An author speaking at Linus Pauling Middle School on Wednesday about the lingering effects of U.S. nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands had a special connection to the school.
The school’s namesake, Linus Pauling, won his second Nobel Prize for using his stature as one of the world’s most prominent scientists to advocate successfully for a ban on above-ground nuclear testing.
Giff Johnson, the editor of the Marshall Islands Journal weekly newspaper and the author of a new book about his late wife’s advocacy for health care in the islands, spoke at the school about the issues still faced by island residents because of the radioactive fallout from the testing.
He also talked about the role played by Oregon State University graduate Linus Pauling in stopping nuclear tests. The Marshall Islands were the site of 67 above-ground nuclear tests from 1946 to 1958.
“We thought it was an interesting connection with our school,” said Linus Pauling Principal Eric Beasley. Johnson spoke during lunch at the school. Attendance was optional, but more than 30 students showed up.
Johnson, who is speaking to other groups throughout the state this week, said in an interview with the Gazette-Times that his goal is to raise awareness about Marshall Island issues. He also spoke in a class at OSU and participated in Monday’s Veterans Day parade in Albany, marching with about 20 Marshall Island residents who now live in Oregon.
Johnson said the United States came to an agreement with the Marshall Islands in the 1980s to compensate people who had been impacted by the radioactive fallout, but only the residents of four atolls — Bikini, Enewetak, where the bombs were detonated, and Rongelap and Utrik, which were heavily dosed with radiation — received compensation.
But, he said, confidential Department of Defense documents released to his paper show that the U.S. government knew the fallout was much more widespread than they acknowledged.
The U.S. negotiated in bad faith, he said.
“The compensation is not enough for all the people affected,” he said.
Johnson’s wife, Darlene Keju, died of cancer at age 45 in 1996. She grew up in the Marshall Islands during the time when the United States was testing nuclear bombs, but she did not live on one of the atolls the U.S. recognizes as being affected by the fallout.
His book “Don’t Ever Whisper,” tells the story of her advocacy for nuclear survivors and efforts to improve health education in the islands.
The United States administered the Marshall Islands, Palua and the Federated States of Micronesia after World War II, and now has compacts of free association with the countries, documents which give their citizens the right to live, work, study and travel in the United States without a visa.
“The U.S. has a long standing special relationship with the Marshall Islands,” he said.
Johnson said people from the Marshall Islands often join the U.S. military, and the country almost always votes with the United States in the United Nations — even on issues where the United States is in a minority.
“They are part of the U.S. family,” he said.
Johnson said the U.S. maintains a missile testing facility in the Marshall Islands, and providing service for that is a major driver in the country’s economy
Loyd Henion of Albany has been traveling with Johnson throughout Oregon, and said he knows a number of people in the Marshall Island community in Oregon. Henion said he estimates the population of former Marshall Islands residents in Oregon at about 3,000.
Johnson said people in the Marshall Islands often talk about the hundreds of billions of dollars the United States .has spent on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how a fraction of that — an estimated $2.4 billion — would cover the estimated cost of medical care for everyone affected by the radioactive fallout and also the costs of cleaning up the lingering radioactive fallout.
“You spend that on (Afghanistan and Iraq) and they shoot at you,” he said, “and we are your friends.”
Talitha Tarkwon, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Linus Pauling, was born in the Marshall Islands and moved to Corvallis five years ago.
She attended Johnson’s presentation Wednesday. Talitha said she had not heard of Linus Pauling’s role in stopping the testing, but knew about the nuclear testing.
She recalled hearing about the testing’s effect on people in the Marshall Islands.
“I was happy I wasn’t alive back then, and I felt sorry for them,” she said.