Preserving the history of the Manhattan Project

The Manhattan Project, the secret research mission to develop an atomic weapon ahead of Germany and bring an end to World War II, was one of the 20th century’s most ambitious feats of science and engineering. And one of its darkest moments.

In many respects, the Manhattan Project ushered in the modern era. The creation and use of these early weapons of mass destruction raised profound ethical questions, which remain just as challenging and urgent today as in 1945. As a nation, we have a responsibility to grapple openly and objectively with the Manhattan Project’s complex legacy.

To do that, we need a place for reflection. Legislation before Congress would establish the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, an assembly of three locations central to the development of the atomic bomb: Hanford, Wash., site of the first full-scale nuclear reactor; Oak Ridge, Tenn., home to the first uranium enrichment plant; and the laboratory and related sites at Los Alamos, N.M.


The House of Representatives failed to pass a bill to create the park last year; the legislation is poised for another vote in the coming months. It then also faces a tough road through the Senate, most likely packaged with other public lands bills to be considered this summer.

The primary issue in both chambers remains the concern that preserving and interpreting the Manhattan Project sites would inappropriately celebrate the atomic bomb and the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the close of World War II.

In fact, the opposite is true. Opening up these sites as a national park would provide an opportunity for Americans to consider the Manhattan Project in its full scope and complexity, encouraging the sort of thoughtful reflection that is the best way to avoid glorifying the bomb.

Few events have affected as many aspects of American life as deeply as the Manhattan Project. It irrevocably altered the global standing of the United States and set the stage for the Cold War. It sparked innovations in medicine, science and technology. And, of course, the deadly force of the atomic bomb humbled us all.

A new national park, managed by the Department of Energy and the National Park Service, would encourage visitors to consider the Manhattan Project’s many ethical, cultural and scientific implications. The inclusion of these three primary sites eloquently reflects the project’s scale, as well as the frenetic, round-the-clock effort required to create an atomic weapon ahead of the enemy.

At the Hanford site, visitors could stand amid thousands of interconnecting aluminum tubes of the B Reactor, which produced the plutonium for the “Fat Man” bomb. They could visit the secret government-constructed boomtown at Oak Ridge where more than 80,000 people once worked to enrich uranium. At the V Site in Los Alamos, where the bomb was assembled for testing, visitors could contemplate the consequences of its detonation a few weeks later at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Such firsthand experience provides a tangible understanding that is different than reading history. What better way could there be to wrestle with the Manhattan Project in all its complexity?

The National Park Service exists in part to help us interpret the lessons of our national history. For nearly 100 years, the Park Service has been the guardian of our nation’s stories and many of its most important cultural sites.

To cite just one example, the agency has earned the respect of many in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community for its sensitive interpretation of another World War II site, the Minidoka National Historic Site in Idaho. At its peak, Minidoka imprisoned more than 9,000 Japanese, many of them U.S. citizens. Preserving the camp does not glorify this painful chapter of American history; on the contrary, it reminds us of the danger of letting fear govern our actions.

Likewise, preserving the laboratories where scientists created the atomic bomb would underscore the great responsibilities that come with great scientific achievement, and it would better prepare us to navigate the complex moral terrain of our own era’s technological advances.

We did more than split the atom at Oak Ridge, Los Alamos and Hanford. We divided history. We stepped forward into a new era, one in which science granted us extraordinary power to improve our world — or to destroy it.

The novelist Herman Wouk, whose best-known works were inspired by his service in World War II, once noted that “the beginning of the end of war lies in remembrance.” The beginning of wisdom lies there too.

Stephanie Meeks is the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.