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The United States Department of Interior has recommended Los Alamos as the site of a national park, or national historical park, for the Manhattan Project, which built the atomic bomb in World War II in secret at more than 30 U.S. sites.
Builders of the A-bomb anticipated its use against Germany, but in May 1945 Germany surrendered. In July, the bomb was tested successfully near Alamogordo and the U.S. called upon Japan to surrender. When Japan refused, the U.S. bombed the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9. Surrender followed in September.
The conventional justification is about 500,000 American lives were saved by eliminating the need for an invasion of Japan. In opposition is the contention that the A-bomb was unnecessary because Japan was close to surrender.
The A-bomb was a great scientific achievement by many of the world’s most distinguished scientists, under the leadership of theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, with military support by Major General Leslie Groves of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The park proposal, however, contains no plan to commemorate the massive civilian casualties and urban destruction. Conservative estimates of Japanese losses are: in Hiroshima, 66,000 dead, 69,000 injured (53 percent of the 255,000 population); in Nagasaki, 39,000 dead, 25,000 injured (33 percent of the 195,000 population). Burns and falling debris were the major causes of death, particularly burns from radiation, firestorms and homes that burst into fire. Over two-thirds of the buildings were destroyed in Hiroshima and 39 percent in Nagasaki.
Oppenheimer blocked a petition by 155 Manhattan Project scientists in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Chicago, spawned by moral considerations, that called upon President Harry Truman to demonstrate the bomb before using it. Notably, after the bombings Oppenheimer regretted his creation, urged international control of atomic work and opposed building more powerful hydrogen bombs. Peace groups around the world commemorate the bombings annually.
Historical events often are multi-faceted in their consequences and for that reason remain controversial. Today’s concerns about Los Alamos National Laboratory include the billion-dollar clean-up of radioactive and hazardous waste contamination by a 2015 New Mexico Energy Department deadline.
In sum, a national park to honor the Manhattan Project should not be built unless the full story is told of its human and social costs.