story and photos by Kim Souza
It’s been 57 years since the U.S. military performed nuclear missile testing within the Marshall Islands located in far South Pacific and situated roughly halfway between Australia and Hawaii.
The tiny island nation consists of 29 atolls and five small islands and is still economically dependent upon the $100 million it receives in U.S. aid annually. The financial reparations are part of the Compact for Free Enterprise that was signed between the two nations in 1986 and an attempt to support and help the region recover from highly toxic levels of radiation that rendered four of the atolls uninhabitable even today.
Martha Campbell, the recently retired U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of the Marshall Islands spoke at NorthWest Arkansas Community College on Tuesday (March 26) as part of the college’s theme semester series on this tiny country of Islanders in remote Oceania.
Campbell spoke candidly and passionately about the tiny nation and it’s festive people which number about 67,000 — most of which live on two tiny islands.
From 1987 to 1989, she served opened the Office of the U.S. Representative after the Compact of Free Association between the U.S. and the Republic of the Marshall Islands went into effect.
“I was fortunate enough to close out my career as the U.S. Ambassador for the RMI, an assignment which I began in 2009 and just recently retired from in August,” Campbell said.
Campbell told the group that Springdale was essentially Eureka in the eyes of many Marshallese who made the long voyage across 17 time zones in search of educational and occupational opportunities.
Legend has it that John Moody made the trip years ago and got a job at Tyson Foods and then told all of his friends and family about the life he had discovered in Northwest Arkansas.
Campbell said word spread fast and the Marshallese people began re-colonization in Springdale.
The 2010 Census found that roughly 8,000 Marshallese now call Northwest Arkansas home, making the region the largest populated cluster outside the Marshall Islands.
The Compact for Free Enterprise allows citizens in the Marshall Islands unlimited entry into the United States.
“Marshsallese are free to live, study and work in the United States without a visa and the migration rate has been about 3,000 people per year which has had some unintended consequences,” Campbell said.
She said states like Arkansas and Hawaii, were the largest population of Marshallese immigrants relocate are not equipped to handle the rising health care costs and social service needs as they get little or no federal funding earmarked for this growing need.
In 2023, the financial support of $100 million annually from the U.S. is set to expire and Campbell doesn’t expect funding will be extended given the tight budgetary restraints and deficit concerns facing our own nation.
Roughly 65% of the RMI annual budget comes from direct funding from the United States. Campbell said some 40 U.S. government agencies also grant money and services to the island nation each year.
She said if financial help expires, the islanders will still have their free access to live and work in the United States.
The U.S. military maintains a base on the Kwajalein Atoll which is still used for some missile testing. The lease for this atoll use is set to expire in 2065, but it has a 20-year extension clause.
“There are roughly 16 military personnel who live on this atoll and the other 1,000 are largely American rocket scientists,” Campbell said.
She talked at length about 67 nuclear test missiles that were launched there between 1948 and 1956 during the height of the Cold War, calling it a “sensitive issue to this day.”
Campbell said radiation levels have been greatly reduced in the past five decades, but two of the islands – Bikini and Enewetak — which were evacuated years ago remain uninhabitable because the soil is radioactive, rendering fruits and food grown there also toxic.
The United States awarded more than $1.055 billion to the areas and families proven to have suffered from radioactive fallout.
Campbell said she holds fond memories of this very special nation and while very few tourists actually ever see the picturesque islands for themselves, “but there’s no reason why you can't enjoy these wonderful people who are right here in your backyard.”