The origins of Jon Mitchell’s astounding Poisoning the Pacific can be traced back to his childhood in Wales, where he grew up with family stories about his great grandfather’s First World War experiences of a near-fatal gas attack in the trenches of Europe. That hatred for chemical weapons would transform into action in the autumn of 2010, when Mitchell – a Yokohama-based journalist – was in the rugged Yanbaru region of northern Okinawa, talking to villagers about the effects of US military activities in the area. The local people expressed concern about past sprayings of Agent Orange, a notorious herbicide and defoliant chemical widely used during the Vietnam War. This was the first time Mitchell had heard of Agent Orange being used on Okinawa and it was contrary to official lines on the matter. Mitchell began interviewing American veterans and he found that their stories meshed with the Okinawans’ claims. It was a start of a decade-long investigation into U.S. military contamination on Okinawa and elsewhere in the Western Pacific.
Mitchell’s investigation took two main approaches. He interviewed people with first-hand knowledge of American bases – veterans and local base workers, people living nearby, and whistleblowers who contacted him. Secondly, he used the U.S. Freedom of Information Act to obtain documents from federal agencies – twelve thousand pages’ worth!
A decade of research is summarized at the end of the book in a table of numbers for the “Estimated Human Impact of Military Contamination in Japan, Okinawa, and the Micronesia Region,” which gives a total of over 600,000 victims. Rather than run through the incidents area by area or case by case – whether exposure to radiation, fuel and oil in water supplies, nerve agent leaks, herbicide use, dangerous firefighting foam, dumping and spills of chemicals and radioactive waste – I’d like to highlight some overall themes, as the book is an example of the whole being more than the sum of its parts.
Mitchell does well starting his book with a little known episode from the Second World War; the Japanese military’s secret production of chemical weapons for use in China, which took place on the Inland Sea island of Okunoshima. It makes for fascinating yet horrifying reading, and lays out patterns we will see with other contamination stories: the wartime relegation of safety, secrecy, careless disposal postwar, government denials and negligence in helping victims and cleaning up.
Nine out of ten workers involved in Okunoshima’s wartime production and postwar cleanup suffered serious health damage, especially respiratory tract cancers and chronic bronchitis; others committed suicide.
The Pacific War ended in a climax of industrial-scale killing, from the Battle of Okinawa to the firebombing of Japanese cities to the nuclear tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Both victor and vanquished were tainted by the violence, and both quickly enmeshed in collaboration and complicity. Cold War realities meant there was mutual benefit in amnesia.
The immunity deal brokered between US occupation forces and Japanese army scientists was one of the most significant in the postwar period. The pact signaled to Japanese militarists that if they collaborated with the United States, their past misdeeds—no matter how evil—would be not only forgiven, but also rewarded. It set the stage for further collusion between the United States and suspected Japanese war criminals in the coming years as Washington built Japan into a bulwark against Communism.
At the end of the Second World War the United States found itself as a world superpower newly in charge of whole swathes of far-flung territories. And after four years as sole nuclear power, it entered a nuclear arms race with the Soviets. The intersection of occupying foreign lands and rushed nuclear research would play out badly in Micronesia.
The Marshall Islands, over which the United Nations granted the United States trusteeship, lie about halfway between Hawaii and Papua New Guinea. Isolated and with a tiny population, these islands would make for a good nuclear weapon testing site. From May 1951, with a blast measuring 225 kilotons – ten times more powerful than Nagasaki’s Little Boy – the tests became increasingly potent, strong enough to wipe small islands off the map.
[B]etween 1946 and 1958, the United States conducted sixty-seven nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands, with a combined yield of 108 megatons. These amounted to an “average of more than 1.6 Hiroshima bombs per day for the twelve-year nuclear test program.” In comparison, the atmospheric tests conducted at the Nevada Test Site added up to 1.05 megatons; the Marshall Islands bore the overwhelming burden of Cold War US nuclear tests.
When it came to waste disposal, there was a similar lack of environmental awareness and concern for human safety.
Between 1944 and 1970, the US Army disposed of 29 million kilograms of mustard and nerve agents, and 454 tons of radioactive waste into the ocean. In one of the codenames beloved by the Pentagon, Operation CHASE (Cut Holes and Sink ’Em) involved packing ships with conventional and chemical weapons, sailing them out to sea, and scuttling them in deep waters.
A major takeaway from the Poisoning the Pacific is the vital role of local media in supporting investigative journalism. Mitchell writes: “On Okinawa, both daily newspapers, Ryukyu Shimpo and the Okinawa Times, where I report as a special correspondent, and the TV station Ryukyu Asahi Housou understand the importance of an assertive, investigative media to wring transparency from Japanese and US authorities.”
This kind of long-term local support is essential. Not only does it allow for in-depth coverage, and for a journalist to establish local contacts, knowledge, and credibility, it also means practical financial support. A book like Poisoning the Pacific is built on material gathered (and paid for) doing newspaper legwork. It would very difficult to fund such a project from scratch.
Although Mitchell points out that military contamination is not solely an American problem, for me the book still has something of an anti-US flavor to it. Perhaps it’s a result of the author’s years of journalistic combat against agencies whose SOP is to “deny, cover-up and lie.”
In a lot of books covering the issue of American bases in the region, Cold War rationales tend to be mentioned in an off-hand way, as if fears of communist expansion in Asia were overblown and largely American paranoia. It’s a Dr. Strangelove world where Americans are there just so they can bomb the shit out of things. Poisoning the Pacific contains statements where a bit more nuance would have been better.
Mitchell calls the argument that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war as “one of the most successful propaganda campaigns in history.” Yes, the advancing Soviet army was a big and under underappreciated factor in Japan’s surrender, but the atomic bombs cannot be dismissed so lightly .
The sentence – “Backed by a powerful lobby of arms manufacturers and bought politicians, today the US military is responsible to no one,” – would have benefited from being less absolutist. Likewise, an editor should have asked for “zero regard” to be toned down to “little regard” in the following: “In the Pacific, the Pentagon has taken advantage of geographical isolation and lack of oversight to pollute this region’s territories with zero regard for the environment or human health.”
The United States has made some terrible mistakes in the Asia-Pacific region – and these deserve to be pointed out – but in the interests of balance and context, we should remember the real threat communism has posed (admittedly not directly to the likes of Okinawa and Guam) and the great good the United States has done in promoting peace and prosperity. Living in Taiwan I’m immensely grateful for the American protection of this beleaguered island. Without it, my wife and in-laws would surely be living under the CCP jackboot.
Even a Cold War hawk like myself, however, must concede that the heavy American presence on Okinawa is unjustified and I can understand the frustration activists feel. The Okinawans have for too long carried an unfair burden of Japan’s defence arrangements with the United States. It seems especially outrageous when you consider the catastrophic price they paid back in 1945.
By the end of fighting in late June, more than 70,000 Japanese and 14,000 American troops had been killed; 25,000 GIs were incapacitated by shellshock, a testament to the ferocity of the combat. More than a quarter of Okinawa’s population—140,000 people—were killed.
Military land seizures followed. And when the US occupation of mainland Japan ended in 1952, Okinawa was not included – it would need to wait until 1972. It remained “in a geopolitical gray zone, a US military colony protected by neither the constitution of the United States nor that of Japan.” Among the revelations in Poisoning the Pacific is the fact that, “During the twenty-seven-year US occupation, Okinawa possessed one of the most concentrated stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction on the planet: approximately one thousand nuclear warheads and thirteen thousand tons of chemical weapons.”
The Okinawan people deserve better than the treatment they have received from Japan and the United States. There and elsewhere, Mitchell advocates a thorough examination of health problems related to military contamination. “No cost must be spared; there is always more money for new weapons and wars but never enough for those poisoned by past ones.”
Poisoning the Pacific is a landmark book, both passionate and persuasive, with a clever regional focus and historical timeline providing clarifying context onto which are sprinkled revelatory nuggets. Though it is Mitchell’s first English-language book, he has three Japanese-language books to his name (which were the basis of several award-winning Japanese documentaries). To learn more about the Jon Mitchell and his work – including successes in helping affected U.S. veterans – you can visit his website.
Poisoning the Pacific: The U.S. Military’s Secret Dumping of Plutonium, Chemical Weapons and Agent Orange is published by Rowman & Littlefield.