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A Visit to Los Alamos


Betsy Hartmann

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.

 

 

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