“Just tell us the truth.” He was a 16-year-old high school student, and he was talking to the National Park Service. The Park Service had invited 30 students from different parts of the country to reflect via zoom on the Manhattan Project. What did this generation know about the Manhattan Project? Was it relevant to their lives today? What information did they need about this project that changed the world?
The agency was seeking guidance on how to tell the story of the Manhattan Project at the new Manhattan Project National Historical Park, located in three separate locations: Los Alamos, NM, Hanford, WA, and Oak Ridge, TN. These three sites were critical in the development of the first atomic bomb and the birth of the nuclear age. Each played a role in research, processing materials and building the weapons.
Secrecy had shrouded the project in order to keep enemies in the dark and be able to deliver the ultimate weapon without warning. The secrecy continued after the war to some extent; the true impacts of the research, development, testing and detonation of the bomb were slow to come to light. Many feel those impacts are still not understood and respected. My job as facilitator was to help those voices be heard through a series of zoom sessions with Park Service leadership. One of those sessions focused on the next generation, since they are the ones who will carry this significant moment in history into the future.
Most of the students in the zoom session had no direct connection to the Manhattan Project, at least not that they knew of. Their grandparents may not have even been born by August 1945 when the bombs were detonated. All these young people knew came from history books and popular culture which delivered a narrative about the monumental scientific achievement which ended World War II, and the unmatched unity and patriotism around the effort. Although their knowledge about this slice of history was limited, they were eloquent in making connections to challenges facing us today. They understood that the country in 1945 was remarkably unified around the mission to end the war and save the world. Today, several said, we need the same unity and clarity of purpose to grapple with threats that are as real as World War II. When asked what those threats were, there was no hesitation: Covid, social justice and climate change.
And when asked if they could see any impacts from the Manhattan Project on their lives today, one student offered a chilling observation. After pondering, she volunteered that most if not all the Superheroes she could think of traced their powers in some way to nuclear events or radiation accidents, or the consequence of some kind of mysterious powerful substance or reaction. “Seems like these characters that we are supposed to admire get their superpowers from what is really a very dangerous, lethal thing. But to tell you the truth, radiation and all that nuclear stuff isn’t that scary to me. It almost feels kind of glamorous.” She had stunned herself, along with the rest of us. Another student mused whether or not this might be a deliberate strategy to make us comfortable living in the nuclear age. There was silence as we all let this sink in.
And then the first student spoke up again. “I know,” he said, “that there are other sides to this Manhattan Project story, ugly, painful sides, sides that make us question what we did and why. I want to hear it all, the whole story. Just tell us the truth.”
“Without this,” said another student, “how will we ever know what really happened and how to keep it from happening again?”
Amen. I agree wholeheartedly and thank the students for their clarity and courage.
This generation, I realize, has never known the kind of blissful ignorance that I grew up with in the 50s and early 60s. Their world has always been a complex and threatening place. They can’t afford to have a sugar-coated version of history, an incomplete picture. As the inheritors of these global crises, they need the truth, the whole truth.