On Air
0:00
0:00
Open In Popup
MPR News

The Pacific Ocean's rich history of surfboards, empires and atomic bombs

Share story

A mushroom cloud over the Bikini Lagoon in 1946
A mushroom cloud rises from the waters of Bikini Lagoon during the United States' first series of underwater atomic tests, on Aug. 7, 1946.
Keystone/Getty Images

Simon Winchester has written the biography of an ocean. 

In his new book, "Pacific," he documents the Pacific waters and the countries they touch, focusing on the mid-20th century to present. It's a history filled with surfboards, politics and atomic bombs.

In the late 1940s, Winchester said, Americans "persuaded the people of the Bikini Atoll to move from their idyllic life of fishing and picking coconuts" and make way for two decades of thermonuclear weapon testing. 

'Pacific' by Simon Winchester
'Pacific' by Simon Winchester
Courtesy of Harper

The residents were relocated to a different island that lacks the natural resources of their original home — a home too irradiated to return to.

Other countries followed suit, testing weapons in the Pacific. "The ocean has been used as a playground for atomic scientists," Winchester said.

But the atomic scars are just one defining feature of the modern Pacific. The ocean has been the site of some the most critical moments in recent history. Its tropical locations are also some of the most visited in the world.  

Winchester joined MPR News producer Madelyn Mahon to discuss his new book and the striking nature of Pacific geography.

"We tend to forget that scenery is constructed by violent acts of geology, and so the places that are inherently beautiful in the world are often very dangerous places," Winchester said.

Sample Book Sample Book