Sixty years ago the first nuclear weapon was tested in the New Mexico
desert. A month later two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. It brought
World War II to a swift end. There are tourists who are interested in the
history of these weapons of mass destruction. They find the historical
sites of the atomic age are hard to get to and still controversial. The
Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mary Ann Colihan reports:
Sixty years ago, the first nuclear weapon was tested in the New Mexico desert, ushering in the dawn of the atomic age. A month later, two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. It brought World War II to a swift end. There are tourists who are interested in the history of weapons of mass destruction. They might find the historical sites of the atomic age are hard to get to and still controversial. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mary Ann Colihan reports:
(Sound of monks chanting)
Keigaku Muchu is a Buddhist monk. Since the atomic bombs were dropped in 1945 on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese monks have walked back and forth between these two cities with a lantern that was lit by a flame captured from the smoldering ruins of their shrine, which had been destroyed.
In Zen Buddhism, sixty years is considered a sacred cycle. So this summer, they took a new pilgrimage to the Trinity Site in New Mexico. That’s where the atomic bomb was first tested. They wanted to close the cycle from where the atomic destruction started to where it ended in Japan. Keigaku says his journey helped him join spiritually to countless supporters who never want atomic weapons used again.
“So if people in northern America want to come physically to the Trinity site, that’s great too. But if they can’t come, they can be connected. I can connect with them spiritually.”
The monks were not alone on their 1600-mile overland trek from San Francisco in searing desert heat to the Trinity site. This walk was organized by Matt Taylor, co-executive director of the Global Nuclear Disarmament Fund. He says the walk has multiple missions.
“The main thing we’re trying to achieve is bringing the atomic claim that has been kindled from the ashes of Hiroshima back to the trinity site where it began, closing a sixty-year cycle.”
The Trinity test site is located on the White Sands Missile Range. The military holds an open house at the Trinity test site just two days per year. Jim Eckles is a spokesperson for the missile range.
“We get two to three thousand folks during each open house, and they come from all backgrounds, all walks of life, from all over the country. You’ll see young families, young kids, students on a science project, old people who were alive at World War II, veterans who come up and say, ‘I was getting ready to go to the Pacific and this saved my life,’ motorcycle gang members – you name it they come.”
Eckles says the Department of Defense is not likely to stop using the missile range just to welcome more atomic tourists. But the military is preserving the Trinity site.
“It’s significant because it is the first atomic bomb explosion or test site. It did change our lives. The Cold War had a different tone to it because of nuclear weapons and them hanging over our heads. And of course, they are still out there so they still influence us.”
And world headlines about nuclear proliferation still make history a flash point.
At another historic atomic site, the job of preserving is a little more difficult. John Isaacson is a resource manager in the environmental stewardship division at Los Alamos National Laboratories. There, the Manhattan Project was the code name for the top-secret program to build the atomic bomb. Isaacson says we’re still trying to understand what to make of the beginning of the atomic age.
“This is history that is gone through a number of different sort of re-analyses in the past fifty years since the end of the war and it’s still very alive for many people, a very real history for many people”
But there’s a problem. Manhattan Project buildings at Los Alamos are deteriorating. Most are wooden and were thrown up hastily by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Although today, the public doesn’t get to see the site because it’s deep within a security zone, Isaacson says it should be preserved.
“I think the Manhattan Project is a real good example of this very controversial, unresolved historical process that, by preserving the buildings, it allows people to think about it, and it’s important to think about it.”
Isaacson wants us to keep the buildings in good repair for the day when they can be opened to the public. He’s getting some help. The Atomic Heritage Foundation in Washington D.C. is helping them and other Manhattan Project sites across the country raise eighty-eight million dollars to refurbish properties that are historically significant to the start of the atomic age.
For the GLRC, I’m Mary Ann Colihan.