Sighting of the islands was first recorded by the Spanish navigator Alvaro de Saavedra in 1529. The British captain John Marshall, after whom the islands are named, explored them in 1788. Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, foreign powers ruled the islands for such advantages as trade, religious propagation, exploitation of resources, strategic considerations, and maintenance of sea routes. Spain claimed the islands in 1874, but sold them to Germany in 1899. At the outbreak of World War I, Japanese naval squadrons took possession of the Marshalls and began formal administration under a League of Nations mandate in 1920.
In World War II, after bitter fighting between US and Japanese forces that included battles for Kwajalein and Eniwetok (now Enewetak), the islands came under US control. In 1947, the Marshalls became a district of a UN trusteeship, called the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, which was administered by the United States.
The United States used Bikini and Enewetak atolls as nuclear testing sites from 1946 to 1958, exploding 66 atomic and nuclear tests during this period. The nuclear testing program resulted in the displacement of the indigenous people due to radiation contamination. The people of Bikini and Enewetak, along with those exposed to radioactive fallout in the 1954 Bravo Blast, fought for compensation from the United States, which in February 1990 agreed to pay $45 million to the victims of the nuclear testing program. Fifty years after testing began, Bikini Island has begun to attract a few tourists and scientific surveys have declared the island habitable again, although there is still a danger in eating too many of the local coconuts. Despite the scientific assurances, the US government has yet to issue a statement saying that the island is safe to inhabit. Because of the US promise to care for the Islanders until they could return to their home, Bikinians made President Clinton their king and expected him to look after his people. In October 1999, the United States, through the Majuro-based Nuclear Claims Tribunal, paid nearly another $2.3 million toward the $45 million originally promised in 1990, bringing the amount paid toward the total to $39.4 million.
The Marshallese people adopted a constitution in 1978, under which the Marshalls were designated the Republic of the Marshall Islands. In 1979, the constitution went into effect and the republic became a self-governing territory. Amata Kabua was elected the Republic's first president. In 1983, a Compact of Free Association with the United States, providing for full self-government except for defense, was approved by plebiscite. In January 1986, the compact was ratified by the United States, and on 21 October 1986 it went into effect. The UN Security Council voted in December 1990 to terminate the Marshall Islands' status as a UN Trust Territory. The Republic became an independent state and joined the UN in September 1991. The Compact of Free Association with the United States expired in 2001. It is to be replaced with a new arrangement which will guarantee US funding over the next 20 years; the provisions of the compact were subsequently extended though September 2003. While the Compact of Free Association is being negotiated, the level of yearly assistance is $37 million.
In late 1999 and early 2000, two major political changes took place. For the first time, an opposition party, the newly formed United Democratic Party (UDP), gained a majority in parliament in the November 1999 elections. Then, in January 2000, Kessai Note, the Speaker of the Nitijela, was elected to the presidency, becoming the first president of the Marshall Islands who is a commoner (not a traditional chief).
Also in the late-1990s and into the new millennium, global warming and the possibility of rising sea levels have raised concern over the long-term prospects for the islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The Marshall Islands, along with Kiribati and Tuvalu, rise only a few feet above sea level. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has suggested that the sea could rise 18 inches by 2100, but that figure could be much lower or higher.