Posts Tagged ‘1990s’


Preserving, and interpreting, the Manhattan Project

Friday, January 30th, 2015

After 10 years of effort, Cindy Kelly of the Atomic Heritage Foundation has managed to achieve the seemingly-impossible: she got Congress to agree to preserving several former Manhattan Project sites. I have worked with Cindy in the past and am so extremely proud of her and her organization, and am frankly amazed that she managed to get this through this impossible Congress.

Atomic Heritage Foundation

I completely support this preservation, without reservations. I have seen in various places that there are people who think that preserving these sites might somehow lead to “glorification” of the atomic bombs. I find this an extremely un-compelling objection. The atomic bombs will be glorified, or not, whether you preserve the facilities that produced them. We have preserved far more heinous sites for the historical record, because preservation does not mean endorsement. In fact, preservation often can mean an opportunity to reflect upon the past, warts and all. And razing these sites — which is the other alternative — would not change one bit of their history, or how it is remembered. People who worry about the historical legacy of the atomic bomb should be happy these sites are going to be preserved, because in the future, when we are talking about how they should be contextualized and interpreted, everyone will have a place to put their own vision of these places forward.

To clear one thing up, nobody knows what the “interpretation” — the presentation materials, exhibits, what have you — associated with these sites will look like. That is still a long way down the road. The bill which created these sites, the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015, signed by President Obama in December, provides no guidance for interpretation, and, non-coincidentally, no funding for it. It merely sets the sites apart, giving the National Park Service the ability to claim custody of them from the Department of Energy. Part of the reason for wanting something like this is evident in the DOE’s destruction of K-25 — the DOE is not really about preservation, and if these sites are not being used by them, they are just as likely to destroy them as anything else.

The relevant section of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015.

The relevant section of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015.

Interpretation funds will presumably come later. A few years ago I participated in an NSF-sponsored workshop related to the interpretation of these sites, in preparation for the possibility of this legislation passing. It was an extremely interesting experience, and I blogged a little about it at the time. My key take-away then was that almost everyone there had fairly similar ideas as to what good interpretation of the Manhattan Project would be — not a mindless glorification, or an equally problematic polemic, but something that would try to contextualize the Manhattan Project both within World War II and the Cold War. This includes both its relationship to the bombing of Japan, and questions about whether it was necessary or not, as well as its environmental and personal legacies.

Obviously this is contested ground. I am hopeful that the NPS will reach out to historians, archivists, museum curators, and other stakeholders (including, but not limited to, veterans) when it develops its interpretation materials. Interpretation of the past in a public context can be incredibly controversial, of course. We all know of the 1995 Smithsonian Enola Gay controversy. Does this have an opportunity to turn out the same way?

At left, the floorplan of the planned Enola Gay exhibition; at right, the actual exhibition that aired: the retreat of the political into the refuge of the technical. From Richard H. Krohn, "History and the Culture Wars: The Case of the Smithsonian Institute's Enola Gay Exhibition," Journal of American History 82, no. 3 (1995), 1036-1063.

At left, the floorplan of the planned Enola Gay exhibition; at right, the actual exhibition that aired: the retreat of the political into the refuge of the technical. From Richard H. Krohn, “History and the Culture Wars: The Case of the Smithsonian Institute’s Enola Gay Exhibition,” Journal of American History 82, no. 3 (1995), 1036-1063.

It’s not clear to me that it would. For one thing, this isn’t the mid-1990s, with all of its immediate post-Cold-War ambivalences, and its fierce battles over the historical memory of the still-living, mixed with the “Culture Wars” of the time. There are far fewer World War II veterans around than there were then, and the historical scholarship itself is not nearly as polarized around rigid ideological positions as it was then. On the whole, my feeling is that there is an increased willingness to acknowledge the complexities of both American and Japanese actions in the Pacific Theatre. There are ways of talking about this history that doesn’t make it seem like it endorses any particular political position on either World War II or the Cold War. The complexity of the historical events and questions being asked require this kind of complex presentation, if they are taken seriously. Very little in good history boils down to easy ideological stances.

Let’s hope that when it comes to interpretation, the NPS will feel emboldened enough to get a balanced text together, and that our politicians will not show themselves to be so frail and afraid of history as they did during the Enola Gay exhibition. I am personally optimistic — so much has changed since the 1990s, in terms of historical memory of the bomb, and we are getting to that place where enough time has passed that things are not so raw and recent. There is still a “Culture War,” to be sure, though the terms seem a little different than the mid-1990s. But in general, there is, I think, more of a middle-ground between the classic “revisionist” and “orthodox” views on the bomb, and this middle-ground is, I think, less problematic to those on both the left and the right. It will be interesting to see, as a preview, the various “70th anniversary of the bomb” overtures that will be made this summer, and how those resonate culturally. (A colleague of mine recently suggested that frankly the more interesting anniversary will be the 80th one, when there will be exactly zero living veterans still around.)

The Enola Gay today, in a relatively decontextualized display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center. Via Wikipedia.

The Enola Gay today, in a relatively decontextualized display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center. Via Wikipedia.

But even if things should get heated, even if old debates over the war and its conduct should bubble up, we should be glad for it. It is better to have a contested site than to have no site at all. We can always argue over the interpretation of the past, and we always will. We should see this as a new an invitation to a discussion, and reasonable people can disagree on key questions and issues, and let us hope that whatever controversies that come from it prove generative. We should keep the experience of the Smithsonian in mind when thinking about the creation of interpretative materials — for example, by making sure that many stakeholders are involved in the planning process, which will lead, at the very least, to fewer surprises down the line.

I look forward to participating in these future discussions. But we can only do that if we preserve the past in the first place, which is what this bill is trying to do. People who object that this bill will just result in the glorification of the past are being short-sighted about its intent and purpose, and making assumptions that, at the moment, are unwarranted. I don’t think there can be any question as to whether preservation is the right move, because the alternative — neglect and destruction — is no alternative at all.


Nevada Test Site’s “Arnold” OPSEC Videos

Friday, April 20th, 2012

OPSEC” is governmentspeak for “operations security.” In practice, OPSEC programs are usually devoted to coming up with creative ways to  remind employees to keep secrets, and investigate breeches of secrecy. Google Ngrams suggests the term was birthed in the mid-1970s or so, and has proliferated since then. In the earlier Cold War, these functions were just dubbed “Security” by the Atomic Energy Commission.

“Silence Means Security” — Cold War “OPSEC” billboard from Hanford Site. (Hanford DDRS #N1D0023596)-

The media output is of course what I find most interesting — the ways in which employees, in the name of OPSEC, are cajoled, and often threatened, into maintaining strict cultures of secrecy. This sort of activity is a common and integral part of a secrecy system, because if you aren’t “disciplining” the employee (to invoke a little Foucault) into acting contrary to the way they are accustomed to, the whole thing becomes as leaky as a sieve. It’s not a new thing, of course, and we’ve already seen a few historical examples of this on the blog.

Sometimes it is done well — strong message, strong artistic execution. And sometimes… it is done less well.

The DOE OPSEC logo from the Arnold OPSEC era. “Propugnator causae” is something like, “Defender of the Cause.”

In the category of “less well” falls a series of OPSEC videos the DOE Nevada Operations Office put together in what looks like the late 1980s or early 1990s, featuring the hapless character “Arnold OPSEC.” They are little film clips (non-animated) demonstrating poor, dumb Arnold OPSEC as he accidentally divulges classified information through clumsy practices.

The DOE has helpfully put all of these online for your viewing pleasure. A few of my favorites follow. (You will probably need QuickTime Player to view these.)

Arnold goes jogging (and blabbing) with his “new friends,” who happen to be Soviet spies! D’oh!

Arnold gets a cell phone the size of his head and uses it to blab about secrets while driving his sports car.

Arnold uses an “airfone” on a plane, brags how important he is to his girlfriend, and nefarious terrorists hear him, and then hijack the plane and keep him as an important hostage. Sometimes your days just don’t work out.

Arnold gives a tour of Nevada Test Site, and tells a bunch of obvious-shady visitors (check out those evil eyebrows) things he shouldn’t, so his supervisor (who is mysteriously missing legs) dresses him down.

Arnold takes work home to use on his new-fangled PC and modem service, “Prodigy,” and accidentally posts it all onto the new-fangled Internet. (And you thought WikiLeaks was a new thing!)

Arnold irritates everyone at the office by publishing their birth dates and Social Security Numbers. “Arnold just doesn’t realize the kinds of information that can be considered sensitive!” Arnold is both a leak and a jerk.

“Help make our security a sure-thing. Don’t gamble with OPSEC.” I find this one very perplexing. It’s not a real situation. It’s a metaphor, you know? Arnold is gambling with OPSEC, and hit the jackpot of, um, espionage. Then he is being served little black men by a blond woman whose dimpled rear has received a little too much artistic attention. So don’t, um, do any of that. Got it?

It’s a recurrent theme in these that new-fangled technology is the result of a lot of leaks. The Information Age did create a lot of challenges for places where information flow was meant to be restricted, not encouraged. Still, I can’t help but feel sorry for the poor employees who must have been forced to sit through these scoldings.


Excavating an H-bomb (1998)

Friday, January 13th, 2012

During the 1950s, multi-megaton hydrogen bombs seemed like the difference between life and death to many — both supporters and opposers. The fate of the world seemed to hinge on weapons like the 15 megaton Mark 17 bomb, or the 7 megaton Mark 14, or the truly horrendous Tsar Bomba, and so on. And yet, even by the late 1960s, much less the MIRVed 1970s, these bloated weapons seemed both ridiculous from the standpoint of delivery and overkill.

The monster bombs of the 1950s were eventually superseded by smaller, more accurate, more numerous weapons. And the old bomb casings were dismantled and disposed of.

Flash forward to the end of the Cold War, and we get to one of my favorite nuclear photos of all time, one I jealously hoarded until I was able to use it in print. In 1998, Sandia National Laboratory was remediating a classified landfill (an idea I really enjoy — secret trash!) and they came across a casing of an old Mark 14 bomb. They did the sensible thing: they excavated it and took pictures of themselves posing with it, like it was an animal they had bagged on the hunt:1

(I’ll note this is neither first time, nor probably the last time, that this blog will feature folks taking glamor shots weapons of mass destruction.)

The Sandia folks had the casing cleaned up (from a dirt perspective) and “sanitized” (from a classification perspective), and put it in an Air Force museum, apparently.

There is some deep poetry there: a post-Cold War look at the height of the Cold War, finding the rubbished H-bombs of yesteryear and turning them into elaborate trophies of a future generation.

  1. Source: Department of Energy Digital Photo Archive, photos #2011488 and #2010203. []