Almira Matayoshi lived her adult life with heavy sorrow. A native of the Marshall Islands, she lost two babies at birth, both with ghastly deformations caused by the radiation she absorbed from nuclear weapons tested by the U.S. in 1954 in this string of atolls in the Pacific Ocean.
“My first child did not look human,” Matayoshi relates in a film that indicts the American government for crimes against humanity. “It was like a bunch of grapes.”
In Nuclear Savage: The Islands of Secret Project 4.1, filmmaker Adam Jonas Horowitz sets out to prove that the irradiation of the islanders was no accident. Citing information from government documents previously marked as classified and top secret, Horowitz builds the case that they were used as guinea pigs for radiation experiments. It was no different than the medical horrors perpetrated on prisoners in the concentration camp of Buchenwald, Germany, during the Second World War, for which Nazi doctors were sentenced to hang after trial in Nuremberg.
In archival U.S. government film reels retrieved by Horowitz, the natives were referred to as “savages”.
“Do you think it’s evil?” Horowitz asks about Project 4.1—the official name for the study of the effects of radioactive fallout on humans following the 1954 test at Bikini Atoll—in one of his interviews with Tony de Brum, a former government minister in the Marshall Islands.
De Brum—who grew up under the shadow of nuclear tests starting just months after the U.S. dropped nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the close of the Second World War—struggles for an answer. “Evil is probably as close as you can get,” he said.
In a phone interview while he was on the road in Vermont, the American filmmaker explained why he asked such a question. “They poisoned the islanders on purpose in order to study them,” Horowitz told the Georgia Straight. “If anything can be called evil, I think that can. And in doing this story, I tried to keep a journalistic distance. But I was so shocked by what I found out that your human side has to come out…I was shocked. And I was ashamed.”
Horowitz lives not far from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where scientists helped develop the first nuclear bomb. From his home, he can see its lights burning at night.
“They are still designing new nuclear bombs there,” Horowitz said. “For what purpose, I don’t know. But they never seem to have enough. It reminds me all the time that we still have in the United States, they say, 10,000 nuclear weapons ready to go. And they never talk about who they would use them against. But they just can’t get rid of them. It’s insane.”
In 1986, through a Compact of Free Association, the Marshall Islands attained independence after almost four decades of U.S. rule. Under the agreement, the tiny Pacific nation received $150 million in compensation for past, present, and future claims from the nuclear tests conducted between 1946 and 1958.
DOXA presents Nuclear Savage: The Islands of Secret Project 4.1 at 8:30 p.m. on Sunday (May 6) at the Vancity Theatre.
Watch the trailer for Nuclear Savage: The Islands of Secret Project 4.1.