If there was a prize for tone-deaf and offensive marketing, Manhattan Project Beer Co. would certainly be in the running. The Texas-based beer company named one of its craft beers “Bikini Atoll,” after the islands devastated by U.S. nuclear testing in the 1940s and 1950s.
The history of the islands is quite horrifying and remains a deep wound for the island people, known commonly as Bikinians.
The people of Bikini were first moved from their home in 1946, which is part of the Marshall Islands (approximately 2,000 miles southwest of Hawaii). The U.S. commenced testing shortly thereafter.
From 1946 until 1958, the U.S. detonated 67 nuclear bombs (with a total yield of over 100 megatons of TNT) on Bikini and Enewetak. This is the equivalent of more than 7,000 Hiroshima bombs.
This screenshot from the company’s web page shows one of the marketing lines for the atomic beer.
Screenshot: Manhattan Project Beer Co.
The environmental damage from the nuclear testing left islands and its surrounding resources (including marine resources) dangerously contaminated. Portions of Bikini and Enewetak were literally vaporized. As a result of this long-term damage, the islands remain largely uninhabited today.
The U.S. moved the Bikini people five times over 40 years, even back to the Bikini Islands at one point in the late 1960s. In the 1970s, radiological testing revealed that the island contained dangerously high levels of radioactive plutonium as a result of the nuclear activity.
Tests in the late 1970s showed high levels of internal radiation in the islanders who had been relocated back to Bikini. The radiation was shown to have come from consumption of locally grown foods. The U.S. was forced to relocate the resident population once again.
Approximately 5,000 islanders were impacted and in the 1980s they petitioned in court seeking damages. In 1986, the U.S. and the Republic of the Marshall Islands entered into a Compact of Free Association. Under the COFA, the U.S. agreed to establish a trust fund to compensate islanders who had been injured by the testing program. Implementation of the fund proved to be highly problematic, with many injured islands never receiving compensation.
The nuclear testing at Bikini remains one of the most devastating acts of environmental and cultural destruction in human history.
Capitalizing On Tragedy
Manhattan Project Beer Co.’s use of the name Bikini Atoll has drawn wide criticism. The RMI Secretary of Health and Human Services, Jack Niedenthal, released a sharply worded letter to the company’s co-founder and co-owner, Misty Sanford.
His letter states in part: “The bottom line is that your product makes fun of a horrific situation here in the Marshall Islands – a situation, that I promise you is still ongoing – to make money for your company. This is unacceptable to us.”
The beer company has named several of its craft beers after elements of the nuclear era.
Screenshot: Manhattan Project Beer Co.
The beer company released a statement about the controversy this week, claiming, “Through our brand and naming, we are creating awareness of the wider impacts and implications of the United States’s (sic) nuclear research programs and the pivotal moment in world history that is often forgotten.”
The company stated that it intends to take no further action on the matter, implying it has no intention of ceasing its use of the name or apologizing to the Marshallese people.
The beer company’s website provides no indication that it provides any support to victims of the nuclear testing program.
Criticism against the use of the name and support for the RMI government’s position continues to grow. A petition is now circulating asking Whole Foods to remove the beer from its stores.
Sadly, Manhattan Project Beer Co. is only the latest in a string of companies that have misappropriated cultural identity for their own profit. Whether Kim Kardashian’s tone-deaf use of the names “Kilauea” and “Pele’s Curse” for her new eyeshadow line, or her use of the name “Kimono” for her shapewear line, companies seem unwilling to learn when it comes to proper cultural behavior.
What makes Manhattan Project’s action so grotesque is its unwillingness to learn from its offensive actions and make amends to the local community. It’s one thing to misappropriate a name, but it is depravity on a whole new level to benefit from a situation that left thousands injured.
It’s a dangerous sign of the times and speaks to the urgent need to provide greater protections for the cultures and identities of local and indigenous peoples around the world.
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Trisha Kehaulani Watson is a Kaimuki resident, small business owner, and bibliophile. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawaii and J.D. from the William S. Richardson School of Law. She writes about environmental issues, cultural resource management, and the intersection between culture and politics. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can follow or contact her on Twitter at @hehawaiiau.