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Legislation finally has been introduced in Congress to create a Manhattan Project Historical Park. New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman is the prime sponsor.
The Senate bill is the culmination of a nine-year effort by Bingaman to recognize the founding scientific community of Los Alamos which forever changed the world. Some will say the change was for the worse yet it was a historically significant part of our nation’s history.
Bingaman’s bill isn’t about honoring the Manhattan Project or about the bomb. It is about the incredible effort the country put forth to remain free and the scientific advances made by unlocking the secrets of atomic energy.
Our scientists and policymakers were well aware that they were unleashing a dreadful power. But if we didn’t, others would. Germany, Japan and Russia all were working on a bomb in 1945. If any of them would have been first, the history of our nation would have been very different.
It is amazing that for over 60 years there has been no official recognition or interpretation of such a historic effort. The story is one of frustration, turf battles, obsession with secrecy and political maneuvering.
Very soon after the explosion of the first atomic bomb at Trinity Site in 1945, the National Park Service began talking with the Army about making the site, in a corner of what is now White Sands Missile Range, a part of the park system.
The Army would have nothing to do with it. It had taken the land from area ranchers and wasn’t going to share it with anyone even though the request was for a miniscule portion of the 3,200-square mile range, the biggest military installation in the nation. The site is near the highway between Carrizozo and San Antonio, N.M.
Without the most popular and logical site to recognize the birth of the Atomic Age, the Park Service put further plans on hold for over 15 years. In the 1960s it asked the Atomic Energy Commission to suggest sites significant to the birth of the Atomic Age. The AEC bowed to political pressure and suggested numerous sites, most with little significance.
The latest effort to establish a park site began in 2003 when Sen. Bingaman passed legislation asking the National Park Service to study the feasibility of including Manhattan Project sites in the park system. Six years later he got an answer recommending a site in Los Alamos.
Other sites had made their cases but the NPS concluded they were not feasible. Last year, however, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recommended a Manhattan Project National Historical Park with units in Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, Tenn. and Hanford, Wash.
Understandably, Bingaman has picked up co-sponsors from Tennessee and Washington State. Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) also is a co-sponsor and may take the leadership role when Bingaman retires at the end of the year.
For now, the bill is on a fast track with hearings scheduled in the House and Senate this month. But that won’t be the end. Members of Congress who can come up with anything atomic that has happened in their states will scramble to be included in the bill.
There will be delays, plus a shrinking federal budget may kill it for now. And you can bet there will be groups, including some from our own area who will oppose it.
Meanwhile Los Alamos already has two fine museums recounting the laboratory’s early efforts. The Bradbury Museum, 1350 Central Ave. is run by the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The Los Alamos Historical Society has a museum at 1050 Bathtub Row that depicts the fascinating life that employees led from December 1942 to September 1945.
In case you are wondering, Bathtub Row was where the top managers lived, including Robert Oppenheimer. Their houses have been preserved. All employees lived a very Spartan existence, with rationing of everything imaginable, from toilet paper to bathtubs.
Jay Miller is a syndicated columnist based in Santa Fe.