This Is Where Great-Grandpa Helped to Build “The Bomb”

What follows is a news release from the U.S. Department of Energy. Given the controversy that has surrounded the Smithsonian Institute’s exhibit featuring the Enola Gay, this latest idea for a National Park, spread over three sites related to the Manhattan Project, seems, at best, a very dubious proposition, fiscally and politically—never mind morally.

Even if one believes that the development of atomic weapons hastened the end of World War II and saved the hundreds of thousands of lives that would have been lost in an invasion of Japan, a National Park seems a strange way to celebrate this very grim illustration of American ingenuity and determination.

We generally create memorials to the victims of wars, and the preservation of some of the Nazi concentration camps has, for instance, certainly served this purpose, as has the establishment of military cemeteries on the sites of terrible battles. But we generally do not celebrate the invention of weapons of mass destruction, whether or not we believe that their use was necessary and morally justifiable.

At the risk of being snarky, if we are going to develop these sites as a National Park, what kind of gimmicks will be used to attract visitors? Will they be helped into 1940s-style radiation-proof suits, given Geiger counters, and walked through some part of the site where Geiger counters are sure to start clicking? And what’s next? A series of National Parks centered on the facilities at which we have developed biological and chemical weapons? Will this new system of parks celebrating our capacity to imagine and engineer endless mechanisms of our own annihilation somehow become another vacation option for folks who have already visited the major National Parks that preserve natural wonders?

To paraphrase Henry James, this seems a very macabre turn of the patriotic screw.


Agencies Move Closer to Creating Manhattan Project National Park


Manhattan Project 1 

Shown here are the remains of Hanford High School, built in 1916 in the town of Hanford. It will be one of many pieces of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The establishment of a new national park commemorating the Manhattan Project is one step closer now that a draft Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between the federal agencies that will be responsible for the park has been completed and released for public comment.

The MOA outlines the roles and responsibilities the DOE and U.S. Department of Interior will have in managing the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. The public comment period for the draft MOA ended Aug. 28; the document must be finalized by mid-December in accordance with the 2014 legislation that authorized the park.

“In the legislation creating the new park, DOE was given a substantial and perpetual role,” said Colleen French, the DOE program manager for the park at Hanford. “DOE will continue to own and operate all of our facilities included in the national park, maintain and preserve those sites, and provide safe public access to them. The National Park Service, meantime, will bring its unparalleled skill in interpretation and visitor services. It’s a perfect partnership, and we are proud to be a part of it.”

Manhattan Project 2 

The Graphite Reactor at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory would be one of the featured stops for visitors of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. 

The park will consist of facilities at the three sites—HanfordOak Ridge and the Los Alamos National Laboratory—that played key roles in the creation of the atomic bomb during World War II. Each location will be interpreted and will increase the public’s access to the Manhattan Project story.

“Decisions about how to provide that access will be made over time and will be guided by the need to ensure public safety and continue meeting mission requirements,” French said.

Along with helping to educate visitors on the history of the Manhattan Project, the new park is expected to bring substantial benefits to the local communities near each site.

Manhattan Project 3 

National Park Service staff responsible for initiating the Manhattan Project National Historical Park tour legacy sites at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

“Heritage tourism brings money, people, and jobs to gateway communities. At the Hanford Site, for example, where the B Reactor National Historic Landmark has been open for tours since 2009, the local Visitor and Convention Bureau estimates that B Reactor’s 10,000 visitors per year are bringing about $2 million dollars to the local economy. People stay in hotels, eat in local restaurants, and remain in town to do other things such as recreation on the river and wine tasting,” French said.

She added, “The communities surrounding the Manhattan Project sites have been passionate and effective advocates for the new park and are valuable partners as DOE plans for preservation of historic facilities and public access to the park sites. We will work closely with our communities, area Tribes, and others as we stand up the park and grow over time.”



4 thoughts on “This Is Where Great-Grandpa Helped to Build “The Bomb”

  1. You seem unaware that the National Park Service has, in recent decades, worked hard to preserve and commemorate (not merely to “celebrate”) sites that reflect a fuller range of American history and experience, including the less-positive side of what this nation has been and done (for example, the Sand Creek Massacre site or the Manzanar detention camp), as well as to reinterpret and reframe sites that were once more uncritical celebrations of events now more widely understood as problematic or even genocidal (for example, Little Bighorn/Custer Battlefield or the recent shift to discussing slavery at Civil War battlefields). There’s always a huge tension with patriotism and the impulse to celebrate (see Ari Kelman’s wonderful book “The Misplaced Massacre” on Sand Creek, or Roger Aden’s analysis of the excavation of the Presidents’ House at Independence National Historical Park, where slaves were held), as well as with the more commercial impulse to use these sites as tourist attractions. But there is a core goal here of reflecting seriously on a widening range of aspects of the American past, which your poorly-informed post completely misses.

    • I have no issue with the conceptual framework that you are describing, and I certainly do not have any issue with preserving these places as national historic sites. But the idea of developing a national park around something like the three sites related to the Manhattan Project does strike me as patently absurd.

      Putting aside the usual connotations of the word “park,” the phrase “national park” will cause most people to think of Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, or the Great Smoky Mountains–not Superfund sites.

      Moreover, with the exception of the Little Big Horn battlefield which has been singularly controversial almost since Custer’s command was wiped out, the other sites that you mention all fall into the other, opposite category that I mentioned in my post–sites preserved to memorialize the victims of wars or atrocities.

      So, I don’t think that there is actually that much broader disagreement in our views. I think, instead, that you may be trying a little too hard to justify a ridiculous idea. But that’s just my opinion, however poorly informed it may be or you may think it is.

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