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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
- Among other things, I learned that to an American ear, it is pronounced heh-bak-sha, with the u being essentially silent. [↩]
- 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. [↩]