August 12, 2012

THE MANHATTAN Project — the U.S. government’s wartime push to develop an atomic bomb — ranks among the most significant chapters in the history of the American Century. In the 1940s, the government invested billions of dollars and employed hundreds of thousands of people in laboratories at Los Alamos, N.M.; Hanford, Wash.; and Oak Ridge, Tenn., to create a weapon that changed the course of warfare forever.

Now, some 70 years later, a bipartisan initiative seeks to designate these three sites as a National Park. That’s a fine idea. Such a move would expand access to these crucial historical sites as well as provide funding and staffing to preserve them. Given their importance in the histories of the United States, the Cold War and the 20th century, Congress should pass the park designation bill by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and companion legislation by Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.).

Should the bill pass, the National Park Service (NPS) will be charged with interpreting the Manhattan Project and its legacy for visitors. It will be a daunting task. The bill acknowledges that the project’s legacy is “significant, far-reaching and complex.” The Manhattan Project harnessed American scientific, engineering and industrial prowess in an effort that many saw as essential to the survival of the free world in its fight against fascism. But many of its participants wrestled within themselves then and afterward over their part in creating such a frightful tool of death.

The decision to use the weapon, to destroy the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, remains, and will always remain, a question of keen historical debate. The explosions brought to a swift end a war that might otherwise have dragged on for a long time, at a cost of of hundreds of thousands more lives, both American and Japanese. But they killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians, both in August 1945 and subsequently from radiation poisoning. A successful exhibit will present the choice that President Harry S. Truman faced in all its complexity without seeking to decide the issues for visitors.

The National Park Service, which manages hundreds of locations across the country, has significant experience in dealing with fraught histories at sites such as the Japanese Internment Camps at Manzanar and Little Rock Central High School. The Manhattan Project will be no less of a challenge. But it encompasses a seminal moment in world history, one that surely warrants the wider audience this legislative push would bring.