Few inventions had greater impact on the second half of the 20th century than the atomic bomb. Culture, technology, and of course, warfare were suddenly infused with a nuclear frame of mind as the human species collectively looked over its shoulder at an all-too-likely atomic war. The bomb’s effect on media and pop culture can be quite obvious, from Cold War-era propaganda to Peter Sellers’ comedy classic Dr. Strangelove; other inspirations are more obscure, as a single nuclear test that helped spawn an iconic swimsuit and an entire movie genre.
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The Bikini Atoll (a bastardization of its Marshallese name, Pikinni, roughly meaning “surface of coconuts") is located in the Ralik Chain of the Marshall Islands. In 1946, just a year after the detonation of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the end of World War II, the United States evacuated the 167 residents, as the atoll was chosen to be a nuclear test site as the Cold War arms race began.
President Truman wanted to test the bomb’s effectiveness against ships, and chose the Bikini islands for its remote location away from air or sea traffic. The natives were assured that they would only be temporarily relocated. A majority of the Bikini islanders moved to the Rongerik Atoll, a sixth of the size of Bikini with little to no food or water supply.
Baker, one of the first tests, is one of the most-viewed nuclear detonations in history, as its underwater explosion meant it could be filmed without the searing flash of light.
The tests dominated world headlines, and would soon impact an unlikely source: a French designer named Louis Reard. He was working on a new design for a two-piece women’s swimsuit, almost simultaneously with another Frenchman named Jacques Heim.
Both designs also had nuclear connections. Heim’s was named the “atome”, as it was “the smallest swimsuit in the world”; this title was almost immediately usurped by the bikini, which Reard claimed was “smaller than the smallest swimsuit in the world”. He was right—Reard's design exposed the wearer’s navel, unlike the atome. It was so scandalous that the only person he could find willing to model it was an exotic dancer.
The first nuclear test on the Bikini Atoll was just days before Reard presented his design. He named his swimsuit after the islands because he wanted it to dominate headlines as the tests had and because the bikini was “like the bomb”: small and devastating. Reard got the reaction he wanted, and supposedly received 50,000 fan letters—mostly from men.
In January 1948, about 18 months after the Bikini islanders were evacuated, anthropologist Dr. Leonard Mason visited Rongerik and found himself witnessing a nightmare. The Marshallese were starving to death: what little fish they could gather was now poisonous, and months of pleas to the U.S. Navy were ignored. Further relocations to other neighboring islands were similarly fruitless, as each island was wrought by food shortages and dangerous waters.
Nuclear testing in the atoll quickly increased, with disastrous results. In 1954, the Castle Bravo test far exceeded the U.S.’s expectations in terms of blast and fallout size. The explosion was 1,000 times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and is the most powerful nuclear test conducted by the United States—and the largest radioactive contamination caused by the country as well.
Inhabitants of nearby islands, including Rongerik, began feeling the effects of radiation poisoning. The Rongelap Atoll was covered with nearly an inch of ash. Within two hours of the blast, crew members aboard a Japanese fishing boat noticed a strange, snow-like substance falling from the sky. All on board contracted radiation sickness, and later hepatitis through blood transfusions.
The incident inspired a Japanese producer named Tomoyuki Tanaka, who wanted to make a film that combined growing global nuclear fears and the rising popularity of monster films. Ishirō Honda, a war veteran, was chosen to direct as he was happy to take the project seriously given its anti-nuclear themes.
The resulting film was about Gojira, a giant, radioactive monster awoken from its slumber after nuclear tests that ravages and flattens hopeless cities. It can only be defeated by a terrifying experimental weapon called the Oxygen Destroyer. While he is ultimately successful in killing Gojira, its inventor commits suicide so the weapon can never be replicated again.
Gojira is a not-so-subtle metaphor about the two bombs dropped on Japan just over a decade before the movie’s release, a condemning look at the destruction already wrought by nuclear weapons and a sobering look at the potential devastation to come. The monster’s first victim is even a fishing boat. Of course, this was not the monster that reached the screen in the States.
Here, the movie was released as Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, which added Canadian actor Raymond Burr and removed almost all political themes, paving the way for the dozens of sequels and remakes to come in decades to come. The original edition wasn’t even available outside of Japan until 2004.
By the 1960s, the bikini was dominating the beaches of Europe and even starting to make waves on the more prudish American shores. The Godzilla franchise was exploding in popularity, with ten releases before the decade closed out. U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson even assured the displaced Marshallese that it was now safe to return home to the Bikini Atoll.
It didn’t take long for that to be proven false. Coconut crabs were still too irradiated to eat; the 100 or so people who returned found dangerously high levels of radioactive isotopes in the well water and in their urine. Miscarriages and stillbirths became common, and a boy born on the Atoll in 1971 died of cancer at the age of 11. The islanders had to be evacuated for a second time.
The Bikini Atoll was chosen as it was deemed sufficiently remote to test nuclear bombs, which is an impossible description. The hundreds of Marshallese had their lives uprooted and in all too many cases, shortened by nearby bombs. Reparations were later provided by the U.S. government but the damage to the Atoll remains.
The “sufficiently remote” islands are now the namesake of one of the world’s most popular swimsuit designs and inspired an iconic, never-ending franchise of monster movies. Even modern-day classic cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants is set in the city of Bikini Bottom. The effort to find a remote location for nuclear testing was a futile one: There’s no way to test nuclear weapons without affecting the world in some way, and that often goes beyond the lingering radiation.