Interview with Dr Mary X. Mitchell: Nuclear Weapons and the Unsettling of Sovereignty in the Marshall Islands, 1944-1963

This past January, Dr Mary X. Mitchell gave the Pacific Circle Annual Lecture. Dr Mitchell presented on her in-progress manuscript, “Unsettling Sovereignty,” which traces the sociolegal history of US nuclear blasting in the Marshall Islands. The lecture explored several key episodes in which Islanders and others used legal claims to challenge US blasting, reshaping US power in the process.

Trained as both an attorney and a historian of science and technology, Dr Mitchell is Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto in the Centre for Criminology & Sociolegal Studies and the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology.

SEBESTIAN KROUPA: Your research traces how US nuclear imperialism unfolded in the Marshall Islands. After World War II, the US exercised near complete control over the islands, yet the archipelago was not part of US territory. You argued convincingly that the US deployed the islands as a military technology by turning them into an “offshore sacrifice zone”. How did that happen?

MARY X MITCHELL: At the core, my project is really about sovereignty—how US blasting changed the form and practices of US sovereignty, affected the forms and practices of ri-Aelōn̄-Kein (Marshallese) sovereignty, and touched and interfered with many other kinds of sovereignty. In the early part of the manuscript, I examine how the United States worked through the United Nations in the 1940s to create a novel status under international law, called “strategic trusteeship.” I show how the US creation of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI) and its use for nuclear blasting represented a new entanglement of US extraterritorial material politics and legal politics. It blended racialized international legal forms of dependency with US militarism, and especially US military technology. Within the TTPI, the Marshall Islands became a sacrifice zone where the risks and harms of large-scale blasting could be located in Native lands and waters far outside of the United States’ North American territory.

The process entailed compromises between US military and civilian interests and agencies. The legal documents creating the TTPI were very complicated and contained seemingly conflicting provisions. US government lawyers did not agree on what US legal rights and obligations the US held in the TTPI, or even on what sources of law might apply there. US, UN, and Native sovereignties layered and intercalated in ambiguous ways in an area that was jurisdictionally legally plural. Because of this, Islanders’ and others’ challenges to US power often focused on law and legalities.

I discuss part of the origin story of strategic trusteeship in a short chapter called “The Nuclear Charter,” which is part of the volume Living in a Nuclear World: From Fukushima to Hiroshima (Routledge 2022), edited by Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, Kyoko Sato, and Soraya Boudia.

SK: Your story is one of the extraterritorial reach of US power as much as that of Islander agency and resistance. You emphasized the importance of Marshallese knowledges, experiences, and relationality to their ancestral atolls in this process. How were Marshallese notions shaped by their involvement in Western legal and scientific contexts – and how did Marshallese agency shape Western practices in return?

MXM: I want to start by positioning myself. I am a ri-pālle scholar and lawyer—a white US citizen who has never made a home in Aelōn̄-Kein-Ad (the Marshall Islands). I do not speak or read Marshallese. Rather, I work in extensive English-language records emanating from colonial, US national, and international law and institutions. Most of this source base is written in English. The records quite often include Marshallese actors and perspectives. Many Islanders were fluent in English and engaged with the TTPI, the US, and the UN in that language. But obviously, my standpoint is defined and limited in important ways by my identity, language skills, and focus.

With that in mind, there are two things I want to underline. First, in the time period I examine, Islanders had robust, non-state Native legal orders. These non-state legal orders were living and flexible. They changed with changing circumstances as almost all legal orders do. They were important sources of law in a legally plural area. Second, Marshallese ways of being-in-relation, including their legal orders, were (and are), I think, in very important senses incorporative. Monica LaBriola has some wonderful work that talks about this. Islanders adopted and adapted knowledges, religions, laws, technologies, techniques, even people and, in many cases, essentially made them Marshallese.

US Navy photo of celebrations on Majuro Atoll (4 July, 1944).
© National Archives at College Park

Like many legal historians who work on Native claims, I’m most interested in how Islanders articulated Native laws, practices, ontologies, knowledges and so forth in their claims-making. Even if a legal form, instrument, or forum is supplied by western law, the contents can be uniquely Marshallese. I try to trace how Islanders made their claims Marshallese. I’m not particularly interested in parsing. There’s a temporal politics to that. Colonial ideas about time and Indigeneity that remain in circulation today too often deny Native peoples the possibility of change by associating their “authentic” ways of being with a pastness that must be preserved or salvaged. I’m interested in recognizing Islanders as legal creators, innovators, and agents of change. Of course, there were and still are very real power asymmetries in play. Many of the legal rules, forms, and institutions arose in the west and favor western epistemologies and interests. But I think it is possible to value and evaluate Marshallese legal creation while attending to power relations.

I think it is especially important to denaturalize the assumption that international law and institutions are inalterably Euro-American in character. That is one origin. But Islanders, similar to other Native peoples before and after, and similar to other decolonized and decolonizing states, have treated these spaces as belonging equally to them. I am interested in examining how Islanders saw and still see Marshallese presence in these institutions as creating possibilities for transformative change. I find it important to leave open in my work the question of whether transformation is possible or likely. Marshall Islanders have worked very hard to be seen, heard, and heeded on the international stage. Today, they stand at the vanguard of international efforts to address climate change. I want to honor their work and the hope they hold out that a different future is possible.

SK: Your research brings a unique perspective and methodology by cutting across the fields of legal history and history of science. How do you navigate your research across the two fields – or how do you conceptualize the scientific dimensions of your story vis-à-vis the legal context?

MXM: The actors that historians of science and technology center in our work says something about whom we regard as important. I think it is essential for our fields to move beyond the traditional focus on scientists, technical workers, diplomats, and even users or consumers. I see my work as contributing to rich traditions of anthropological and historical work on nuclear colonialism and imperialism that have foregrounded communities and places affected by science and technology.

My approach uses legal conflict, mobilization, and claims-making as a lens, and folds legal and other knowledges into the mix. Legal knowledge istechnical knowledge. Legal work is epistemological (and even ontological) work. Law is a powerful site of meaning-making and politics. Lay people and communities make and contest legal claims. Synthesizing legal history with history of science and technology enables me to show how Marshall Islanders especially, but also other litigants and claimants, shaped and constrained US power.

To put it a different way, I regard US assertions that the problems of nuclear proliferation were narrowly technoscientific or technopolitical (and not legal) as one strategy US diplomats used to arrogate power to the United States and its allies. In fact, I show in my book project that the US was incredibly anxious about actual and threatened legal claims. Defining the field of play as science and technology was part of US strategies to limit the institutions and actors who could weigh in on its nuclear program. As a historian, I work to find out who challenged US power in different venues, trace how the US responded, and understand why the US treated particular claims or arguments as threatening. I think that offers an important viewpoint onto how US power was co-constituted and actually worked in practice. Certainly, it brings a much more heterogeneous range of actors and institutions into the narrative.

Let me explain this in the context of US work in the natural sciences done at the blast sites of Bikini and Enewetak Atolls. Scientists sited many kinds of studies there—environmental, biological, physical, geological etc. If a historian were to begin from the common assumption that bodies and environments are separate entities, then the moment a person or community is physically removed they are no longer in the story. A more traditional approach to twentieth-century science and technology history might note with regret that certain communities were removed and then go on to study what scientists were doing in those places. The archival collections consulted would probably mainly consist of scientists’ papers and technoscientific institutions’ records. In that scenario, Islanders basically get evacuated from the history just as they were removed from their ancestral places. I worry that those methods—even if voiced in the register of critique—may amplify the United States’ marginalization of Islanders. The production of scientific knowledge and technology is certainly important, but I think there is room and need for other kinds of work to be done under the mantle of history of science and technology.

I am interested in writing a history that accounts for Islanders’ importance and keeps them present. Islanders have repeatedly explained that their atolls and bodies are inextricably connected. Islanders are always already there. I use legal historical methods and sources to try to keep the Marshall Islands and Marshall Islanders in view because they and their places were at the very heart of major transformations I trace. To show connections between scales from local actions all the way to international institutions, I cast a very wide archival net into technoscientific, but also colonial, diplomatic, and legal collections. Colonial and legal sources often show how Islanders were involved in discussions about nuclear blasting and scientific studies, for example, even when they might not have had access to scientists or AEC officials or appeared in their records. So while I certainly examine scientists and scientific knowledges as they weave in and out of the story, I channel my narrative through legal claims and conflicts. My narrative begins with, and repeatedly returns to the Marshall Islands and Marshall Islanders.  

Sunset in Majuro.
© Mary X. Mitchell

SK: Finally, could you tell us about your experience of conducting research in the Marshall Islands? How do you communicate your research to the Marshallese?

MXM: I think that question kind of inverts my experiences. Marshall Islanders and long-term residents of the Marshall Islands have mentored me and supported me immeasurably in writing this history. They have very patiently oriented me, helped me to identify my own ethnocentric assumptions, put me in contact with knowledgeable people and communities, and even taken care of me when I’ve travelled to Majuro Atoll. They have not asked for much in return, except that I portray Islanders fairly and show their centrality within this history. That very much comports with how my academic mentors taught me to do history in the first place.

Many institutions and individuals in the Marshall Islands are working very hard to understand and educate about the nuclear legacy. In thinking about how my work might be of relevance, I try to listen carefully to what my Marshallese mentors, colleagues, and friends desire. As I have grown as a person and a scholar, it has become very important to me to prioritize and boost Islanders’ initiatives rather than dreaming up my own. Those initiatives are tremendously important. This isn’t about me. Folks know what I work on and my door is always open. I’ve collaborated in various small ways when invited.

I’ll talk just a bit about one issue I think is really pressing. From time to time, I have had the opportunity to share some archival records—things like photos, letters, recorded stories and so on—with descendants. Because my project focuses, in part, on Islanders’ mobilization, a lot of those records reflect powerful moments of leadership—an important meeting, the words of a speech, a letter demanding justice. Many people in the Islands value and want to access those kinds of records. There is real injustice at work in where archival records are located (mainly in lands of former colonizers) and how much craft knowledge and money it takes to visit and use them. Those archives relate to (maybe even constitute) loved ones, ancestors, and ancestral places. At a bare minimum, Islanders deserve better access. I want to conclude by noting that there’s a long history of Western journalists, scholars, and activists using the islands to make a big point and then moving on. That’s actually a part of the story I tell in the book. Some alliances faded when atmospheric blasting stopped entirely in 1963. Numerous American activists moved on to other causes while Islanders were left with the long-term problems of contamination and colonization. I don’t mirror those moves in my manuscript and I certainly don’t want to reproduce them through my actions. I will remain committed to collaborating long after the ink in the book is dry.