Manhattan Project National Park prompts debate over nukes

A worker is shown with Fat Man during the Manhattan Project in the 1940s. That atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. (Courtesy of Los Alamos National Library)

The Manhattan Project National Park, recently established in Los Alamos and at other sites around the country, already is producing some deep debate over the legacy of the creation of nuclear weapons.

In no less than the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists – which describes itself as founded in 1945 by Manhattan Project scientists who “could not remain aloof to the consequences of their work” – dueling essays discuss the national park’s creation and what the Manhattan Project has meant to the world.

First up in early November was Richard Rhodes, who won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for his 1987 book “The Making of the Atomic Bomb.” His essay is called “Why the Manhattan Project should be preserved.”

He first raises several questions about which “physical remains of the past” we choose to preserve. “Specifically, why should the physical remains of the Manhattan Project be preserved?” he asks. “Should we be proud of the work of that secret program in the years of World War II? Should we be ashamed? Should we look the other way, or should we remember? Are such questions appropriate in considering the physical preservation of our common past?”

He eventually gets to a quote from Manhattan Project leader Robert Oppenheimer, who told the scientists he recruited to Los Alamos that the work he was inviting them to join “would probably end this war … and might end all war.”

“And,” Rhodes adds, “within certain limits, I think he was right.” He asks his readers to go back in time.

“We had been at war since the end of 1941, four long years, years of terrible loss of life, 55 to 65 million human beings killed worldwide, more lives lost than in any previous war in history, loss of life comparable to the devastation of some ghastly great plague, and every one of those lost lives a loss of love, of relation, of human potential, of another part of human innocence as well.”

“We were angry with them, beyond describing,” he says. “… We escalated to firebombing and then to atomic bombing because we had no intention of allowing the war to drag on or to end in stalemate. We intended to dominate, and we did.

“I was eight years old in 1945, old enough to remember Pearl Harbor and the years that followed, old enough to remember gold stars hung against black crepe in the front windows of the houses of new-minted war widows and suddenly fatherless children, and I find much tragedy, but no dishonor, in our having used atomic bombs to hasten the end of a long and terrible war.”

And did the atomic bomb end all war, as Oppenheimer said it might? Obviously not nearly. But Rhodes notes a massive drop in the number of man-made deaths dating from the second half of the 20th century.

He writes: “Does anyone doubt that the United States and the Soviet Union would have gone to war, given their mutual belligerency and their mutually exclusive ideologies, if fear of nuclear retaliation had not kept the war cold? We have now almost three quarters of a century of experience with a nuclear world, enough to say with some confidence that the discovery of how to release nuclear energy effectively ended world-scale war by making it too destructive – too self-destructive – for even the most belligerent nations and leaders to dare.”

“… I hope you’ll consider my analysis of the influence of the nuclear discovery on the world. If I am even partly right, then the historical sites of the Manhattan Project are among the world’s most significant, places where work was done that changed the human world forever and for the better.” He concludes: “In the long run, Robert Oppenheimer may turn out to have been right with both his predictions. The Manhattan Project National Historical Park will preserve and embody both the physical and social reality of the millennial transformation that the project began.”

A Santa Fean responds

Last week, the Bulletin published “The Manhattan Project legacy: A response to Richard Rhodes” by James E. Doyle of Santa Fe, a nuclear security specialist who worked as a contractor at Los Alamos from 1997 to 2014. He was dismissed after a British journal published his article promoting nuclear disarmament, apparently over whether the article contained classified information, although Doyle said it had been cleared for release.

Doyle wrote in his recent essay that Rhodes is “absolutely correct to highlight the importance of remembering our atomic history and applaud the creation of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, a network of U.S. sites at which the first nuclear weapons were developed.” Doyle pretty much disagrees with Rhodes on everything else.

Doyle cites historians and former Soviet archives who say “the Soviet entry into the Pacific war on August 9, 1945, had a much greater impact on Japan’s decision to surrender than did the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

“The second (Oppenheimer) prediction, that the nuclear bomb may end ‘all war,’ clearly has not come to pass,” says Doyle. “Three wars since 1980, Afghanistan, Iran-Iraq, and Congo-Rwanda, which together claimed more that 4 million lives, and the ongoing Syrian civil war illustrate this beyond a doubt. Rhodes does qualify that he is referring to the potential end of ‘world-scale’ war between major powers. But the absence of such warfare between ‘major’ powers over the 70 years since the development of nuclear weapons by no means guarantees that major war will not reoccur or that the pause in ‘world-scale’ war was caused by the advent of nuclear arms. Correlation on its own does not establish a causal link.”

He also writes that the absence of a U.S.-Soviet war “could have been caused by mutual aversion to the devastating consequences of major conventional war by leaders and citizens, many of which had experienced it twice in their lifetimes.”

“Nor can one dismiss completely the notions that major war has become less likely as a result of shifts in the political orientation of national governments, growing economic and cultural interdependence, or advances in information, life-sciences, and environmental technology. Certainly it is plausible that regional security alliances, ongoing East-West security dialogues, and the evolution of European integration played a role in avoiding a third world war.”

Doyle also doesn’t like Rhodes’ interpretation of human-caused deaths in recent decades:

“A world that generates a ‘smoldering’ level of approximately 1 million annual war deaths and accepts the risk that 300 million could be exterminated in a day, and 2 billion perish within a year or two of unleashing a nuclear war, is not a ‘better’ world. It is an unhealthy world, engaged in unnecessarily self-destructive behavior.”

Near the end of his piece, Doyle adds: “Nuclear weapons can provide a positive legacy for humankind only if we learn from them, and on that question the jury is still out. Nothing has fundamentally changed since 1961, when President Kennedy observed, ‘Every man, woman, and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness.'”

To see the full essays, go to thebulletin.org. Maybe they should be among the first official National Park Service exhibits in Los Alamos.

By the way, dear reader, for more on the same topic, check out recent episodes of WGN’s “Manhattan” TV series, leading up to a dramatization of the Trinity atomic test in southern New Mexico before the Japanese bombings. In this nuclear soap opera, set in Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project, fictional scientist characters Frank Winters and Charlie Isaacs embody two sides of a very similar debate over how far to go in promoting the value of fear of nuclear annihilation as a method of keeping the peace.

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