When the Truman administration dropped the atomic bomb on Japan in 1945, they not only initiated a Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union, they also began a struggle over the meaning of the atom bomb inside the United States.
It began slowly. Criticism of the bomb was at first strongly repressed by McCarthyism and other militaristic histrionics, but by the late 1950s hard questions about nuclear weapons were publicly being raised. By the late 1960s doubts and criticisms went mainstream. Disillusioned Americans wondered, had it been necessary to reduce two Japanese cities to dust, killing hundreds of thousands in mere seconds? Was it necessary to sacrifice vast zones of the American West to uranium mining, nuclear dumps, testing grounds, and weapons silos? Had the government acted in hasty ignorance, or in knowing neglect when it allowed miners and downwinders and soldiers to be poisoned with radioactive dust? Was there really a “missile gap”? Did atomic scientists actually purposefully expose their own children to radiation? Would it be possible to survive nuclear war, as the experts told us? What did the creators of the atom bomb really think about their “achievement”? What opportunity costs was our multi-trillion dollar investment in nukes imposing upon us as a country?
These and other questions about the nation’s commitment to nuclear weapons were intensely debated as the Vietnam war rose to a fever pitch. New evidence continually surfaced revealing that the federal government had often acted with malice and intentional deception throughout the Manhattan Project, through the 1950s, and beyond. Historians began to document the realities of the nuclear age, including willful poisonings, and experimental defilements of the people and ecosystems of North America, especially Nevada’s Great Basin, and also the South Pacific’s Marshall Islands, and other testing and nuclear dumping grounds where generations would suffer on lands poisoned for thousands of years.
Quickly much of the logic that had justified the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki came apart, and newer, more informed histories were drafted, showing cynical US leaders bent on punishing Japan and thwarting Soviet occupation of that island, not quickly ending the war and saving US and Japanese life. Gar Alperovitz’s “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb” presented the bones of this argument. Tsuyoshi Hasegawa’s “Racing the Enemy” concluded the argument in extensively researched detail.
In other expos?s of journalism and archival research the nuclear labs and testing grounds of America were exposed not as monuments to great achievements of science and national will, but rather as institutions of hubris and death, occupying stolen Indian lands, and dreaming up ever more deadly doomsday machines in the forms of thermonuclear weapons, MIRVed missiles, neutron bombs, and the Strategic Defense Initiative. The willingness of US leaders to threaten the use of nuclear weapons again and again against non-nuclear states was revealed, particularly after Vietnam.
The nation’s nuclear weapons program lost its early luster then as many Americans came to fully grasp the toxic legacy, and understand the antidemocratic tendencies inexorably tied to the bomb and the institutions that created it. The 1980s brought this awareness to a peak as public perceptions of the bomb and its creators congealed around condemnation and a desire to abolish nuclear weapons.
When the Cold War ended the toxic legacy of the Manhattan Project and the continuing US nuclear weapons program was subjected to its greatest scrutiny of all. Losing their mythical rival in the Soviet “evil empire,” the weapons labs entered a long decade of scandalous revelation; declining morale, accidents, corruption, theft, espionage, greed, incompetence. The 1990s and early 2000s brought repeated crises for the US nuclear establishment. ‘If only it were possible to bring back the good old days,’ thought the bewildered senior weaponeers. However, these good old days too were tarnished by the truth.
All the while, all through these eras of revelation and crisis, the weaponeers who dedicated their lives to the nuclear enterprise waged a battle of ideas to hide the ugly truths of the Manhattan Project’s historical legacy. These acolytes of nuclearism ?old Cold Warriors retired from the weapons labs, the Department of Energy, the military, and the private sector corporations that have made billions from building the bomb and spoiling the land and water and DNA of large swaths of the earth? they organized their own effort to re-write history all over again, to recast nuclearism in the benevolent form it had lost. They sought to recapture former glories that had withered through decades of sobering reality. As public perceptions of the bomb and the nuclear labs further soured they stepped up their game, especially in the 1990s.
Their revisions began modestly enough, but quickly turned into a national institutionalized effort. Historical foundations were incorporated by DOE retirees and nuclear boosters around various Cold War nuclear weapons sites. Soon large sums of money were raised, and with the eager cooperation of the nuclear labs and military-industrial corporations still designing and building nuclear arms, museums were opened to the public. These museums grew into absurdly large and well financed propaganda pieces.
The Bradbury Museum in downtown Los Alamos, named after Norris Bradbury, the second Los Alamos Laboratory director, became a museum of “science,” not just of the lab, or simply the weapons it built, or merely the Cold War. No, it is “science.” This aspiration to educate the public about “general science” was reflected LANL’s intense effort in the 1990s and early 2000s to obscure its own core mission of nuclear weapons, constantly draping itself in the prestige of being a “national laboratory,” or as the lab still describes itself, “a premier national security research institution, delivering scientific and engineering solutions for the nation’s most crucial and complex problems.” The lab also launched its own history web site in the 2000s showing its preferred arc of development, from the Manhattan Project to “computing,” and “basic science,” even though the lab remained thoroughly a nuclear weapons facility, and today is in fact becoming more and more dedicated to weapons manufacturing.
Inside the Bradbury Museum is an entire history of LANL, the Manhattan Project, nuclear science, and a few exhibits extolling the lab’s supposedly non-nuclear contributions. Full scale nuclear missiles and bombs float on wires above and sit in displays within arms reach. You’re encouraged to touch the bomb. You’re told not to fear radiation. The Bradbury Museum, funded with federal dollars, became a key site of struggle over history in the 1990s as community groups battled the lab and DOE to include a different interpretation of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan, a narrative that didn’t claim it was a “necessity” to end the war and save lives, one that showed in images, and described through first hand accounts what the victims experienced. Parties without an agenda to promote nuclear weapons were, in other words, simply asking the Bradbury to present the history that most historians now acknowledge as most complete. In the end the lab and museum’s staff, composed of pro-nuclear managers, allowed an alternative display in a dark corner of the museum, completely marginalized from the rest of the lavish exhibits.
For about a decade the Bradbury Museum stood as the premier pro-nuclear weapons propaganda tool. Other sites within the weapons complex were busy building their own museums though. The Nevada Test Site opened the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas in 2005 after a pro-nuclear weapons lobby, the Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation, raised enough money and convinced the Smithsonian Institute to join up.
It should be noted that the Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation, like the foundations that run or help support the Bradbury and other nuclear museums, is run by a roster of retired Test Site employees and contractors, all strong believers in nuclear weapons as forces of unquestionable good in the nation’s past and present. The NTSHF’s president Nick Aquilina, for example, was described in a tribute published in the Congressional Record in 1994 as a man who “characterizes the spirit and dedication of a generation of Americans who dedicated their lives to maintaining our nuclear deterrent”. Aquilina was a thirty-two year career DOE manager. The foundation’s chairman, Troy Wade, is head of the Nevada Alliance for Defense, Energy and Business, a lobby for the state’s military-industral complex, and also a retired DOE manager. With or without the Smithsonian’s involvement it’s obvious what sort of historical narrative about nuclear weapons testing attendees will be exposed to.
In the Atomic Testing Museum one is subjected to an entire historical narrative emphasizing the race for the bomb between the USA and Germany, culminating in the “necessary” dropping of the bomb on Japan, and then describing decades of testing in the desert northwest of Vegas, emphasizing the greatness of nuclear weapons and the men who built and blew them up. It’s all packaged in a feel good, almost kitschy nostalgia. There’s even a theater where you can sit through a simulated nuclear blast in which air is blown into your face and the bench beneath you rumbles and shakes. The kids must love that.
The biggest museum contribution to the pro-nuclear weapons historical narrative to date, however, is the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History. Located in a hanger-sized building along a major boulevard in Albuquerque, New Mexico, just blocks from Sandia National Laboratories and Kirtland Air Force Base (where thousands of nuclear weapons are currently stockpiled) the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History is nothing less than a flattering shrine to nuclear weapons, replete with a seventy foot tall Redstone missile in the front parking lot. Like the Atomic Testing Museum, the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History is also a Smithsonian affiliate, but it casts its own role in much grander terms: according to the Museum’s web site, its “mission is to serve as America’s resource for nuclear history and science.” That’s “America’s resource” singular – a one stop oracle of truth.
Like Bradbury or the Atomic Testing Museum, the National Museum’s exhibits extoll the history of nuclear science, recounting a narrative filled with bravery and wonder regarding the Manhattan Project’s personalities. The dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan is predictably explained as a benevolent, if unfortunate necessity to save the lives of not only American GIs, but also Japanese women and children. The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History also has a backyard in which it displays decommissioned nuclear-capable aircraft, disassembled nuclear missiles, nuclear rocket launchers, and even a submarine. Like the other pro-nuclear museums everything is kid friendly. You can walk right up and rub your hand on the nose of a nuclear missile.
Apparently not satisfied with this now national network of pro-nuclear weapons museums, each with multi-million dollar budgets and tens of thousands of visitors (there’s another in TOak Ridge, Tennessee called the American Museum of Science and Energy, and the B Reactor Museum Association in Richland, Washington) the nuclear weaponeers have for years sought a more powerful medium through which to communicate their hagiography of nuclear weapons.
In 2004 they found it in a bill sponsored by New Mexicos’ Democratic Senator Jeff Bingaman (it was probably dreamed up and written by the same pro-nuclear weapons boosters who organized and built the atomic propaganda museums in Los Alamos and Albuquerque). Senator Bingaman, in partnership with his then senior colleague Senator Pete Dominici, and also the two Senators from Washington State, and Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, introduced the “Manhattan Project National Historical Park Study Act,” the first step in establishing a national park dedicated to nuclear weapons. Money for the study was initially hard to find, but eventually allocated. Completed recently, the Obama administration announced on the 13th of July its intention to embrace this project and create a national historic park in Los Alamos, New Mexico.
It would be a very strange national park. Los Alamos Laboratory was built on sacred lands filled with Native American ruins, existing and extensively used ceremonial sites, burial grounds, and other places of profound cultural significance to the Pueblo tribes of the Rio Grande Valley. Were it not a nuclear weapons lab, it is likely it would have long ago been deemed reservation land because of its true ownership, or a National Park because of its sublime beauty, or given some other dedication of preservation and reverence.
Pressing against LANL’s boundaries on three sides already is the Bandelier National Monument, created in 1916 by Congress, and containing tens of thousands of archaeological sites and 23,000 acres of wilderness. As a National Park Service property should be, Bandelier is dedicated to the high desert, to the western pine, juniper, and fir forests of the Southwest, and to a history of human habitation that is thousands of years old. When Los Alamos was built, it was on top of this one-of-a-kind landscape that Congress had previously recognized as nationally unique and worthy of preservation. The lab colonized this landscape and occupied it with gigantic industrial-nuclear manufacturing and testing facilities. The spotted owls, coyotes, and spirits of the land, one imagines, fled the fumes and noise.
The entire notion of creating a national park dedicated to the history of nuclear weapons seems completely out of sync with the purpose of parks. The National Parks Service, for example, explains in its own criteria for establishing national parks that, “hunting, mining, and other consumptive uses such as grazing are generally prohibited in National Parks”. Well what about nuclear weapons designing, nuclear waste dumping, high explosives testing, and biological warfare experimentation? What about planning for and manufacturing the weapons for the annihilation of entire ecosystems? Is that allowed in National Parks? It will be if this plan moves forward.
The National Parks Service has already had to defend this proposal from criticism leveled by myself and my colleague Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group. According to a spokesperson for the NPS, the Manhattan Project’s sites “are significant parts of our national cultural history. And before they get bulldozed over, we are in favor of preserving these places so future generations can study these events, for good or bad.” This description all sounds very neutral and useful, but it’s not at all what’s happening.
The problem with this sort of thinking is that it completely ignores how the proposal to create a Manhattan Project National Historic Park came about, that it was the idea of pro-nuclear lobbyists who have already succeeded in creating a national network of taxpayer-funded, Smithsonian-affiliated museums dedicated to glorifying nuclear weapons. These parties are not interested in preserving places for unbiased reflection on the bomb’s creation. They are set on valorizing nuclear weapons, and they understand that a National Historic Park for the Manhattan Project would be the pinnacle.
And more than anything, they understand that reclaiming the past and re-polishing the bomb’s image by dedicating a National Park to it will serve their aims today, aims that include pushing ahead with highly controversial and historically unprecedented investments in new nuclear weapons.
Los Alamos is, after all, currently undertaking a construction program that is larger in dollar terms than the entire Manhattan Project in New Mexico, all to build a new plutonium bomb pit factory.
Darwin Bond-Graham is a sociologist who splits his time between New Orleans, Albuquerque, and Navarro, CA. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org