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SANTA FE — Our federal government has neglected to address many issues over the years. Two of them really stand out.
The issues involve officially recognizing our nation’s development of a weapon that has changed the world and recognizing the New Mexicans who served as guinea pigs for studying the effects of an A-bomb explosion.
Bills have been introduced to correct both. A measure to create a Manhattan Project National Park based in Los Alamos; Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Hanford, Washington passed the U.S. House in September but without the two-thirds vote necessary for the rules under which the bill was considered.
Objections included cost, opposition to nuclear energy, opposition to the National Park Service and an attitude that either we would be celebrating our action or apologizing for our action.
Sponsors of the bills in both houses of Congress hope to get the measure moving again before the current lame duck session is over. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, who is retiring at the end of the month, is the chief Senate sponsor. The cause will move forward without him but his clout helps.
Proponents have come up with some new arguments and tactics. Many of the buildings at the three locations still are usable as museum sites. The cost of demolishing them is much greater than the cost of improvements and maintenance.
The Atomic Heritage Foundation has begun an oral history project designed to preserve the memories of some of the hundreds of thousands who worked on the project. The top scientists on the project already have been interviewed at length.
The effort now is to get revealing stories from others.
One insight that has emerged is the interchanges that occurred in a remote log cabin near Los Alamos where decisions were conducted involving a critical experiment about whether plutonium could be used to fuel the bomb. When evidence revealed that the experiment would fail, the project almost came to an end until an additional procedure was devised.
Another story came out of Oak Ridge, which was in a Tennessee county that still was dry. Efforts to keep the staff happy with bootleg hooch were very novel.
But the primary reason for wanting the National Park Service to interpret the bomb-making project is to present to visitors from throughout the world America’s story of why the bomb was built and used.
Museums and parks at Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been telling their story for over 50 years. Both memorials are located at ground zero. Both are dedicated to world peace and tell a good story.
But it is time we told our story. Jeanette and I toured the Nagasaki memorial some years ago with a group of World War II veterans. They were especially incensed with a statement on an explanatory placard saying that the United States dropped the bomb on Nagasaki in order to see if it worked. The vets declared we knew it worked because we dropped it on ourselves first.
That event occurred at Trinity Site between Carrizozo and Socorro. Area ranchers were not evacuated or even warned. Many of those families have been ravaged by cancer.
The government has provided no recognition or assistance to these people despite repeated requests. The New Mexico delegation has introduced legislation seeking assistance similar to that provided to laboratory employees who worked on the bombs in those early days. But there is no help yet.
Action is needed on both these fronts. Actually the Manhattan Project Memorial should be located on ground zero at Trinity Site, just as the memorials at Hiroshima and Nagasaki but it is on White Sands Missile Range and the government doesn’t want to give up a small corner of its vast holdings.
As historians say, there is no better place to tell a story than where it happened. Spreading out the memorial among three states does have the advantage of pulling in more support from Congress. But even that isn’t working.
Jay Miller is a syndicated columnist based in Santa Fe.