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More than a half-century after the United States stopped its nuclear testing in the Pacific Ocean, the sordid history and lingering consequences remain far from America’s collective conscience.
While some Americans have heard of Bikini Atoll, few are aware that the United States colonized the Marshall Islands or left behind such devastation.
Unless Americans live in communities where relatively large numbers of Micronesians have settled — such as in parts of Arkansas, Oregon and Hawaii — they have had few obvious reasons to learn more.
And a new book, Don’t Ever Whisper: Darlene Keju, Pacific Health Pioneer, Champion for Nuclear Survival, is unlikely to change that, which is too bad. The self-published book, which is available on Amazon (in paperback and on the Kindle), deserves a wider audience, especially here.
Not only does it tell the remarkable story of an extraordinary Marshallese woman who overcame cultural inhibitions to speak out against the testing. It offers a poignant reminder about the radioactive fallout that was created in Hawaii’s own backyard.
There is a direct link between the nuclear program and the fact that Micronesian populations are growing here, taxing the state’s health services and filling homeless shelters, even as they struggle to assimilate into, and contribute to, our society.
Giff Johnson, a journalist in Majuro who survives his wife — she died of cancer in 1996 — ends his biography with an epilogue that highlights how the region’s nuclear history continues.
“My main point is to show that the U.S. government and the Marshallese agreed to a compensation program that was based on faulty information,” Johnson told me via Skype. “The U.S. government withheld critical documents on fallout exposure when they began negotiations, and now it’s 30 years later and we have gone back to the U.S. and asked for more compensation.”
Johnson’s argument is this: “We need to be fair and to treat the Marshallese as we treat Americans — and if not the U.S., let’s put it in the courts. It’s 60 years after the testing and we still have some unresolved issues.”
Johnson, 57, is a Chicago native with Hawaii ties. He lived in Kailua and Punaluu as a kid when his dad was a professor of American history at the University of Hawaii at Manoa from 1966-1982.
Keju was born in 1951, by which time the U.S. had already detonated seven nuclear devices at Bikini and Enewetak atolls. When she was nearly 3, the U.S. set off a hydrogen bomb in the Bravo test, a 15-megaton blast that, as Johnson writes, “sent a massive fireball of radioactive coral, sand, trees, and water into the sky. The wind did the rest.”
What the wind “did” remains a point of contention to this day.
Johnson firmly believes that many Micronesian health problems are directly related to the testings. In 1990 the U.S. Congress acted to compensate “downwinders” in Utah and Nevada from atmospheric or underground nuclear weapons testing in the area. Why, Johnson asks, does Congress not do the same for the Marshallese?
The Compact of Free Association, he points out, gave out only $150 million in compensation, and that was back in the 1980s. (It is through the COFA treaties that residents of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Palau are allowed to travel to and work in the United States.) Johnson estimates that a more realistic figure for compensatory damages would exceed $2 billion.
In 1967 Keju moved at age 16 to Hawaii. She graduated from Roosevelt High School and attended Kapiolani Community College, Chaminade University and UH. Keju earned a master’s degree at the School of Public Health in 1983. During that time, she also experienced a profound personal change.
“There was a class that was like an encounter group where you learn how to deal with people, to encourage you to change behavior,” Johnson told me. “It opened her up to the power of directness and putting problems on the table.”
Darlene Keju speaking out.
In the Pacific Islands, people tend not to confront things, said Johnson. Yet Keju embraced the approach and employed it regularly when she returned home to teach and help improve health care. Her lessons featured drama, dance and music, all in cultural appropriate ways.
“Not everyone liked it, but she found that many people really liked it, especially in her youth program in the Marshall Islands,” said Johnson. “To see a problem and not walk away from it — that was really her signature.”
Keju’s stage was not limited to tiny islands. Her public appearances included a speech to the World Council of Churches in Vancouver, Canada, in 1983.
“She told the world of the damage caused by the U.S. nuclear test program and the discrimination against Marshallese by the U.S. military on Kwajalein,” Johnson writes. “She was harshly criticized for her statement by the U.S. government, and snubbed by her own country’s leaders.”
Don’t Ever Whisper — the title comes from an admonition from Keju’s family to speak up — is not just a biography. As Father Francis X. Hezel writes in the forward, “It’s a love story, written by a man who idolized the woman he married.”
Johnson and Keju met at a presentation on the nuclear testing in the Marshalls in 1978.
“She told me that it bothered her that I knew more about the issue than she, a Marshall Islander,” Johnson writes. “She was upset with herself for knowing so little about her own country’s history, and made a pact to remedy this deficiency.”
They were married for 14 years. Though Johnson remarried and has children from his second wife, it’s clear that Darlene’s memory is very much alive for him.
Johnson was in Honolulu in late October and early November to give talks on the book, and he says it was well received. But he has received the strongest reaction in the Marshalls, as there has been so little written material about the region.
“A story like this just resonates, especially with younger Marhsallese who have gone to the U.S. and experienced culture shock,” he said. “They just related to her experience as a Pacific Islander that broke barriers and did not stay in a box. She did not allow herself to be handcuffed.”