Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Manhattan Project National Historical Park

An article in the Los Alamos Monitor today described the latest developments in the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. Summarizing from this article:

"The Manhattan Project National Historical Park passes another milestone Tuesday when Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell and Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz sign a memorandum of agreement formally establishing the Park."

"The Park is the culmination of 10 years of effort by the three communities included within its boundaries: Los Alamos, New Mexico, Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Hanford, Wash."

Concerning which I am moved to wonder:

What should the Manhattan Project National Historical Park memorialize and what should it attempt to teach  to future visitors?

1) That the march of science toward the discovery of new sources of energy, combined with unstoppable advances in military technology, have enabled the creation of ever more powerful weapons. Today, this unfortunate ongoing synergy makes it seem likely that the next global war will involve the destruction of larger civilian populations than before, and will create even more human suffering than before.

2) The Manhattan Project enabled the quick death by incineration and the slow death by radiation poisoning of ~200,000 civilian residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; a triumph of science and technology since this slaughter occurred during just two air raids, in each of which only one bomb was dropped. Of course, we shouldn't forget the earlier deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians in both Japan and Germany by allied bombing raids, in which thousands of conventional incendiary bombs were dropped. We continue today to justify these attacks by proclaiming that "war is hell" and that, anyway, it was the Japanese and the Germans who started it.

3) Moving beyond WW II, the Manhattan Project enabled the creation of a Balance of Terror which weighed on civilian psychologies during the Cold War (1950-1990) and under which the entire world continues to labor today. One has only to try to imagine the magnitude of the misery that the next global war will produce, perhaps involving nuclear weapons attacks on major population centers, to know the reason for this lack of martial fervor on the part of the world's nervous Neds and Nellies.

But, perhaps this is also a reason to think that wars of the future will be of limited extent and that global wars are a thing of the past. Albert Einstein himself said that he thought that this would have to be so if mankind was to survive; however, there is no guarantee that it will be so. Moreover, considering the history of politics and of warfare, it doesn't seem very likely.

Looking at this question more abstractly, the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawn pointed out in his last book, that the future is unknown, and may not be peaceful, unless politicians strive continually to maintain the peace. Or, as Karl Marx put it, ~150 years ago: the future may be one of socialism or barbarism, dependent upon politics and politicians.

Today, politics has led to the commissioning of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. But, will politicians be able to force inclusion in the Park of material describing the dark side of the nuclear fire unleashed at Los Alamos?

More concretely, how will future visitors to the  Manhattan Project National Historical Park feel about American  ingenuity if the barbarians of ISIS obtain a weapon akin to the one first built at Los Alamos in 1945? Will they be proud or will they be ashamed? Will they be gratified or will they be horrified?

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