Patsy Mink and Anti-Nuclear Activism: Asian American Political Liberalism and Pacific Islander Sovereignty

Submission Type: 
Ohio State University

Patsy Mink (1927-2002), the first woman of color to become a U.S. congressional representative, had a long history of protesting nuclear testing in the Pacific. A third generation Japanese American lawyer in Hawaii, Mink began her legal and political career defending pacifist activists on the Phoenix, a private boat that attempted to sail into a nuclear testing zone in 1958 to protest detonations in the Pacific Islands. After the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty prevented above ground testing, Mink persisted in her anti-nuclear activism against underground testing. As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, she was a key critic of the Cannikin test, which detonated a 5 megaton weapon with 400 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb in one of the most seismically active regions of the world. In fact, in order to obtain Executive Branch documents studying the proposed test, Mink organized a group of thirty-three representatives and senators to sue the White House and its federal offices for access to information deemed off-limits for security reasons. The court case, Mink v. EPA, et al., eventually led to the strengthening of the Freedom of Information Act and set a precedent for public oversight leading up to the Nixon Watergate Hearings.
This presentation examines how Mink framed her anti-nuclear activism in the context of American cold war imperialism. In particular, I am interested in how Mink defined herself in the tradition of U.S. political liberalism by defending civil liberties to protest and set limits on government power. In addition, I also will examine how Mink, as an Asian American advocate for Hawaiian statehood and a congressional representative with a particular investment in Pacific Islander trusteeship, positioned herself in relation to indigenous Hawaiian, Alaskan, and other Pacific Islander claims for sovereignty. The furor and fears concerning nuclear testing provided opportunities for alliances as well as divergences between Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. This presentation will examine how Mink navigated these relationships and positionalities to protest environmental and biological annihilation.