In the book 15 Minutes: General Curtis LeMay and the Countdown to Nuclear Annihilation, several residents of the Marshall Islands told author L. Douglas Keeney of the “great terror” they felt on the morning when Castle Bravo, a gigantic thermonuclear bomb, lit up the skies above their homes.
“We cowered among the large boulders on the reef, too frightened to decide whether to flee back to the isle or dash across the reef to the main island,” one unidentified woman recalled. “Just as we reached the last sand bar, the air around us was split by the most horrendous noise. We could actually feel wave after wave of vibration. We made the last hundred or so yards to the main island in total pandemonium.”
For a period of 12 years between 1946 and 1958, the United States military conducted 23 nuclear tests on the Bikini and Enewetak Atolls in the Marshall Islands, with often devastating consequences. Castle Bravo, which was dropped on March 1, 1954, was the largest hydrogen bomb ever tested by the United States, some 1,000 times larger than the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. On the morning of the explosion, the stronger-than-expected winds scattered radioactive dust throughout the nearby islands.
According to Timothy Jorgensen, the Director of the Health Physics and Radiation Protection Graduate Program, some residents suffered radiation burns at the time of the blast, while others developed cancers that were attributable to their exposure to radiation. Bikini Atoll remains unsafe for human habitation, while three other nearby atolls were recently found to still have higher levels of radioactivity than Chernobyl or Fukushima.
And all of that is a long way of saying that there are better, less flippant names for a beer than Bikini Atoll, names that aren’t connected to cancer, devastation, and the forced displacement of a group of indigenous people. But a Texas brewery called The Manhattan Project—in itself a problematic name—has just released a canned brew called Bikini Atoll and, despite criticism from the government of the Marshall Islands itself, it’s not backing down.
On its website, Manhattan Project describes the Bikini Atoll gose as having a salty, citrusy flavor, and the outline of the island decorates the side of each can. “Summers at the pool inspired this beer,” it wrote—which may be accurate, because it sure couldn't have been inspired by summers at the library, or summers watching documentaries on, say, the impact of nuclear weapons.
“There’s a great deal of outrage in the Marshall Islands about the Manhattan Project Beer Company’s creation and release of Bikini Atoll beer,” The National Nuclear Commission (NNC) of the Republic of the Marshall Islands wrote in a statement. “The anger of the Marshallese people is understandable. This is just another example of an American entity profiting from the appropriation of names and places that do not belong to them. Bikini is not a beer, a bathing suit, or the home of Spongebob Squarepants. It is the ancestral homelands of the Bikinian people who cannot reside there today because of lingering radiation from U.S. nuclear weapons tests conducted on the islands during the Cold War.”
The NNC has asked the Manhattan Project to “engage in dialogue with the people of Bikini” to hear their thoughts about the beer, to include links on its website to relevant resources about the existing radiation levels on the islands, and to consider sharing any profits from the beer with the Bikinian people.
The Manhattan Project released its own statement that pretty much said, nah, we don’t need to do any of those things. “Our beer named Bikini Atoll was not created to mock or trivialize the nuclear testing that took place in the Marshall Islands,” the company wrote. “Through our brand and naming, we are creating awareness of the wider impacts and implications of the United States’s nuclear research programs and the pivotal moment in world history that is often forgotten.” (Sure, even though they literally wrote that it was inspired by “summers at the pool,” and the website doesn't dwell on the Marshallese or Bikinian people—only the “friends who don’t like beer” who do like drinking Bikini Atoll Gose.)
Unsurprisingly, that statement—and its declaration that the brewery will take “no further action” regarding the controversy—hasn’t gone over well. “The bottom line is that your project 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,” Jack Niedenthal, the Marshall Islands Secretary or Health and Human Services, wrote in a letter he sent to the brewery.
“As a nation, the people of the Marshall Islands have one of the highest cancer rates in the world. All of our families can tell a personal cancer story that oftentimes can be traced directly to the nuclear testing period, my family included,” he continued. “On their behalf, and on behalf of the people of the Marshall Islands, I highly encourage you to discard this ill-conceived product forever, and moreover, I believe you need to issue a public apology to our people.”
“There’s a story behind every beer,” The Manhattan Project’s website says. Yeah, there’s a hell of a story behind this one—but it’s a story that should be told by the Marshallese people, not by a can of Texan beer.