Why We Should Preserve the History of the Manhattan Project

By Denise Ryan, Director of Public Lands Policy, National Trust for Historic Preservation

Opening up three sites central to the development of the atomic bomb would encourage visitors to consider the Manhattan Project's many implications.

The first explosion of an atomic bomb, pictured above, took place in New Mexico in 1945. (credit: National Park Service )

The Manhattan Project, the secret research mission to develop an atomic weapon ahead of Germany and bring an end to World War II, was one of the 20th century's most ambitious feats of science and engineering. And, it also proved to be one of the darkest moments.

In many respects, the Manhattan Project ushered in the modern era of war. The creation and use of these early weapons of mass destruction raised profound ethical questions, which today remain as challenging and urgent as in 1945.

As a nation, we need to grapple openly and objectively with the Manhattan Project's complex legacy.To do so, a place for reflection, education and interpretation is needed. Legislation before Congress would establish the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, an assembly of three locations central to the development of the atomic bomb: Hanford, Wash., site of the first full-scale nuclear reactor; Oak Ridge, Tenn., home to the first uranium enrichment plant; and the laboratory and related sites at Los Alamos, N.M. The Los Alamos site is now featured in the WGN America television drama "Manhattan."

Earlier this year, the Manhattan Project National Historical Park was included in legislation that passed the U.S. House of Representatives. The Senate version of the bill has been ready for a floor vote in since June of 2013. At this time, the National Trust is supporting the inclusion of this bill in a package of other public lands bills to be considered by the Senate this fall.

Time is running out for this legislation's passage. Our best chance for making the national historical park a reality lies with this session of Congress, which ends in December. Please act now to urge your senators' support for legislation that would protect and interpret the complex history of these three sites before the U.S. Department of Energy carries out their plan to demolish them.

Some critics of this legislation have expressed concern that the creation of the Manhattan Project National Park would somehow inappropriately celebrate the atomic bomb and the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the close of World War II.

We believe the opposite to be true. Opening up and preserving these sites as a national park would provide an opportunity for Americans to consider the Manhattan Project in its full scope and complexity. It would encourage the sort of thoughtful reflection on the dangers of these weapons and consideration of the best way to avoid glorifying the bomb or using it in the future. Few events have affected as many aspects of American life as deeply as the Manhattan Project. It irrevocably altered the global standing of the United States and set the stage for the Cold War. It sparked innovations in medicine, science, and technology. And, of course, the deadly force of the atomic bomb humbled us all.

A new national park, managed by the Department of Energy and the National Park Service, would encourage visitors to consider the Manhattan Project's many ethical, cultural and scientific implications. The inclusion of these three primary sites eloquently reflects the project's scale, and also captures the frenetic, round-the-clock effort to create an atomic weapon ahead of the enemy.

At the Hanford site, visitors would stand amid thousands of interconnecting aluminum tubes of the B Reactor which produced the plutonium for the "Fat Man" bomb. They could visit the secret, government-constructed boomtown at Oak Ridge where more than 80,000 people once worked to enrich uranium. At the V Site in Los Alamos, where the bomb was assembled for testing, visitors could contemplate the consequences of its detonation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Such firsthand experience provides a tangible, in-person understanding that is a very different experience from merely reading about this history.

Our National Park Service exists in part to help us interpret the lessons of our national history. For nearly 100 years, the Park Service has been the guardian of our nation's stories -- both uplifting and challenging stories -- at many of its most important cultural sites.

To cite an example, the agency has earned the respect of many in the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community for its sensitive interpretation of another World War II site, the Minidoka National Historic Site in Idaho. At its peak, Minidoka imprisoned more than 9,000 Japanese, many of them U.S. citizens. Preserving the camp does not glorify this painful chapter of American history; on the contrary, it reminds us of this dangerous period in American history when fear governed our actions.

Likewise, preserving the laboratories where scientists created the atomic bomb would underscore the great responsibilities that come with great scientific achievement, and it would better prepare us to navigate the complex moral terrain of our own era's technological advances.

We did more than split the atom at Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, and Hanford. We stepped forward into a new era, one in which science granted us extraordinary power to improve our world -- or to destroy it.

The novelist Herman Wouk, whose best-known works were inspired by his service in World War II, noted that "the beginning of the end of war lies in remembrance." The beginning of wisdom lies there too.