Sydney Tisch ’20, Undergraduate Research Fellow in Pace University’s International Disarmament Institute, reflects on the difficulties of finding information about UK and US nuclear weapons testing at Kiritimati (Christmas) and Malden Islands: “That documents were seemingly impossible to find shows whose lives and bodies we in the West care about and whose we don’t.” Tisch helped with research for the Institute’s reports on the humanitarian, human rights and environmental impact of nuclear weapons testing in Kiribati.
When I found an email from Pace University’s International Disarmament Institute in my inbox asking for applicants for an Undergraduate Research Fellow to assist in a researching on victim assistance for people impacted by nuclear testing in the Pacific, I was excited and, in retrospect, completely unaware of what the position would actually entail.
In the past I had conducted my own research projects for class, where the furthest out of my way I had ever gone was visiting the Bryant Park branch of the New York Public Library to look at documents they had stored in their archives. I had also worked on a research project with Dr. Emily Bent, another professor at Pace University, which primarily consisted of qualitative analysis and coding of data that had already been collected.
Even after I found out I got the position, was handed a literal “List of Things to Find,” and was told that my search to find various environmental surveys would be difficult, I still could not imagine how difficult that could be. In my mind, at most I would be taking a week’s worth of research to find one of the items on the list; it never even occurred to me that I would be unable to procure any of them.
My “List of Things to Find” included environmental surveys of Kiribati, a petition to the EU, and information on apparently one of the most obscure US government operations I’ve ever come across.
I began by trying to find details about Operation Hard Look, a US military operation on Kiritimati (Christmas) island, which monitored French atmospheric testing in French Polynesia. ‘Hard Look’ turned out to be a very ironic name in that you have to have a very hard look to find anything that even says it exists. I brought this research problem to various Pace librarians and even tried emailing and calling a defense archive in Virginia, but I had no luck. I was ultimately unable to find anything new about this operation, let alone any government documentation. By the end of my search I discovered that as far as public knowledge goes, the operation apparently does not exist.
After I had exhausted my resources on Operation Hard Look, I began searching for environmental surveys, primarily for the three which I already knew the full titles, names of the people and groups who worked on them, and years they were published to help guide me (University of Washington, Medford, McEwan). I figured these would be easier to find since I had specifics I was looking for rather than a vague, hard to search for name.
I ended up being somewhat right as I was able to find some news articles discussing the reports and some of the controversy around them – yet the full copies still eluded me. I contacted the University of Washington (which was involved in one of the studies) and an environmental surveying company that did some of the reports (Enviros) and no one seemed to know about or be able to find any of the reports.
I was even able to figure out exactly where a copy of the McEwan/New Zealand National Radiation Laboratory report was housed – in a Defense Library in New Zealand! However, when I reached out for the report via email, a librarian told me that after an earthquake in November 2016 the report was packed up and is currently completely inaccessible. Receiving this information, after jumping through hoops to almost get the report, was easily one of the most frustrating parts of my entire research project.
Despite that disappointment, I continued onward down the list to try to find a copy of a petition from 300 test survivors on Kiribati to the EU, but ended up at dead ends when two different members on the EU Petitions Committee continued to send me to one another as apparently neither could help me gain access to the survey.
However, I was able to find some success in looking through a civil court case of nuclear test victims in Kiribati suing the UK Ministry of Defense for their negative health effects from the testing (that they unfortunately lost) where they used some of the environmental surveys that I was unable to find. By scanning the transcripts and decision of the court case I was able to pull direct quotes from the text to create sort of Frankenstein-ian document composed of little pieces of various reports as well as quotes from other nuclear scientists who testified during the trial. But ultimately, by the end of my two-and-a-half months of research, I really only had a couple of miscellaneous quotes to show for all my hard work.
But thinking beyond one undergraduate student’s endless frustration, the fact that these documents were seemingly impossible to find really shows whose lives and bodies we (or, in my case, the West) care about and whose we don’t.
All of this information should be readily accessible for those who need it, or at least not enclosed somewhere in New Zealand years after an earthquake. The fact that this is not the case comes down to who we care about enough to document and who we deem as unworthy of this privilege.
By the end of my research I had come up with so many more questions than I did answers: Why is one of the biggest obstacles to helping victims of nuclear testing simply an inability to access information? Why don’t we find these histories important enough to document when people who are equally human as us are suffering? Why do we privilege some people as being “thought-of” and “documented” while others we are okay with being ignored and eventually forgotten?
While these questions bring up uneasy histories of racism and colonialist discourses, I think they can also point us towards the right path to take to begin to address these injustices moving forward as a global community. We need to understand the importance of and begin to take the effort to document these cases of nuclear testing in so-called “remote” places of the world – making sure not only to record environmental and health impacts on the island (although that is important), but also the stories of those who lived through it.
It’s vital that we listen and save this information to show that it matters and especially these people matter, so that people decades from now will know what happened, especially those on Kiritimati. It’s also clear that not only do we need to record this information, but we also need to save it in multiple places (especially online) so that if one place becomes inaccessible for some reason (such as an earthquake) the information is not lost entirely.
But beyond the work of researchers, I think as people who want to genuinely create an international community of care, we can begin to be more curious about Kiribati and other parts of the world that are often forgotten in the West – who are the people that live there, what is their history, what are the stories they have to tell us? Learning more about “the other” is key to recognizing their full dignity and humanity and will hopefully lead us towards a more just world where merely having your story documented is no longer deemed a “privilege.”
— Sydney Tisch ’20, Peace and Justice Studies and Women’s & Gender Studies double major.