Just Tell the Truth

“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?  

Birth of the Nuclear Age

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.

at the entrance to Los Alamos, New Mexico

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.

14 thoughts on “Just Tell the Truth”

  1. Lucy –
    I am always inspired and or thoughtful after reading your blogs and this one caused both. Thanks for reminding me of the power and clarity of youth as well as the importance of “Just telling the truth”.

  2. Do you remember the practice drills we had to do at Bush when we had to go down in the basement or furnace room as a safe place in case of a bomb or other danger? Maybe I was in elementary school at the time, 1950.s > I remember seeing TV pictures of the mushroom and feeling so shocked.

    1. Indeed, I do remember! And then there were the air raid drills in elementary school where I lay on the floor under the water fountain (!) to protect me from the Russian bombers coming our way. I had recurring nightmares for years — still occasionally — stemming from those three-blast alerts (it was 1 blast for fire, 2 for earthquake, and 3 for bombs). Hmmm, maybe our generation (in Seattle) wasn’t exactly spared the sense of doom that permeates these times….

  3. The pattern seems to be that the military research and develop major products or materials and then peacetime uses turn up that benefit all of us. Nuclear medicine comes to mind. It’s probably easier for Congress to pass military appropriations.
    Perhaps a new generation of voters will change that

    1. So good to hear from you, Jane! You and Bill have a special place in my heart. I agree, it is a kind of perverse way to invent wonderful life-saving things.

  4. Thank you for sharing this post Lucy. I reacted as your other commentators did. I will add that I fear for us as a people nevertheless. “Telling the truth” is itself under threat. We have lied to ourselves for so long that I fear we are vulnerable to concluding that there are “ many truths”. That there are somehow.. “alternative facts”; and that we can pick the ones we prefer. Fanaticism I think we might call it.
    This sounds cynical but I do not mean it in this way. I share it as a reminder of how difficult the task ahead is—-of owning and telling the truth about ourselves. Owning our shadow side is the most difficult of all life’s challenges. It is why most avoid it.

    1. You are eloquent, Reed, and you tell the truth! I am struck by the recent revelations about the lies the military and government told each other and us about our successes in Afghanistan. Unable to admit we were mired and didn’t really know how to work effectively within this foreign culture, we blundered on, telling ourselves we were building a democracy….until we weren’t. The whole truth would have helped, but that takes humility and courage, which have been in short supply.

  5. Hi Lucy,
    In a fateful coincidence, earlier today I read “War Is A Racket” written by Major General Smedley Butler in 1930. Having his content juxtaposed against the events of the Manhattan Project begun barely a decade later was helpful background for understanding the impediments holding back those wishing to break the chains that hobble us thanks to our military-industrial complex. While I agree with a previous commenter that nuclear medicine is a big boon to bettering lives, it still begs the question why the profits from war are the largest and most sought after by capitalism’s tycoons, and why we allow them to drive our economic choices.
    The high school students are very good observers of our social condition. We should embrace their insights.
    Thank you so much for sharing such a thoughtful blog.

    1. Thank you, Rhea. Your writing is eloquent, by the way! Have you considered blogging or some other venue for your thoughts? I would sign up with enthusiasm. And by the way, I, too, have read “War is a Racket.” My husband Roberto is a Marine and a very disillusioned Vietnam veteran. He is a big Smedley Butler fan.

      1. Lucy, thank you for the compliment. I haven’t been tempted but will ponder your suggestion.
        Also, I appreciate your husband’s feelings and send him prayers for peace of mind.

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