On the Edge of American Empire: Territoriality, Indigeneity, and Belonging in the Nuclear Pacific

Friday, January 4, 2019: 3:30 PM
Boulevard C (Hilton Chicago)
Mary Mitchell, Purdue University
Between 1946 and 1958 the Marshall Islands served as the hypocenter of America’s nuclear weapons testing program. There, far from the bustling population centers of North America, the US developed and tested its largest and most powerful nuclear devices. The Islands, however, were not a part of US territory. Working through the United Nations, US diplomats engineered a novel territorial status--strategic trusteeship--into which it placed its newly acquired Pacific holdings. In the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, the UN held de jure sovereignty while the US retained de facto control. How did Indigenous communities made marginal by new technological and territorial experimentation assert their belonging within broader political communities from which they had been formally excluded?

This paper traces Islanders’ developing legal efforts to have a say in nuclear affairs in their ancestral atolls during the 1950s and 1960s. Drawing on archival research in activists’ papers, court records, Trust Territory records, and US government agency collections, the paper explores Islanders’ lawsuits over nuclear testing. Using scientific knowledge about the biological effects and environmental pathways of radiation, Islanders and activist allies sought to renegotiate relationships between nuclear harm and political belonging. Doing so, they hoped to expand the boundaries of the polity beyond the borders of the nation-state.

Islanders’ lawsuits failed in both US and Trust Territory courts. Despite suffering from acute embodied and environmental harms, Islanders’ status as stateless, Indigenous dependents, located in a “foreign” UN territory caused their claims to fail. A parallel lawsuit by an American scientist, however, met with modest success in limiting the authority of the US Atomic Energy Commission in the Pacific. By exploring these roughly contemporaneous legal challenges, this paper demonstrates how the fraught nexus between citizenship, Indigeneity, and territory limited Islander activists’ search for participation in the American polity.

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