“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”
Should the Manhattan Project become the newest site in the national park system?
The Secretary of the Interior has submitted a letter to Congress recommending the creation of a Manhattan Project National Historical Park. If approved, the three sites that hosted most of the research and production facilities associated with the making of the world’s first atomic bomb could become the 399th unit managed by the National Park Service.
The new National Historical Park (NHP), if it comes to be, will encompass sites of worldwide historic significance at three distinct locations. Laboratories at Los Alamos, New Mexico served as the headquarters for bomb design research and fabrication. Facilities in Oak Ridge, Tennessee included the gaseous diffusion plant that enriched uranium for the Little Boy bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in August 1945. Reactors in Hanford, Washington produced plutonium for the implosion-type devices that were detonated at the Trinity test site and over the city of Nagasaki.
In September, the House of Representatives failed to pass legislation that would have established the Manhattan Project NHP. The bill, HR5987, was brought to the floor via a procedure that requires a two-thirds supermajority for approval. Though a simple majority of Representatives (237) voted in favor of the bill, enough Representatives (180) voted against to block its passage for the time being. (The bill may still be reintroduced through regular procedures.)
Opponents of the bill included members of both the Democratic and Republican parties. The most outspoken critic was liberal Democrat (and one-time presidential candidate) Dennis Kucinich, a pacifist who objected to the Manhattan Project NHP on moral grounds: “At a time when we should be organizing the world towards abolishing nuclear weapons before they abolish us,” he said, “we are instead indulging in admiration at our cleverness as a species. The bomb is about graveyards; it’s not about national parks.”
With all due respect to Rep. Kucinich, I think he needs to reconsider his understanding of the role of national parks. Though many people think of vast nature preserves like Yellowstone, Yosemite, or the Grand Canyon when they think of national parks, it’s important to remember that the park system includes a wide variety of sites that together tell the story of our nation. Sometimes those stories are uplifting, but often they are tragic.
Pearl Harbor, for example, is memorialized as part of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument. Manzanar National Historic Site in the Owens Valley of California was an internment camp where 10,000 Japanese-Americans were held during the WWII with no due process of law. Antietam National Battlefield marks the site of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, when 23,000 soldiers died, were wounded, or went missing; many other Civil War battlefields and cemeteries are also part of the national park system. In Montana, Bear Paw Battlefield—part of the Nez Perce National Historical Park—marks the site where fleeing Nez Perce were forced into submission by the U.S. Cavalry in 1877, just forty miles from the Canadian border and freedom. Flight 93 National Memorial and Oklahoma City National Memorial honor those killed in terrorist attacks.
In other words, national parks are often about graveyards.
There is no better agency than the National Park Service to tell the story of atomic bomb development. The story of the Manhattan Project is a story of achievement and atrocity both. It is, in many ways, the defining story of the twentieth century: whether we like it or not, we live in a world that was forever changed by the first nuclear blast at the Trinity test site in July 1945—the original Ground Zero.
Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the chief scientist on the Manhattan Project who is often referred to as “the father of the atomic bomb,” quoted the Bhagavad Gita to describe his feelings at the Trinity test: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Oppenheimer understood there was no putting the nuclear genie back in its bottle. Isn’t it about time that Congress recognized this as well, and allowed the Park Service to interpret the story of the Manhattan Project?