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.
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.
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."
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.
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?
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
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?
Hartmann is Director of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire