in the in the mid early nineteen late

  • 1960s, President Johnson on the front page of The New York Times on a