A Visit to Los Alamos
In January I made my first trip to New Mexico. My partner and I visited the ancient Pueblo cliff dwellings at Bandelier National Monument. Like many tourists before us, we were awed by the beauty of the Frijoles Canyon and the knowledge that an ancient civilization had lived there for four hundred years.
Studying the map to Bandelier, we noticed that Los Alamos was only ten miles away. We debated whether to go, worried that it would overshadow our memories of the canyon. But how could we not go? I remembered my parents telling me how we had to drop the bomb, how it had probably saved my father from going back to the Pacific. Los Alamos figured large in my mythic map of World War II. I was a post-war baby but the war had been bred into me, defining my sense of good and evil, and of historical necessity.
As we left the canyon, the landscape of rock and pine was soon broken by fenced off Technical Areas belonging to Los Alamos. An abandoned guard house marked the entrance to the town. I felt my vision going from color to black-and-white. I was in a forties movie, I wanted to see Los Alamos as it looked back then. But of course it had changed, stripmauled and franchised like every other town in the West. We drove down Trinity Drive and passed the main laboratories on the way to the Bradbury Science Museum, where a brochure told us we could "experience science" and "travel through the atomic age."
What we learned that day was not so much about science but about the art of omission. The video we watched at the museum breathlessly charted the development of the bomb by brilliant scientists, but said nothing -- nothing at all -- about the casualties in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Instead, the Trinity test was immediately followed by footage of happy American soldiers coming home to the waiting arms of pretty women. The bomb, then kisses. No burnt babies, no question marks. And how happy the local Native American and Hispanic farmers and shepherds were to give up their common lands to the patriotic call of the Los Alamos project! Today they are struggling to reclaim some of that land, but the video makes no mention of that.
Science is fundamentally about inquiry. The uses of science need to be the subject of inquiry, too. The Bradbury Science Museum is a small place, a small example of the stifling of inquiry. Why did our government rush to drop the bomb on Hiroshima only three weeks after the Trinity test? Why drop the bomb when Japan was on the verge of surrender? Because the decision makers were afraid the war might end before we had a chance to show the Russians who was boss? Why are we as a society still afraid to ask these questions?
The Smithsonian Museum is much bigger than the Bradbury, and its capitulation to censorship in the 1994 controversy over the Enola Gay exhibit was a far greater blow against the freedom to ask questions. In their fine anthology, Hiroshima's Shadow: Writings on the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy, Kai Bird and Lawrence Lifschultz give us back the history that has been hidden from us, the history that still so threatens the national security state and its scientific apparatchiks.
The people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki "experienced science" all too intimately at the dawn of the atomic age. If nothing else, shouldn't we have the decency, and courage, to acknowledge their deaths?
Betsy Hartmann is Director of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College.