Would You Visit Atomic Bomb National Park?

Maybe you've seen the buffalo at Yellowstone, hiked Half Dome at Yosemite, and gotten one last look before everything melts at Glacier. So what's next? If lawmakers have their way, it could be splitting the atom at Atomic Bomb Park.

Recently the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would allocate $21 million to create a National Park in honor of the Manhattan Project. The Manhattan Project was the top secret World War II project to create a nuclear weapon, which culminated in the first test in New Mexico on July 16, 1945 and ultimately the destruction of Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945 and Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

There are three possible states being discussed for the park, including sites in Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Los Alamos, New Mexico; and Hanford, Washington. The park would officially be named the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. But there are legitimate questions being asked around whether a park dedicated to the atomic bomb should be built at all.

As Michael Todd over at Pacific Standard points out, the proposed sites already have recognition in a sense, with history centers and even national historic landmark designation in some cases:

In a sense, a de facto Manhattan Project park already exists in its constituent pieces. There’s a now 64-year-old Museum of Science and Energy at Oak Ridge, and an interpretive center at Hanford, and the Bradbury Science Museum and Los Alamos Historical Society (the latter alongside the Atomic Heritage Foundation) do yeoman’s work in New Mexico. At Hanford, Reactor B—Easy-Bake Oven for the world’s first plutonium—became a National Historic Landmark five years ago.

The proposed park is, of course, controversial. Legislators and academics are debating what establishing such a park would communicate to Americans and the rest of the world about our role in unleashing such a destructive force on humanity. Specifically, some are asking if the proposed park would focus too much on the technology of war and death, rather than the lives affected by it. Last year former Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich raised this very issue about the park:

“The technology which created the bomb cannot be separated from the horror the bomb created…. If there was going to be a new park, it should serve as a solemn monument to Japanese American friendship that rose from the ashes and the worldwide work for nuclear disarmament that continues to this day, rather than a celebration of a technology that has brought such destruction to the world. Failure to recognize this dimension, even in its first iteration, really is a significant injustice.”

Historic sites — even controversial ones — can be a great opportunity for us to confront the past and build a better future. But when it's done poorly (like at Fort Snelling in my home state of Minnesota) history becomes little more than spectacle. It's possible that the prevailing question around a Manhattan Project park is "will anyone leave hoping to buy a snow globe from the gift shop?" If so, we probably got it wrong.

Image: Getty Images, "An atomic cloud rises July 25, 1946 during the 'Baker Day' blast at Bikini Island in the Pacific."