Bottom of the “Bucket” List: the Manhattan Project National Historical Park

We’re living in a time when infrastructure and WPA-type projects would be balm to an ailing economy. As welcome as they are, ideally they should hold out the promise of being both profitable and socially redeeming. Here’s one that fulfills neither requirement.

On July 13 Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, reported the Atomic Heritage Foundation in its newsletter, recommended the “designation” (authorization, presumably) of a Manhattan Project National Park. It would be located in the three main sites of the massive U.S. effort to develop nuclear weapons during World War II: Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Hanford, Washington; and Los Alamos, New Mexico.

In 2003 the Atomic Heritage Foundation, after years of lobbying, first recommended the park to Congress. In 2004 Congress passed legislation mandating that the Secretary of the Interior undertake an evaluation of the project. Apparently, all the requirements have been met.

Among the “Signature Facilities of the Manhattan Project” at Oak Ridge are the graphite reactor and gaseous diffusion plant. At Hanford, the first industrial-scale reactor to produce plutonium. At Los Alamos, the site where the plutonium bomb was developed had already been restored by a federal grant in 2006. Now the Foundation seeks to preserve the Gun Site, where the uranium, “gun”-model bomb was tested.

Wait, there’s more. Oak Ridge may even feature the guest house where General Leslie Groves (director of the Manhattan Project), Secretary of War Henry Stimson, and J. Robert Oppenheimer (director of the Manhattan Project’s secret weapons laboratory) stayed. At Los Alamos, not only the Fuller Lodge, the social center of the Manhattan Project, but the house where Oppenheimer’s family lived will be restored.

Once they catch wind of this, how will you get your kids to settle for Disney World, Busch Gardens, or Sea World? “Mommy, is the Manhattan Project National Park finished yet?”

It’s always a mistake to assume that much of the public favors the United States leading the way on disarmament when other states retain nuclear weapons. But you can be fairly certain that the public either lacks knowledge of the extent to which nuclear weapons still exist since the end of the Cold War or it locks said existence in a tiny room in its mind. In other words, isn’t the Manhattan Project National Park a vast investment of money in an attraction for an audience that’s strictly niche?

Oh, and Richard Rhodes (author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb and three succeeding books composing a nuclear-weapons quartet): you’re not helping matters. From the newsletter.

Richard Rhodes … reflected, “The Manhattan Project was a great work of human collaboration that has almost mythic proportions in its scale and ambition. Discovery of how to release the enormous energies latent in the nuclei of the atom has improved the quality of life and made world-scale war no longer possible-reason enough to preserve and commemorate this history.”

Perhaps aware that the subject matter is not only threatening, but dry, for the average family, the Atomic Heritage Foundation rolled out other selling points.

The Manhattan Project’s multifaceted story embraces aspects of the nation’s scientific, industrial, military, economic, social and cultural history. Its participants were a culturally diverse group. Recent immigrants to the United States who fled anti-Semitism in Europe were among the leading scientists. The 130,000 work force included young women from the South who had just graduated from high school … as well as numerous Hispanics, Native Americans and African-Americans.

Here, though, is easily the most specious aspect of the project that the Foundation features.

The coming of a Manhattan Project National Historical Park should be a financial as well as a cultural benefit to the communities where the sites are located. Every dollar of taxpayer funds spent on national parks generates four dollars in additional economic benefit through tourism and private-sector spending. For some locations, the returns are even greater. An annual federal appropriation of $7.1 million to Acadia National Park in Maine generates annual visitor spending of $137 million. An annual federal appropriation of $15.8 million for Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado generates $193 million in annual visitor spending.

To even suggest that the Manhattan Project National Historical Park annual investment would generate returns in anywhere close to Acadia National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park beggars credulity. Their desperation is apparent.

If the Atomic Heritage Foundation had any sense, it would accept the lifeline being thrown it by Representative Dennis Kucinich. On July 20, he provided it with a graceful way to bow out, especially in light of Fukushima, as you’ll see. From a press release at his House website (thanks to Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group for the heads up).

Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), a longtime advocate for peace and nuclear non-proliferation, today made the following statement on reports that some would like to name a new national park in honor of the Manhattan Project, the secret program to develop nuclear bombs.

“We’re approaching the anniversary of the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It would be much more fitting if instead of celebrating the Manhattan Project, we would see a park dedicated to Japanese-American friendship which would include an acknowledgement of not only the development of the bomb but of the graphic, devastating and enduring violence that the those bombs wrought on the Japanese people in 1945 and on the world everyday thereafter. … This is especially significant to the Japanese people who have recently suffered yet another disaster facilitated by nuclear technology.”

As you can see that’s no way for the Manhattan Project National Historical Park to save face. In fact raising the specter of U.S. guilt for what the Manhattan Project wrought is a slap in the face. You could say subtlety is not one of Rep. Kucinich’s strong points, but it’s obvious he was trying to rub the Atomic Heritage Foundation’s face in it.

At best the Manhattan Project National Historical Park is one of those boring school trips that kids in the area are forced to take. Actually, once protective parents get wind of it, the trip may be aborted lest it scar youthful sensibilities. (Not for nothing, but the last thing those of us who grew up in the 50s and 60s with the specter of nuclear war want is for our children or grandchildren to be subjected to those fears.)

Meanwhile, a visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is meaningful for the young. But Manhattan Project National Historical Park commemorates the mechanism of destruction. It’s as if an auxiliary museum to the National Holocaust Museum were built that was a monument to IG Farben, the German chemical conglomerate that developed the cyanide Zyklon B used to slaughter Jews in death camps.