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SpongeBob, the bikini, Godzilla, and thermonuclear genocide
The nuclear tests on Bikini Atoll left a very big crater — both physically and culturally.
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No one lives on Bikini Atoll anymore. The small Pacific island chain, part of the Marshall Islands, was passed around by empires in the early 20th century: first Spain, then Germany, then Japan. At the end of World War II, the U.S. military conquered Bikini, forcibly removed the 40 families living there, and a built a weapons testing site.
Bikini could have turned out like Diego Garcia, another sad island where the natives were forced out to make way for a military base, then ignored by the world because of their small numbers. Instead, “Bikini” is a name almost every English speaker knows. The island literally exploded onto the world stage during the atomic era, and permanently became a part of global pop culture.
I’ve been reading a lot of nuclear history since President Joe Biden’s visit to Hiroshima. The new movie Oppenheimer has only made it more interesting. But I first learned about Bikini from the book How to Hide an Empire by Daniel Immerwahr, and learned more about its fate after watching the nuclear history documentary Trinity and Beyond last month.
Of course, I’d heard the word “bikini” before, referring to a two-piece swimsuit. And then there was Bikini Bottom, the fictional undersea town where the cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants is set. The pun is obvious: a “bikini bottom” is women’s underpants. There’s also a deeper historical reference that most viewers don’t get.
They may know that history, though, from a different pop culture product: Godzilla, the 1954 horror movie about a sea monster awakened by underwater nuclear tests.
Bikini Atoll was chosen to host the Able Baker tests, the first manmade nuclear explosions since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The U.S. Navy told the Bikini Islanders in 1946 that they had to leave, temporarily, “for the good of mankind.” Navy film crews coaxed Bikini’s leader, King Juda, into telling audiences that his people were willing to leave.
Several dozen ships, some of them old American hulls and some of them captured Fascist warships, were moved into the lagoon as targets. Live animals were left on the ships to test the effects of radiation. One bomb was dropped from the air on July 1, 1946 and another was detonated underwater on July 25. The military had planned a third explosion but cancelled it due to worse-than-expected contamination of the test site.
The Bikini Islanders, moved from nearby island to nearby island, could not practice their traditional agriculture and began to starve. They were also poisoned by the fallout from the nuclear tests.
Around the same time, French designers Jacques Heim and Louis Réard were competing to introduce the two-piece swimsuit. Because Able Baker was in the news, both designers used nuclear-themed names: Heim’s “Atome” and Réard’s “Bikini.”
Swimsuit model Micheline Bernardini had supposedly told Réard that his design was “more explosive than the Bikini bomb.” (Very French!) In any case, Réard’s design won out, so we call two-piece swimsuits “bikinis” now.
By the way, if the swimsuit had launched three weeks later, the headlines would have been about the King David Hotel bombing in Jerusalem. So there’s an alternate history where Bernardini talked about a swimsuit “more explosive than the Jerusalem bomb,” and women wear “jerusalems” to the beach now.
Meanwhile, scientists were debating whether it was possible to create a “superbomb,” through nuclear fusion, which would be a thousand times more powerful than the first-generation atom bomb. (Today, these devices are known as “hydrogen bombs” or “thermonuclear weapons.”) Edward Teller, the Hungarian-American mad scientist featured in Oppenheimer, eventually figured it out.
Robert Oppenheimer opposed the new weapons, but after the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear weapon in 1949, the U.S. government began a crash program to build a “super.” The first thermonuclear device was tested in 1952 on Enewetok, one island over from Bikini, but was too heavy to actually launch from a plane or missile.
In 1954, the U.S. military returned to Bikini. The new test, Operation Castle, promised to deliver a thermonuclear bomb light enough to carry on an airplane. It was a catastrophic success. The “Castle Bravo” bomb was more than twice as powerful as expected, and the largest American bomb ever exploded to this day.
The light was so bright that witnesses could see their bones through their skin. The fallout contaminated Marshall Islands and poisoned the crew of the Lucky Dragon No. 5, a Japanese fishing boat. One of the fishermen, Kuboyama Aikichi, died. The Lucky Dragon incident was very sensitive in Japan, a country that had been bombed a decade earlier.
The filmmaker Ishiro Honda decided to tell the story as a metaphor: nuclear tests awaken a fire-breathing sea creature. Scientists then debate whether to build an even more dangerous weapon to stop the beast. Honda’s Godzilla led to a new movie genre, known as kaiju, that manifested Cold War anxieties in the form of literal monsters.
Later kaiju films lost their political content. Terror of Mechagodzilla and Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire just don’t have the same biting critique of U.S. militarism! The recent American remake of Godzilla portrays Able Baker as an attempt to kill the monster, as smiling Bikini islanders watch, a very brazen rewriting of the story.
Godzilla is not the only pop culture character from Bikini Atoll. SpongeBob SquarePants, a show about talking sea creatures, first aired in 1999. Although their hometown is called “Bikini Bottom,” an earlier version of the script specifically named it as the bottom of Bikini Atoll.
Fans have long speculated that the characters are supposed to be mutants created by nuclear testing, just like Godzilla. In an apparent nod to those theories, the show has actually used footage from the Able Baker tests:
Dark, if you know the history.
Scientists had assumed that Bikini would be safe again by the 1970s, and a few families returned in 1972. But the food supply was still radioactive, leading to truly horrific health effects, and the Bikini Islanders were forced to evacuate again in 1977. The island remains empty today. Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, a Marshallese writer, has written haunting poetry about “the women who gave birth to nightmares.”
Although the local plants and animals are still too radioactive to eat, and parts of the Marshall Islands are still heavily contaminated, Bikini itself is supposedly safe to visit. Scuba divers dive there if they have $5,000 to blow and a special certification — because of the depth, not the radiation.
Five years ago, a film crew went even deeper with submersible. No sea monsters, no talking sponges. Just the ruins of Cold War horrors.
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