At first glance, “nuclear bombs,” “bikinis,” and “SpongeBob SquarePants” are terms you might not think belong in the same discussion. But the horrifying truth of the matter is that they do, especially when you throw the words “American imperialism” into the mix.
But let’s take a step back. For all this to make sense, we’ll need to make a quick trip to the Marshall Islands, a tiny country in the Pacific found just north of the equator, and somewhere between Papua New Guinea and Hawaii.
The former U.S. colony is spread out across five islands, just under 30 coral atolls, and some 1,156 islets. One of these atolls — or, for those of us who never encountered the word in geography class: ring-shaped coral reefs that can either partially or completely surround a lagoon — shares the name of SpongeBob’s home city as well as a popular style of swimwear.
Welcome to Bikini Atoll
“Bikini” is the anglicized (read: colonial) way to spell the area’s real name, which is Pikinni Atoll. In Marshallese, “Pik” means “surface,” while “Ni” means “coconut,” which makes the atoll literally a “surface of coconuts.” The name was transliterated when the Germans came around and the area became part of German New Guinea.
Not a lot is known about the early history of the Marshall Islands, but today’s Marshallese are descended from Southeast Asian migrants, who were great Oceanic voyagers and populated the many small islands of the Western Pacific Ocean some 3,000 years ago.
Bikinians were known for being skilled navigators and boat-builders, and thrived through fishing and farming. Because of the geography, the community was fairly isolated, and had strong family and traditional ties.
And Then the Colonizers Came
Most of what we know of the Marshall Islands’ history reads like a who’s-who of colonizers.
The first Westerner to set foot on the Marshall Islands was the Spanish explorer Alonso de Salazar, who arrived in 1526. But it wasn’t until 1529 when the Spanish Empire recorded its first sighting of the Bikini Atoll, and by then the atoll was known as Buenos Jardines (or the “Good Gardens”).
British explorers visited the Marshall Islands in the 1700s, but the area generally didn’t attract as much attention for exploration and mapping as compared to other areas that held more potential for colonizers. There were also a few short-lived religious missions in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Across most of the 1800s, the Germans and the Spanish sought to take formal control of the Marshall Islands. The Germans were recruiting Bikinians to develop the trade for copra oil, which is made from coconuts.
But by the 1870s, the Marshall Islands were formally claimed by Spain. This irked the Germans, and they went to none other than the Pope to sort out their quarrels over which colonizer owned which parts of the islands in what’s known as the 1885 Hispano-German Protocol of Rome.
At the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, however, Spain lost many of its colonies. And after losing its control of Manila (they sold the entire Philippines for $20 million to the US), they had no way of controlling the Pacific islands they had colonized and were thus forced to sell those islands to Germany in 1899.
After being under Japanese rule, this time from World War I until near the end of World War II, the Marshall Islands then saw the arrival of American forces in the Kwajalein Atoll. The battle that ensued between the Japanese and the Americans was bloody, but for the Marshallese and, more specifically, the Bikinians, the violence had only just begun.
They Came, They Saw, They Conquered… and They Bombed
Early on, the Bikini Atoll wasn’t very popular among colonizers that claimed it because it wasn’t as fertile or as lush as other areas. This meant that locals were able to retain some form of self-governance, though under the administration of whichever set of colonizers were around.
But after World War II, the Americans found that there was a benefit to how distant the atoll was from both sea and air traffic: They decided that it was a good place to carry out nuclear weapons testing.
As the U.S. felt pressure to create bigger and more destructive bombs in the Cold War, they convinced the Bikinians to relocate.
It was going to be temporary, they said. And they’ll be taken care of in their new home, the Rongerik Atoll — just one-sixth the size of their home and even less apt for habitation because of inadequate water and food supply — they said.
And, according to Navy Commodore Ben H. Wyatt, it was for the greater good: They were testing atomic bombs “to end all world wars.”
The inhabitants of Bikini Atoll agreed, if somewhat confused and sorrowfully. And the bombing began.
Now, we’ve all been taught about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans in 1945. But most of us aren’t taught about how between 1946 and 1958, the U.S. saw the destruction they caused in Japan and decided to detonate a total of 23 more nuclear devices across seven test sites in the reef, inside the atoll, in the air, and underneath the water of Bikini Atoll.
One of these experiments, codenamed Operation Castle, involved a bomb that was over a thousand times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The detonation was named Castle Bravo, and it was a result of a miscalculation — the expected nuclear explosion was only supposed to be between 26% and 53% of the real explosion.
It was so big that the nuclear fallout became the U.S.’s most significant radiological contamination in history. It affected even the crew who were in charge of firing it from a supposedly safe distance away. They were airlifted to safety after some time, but the residents of the Rongelap, Utrik, and Rongerik Atolls had to wait several days.
At the Rongelap Atoll, radioactive debris and ash coated the ground, reaching up to 2.0 cm high. It caused severe radiation sickness among all of the island’s inhabitants, who were forced to abandon their homes — as well as all their belongings and ways of living — three days after the bomb was detonated.
Radiation sickness is no joke. Initial symptoms include nausea, fevers, weakness, hair loss, and internal bleeding. But it can — and is — felt for years afterward in skyrocketing rates of cancer, stillbirths, miscarriages, and various genetic abnormalities.
Other victims of the detonation were the crew of a Japanese fishing boat that was just outside the declared danger zone. While they were not affected by the blast itself, nuclear fallout in the form of fine ash fell on their ship like snow. They had no idea what it was, but they soon developed acute radiation sickness as well.
The U.S. would’ve likely kept all this a secret, too, if the radioactive material from these bombs didn’t reach countries like Australia, India, Japan, and parts of Europe as well as the United States.
This prompted calls to end thermonuclear weapons. And as the world learned about the death of one of the fishermen and began to campaign against nuclear testing, Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, infamously said, “It’s unreasonable to make such a big deal over the death of a fisherman.”
Given all this, you’d think the U.S. would decide that it was perhaps best to slow down and stop destroying the environment and making people sick. But in the interest of “democracy” and “the good of mankind,” they chose to continue.
What followed Operation Castle were several other series of nuclear tests, including Operation Redwing and Operation Hardtack. In a very American brand of cruelty, the 17 nuclear bombs in the former were named after Native American tribes.
The end effect, across a dozen years of 67 nuclear tests in and around the Marshall Islands, has been described as, “the most violent thing we’ve ever done to the ocean.” And it’s also one of the most terrible — but least known — atrocities committed against humankind.
At Rongerik Atoll, a resident said, “We’d get a few fish, then the entire community would have to share this meager amount… The fish were not fit to eat there. They were poisonous because of what they ate on the reef. We got sick from them, like when your arms and legs fall asleep and you can’t feel anything. We’d get up in the morning to go to our canoes and fall over because we were so ill… Then we started asking these men from America [to] bring us food… We were dying, but they didn’t listen to us.”
A “Legacy of Distrust”
For the displaced Bikinians, what was supposed to be a temporary relocation beginning in 1946 has stretched out all the way to today. There were some attempts to return the islanders to Bikini Atoll, like in 1970. However, testing revealed still dangerous levels of radioactive material, which also contaminated the soil and the water and made it impossible to live in the area.
The U.S. then paid the displaced families $125 million in compensation. A trust fund was also established in 2013 to cover medical treatment and other costs.
But no amount of money can ever make up for what the Bikinians have lost. Leni Kramer, a Bikini local councilwoman, explained that the loss of the atoll meant the loss of homes, as well as the loss of the islands’ culture.
“As a result of being displaced we’ve lost our cultural heritage – our traditional customs and skills, which for thousands of years were passed down from generation to generation,” she said. “After they were exposed like that I can never trust what the U.S. tells us.”
This legacy of lies and destruction extends beyond Bikini Atoll, and to the rest of the Marshall Islands. This legacy also happens to be a ticking time bomb.
On the nearby Enewetak Atoll, the U.S. built the Runit Dome. Known locally as The Tomb, it is home to 3.1 million cubic feet of radioactive debris created by bomb tests — an amount that translates to around 35 Olympic-sized swimming pools filled with nuclear waste.
Today, the dome is at risk of collapsing because of rising seas brought about by climate change. (Incidentally, the U.S. is also the world’s worst in terms of carbon emissions, which contribute to climate change.)
To make things worse, the U.S. has also washed its hands with regard to The Tomb. According to them, the dome is the responsibility of the Marshallese government because it is on Marshallese land.
Here’s Where the Swimwear Comes In
So far, the story is pretty horrifying at every turn. And I’m sorry to say that it gets worse in a whole new way.
In the 1930s, European women began wearing two-piece bathing suits that showed just a sliver of the midriff. This style became popular in the U.S. during World War II as well because of wartime fabric rationing.
At the end of the war, people were set to enjoy their first war-free summer in a while, and French designers Jacques Heim and Louis Réard tried to capitalize on this by developing competing types of swimwear, both prototypes of the modern swimwear we now know as the bikini, in 1946.
Heim advertised his creation as “the world’s smallest bathing suit” and called it the Atome (in reference to the smallest unit of matter). Réard’s design was a lot smaller, and was made up of just 30 inches of fabric. To one-up Heim, he described his product as “smaller than the world’s smallest bathing suit.”
In naming his design, he found inspiration in the first peacetime test of a nuclear bomb, which had happened just days before he started promoting. And yes, he saw the sheer chaos of the bomb tests, the displacement of locals, and the destruction of the environment, and decided to give his swimsuit a name he hoped would be as explosive as what had happened to Bikini Atoll.
I’m not sure if I have enough words to describe how nightmarishly awful this all is. Not only did so many have to leave their homes, get sick, and die because of these nuclear bombs, but the weapons and the destruction they caused were also used as a marketing gimmick for skimpy swimwear.
And with that, let’s go to the last piece of the puzzle.
Enter: SpongeBob of Bikini Bottom
Elements of the horrific history above are lightly referenced in SpongeBob SquarePants, though not a lot of kids are likely to pick on them.
For instance, in 2014, Tom Kenny, the voice actor who plays SpongeBob, confirmed that his character’s city of Bikini Bottom is indeed named after the Bikini Atoll. He denies that the characters are a result of radioactive mutations, though.
Others, meanwhile, have pointed to the frequent explosions in the show, many of which are designed to mimic nuclear mushroom clouds. (Some explosions, as can be seen in the compilation below, even use real-life footage.)
Last but not least, there’s a small island that makes an appearance in the intro of every episode, and in some scenes above the sea level. Fans have pointed to this as a representation of Bikini Atoll.
This depiction has been criticized, perhaps most loudly by University of Washington professor Dr. Holly M. Barker, who has worked with the Marshallese throughout her career.
Writing about Réard’s swimwear, she explains that the bikini became a symbol for the West’s ability to go back to leisurely activities after the war, like spending time at the beach, something that Bikinians and many Marshallese cannot do in their home islands.
The creation and naming of the bikini swimsuit dissociated the word Bikini from the violence of America and nuclear testing. “It deflected gazes from the vaporizing of entire islands and the banishing of countless generations of Bikinians from their ancestral home,” she writes.
“In a similar way, SpongeBob shifts viewers’ contemporary gaze from the Bikinian people who live on the surface of the islands, or the bikini top, to Bikini Bottom, the lower portion of the bathing suit, or the proverbial backside.”
The writing is damning, and very true. In 2019, she also made headlines for criticizing the show’s promotion of violent and racist settler colonialism.
A Call to End the Militarization of the Pacific
I’m not going to lie — I had to pause several times across writing this just to cry. What the U.S. did to the Marshall Islands and to Bikini Atoll is unforgivable, and the fact that their atrocities have long been hushed up or otherwise framed as a way to achieve democracy and liberty is a terrible, terrible thing we have to challenge, today and every day.
Worse still, histories like this aren’t taught. I know more, for example, about U.S. presidents than I do about Pacific islanders who share the same histories of loss and colonization, the same patterns of subjugation and erasure as my own people.
Speaking of U.S. presidents, some have called on the Biden administration to clean up the mess America made in the Marshall Islands. Because he had run on the promise to restore humanity to the country’s highest seat, it’s high time to make things right. And it should start with a truthful and transparent account of the atrocities made in the Marshall Islands, and do all that the U.S. can for Bikinian reparations and resettlement.
For those of us who aren’t U.S. presidents, one way to recognize this history is to stop calling the two-piece swimwear a bikini.
It’s a small shift, but it helps to recognize the true meaning and horrific history behind the word.
TikTok user Kiana, whose videos have helped spread the word about Bikini Atoll to more people in recent weeks, has a suggestion for renaming Réard’s two-piece swimwear. We can rename the bikini to: “Stop the militarization of the Pacific.”
As for the popular yellow sea sponge living in a pineapple under the sea, Dr. Barker explains that people don’t necessarily laugh at the show’s jokes and stories maliciously or with any form of approval for America’s colonial activities.
But it does help to recognize both the laughter of audiences and the tears of the Bikinian people equally.
She compares the hypervisibility of SpongeBob and the invisibility of the Bikinians, both during the Cold War and today. For her, there is potential for education and understanding of history in the show — a potential that is largely untapped.
If you’d like further reading on the topic, then I highly recommend Dr. Barker’s 2019 article, Unsettling SpongeBob and the Legacies of Violence on Bikini Bottom, as well as the work of Marshallese author Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner.