Grappling with the Bomb: Opposition to Pacific nuclear testing in the 1950s - Nic Maclellan

In the fifty years from 1946-1996, the United States, France and the United Kingdom conducted over 315 nuclear tests in the Pacific islands. Starting in the 1940s, there was popular opposition to these testing programs across Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, led by trade unions, churches and indigenous organisations. The author, who was a member of the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific movement (NFIP) and served in its regional secretariat in Fiji, will discuss the impacts of nuclear testing on the civilian and military personnel who staffed the test sites over fifty years, as well as neighbouring island communities. Using British nuclear testing on Kiritimati (Christmas Island) as a case study, the article will detail ongoing efforts by nuclear survivors to seek recognition and compensation for the health an environmental impacts of testing.

From the beginning of the nuclear age, the United States, Britain and France sought “empty” spaces to conduct their Cold War programs of nuclear testing. For fifty years between 1946 and 1996, the deserts of Australia and the islands of the central and south Pacific were used to conduct over 315 atmospheric and underground tests at ten different sites. From 1946 to 1958, the United States conducted 67 atomic and hydrogen bomb tests at Bikini and Enewetak atolls in the Marshall Islands. In the 1960s, there were 25 further US tests at Christmas (Kiritimati) Island for Operation Dominic and nine more at Johnston (Kalama) Atoll

Britain tested nuclear weapons in Oceania between 1952-58, with 12 tests at the Monte Bello Islands, Maralinga and Emu Field in Australia (1952-57). These were followed by nine hydrogen bomb tests at Christmas (Kiritimati) Island and Malden Island in the central Pacific (1957-58). After conducting 17 nuclear tests in Algeria at Reganne and In Eker between 1960-66, France moved its test sites to the South Pacific. From July 1966 to January 1996, France conducted 193 atmospheric and underground tests at Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls in French Polynesia. These desert and ocean sites were chosen because they seemed to be vast empty spaces. But the nuclear powers showed little concern for the health and well being of nearby indigenous communities and those civilian and military personnel who staffed the test sites.

Many people in the Pacific welcomed the development of nuclear installations across the region, for the economic and employment opportunities created by an influx of military personnel. Political leaders, from Sir Robert Menzies in Australia to Gaston Flosse in French Polynesia, enhanced their political careers through their fawning loyalty to Empire. But significant minorities in countries across the region resisted the nuclear era and continue to campaign for compensation for the health and environmental consequences of more than 300 nuclear tests.

Throughout the decades of testing in the Pacific islands, there was widespread popular resistance. Alliances of trade unions, churches, women’s organisations and customary leaders in the islands campaigned for an end to nuclear testing and the abolition of nuclear weapons. Support for nuclear disarmament in Pacific Rim countries like Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the United States is well documented, but there is less recognition of the long-standing resistance by Pacific Island peoples to the nuclear weapons programs. Following its founding conference in Fiji in 1975, the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific (NFIP) movement was a driving force in this campaign, linking the issues of environmental damage to indigenous campaigns for self-determination and political independence.

The signing of the Rarotonga treaty for a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone (SPNFZ) on Hiroshima Day 1985 and the end of French nuclear testing in 1996 were important milestones. However, before the revival of Pacific disarmament campaigning in the 1970s and 1980s, there were sporadic protests against nuclear testing in earlier decades across the islands region. This paper starts with some examples of these islander protests during the 1950s. The paper then details responses to the UK nuclear testing program in the British Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony, codenamed Grapple, in 1957-8 Most people recognise the names Maralinga, Bikini and Moruroa as nuclear test sites, but Kiritimati and Malden Island are less well known. For this reason, the paper presents the history of the Grapple tests through a patchwork of letters, archival records and oral testimony for four people: pacifist Harold Steele, businessman James Burns, Gilbertese woman Sui Benan Kiritome, and Fijian sailor Paul Ah Poy.

These stories reflect the growing number of personal testimonies about nuclear testing in the Pacific. In recent publications, workers, military personnel and indigenous peoples have told their own history in their own words: women from Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara communities in South Australia; the Gilbertese workers and Fijian soldiers and sailors who witnessed Britain’s H-bomb tests; and the Maohi labourers who staffed the nuclear test sites of French Polynesia for 30 years.

Opposition to nuclear testing across Oceania One of the earliest indigenous anti-nuclear protests was in French Polynesia in 1950, when the Tahitian leader Pouvanaa a Oopa – a military veteran in both world wars – collected signatures for the March 1950 Stockholm Peace Appeal. According to Marie-Thérèse Danielsson:

Pouvanaa a Oopa, understanding the importance of this document, decided to take the appeal to Tahiti and present it to the local population. He began by having it signed first in Tahiti, then took advantage of the first voyage of the boat Tuamotu to travel further afield. The boat, which had been bought by the Tuamotu Islands Cooperative, allowed him to travel to the outermost islands to explain to the islanders the dangers of nuclear arms.

Marie-Thérèse and her Swedish husband, Bengt Danielsson, were newly arrived anthropologists living on the outer island of Raroia in the Tuamotu Archipelago, 740 kilometres northeast of Tahiti. They attended meetings on Raroia organised by Pouvanaa about the horror of nuclear war, which later inspired them to campaign against French nuclear testing, through the publication of their classic polemic Moruroa mon amour

From the earliest days, the issue of nuclear testing was connected to the right to self-determination for the Maohi people of French Polynesia. Pouvanaa a Oopa had founded the Rassemblement Démocratique des Populations Tahitiennes (RDPT) in November 1949 - the earliest nationalist formation in French Polynesia - and won a seat in the French National Assembly. However during France’s 1958 constitutional referendum, he pushed for independence rather than autonomy within the French Republic. This earned him the enmity of the Gaullist regime, as it prepared to shift France’s nuclear testing program from the deserts of Algeria to the Tuamotu archipelago.

In a scandal that has been documented by historian JeanMarc Regnault, Pouvanaa was falsely charged with arson and other crimes, deprived of his civil rights and thrown into prison in France. The charismatic leader – known as the Metua – was exiled from his home for a decade, removed from public life just as France began to relocate its nuclear testing centre in the early 1960s. Pouvanaa’s campaign echoed regional protests that had grown since the nuclear age in the Pacific began with the flight of the Enola Gay from Tinian in the Marianas Islands to Hiroshima on 6 August 1945.

Administering the UN strategic Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI), the US military began Operation Crossroads in 1946, which led to 67 atmospheric nuclear tests at Bikini and Enewetak Atolls.

The greatest international outcry began after the 1 March 1954 nuclear test codenamed Bravo, which spread fallout across the northern atolls of the Marshall Islands. Antinuclear demonstrations were strongest in Japan, because of the irradiation of the 23 crew members of a nearby Japanese fishing boat Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon). While protests were concentrated in the Pacific Rim, Marshall Islanders also expressed their concern, despite the US Navy’s control of the United Nations trusteeship. Islanders led by Dwight Heine and customary chief Kabua Kabua lodged a petition with the UN Trusteeship Council just weeks after the Bravo test, which requested that “all experiments with lethal weapons in this area be immediately ceased.” The petition said:

"The Marshallese people are not only fearful of the danger to their persons from these deadly weapons in case of another miscalculation, but they are also concerned for the increasing number of people removed from their land….land means a great deal to the Marshallese. It means more than just a place where you can plant your food crops and build your houses or a place where you can bury your dead. It is the very life of the people. Take away their land and their spirits go also."

In 1956, after the UK government announced that British nuclear testing would commence at Christmas Island, Western Samoa petitioned the UN Trusteeship Council to halt the British tests (at the time, Samoa was still a trust territory of New Zealand). The Trusteeship Council rejected the petition by a vote of 9-1, with only Russia voting in favour.

The same year, the Rarotonga Island Council submitted a report to the Cook Islands Legislative Council, expressing concern about the proposed British tests on Christmas Island and asking “that the testing area be situated at some greater distance than the Cook Islands.”

British forces established a weather station on Tongareva (Penrhyn island) in the Cook Islands, which is located just 550 kilometres south of Malden. British naval vessels later transited through Tongareva and reefs were blasted for shipping access (leading to reports of the disease ciguatera at the time of the tests). In Australia, Aboriginal activists had joined supporters in 1947-48 to protest the establishment of the Woomera rocket testing range in South Australia. In the early 1950s, Britain’s nuclear testing program in South Australia was established within the Woomera Rocket Area (WRA) on the lands of the Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara peoples.

Over time, the anti Woomera campaign grew into broader indigenous opposition to nuclear testing. Public meetings, radio broadcasts and information leaflets were organised by the newly formed Council for Aboriginal Rights, supported by the Aboriginal Advancement League (AAL), Communist Party of Australia, Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). In Fiji, there was also popular opposition to the proposed British nuclear testing program to the north. In February 1957, the Indo-Fijian newspaper Jagriti editorialised:

People living in the vicinity of the islands where the atom and hydrogen bombs have been tested are afflicted with hazardous diseases. Full information has not been given so far about them. Nations engaged in testing these bombs in the Pacific should realise the value of the lives of the people settled in this part of the world. They too are human beings, not ‘guinea pigs’.

The Fiji Times, the main English language newspaper in the British colony, gave front-page coverage to international protests against the nuclear tests. An April 1957 editorial in the Fiji Times noted:

Nobody knows how many people will die or how many children will be born mentally or physically deformed because of atomic or hydrogen bomb tests, past or future. That is why there is so much disquiet in so many countries and among so many peoples of varying political beliefs about the continuation of such tests by the United States and Russia and about the forthcoming tests on Christmas Island…The free nations should seek foreign agreement with Russia to curtail or suspend completely all tests until their effects on the future of mankind can be more accurately assessed. To continue with indiscriminate and unrestricted tests in the present state of uncertain knowledge will be irresponsible folly indeed.

Background to Operation Grapple With the United States’ 1946 McMahon Act restricting the transfer of nuclear research and technology, the British government developed its own testing program in the 1950s, aiming to follow the US and the Soviet Union in the development of atomic and hydrogen bombs. According to Lord Cherwell – a Conservative politician and Winston Churchill’s chief scientific adviser – the development of thermonuclear hydrogen bombs was central to maintaining Britain’s status as an imperial power in the post-war era:

If we are unable to make the Bomb ourselves and have to rely entirely on the United States for this vital weapon, we shall sink to the rank of a second class nation, only permitted to supply auxiliary troops, like the native levies who were supplied small arms but not artillery.

Britain needed an area with little population to test their nuclear weapons and Churchill’s Cabinet searched the map for an isolated outpost of the British Empire. Fearful of opposition from the public, planning was conducted in secret for the British testing program in Australia and the Pacific islands. After the testing of atomic bombs in the deserts of Australia, Britain planned to develop the hydrogen bomb.

However the agreement with the Australian government stated that H-bomb trials could not be conducted in Australia for “safety reasons”, so the British government was forced to seek a new testing site. The British Cabinet Defence Committee secretly decided to construct an H-bomb at its meeting on 16 June 1954. By the end of 1956, tens of thousands of tons of equipment had been brought from England to establish the military base on Christmas (Kiritimati) Island in the central Pacific.

A forward base and airstrip was also established on Malden Island, located 600 kilometres from the Christmas Island base. At the time, these two islands were part of the British Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony - today, they are within the independent island nation of Kiribati. Nearly 20,000 British military personnel, supported by 524 New Zealand sailors and nearly 300 Fijian soldiers and sailors, travelled to the central Pacific for Britain’s hydrogen bomb testing program between 1956 and 1962.

At the peak of activity in 1957-8, these forces and civilian scientists were living under canvas on Christmas Island. Overall, nine atmospheric tests codenamed Grapple were held in 1957-58. In May and June 1957, Britain conducted three nuclear tests near Malden Island, codenamed Grapple 1 (Short Granite), Grapple 2 (Orange Herald), and Grapple 3 (Purple Granite). The nuclear devices were detonated high over the ocean after being dropped from a Valiant bomber – by exploding the bomb in the air rather than on land, it was designed to reduce radioactive fallout.

A British naval task force and aircraft flown from Christmas Island monitored the tests at Malden Island. The light aircraft carrier HMS Warrior was the command vessel, supported by British warships and two New Zealand frigates, HMNZS Pukaki and HMNZS Rotoiti. Members of the Fiji Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve joined New Zealand sailors aboard the NZ frigates.

Later, from 1958-60, dozens of Fijian soldiers were deployed on land, often working as labourers around the tent city. Official statements issued in London after the tests argued that there had been no radioactive fallout, although the three tests near Malden did actually contaminate the island with significant fallout.

After the tests, the British government announced that it had achieved a thermonuclear explosion in the megaton range. The Mid-Pacific News – a newsletter produced for staff and troops on Christmas Island – reported: “Bomb Gone! H-Bomb puts Britain on level terms.” This was a massive political bluff, however, to persuade the United States to review the McMahon Act and renew scientific collaboration between the two countries that had been ended after a series of British spy scandals.

Privately, UK scientists calculated that the blasts were only 0.2 to 0.7 megatons, and further tests were needed. The bluff was successful, with the amendment of the McMahon Act in July 1958. Facing moves towards an international moratorium on nuclear testing in 1958, there was pressure on the British task force to rush and develop a hydrogen bomb in the megaton range. Rather than send a naval task force and thousands of men back to Malden Island – hundreds of kilometres from the base of operations – it was decided to conduct further tests at Christmas Island:

Because time is so short, it is been decided to carry out the November tests of the southeast tip of Christmas Island; it would have taken too long to set up Malden again. The trials will be high airburst as before.

This decision reduced the enormous logistic problems of conducting the tests so far away from the main base, saving over two million pounds. But it brought the tests close to the camp where British, New Zealand and Fijian personnel were stationed. From August 1957, there was a major build-up of the Christmas Island base. Between November 1957 and September 1958, a further six nuclear tests were conducted in the atmosphere near Christmas Island.

During these tests, service personnel were ordered to line up in the open, to face away from the explosions, and remain with their backs turned with eyes closed for twenty seconds after the explosion. At sea, crews lined the decks of the naval task force. On land, soldiers and civilian personnel were grouped on the beaches at various points of the island only 25 miles from the centre of the blast.

The local Gilbertese population – labourers and plantation workers – were initially taken offshore during the tests, or housed aboard British naval vessels to avoid the blast. Much of this activity was conducted in secrecy to avoid public opposition. For example, the official British Colonial Office reports on the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony from 1956 onwards make no mention of the construction of the massive military base on Christmas Island or the testing of nuclear weapons!

However, with thousands of personnel involved, there was growing public awareness of the Grapple program. Opinion polls showed that nearly half the UK population were opposed to the tests, and there was growing concern in Australia, New Zealand and Japan. The National Council for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons Tests (NCANWT) soon had one hundred branches around the United Kingdom (NCANWT was the forerunner of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which was founded in January 1958). Beyond public advocacy and campaigning in the Labour Party, however, small numbers of socialist and pacifist groups began to plan more direct action against the tests, forming the Emergency Committee for Direct Action against Nuclear War.

From this point, let us delve into the stories of four figures who grappled with the reality of nuclear testing in the Pacific. One way to track the history of peace protests is through the archives of disarmament groups and socialist organisations. Another is through the archives of Special Branch police and the intelligence services.

As detailed in recent studies of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the secret state maintains a surprisingly comprehensive compilation of statements from groups perceived to be subversive.28 While lacking the rigour of today’s cyber monitoring, the UK Public Records Office holds files from the 1950s related to public protests against the Grapple nuclear tests.

These include newspaper and wire service clippings, letters, telegrams and diplomatic cables sent between MI5 in London, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, the Governor’s office in Fiji, the British Embassy in Tokyo and Foreign Office bureaux in Honolulu and Tahiti.

In March 1957, a six paragraph article in the Daily Worker newspaper sparked MI5’s interest, reporting that a 63-year-old “white-haired and keen eyed” ex-poultry farmer from Great Malvern, Worcestershire, intended to “go out to the Pacific and sail into the H-blast area.”

With support from other pacifists around the Peace Pledge Union (PPU), Harold Steele and his wife, Sheila, announced they would travel to Tokyo to join a protest fleet to sail to the central Pacific, aiming to halt the Grapple hydrogen bomb tests. In London, the Emergency Committee for Direct Action Against Nuclear War began to raise funds to support the protests, with sponsors including philosopher Lord Bertrand Russell, playwright Laurence Housman and comedian Spike Milligan.

Steele had a long history of pacifism. While studying at Exeter University during World War One, he refused the offer of a commission if he enlisted. As a conscientious objector, believing that “Christianity and socialism forbade any resort to war”, he was court-martialled five times during the war and sentenced to seven years’ hard labour. After three years in prison, he was only released in April 1919, long after the war was over. In March 1957, Steele told the Sunday Pictorial newspaper:

The time has come when someone must make a real move to stop the H-bomb tests. My wife and I will willingly sacrifice ourselves to prove to the world the horror of this devilish device. Personal considerations are secondary. My three children – much as I love them – are not important. If I should die, I commend them to the care of my Quaker friends. I believe this demonstration will shake the conscience of man out of its lazy acceptance of the H-bomb and all its horrors.

Two other young Britons, David Graham (aged 25) and Ian Dickson (aged 21), were in New Delhi and also planned to go to Japan or Fiji to join the protest. According to correspondence from the British Embassy in Tokyo, both men were war resisters who had refused to be conscripted for national service. Embassy official T.W. Aston reported to London:

According to the Times of India, Graham has already spent a term in jail for refusing to be conscripted. I do not know whether this might give the authorities in Fiji an excuse to frustrate their efforts should this be thought desirable or necessary.

Steele was initially unable to obtain a Japanese visa and in April, the News Chronicle reported that he planned to travel to the Pacific via India. An annotation on the newspaper clipping in the Steele’s intelligence file asks: “Any news?” The handwritten response: “Only that he is assessed as a bona-fide pacifist and as a member of the Peace Pledge Union in the past. If he has otherwise subversive links, it would be known. I suggest we write him off.” Officials in the Asia-Pacific region remained anxious about whether Steele would manage to travel to the Pacific islands. The archives contain a long series of letters and telegrams between London, Tokyo, Suva, Hawaii and Tahiti trying to track the protesters’ movements.

A confidential letter from the Foreign Office in London to the British Embassy in Tokyo notes:

In view of the conditions which the Japanese government has imposed for any visit by Steele to Japan, it seemed remotely possible that, if he can raise the necessary funds, this man will try to approach the danger area from some other jumping off point. For this reason we have telegraphed Honolulu and Tahiti asking for news as it comes to notice, since we must take all reasonable measures to prevent Steele from obstructing the tests.

An article in the Fiji Times on 17 April 1957 reported that Steele had booked an air passage to Fiji on 5 May. In a telegram from the Governor’s office in Fiji to the Foreign Office on 18 April, marked “immediate and confidential”, the Deputy Governor in Suva reported that:

Steele is alleged to have told reporters that he hopes to arouse some kind of protest among the Fijian population against proposed nuclear test in the Pacific area… I should be grateful if you would make appropriate enquiries and inform me whether you consider Steele should be declared to be a prohibited immigrant under section 7(c) of Immigration Ordinance 1947.

The reply from the Secretary of State for the Colonies to the Governor in Fiji noted:

His resources seem very limited and unless he could obtain local backing in Fiji, it is doubtful whether he could do much harm. As it seems unlikely he will come to Fiji it would only create unnecessary publicity to declare him a prohibited immigrant at this stage. In any case it would seem preferable to take action against him under section 8 (5) (b) of Immigration Ordinance if necessity arises.

In the end, Harold Steele was unable to reach Fiji before the first Grapple test on Malden Island on 15 May 1957. He did, however, reach Japan and spent weeks conducting public meetings and newspaper interviews to highlight opposition to the Pacific tests. The Fiji media gave prominent coverage to protests in Japan, such as a front-page report and picture in the Fiji Times of the 15,000-strong rally in Tokyo following the first test on Malden Island.

On Steele’s return to England, the Emergency Committee for Direct Action against Nuclear War was transformed into the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War (DAC) in April 1958. The DAC launched a generation of civil disobedience against nuclear weapons.3

Harold Steele’s unfulfilled dream of sailing a boat into the middle of the Pacific nuclear test zone inspired many others: Albert Bigelow’s plan to sail the Golden Rule to Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands to disrupt the 1958 Operation Hardtack test series; Earle Reynold’s 1958 voyage aboard the Phoenix to waters off Bikini Atoll; the rusting fishing trawler Phyllis Cormack (renamed the Greenpeace), which sailed from Vancouver in 1971 against US tests; the Vega, Fri, Rainbow Warrior and other vessels that bedevilled the French State from the 1960s; or Bill and Lorraine Ethell, who mortgaged their home and took three children aboard the Pacific Peacemaker, which sailed across the Pacific in 1982 to challenge the regional deployment of nuclear-armed US Trident submarines. But those are all stories for another day.

While the tale of pacifist Harold Steele began with a short article in the Daily Worker, the story of Australian businessman James Burns begins with the Sydney Daily Telegraph. On 20 December 1956, Burns noticed a brief story in the Daily Telegraph. It reported that technicians at Edinburgh airfield in Adelaide were fitting 10 Royal Air Force (RAF) Canberra jets with recording instruments, preparing to relocate to Christmas Island to prepare for Britain’s hydrogen bomb tests. As noted in the story, “the jets will fly through radioactive cloud.”

James Burns was worried because his company Burns, Philp & Co had extensive plantations in the British Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony. As one of the leading businessmen in the Pacific, Burns could express his concerns about nuclear testing straight to the top. The same day as the Daily Telegraph story, Burns wrote to Minister for Defence Sir Philip McBride, enclosing the clipping and asking for reassurance about his property near the nuclear test site:

In connection with the British government’s decision to carry out hydrogen bomb tests at and around Christmas Island, I would like to draw attention to the fact that we have very large plantation interests in Fanning and Washington islands, under 200 miles away from Christmas Island…We would like to point out that there seems to be a difference of opinion as to how far the effect of the hydrogen bombs will be experienced and we would like to have the assurance of the Australian government – if it is participating by fitting Canberra jets with recording instruments for the hydrogen bomb tests – that the employees of our plantations or the plantations themselves will not suffer any ill effects.

Burns, Philp & Co was created by Scottish merchant Sir James Burns (1846-1923), but his son – also named James – joined the family firm at age 17 in 1898. James Burns was appointed a director in 1919 and following his father’s death in 1923, he took over as chair and managing director. In the first half of the 20th century, the company expanded operations, with mercantile, shipping, insurance and copra plantations throughout Melanesia, the central Pacific and parts of South-East Asia.

Burns developed a reputation as a buccaneer, as noted by biographer Ken Buckley: “Although conservative-minded, modest and cheerful, Burns was regarded by the administration in Papua-New Guinea as a commercial pirate who sought to use political influence to gain monopolies.”

This political influence came to the fore as Burns sought to protect his investments from Britain’s nuclear test program. I