On Tuesday June 17, President Barack Obama announced his intent to declare 782,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean a National Monument. Obama’s plan expands the sanctuary, created in 2009 by President George W. Bush, by a factor of nine and makes fishing, energy exploration, and other human activities in the area illegal. The announcement comes as the State Department’s “Our Ocean” Conference gets underway this June, which aims to address the problems of pollution, overfishing, and ocean acidification.
The seven islands, atolls, and reefs protected by the plan are mostly uninhabited, but some of these places have played an important role in America’s military past. Wake Island was the site of a major battle in WWII where over 200 Americans perished defending the island from a Japanese invasion. Future President George H.W. Bush’s first combat mission was part of an American air raid on the island following the invasion. During the Cold War, Wake Island served as a strategic defense center tasked with testing anti-missile systems. Today, the U.S. Air Force owns and operates an airfield on the island that serves as an emergency landing site for trans-pacific flights.
Johnston Atoll, also included in Obama’s plan, served as a vital Pacific outpost during the Cold War. From 1958 to 1975, the area functioned as a test site for atmospheric and high-altitude nuclear explosions. After the 1963 Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty prohibited the detonation of nuclear devices above ground, Johnston became the base for a top secret nuclear anti-satellite weapons system, as well as a biological warfare test site and chemical weapon storage depot. By 1971 Johnston stored 6.6% of the U.S. military’s chemical weapons arsenal including 400,000 rockets, projectiles, bombs, mortars, and mines. After demilitarization and destruction of the chemical weapons stockpile during the 1990’s and early 2000’s, Johnston was briefly put up for auction by the U.S. General Services Administration in 2005 before quickly being retracted. Today the atoll remains uninhabited.
The United States controls more of the world’s oceans than any other country, overseeing 13% of ocean area governed by nations. America can continue leading the way in marine environmental policy, providing an example for other countries to follow. The legacy of these islands show how what was once used for the most dangerous weapons in the world can now be used as a refuge for peaceful conservation.