I wrote this piece on Hiroshima Day, 2010.
I'm traveling around New Mexico for the first time, my eyes opened wide by colors, clouds, and light. It's all quite wonderful until I go through the security check into the Los Alamos compound, where some 10,000 employees work on "The World's Greatest Science Protecting America." This mind-numbing experience is reinforced when I visit local museums, hoping to find intellectual engagement or at least some recognition of what it means that such an extraordinarily sensual terrain is home to the world record for mass killing in a single day.
How does the state deal with this conundrum in its public image? Is Los Alamos, I wonder, in any way comparable to Dachau, a fashionable, pre-World War II spa town that became a killing machine under the Nazis?
Close to the compound, the town boasts a new home for the Los Alamos National Laboratory's Bradbury Science Museum. The museum,which is aimed at students, families with children, and tourists, receives about 10,000 visitors a year. "Don't miss the first nuclear bombs, Little Boy and Fat Man," says the Bradbury's brochure. The museum is operated by my alma mater, the University of California (on behalf of the U. S. Department of Energy), so I'm expecting something more than jingoistic propaganda for American militarism. Doesn't university sponsorship mean visitors will be exposed to debates, conflicting opinions, and moral engagement?
Inside the small museum, free to visitors, there is extensive information about the history of Los Alamos, and the scientists and staff who were part of the hush-hush operation known as the Manhattan Project. We are also educated about how the Lab was built in 1942-3 and the science that went into testing the world's first nuclear device at the Trinity site on July 16, 1945, in the New Mexico desert. The buildup to dropping bombs on Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9 is described in detail; and, if you look carefully, you can even learn that the bombs killed an estimated 300,000 people in Japan.
Visitors get just the facts, presented clinically and dispassionately as if Science is value-free. We are sheltered from seeing the human cost of nuclear war. There are replicas of the first bombs, photographs of the devastated cities and, of course, mushroom clouds. But no images of vaporized people, agonizing deaths, or the long-term suffering produced by radiation sickness. Nothing to make us realize the common humanity of us and them. The Japanese are absent, faceless, abstract.
Nor is there any sense of political debate or ethical dilemmas about the decision to kill, without warning, one-third of the population of Hiroshima and 80,000 people in Nagasaki in order to end the war and "save American lives." And nothing about the Cold War and spiraling arms race initiated by the United States. A sixteen-minute film, "The Town That Never Was," shows off a nuclear fireball, but no people burning to death or staggering naked through the splintered streets.
At the Bradbury you wont get to see the films made by the Air Force on the impact and aftermath of the bombings. The government thought them so disturbing that they were suppressed for twenty-two years. Instead, in the museum's bookstore, you can buy "Los Alamos, 1943-1945: Beginning of an Era," a booklet written by the Los Alamos Historical Society that tells us everything we might want to know about The Bomb except what it did to its victims. It concludes with an empathetic account of the "crashing letdown" felt by the Lab's staff at the end of the war, but is silent on the feelings of the Japanese victims who died instantly or were unlucky to survive.
After Los Alamos, I feel drained and depressed by the museum's meticulous amnesia. It's a relief to return to sightseeing, especially to visit Georgia O'Keeffe's gorgeous adobe home, only forty miles away in nearby Abiquiu. The carefully guided tour, run by the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, has a tendency to treat O'Keeffe's home as a shrine and her everyday objects as relics. But you get a first-hand sense of what drew her to the landscape and how she lived her aesthetic. From her studio we can look out at the cottonwood trees, jimson weeds, Chama River valley, and white hills that she captured so vividly in her paintings.
We also get to see the utensils she used in her kitchen, the hospital bed she needed at the end of her life in the early 1980s, even the initials of her gardener carved into rocks. But there is no tour of her fully stocked, state-of-the-art bomb shelter, built in the late 1950s at the height of the Cold War when many people feared the Commies and thought that an underground room could protect them from radiation and fireballs. O'Keeffe's preserved shelter is located just a few feet from her studio, off limits to tourists.
The next day, in Santa Fe, I'm hopeful that the centrally located New Mexico History Museum will provide more than propaganda about Los Alamos. The new wing of the museum, opened about a year ago, is a pleasure to the senses: spacious, airy, and light, with clearly exhibited artifacts and informative texts. The state's history is chronologically presented, from its native roots to its multicultural present. World War II is given its own room, with personal accounts of New Mexicans who served in the military.
There's also a gleaming white room decorated on every wall and the ceiling with graffiti-like quotations from people who worked on "the most daring scientific project ever attempted." The impact is disorienting and hip, but anti-intellectual. The only hint that the Lab's staff was working on a weapon of mass destruction is a small case displaying an oscillograph that recorded data from the Trinity blast.
Beyond the white room, we learn ever so briefly that "the atomic bomb project changed New Mexico" - its labs, bases, defense contracts, and high-tech industries becoming a "crucial part of the state's economy." But unlike a visit to any Holocaust museum in the United States, we are not asked to ponder the enormity of man's inhumanity or express a moment of solidarity with innocent victims. Nor are we expected to grapple with the fact that the state's economic development was fuelled by industries of death. Oblivion continues into gift stores around the state, where you can buy a packet of fifteen "Historic Postcards" of the "White Sands Missile Range," with celebratory before and after photographs of the Trinity test, and snap shots of missiles from the V-2 to the Patriot.
Back on the road as a tourist, just when I've given up looking for a hint of humanity in all the expected places, I found it in El Sanctuario de Chimayo, an early nineteenth century church visited by believers seeking the curative powers of its holy dirt. Here, next to the altar, is "The Flame of Peace" - a lit candle on top of a decorative stand - which was carried around the world in 1986 as part of the First Earth Run, marking the United Nations' International Year of Peace. Each year since then on May 2nd, runners carry the flame from the Sanctuario to "the birthplace of nuclear weapons, Los Alamos." A gathering of witnesses participates in a ceremony of healing and reconciliation, and "prays for peace."
Meanwhile, New Mexico's museums choose ignorance over soulfulness and debate. This is the continuing political fallout from the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum's efforts in 1995 to create an exhibition centered on the Enola Gay (name of the plane that bombed Hiroshima) that would have invited visitors to consider the pros and cons of the decision to use nuclear weapons in 1945. The exhibition was cancelled when politicians and military organizations whipped up a frenzy of opposition against "revisionist" history. That defeat for freedom of inquiry continues to cast a chill of self-censorship and closed-mindedness throughout the country, turning the tragedy of Los Alamos into yet another fable of American Progress.
August 6, 2010