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Congress, don't ban the bomb's national park

June 11, 2013|By Paul Whitefield
  • The first atomic bomb was exploded in New Mexico in 1945. Now, Congress is being asked to make the test site and other locations key to the development of the bomb into a national park.
The first atomic bomb was exploded in New Mexico in 1945. Now, Congress is… (National Park Service )

They pulled a bit of history out of the English Channel on Monday.

Experts from the Royal Air Force Museum lifted a rare Dornier Do 17 bomber from the seafloor near Kent. The plane, shot down during the Battle of Britain in 1940, is believed to be the sole survivor of its type from Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe.

OK, you say, and exactly why I should care about a rusty old warplane from 73 years ago?

Does “Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it” ring any bells? Though honestly, it’s not quite that simple, especially because plenty of people know history yet repeat the mistakes of the past. (See: Napoleon and Russia, and Hitler and Russia.)

In reading about the Dornier (sorry, my excuse is that I’m a history nerd from way back), I recalled an Op-Ed in Sunday’s Times titled “Preserving the history of the Manhattan Project.”

In it, Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, argues that the United States should create a national park devoted to the program that gave birth to the bomb:

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.

But Congress is balking. Why?

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.

Which is, in a word, dumb. And it fails to give the American people -- heck, people everywhere -- enough credit.

Ever been to Pearl Harbor, and the Arizona Memorial? Plenty of Americans there. Plenty of Japanese too, side by side with the Americans. It’s sad, and humbling, and, well, it produces a jumble of emotions.

Ever been to Manzanar, where thousands of Japanese Americans were interned during World War II? Plenty of folks there too. It’s also sad, and humbling, and produces a jumble of emotions.

There are lots of other places like that in this country. Civil War battlefields. Revolutionary War battlefields. Former plantations with slave quarters. Other internment camps.

Or go to the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center and stand before the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb.

Honestly, I have no idea what people are thinking when they see it. I would imagine that, as my mom used to say, “It takes all kinds.” Some may be celebrating. Some may be angry. Some may be sad.

Who cares: The point is, I’d wager that very few visitors come away without thinking about what they’ve seen. And since when is thinking a bad thing?

A national park for the Manhattan Project wouldn’t be about celebrating the bomb. It would be about history -- ours and mankind's -- as well as anger, and fear, and sadness and, yes, probably some darker feelings best not shared aloud.

That old German plane pulled out of the English Channel isn’t just a rusty hulk. It’s a link to a past we shouldn’t ignore.

And that’s exactly what a Manhattan Project National Park would be. We built the bomb. We used the bomb. We certainly should be able to build a park to deal with the bomb.

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