History in the flesh

by Alex Wellerstein, published May 29th, 2015

My main mode of interacting with history is through documents. Memos, reports, letters, telegrams, transcriptions, diagrams — the written word. The sociologist of science Bruno Latour calls these kinds of sources inscriptions, that which got written down, fixed into some kind of reproducible media. In Latour’s work, he emphasizes the act of inscription to highlight the gulf that exists between what gets written down and the anarchy of the raw, natural world. The inscription is a limited product of that raw world, a small subset of its multitudes of activities and phenomena and possibilities, and is always an incomplete lens by which to interrogate the world, but its very incompleteness allows it to be fixed, circulated, and analyzed. Without this act of inscription, science (and history) could not move forward, because there would be no such thing as the necessary “data.”

A small sampling of the sort of "inscriptions" I deal with regularly, the raw stuff of conjuring up the past: a typewritten report later turned into a microfilm entry (later scanned into a PDF file); a typewritten copy of a memo I got from an archive (later photographed by me and turned into a PDF); a hand-drawn diagram (evidence from the Rosenberg trial) that was later deposited into an archive (and later scanned as a TIF file).

A small sampling of the sort of “inscriptions” I deal with regularly, the raw stuff of conjuring up the past: a typewritten report later turned into a microfilm entry (later scanned into a PDF file); a typewritten copy of a memo I got from an archive (later photographed by me and turned into a PDF); a hand-drawn diagram (evidence from the Rosenberg trial) that was later deposited into an archive (and later scanned as a TIF file).

All of which might seem a little obvious once I say it. We need sources, of some sort, to do history? Tell me more. But the reason to point this out is to mention that historians are very aware that there’s lots of things that happened in the past that don’t get inscribed, and that the modes of inscription are not always reliable (even when people are trying to do their best, much less when they aren’t), and that the archive is just a proxy for understanding the past, and not in any way a full representation of the past. The job of the historian, stated in this way, is to piece together a fuller, more synthetic understanding of the past based on what is really a very shallow evidentiary base. We take half a dozen pieces of paper marked with symbols, and use those to try and conjure up an entire lost world. We take scribbles on paper and use them to try and reconstruct the subjective states of other human minds. When you put it like that, it is a pretty wonderfully mystical, kind of medieval, style of knowledge production. Which is why I love it — its flaws are obvious, its possibilities are endless, and it requires a very diverse group of skills that both empirical and creative.

But there are other ways to know the past. Being in the physical places of the past does seem to trigger a different response to it, as opposed to just reading about said places. This is one of the reasons I am so supportive of the Manhattan Project National Historic Park initiative. There is something about witnessing a historical landscape in person, that encourages a different sort of empathy with those who lived past, a seeing with other eyes.

A view from the car window, driving from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. One of about 10 million photographs I took on my trip. Eventually I will post some more. Separately, if you want a Los Alamos Ranch School mug, I was inspired to make them after my trip, and they are based on the actual seal of the school, which I saw for the first time while out there.

A view from the car window, driving from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. One of about 10 million photographs I took on my trip. Eventually I will post some more. Separately, if you want a Los Alamos Ranch School mug, I was inspired to make them after my trip, and they are based on the actual seal of the school, which I saw for the first time while out there.

I haven’t personally been to a lot of these Manhattan Project sites. Sometimes this surprises people, but it’s just been a matter of time and money. For my last Spring Break, though, I had the opportunity to spend a week in New Mexico, teaching a couple classes for my friend Luis Campos at the University of New Mexico (whose book on the history of radium was just published). My wife and I spent a few days in Santa Fe as a guest of the wonderful Cheryl Rofer, who also gave us the best unofficial tour of Los Alamos you could ask for, with assistance from Alan Carr (the Historian for Los Alamos National Laboratory) and the irrepressible Ellen Bradbury Reid, described aptly in an article as the “Eloise of Los Alamos,” which is a phrase I so wish I had come up with.

I had not previously spent too much time in the Southwest before. The landscape out there is stunning and other-worldly. On your left will be nothing but flat, scrubby desert. On your right, a towering mountain. Drive a little further and you find lushness and trees. Drive a little more and you find dryness and rock. Go up high enough and it might be snowing. Look around, feel the vastness of the area. Walk around and see the legacy of the three different peoples who have lived there: the Indians, the Spanish, the Anglos. It is an unusual place that feels as unlike the parts of California I am from as it does the East Coast urban metropolises I have lived for the last ten years. They don’t call it the “Land of Enchantment” for nothing.

All of which deepened, I like to believe, my feeling for Los Alamos during the war. What it must have meant to travel out there, to take the one good road from Santa Fe up onto the Mesa (there is a highway now, of course, but the old road is still there, albeit better paved). The way in which the various Technical Areas were nestled into the tree-lined valleys, and how you could go up those hills and look down on just miles and miles around. Today, of course, Los Alamos is a huge, sprawling laboratory. We didn’t really get to go inside of it to any real extent (there are a lot of rules governing that sort of thing), but Alan Carr took us up a hill which gave us great panoramas of the whole site. The hills around the lab are today full of dead, burned trees, the result of several forest fires that devastated them. But when you drive around the mesas near Bandelier National Monument, you get a sense for that rustic, rocky environment that so appealed to J. Robert Oppenheimer, that seemed such incredible contrast to his secular Jewish upbringing on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Nagasaki Mayor Tomihisa Taue, Atomic Heritage Foundation President Cynthia Kelly and Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui at the meeting in New York, just across from the United Nations building. I was sitting a little out of frame, near Mayor Matsui. Source: Japan Times.

Nagasaki Mayor Tomihisa Taue, Atomic Heritage Foundation President Cynthia Kelly and Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui at the meeting in New York, just across from the United Nations building. I was sitting a little out of frame, near Mayor Matsui. Source: Japan Times.

About a month afterwards, I had another unusual opportunity to experience history in the flesh. Connected with my work with the Atomic Heritage Foundation (I have joined their Advisory Committee), I was invited to take part in a meeting with the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as several hibakusha, survivors of the atomic bombings.1 The Japanese delegation was in town for the NPT Review conference, but they wanted to meet with the Atomic Heritage Foundation in a public forum to talk about concerns they had with the Manhattan Project National Historic Park. Most of their concerns were understandable and shared by us: they want the history of the atomic bomb to not be presented in a celebratory mode, and to give credence to the many different perspectives that are held on it. They want the human consequences of the bombings to be made loud and clear. They want these sites to be places where people are encouraged to make up their own minds, rather than simply being told what to think about the past. On this I think everyone was in complete agreement. The details, of course, will be tricky in practice, but such is the nature of these things.

I had never seen hibakusha before, and I was greatly honored to meet them. There are not so many of them left. Many of those who are still alive, as with the remaining Holocaust survivors, were children during World War II. Which points, inadvertently, to the immense human costs of these events, to the innocents swept up into the maw of war. I have of course read much about the Japanese victims of the bomb, but it is another thing to meet them. The incident inspired me to re-read John Hersey’s Hiroshima for the first time in a long while, and the raw humanity of his account hit me in a way that it hadn’t before — the depth of my historical empathy increased measurably.

Which doesn’t tell one how to think about the use of the atomic bomb, I feel compelled to point out. Having sympathy and empathy with the past does not tell one which particular historical point of view one should subscribe to. There are many possible points of view to even non-controversial events, much less intensely controversial ones.2

Several of the still-living Manhattan Project veterans/

Several of the still-living Manhattan Project veterans. It is unclear how many of the nearly half-million people who worked on Manhattan Project are still alive. 

Next week (June 2-3, 2015), as part of a really wonderful symposium on the 70th Anniversary of the Manhattan Project hosted by the Atomic Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, I will also get to spend some more time with other Manhattan Project veterans. These too are becoming an endangered species, along with all World War II-era veterans. It’s not the specific stories or experiences of these people that I often get the most out of. There’s something about just spending time around these historical actors (as historians like to call our human subjects) that helps you understand their world, remind you of the human content of the past.

If you are in town, the talks will be worth going to. Aside from my own talk (which will be great fun, I assure you), the other committed speakers include Kai Bird, Denise Kiernan, Robert S. Norris, Richard Rhodes, and Martin Sherwin. I have it on good authority that John Coster-Mullen will be in attendance, too. There is still time to register.

In a decade it will be the 80th anniversary of the Manhattan Project and World War II. There will probably not be any veterans to talk to then. There is an advantage to that, for the historian: living historical actors are tricky. They can disagree with you. Their individual perspectives can be intoxicating, charismatic, misleading. They can insist that their perspectives on history take precedence over the synthetic version you have constructed from inscriptions. They aren’t always right on that, as all history students are taught, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make trouble for you — the Smithsonian Enola Gay controversy in 1995 was one in part such a conflict of perspectives. It is in some ways easier to deal with the long-since deceased, because you can regard their inscriptions from something of a remove. But you do miss out on something, and its not just nostalgia. You have to work harder to reconstruct these other worlds, these other subjective states, in the absence of a working, functioning example sitting in front of you. This is why we have to preserve these spaces, and these voices, just as diligently as we have to preserve the documents, the inscriptions.

  1. Among other things, I learned that to an American ear, it is pronounced heh-bak-sha, with the u being essentially silent. []
  2. This was one of the great fallacies of the 1995 Enola Gay controversy — the idea that by talking about the victims of the bombs, you somehow took away from those who thought the bombs were necessary or important. History is complex, and we need to treat the audiences of history as if they were intelligent human beings capable of understanding multiple, possibly contradictory perspectives. If we don’t do that, we are just doing some form of crude activism for one cause or another, and the world has enough of that to go around as it is. []

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17 Responses to “History in the flesh”

  1. Bill Higgins says:

    Your discourse on methods of interacting with history– read the “inscriptions,” visit the places, talk to the people– made me think of yet another: Engage with the artifacts. In some sense, this is what John Coster-Mullen does.

    Then I recalled a neat example: “Experimental Reconstruction of Lomonosov’s Discovery of Venus’s Atmosphere with Antique Refractors During the 2012 Transit of Venus.” In 1761 Mikhail Lomonosov, peering at his telescope through smoked glass, briefly saw a narrow arc of light, an aureole, around the dark disk of Venus as it crossed the limb of the Sun. From this he deduced that Venus has an atmosphere, which refracts the sunlight.

    Some scholars disputed whether Lomonosov could really have seen this. Pairs of Venus transits are rare– they occurred in 1761, 1769, 1874, 1882, 2004, and 2012, and the next is in 2117. A group of researchers obtained 18th-century telescopes comparable to Lomonosov’s and attempted to repeat his observation during the 2012 transit. (Lomonosov’s own telescope was destroyed in World War II.) A couple of them succeeded in seeing the aureole. Hooray!

  2. Ron Dickerson says:


    Excellent post. Your insights and perspective have elevated my own by expressing and placing equal value of alternate points of view. Heretofore my interest in the Manhattan Project and all things related were based on curiosity and historical interests. By shining a light, such as this posting, it will help broaden perspectives of future generations who rely on history text books. Thanks.

  3. Kert VanderMeulen says:

    I have been on my own atomic tour for the past few years. I have not been to Oak Ridge, Stagg Field or Hanford, WA. One obscure place I have been to is Hunter’s Point on San Francisco Bay. On a movie scout in 2005 I was shown THE CRANE that loaded components aboard Indianapolis for her crossing to Tinian. The site has been cleaned up and is turning into condos and low-cost housing now. I will never forget the electrified feeling I got on the back of my neck when I saw the crane and realized its importance in the “trail” that led to the Atomic Age. I think the crane is gone now. Too bad.

    • Hunter’s Point was also the site of the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory during the Cold War. It is a place with a very interesting history. At some point I may write something on it here; I did some research into it many years ago, when I lived on the West Coast.

  4. Bill Loring says:

    I too have found that speaking or relying on the memories of veterans of this or that is a dual edge sword. Often they can contribute important and sometimes trivial information of interest but memory is a fragile thing and subject to all sorts of influences that can alter what is fact from “fact”. While I agree that the presentation of history should be left for one to form their own opinion and the concerns of the hibakusha in regards to the MED, I do wish that their own countrymen would remember that when presenting their own version of the Pacific War at home.

  5. Lisa Hirsch says:

    The limits of personal testimony. A few years ago, I heard the pianist Charles Rosen say, at a musical symposium, “Rosenthal said that Brahms always rolled his chords!”

    Rosen was past 80 at the time; he was quoting his piano teacher, Moriz Rosenthal, who had died in the 1940s when Rosen was 19 years old, and Rosenthal was discussing how Brahms, who died in 1897, had played the piano.

    So Rosen’s remark is….interesting….but how much can one trust it? Rosen started studying with Rosenthal at age 11; we have no idea when Rosenthal make the alleged remark or whether Rosenthal was exaggerating for effect, and without a lot of research, we don’t know how often Rosenthal heard Brahms.

    Alex, also wondering whether you’ve read Ellen Klages’s wonderful novel “The Green Glass Sea.”

    • Kurt Harms says:

      Lisa, I have also read Klages book, and enjoyed it very much. (I even read it to my fifth graders.) The sequel, “White Sands, Red Menace,” is also excellent, though less directly linked to Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project.

  6. Gene Dannen says:

    Alex, I would like to hope that the symposium, and the planned Manhattan Project parks, will present an objective view, but I’m doubtful about that. The use of the bomb is an issue that too many American historical accounts of the Manhattan Project have failed to confront.

    To cite one glaring example, the 766-page first volume of the official history of the Atomic Energy Commission, The New World 1939-1946, published in 1962, drew the following comment from a reviewer in Chemical and Engineering News:

    ‘But it is strange that the great historical event of the destruction of Hiroshima with a single 4 1/2 ton bomb is dismissed with only a seven-line description of how it looked from the air. Two lines suffice for Nagasaki. Even the simple statistics of lives lost and property destroyed are omitted. This is a serious and obviously intentional omission.’

    Richard Rhodes’ 886-page The Making of the Atomic Bomb described the effects of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at length. The decision to use the bomb, however, was another matter. Rhodes barely mentioned Szilard’s petition against the use of the bomb, and he didn’t mention the Franck Report at all.

    If the Atomic Heritage Foundation wants to seriously address the issues, they could start by improving their web-page titled
    The Decision to Drop the Bomb – 1945.

    Although the page does link to my full-text transcription of the Franck Report, the page contains many factual errors and thus gives the impression that their interest in the decision to use the bomb, and knowledge about it, is very limited.

    • I don’t think one can claim the Hewlett book is representative whatsoever of present historiography on the subject. It is an official AEC history from the 1960s. It has obvious limitations in that respect.

      All histories have their omissions. Rhodes does discuss at length the demonstration question, and Szilard’s general positions, even though he does not go into the Franck Report itself. I am sure there are many things he would adjust with the benefit of ~30 years’ hindsight.

      I don’t think anyone of any nationality has yet written a truly “objective view” of this history, if it exists. All contribute perspectives. There are areas of disagreement and of emphasis. It is not the job of the National Park Service to create an “objective view” — they are not scholars. At most it is their obligation to show the multitudes of views that do exist. I am sure there will be much for critics to latch onto, no matter what they put out there, but that is the nature of this kind of thing.

      • Gene Dannen says:

        You would have to ask Rhodes himself if he would change what he wrote. He published a ’25th Anniversary Edition.’ I’m not aware that he changed anything.

  7. Jim Sanchez says:

    Excellent article and as a student of the history of atomic weapons, it is right in my wheelhouse. My wife and I visited the trinity site last year and it was worth the effort – history was made here. I went to grad school in Knoxville and got a tour of the part of K-25 that was open at the time. I have to agree that the Rhodes’ book is a valuable if necessarily incomplete history of the project and well worth a read.

  8. Cheryl Rofer says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Alex! I enjoyed your and your wife’s visit thoroughly and now can claim to be the first person to take you to Los Alamos!

    Your photo, however, is not from between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, but rather of Bandelier’s Boundary Peaks, just south of Los Alamos. It was probably taken when Alan Carr took us up the road to the ski area so that we could see S-Site. Or did we drive back along Bandelier on State Route 4? If so, it’s from there, and TA-49 is probably behind you.

    The open grassy areas are the result of the fires you mention.

  9. Alex, I was thinking about history, and the difference between that and a story, in my usual fuzzy, nonrigorous way and wrote a post about it that’s a sort of footnote to your excellent and well-thought-out and touching post:

  10. Kurt Harms says:

    There seems to be in human nature a desire to interact and engage with past history—perhaps as a revisionist or a critic with an axe to grind, but also to sort out history’s impact on the nature of the present. My need to interact with Manhattan Project history really didn’t begin until after the deaths of my mother and father, and the discovery of papers, photographs, and letters my father had saved from his work on the project. I was somewhat aware of the history of the project (the academic, what-I-learned-in-school kind of history), partially because John Hersey’s Hiroshima was required reading in my sophomore English class, and I had also heard a handful of stories from my father in my late teens and early adult years. It didn’t become a personal history, which seems to me almost a living, visceral thing, until it became a necessity in dealing with the loss of my father, and just a few years later, my mother. My fascination with and research into the history of the Manhattan Project has led me not only to read dozens of books on the subject, but to seek out contact with project veterans who knew my father, to make my own journey to the Trinity site and Los Alamos in 2012, and to attend the AHF Reunion/Symposium two weeks ago. It is the people and the places that make the history so real, relatable, and verifiable (to the extent of memory and bias when it comes to the people, and to the longevity and preservation of original sites in the case of buildings and constructs). As you state, by the 80th anniversary, the people will be gone, and only the places will remain—if we take care to preserve them. I couldn’t help but wonder if my father’s feet walked near Ashley Pond or into Fuller Lodge as mine did during my 2012 trip, or if he followed the deep groves worn into the volcanic tuff near the Tsankawi ruins in Bandelier National Monument as I did during a late afternoon hike. The deeper I’ve gone down this rabbit-hole of trying to comprehend the events and significance of the Manhattan Project, the harder it has become to arrive at a succinct, easy-to-digest summary statement about it all—and that, I think, is what a more personal history can do for us. As it lives and evolves through various interpretations and newly revealed sources, we must open ourselves to acknowledge this new data, be willing to hold it up against our own beliefs and biases, and allow it to broaden the scope of our understanding. It is my hope that the Manhattan Project National Historic Park will allow others to have this sort of experience as well.