Daily Archives: August 7, 2011

Fifteen kilotons of misplaced outrage

We just marked a significant but somber anniversary here in East Tennessee—the detonation of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, an event in which the town of Oak Ridge played an indispensable role.  Charles Johnson and Charles Jackson tell the story of the wartime city which sprang up virtually overnight in their fascinating book City Behind a Fence.

For some time now the National Park Service has been mulling over the possibility of a new park devoted to the Manhattan Project with sites in three states, including historically important locations at Oak Ridge, and last month the Secretary of the Interior gave it his recommendation.  The idea has some people pretty upset, for reasons that I think are not only mistaken but downright odd.

These critics seem incapable of distinguishing between preservation and celebration, and between interpretation and glorification.  Here’s a recent sample of the brouhaha from The New York Times:

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last week offered his support for the establishment of a Manhattan Project National Park, and top leaders on Capitol Hill have already vowed to move a plan developed by the National Park Service through Congress in the coming months. But Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Maryland-based Nuclear Information Resource Service, said today that the effort runs contrary to the goals of the national park system.

“National parks are national treasurers, and glorifying a weapon of mass destruction is certainly not among the purposes of a national park,” Mariotte said.

No kidding.  Glorifying a weapon of mass destruction isn’t among the purposes of any sane person or institution. But we’re not talking about glorification; we’re talking about a national historical park.  National parks preserve and interpret.  Neither of those activities necessarily involves glorification.  I doubt the Polish government had glorification in mind when it set aside Auschwitz-Birkenau as a historic site.  It doesn’t amount to a statement about whether something is good or bad, only that it’s important.

Workers at the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge during the war. From the American Museum of Science and Energy via Wikimedia Commons

Greg Mello, of the Los Alamos Study Group in New Mexico, shares those concerns.

“We have to bracket a healthy historical interest with our moral sensibilities and with common sense, and that’s what’s not happening here,” said Mello, whose group has been lobbying against the effort for several years as the National Park Service has conducted a feasibility study ahead of making its official recommendation.

“What we risk is harming the national park system as a whole and the idea of national parks just when we need to protect the environment the most,” Mello said.

Setting aside significant places for stewardship will harm the idea of national parks?  That’s weird, because I thought it was the idea of national parks.  These guys do know that the NPS maintains historic areas, right?

Mello and Mariotte said honoring the atomic bomb with its own national park would set a poor precedent.

Again with the celebratory language.  Who said anything about “honoring” the bomb?  Does Ford’s Theatre National Historical Site “honor” the practice of political assassination?

“Once you open the gate … a national park can be anything,” Mello said. “Why don’t we have a Disneyland national park or NASCAR national park; what’s the limit?”

The limit is that a national historical park or site must be deemed significant enough to warrant federal ownership and administration.  Within those guidelines, you can have national parks dedicated to any number of aspects of American history—textile manufacturing and whaling, to name just two examples.

Here’s a rather bizarre line of argument from a recent editorial by Russ Wellen at Scholars & Rogues:

It’s always a mistake to assume that much of the public favors the United States leading the way on disarmament when other states retain nuclear weapons. But you can be fairly certain that the public either lacks knowledge of the extent to which nuclear weapons still exist since the end of the Cold War or it locks said existence in a tiny room in its mind. In other words, isn’t the Manhattan Project National Park a vast investment of money in an attraction for an audience that’s strictly niche?

Wellen chastises the American public for their ignorance and indifference regarding the important issue of nuclear weapons, and uses the fact of their ignorance and indifference to discredit a measure that would inform them and engage them with that very issue. It’s as if someone blew off a proposal to encourage literacy by arguing that people didn’t care enough about reading books for it to work.

In any case, I think Wellen’s assessment of the American public’s indifference is off the mark.  Elsewhere in his editorial, he refers to Richard Rhodes, whose prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb has been in print for twenty-five years and sold hundreds of thousands of copies despite the fact that it deals with highly technical subject matter and clocks in at some 900 pages.  The success of this volume indicates that there is indeed a public interest in the historical aspects of this issue.  The tremendous popularity currently enjoyed by WWII literature and media of all kinds also bodes well for the success of the proposed park.

A piece in The Oak Ridger applies some much-needed good sense:

Creating this park provides an opportunity to interpret and discuss an incredibly important piece of American and world history, and to allow contemporary society to better understand the complex and difficult decision to use the bomb.

Experts with divergent views will be consulted during the development of the educational materials to ensure the materials are balanced and informative. Park rangers can share the stories of participants and decision-makers with visitors to allow them to be better informed about these decisions.

“The decision of whether the bombs should have been dropped will always be subject for intense debate, and the public should have access to the places instrumental in the development of atomic power so they can reach their own conclusions,” said Ron Tipton, senior vice president at the National Parks Conservation Association.

Because the government already owns the land and historic Manhattan Project properties, the costs associated with the creation of a Manhattan Project National Historical Park will be modest. In fact, the Department of Energy will be saving an estimated $100 million or more by preserving the Manhattan Project facilities such as the famous B Reactor at Hanford, Wash., rather than destroying and disposing of them. The National Park Service study recommends that it make use of existing museums and interpretive centers such as the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge, and the Los Alamos Historical Society Museum in New Mexico.

The story of the Manhattan Project isn’t just the story of the bomb, but of the people and places involved and all the momentous consequences that followed.  The NPS has been in the historic interpretation business for quite some time, and they’re rather good at it.  Let’s at least see how they plan to tell these stories before condemning the effort altogether.

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Filed under Historic Preservation, History and Memory, Tennessee History