Several current and former nuclear sites now serve as public museums across the U.S. These sites promote an American nuclear mythology and erase key parts of the nuclear story.
I have complex and ambivalent beliefs and emotions about nuclear weapons and technology. This is partly a matter of my social positioning and privilege. I do not live on the Navajo Nation where water is contaminated by abandoned uranium mines and tailing piles. I was born after the U.S. ended atmospheric nuclear testing in 1962, and I have never had to worry about radioactive I-131 in my milk. However, the longer I have researched and reported on nuclear weapon topics, the more I have come to realize that nuclear weapons, even if never detonated, represent immense past, present and future suffering. Thus, we must ask how, or if, these topics are presented in official U.S. nuclear weapon heritage. If absent, or if presented in a misleading or minimizing manner, then we must pressure museums, funders, boards of directors, and institutions to do better.
This year is the 75th anniversary of the U.S. nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the 75 years since, the United States constructed an enormous network of country-spanning facilities that designed, built, tested, deployed, and took apart approximately 70,000 nuclear weapons.
After the Cold War ended the U.S. drastically reduced the size and variety of both its nuclear arsenal and its nuclear weapons complex. Some of the closed sites have been turned into museums or other forms of nuclear weapon heritage: the Titan II Missile Museum in Suaharita, AZ is a decommissioned Titan II missile site and you can register for tours of the Nevada National Security Site (Nevada Test Site).
In 2015 the United States National Park Service established the Manhattan Project National Historical Park that includes sites in New Mexico, Washington, and Tennessee. As seen in Table I, these places form a network with other nuclear heritage sites that are associated with nuclear laboratories (such as the Bradbury at Los Alamos) as well as those places which are officially unconnected to the U.S. nuclear weapons complex (such as the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque, NM).
In recent years, the nine largest and best known nuclear heritage attractions in America have annually attracted over 375,000 visitors. Based on the annual numbers of visitors alone, these museums are important places where people encounter the presentation, circulation, and encouraged consumption of official nuclear narratives.
What can you learn about the past, present, and future of U.S. nuclear weapons and policy if you visit a nuclear weapon museum or heritage site in America? What are the repeated themes and messages? What stories do the physical layout, exhibit text, artifacts displayed, and docent commentaries encourage or tell? What topics are consistently highlighted? And, what topics are repeatedly downplayed, erased, or minimized?
Official U.S. nuclear weapon heritage sites—including at least one restricted museum—present visitors with an American nuclear mythology. Individually, and as a group, these places organize artifacts, text, interactive displays, and docent or staff commentaries into official knowledge and stories that justify past, present, and future U.S. nuclear weapon activities. Through careful selection of artifacts for display and topics of discussion these institutions highlight some issues while erasing and minimizing others.
Furthermore, by largely ignoring—as well as minimizing the duration, size, and impact of the anti-nuclear weapon and peace movements in the United States—these heritage sites rob visitors of historical examples of effective mass movements to shape nuclear policy. Ultimately, the nationalist propaganda offered at official nuclear heritage sites erodes democratic governance by contributing to public misunderstanding and apathy about nuclear weapon policies.
The American nuclear mythology offered at these sites is generally a variation of three themes. First, the U.S. nuclear attacks on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended World War II and saved both Japanese and American lives by preventing an invasion. Second, the U.S. and allies were force to rely on nuclear weapons to protect “the Free World” and deter an implacably hostile and aggressive Soviet adversary during the Cold War. Third, the U.S., now and forever, requires nuclear weapons for security and power in an unpredictable and dangerous world. Consistently, these official heritage institutions avoid significant discussion of the harm that nuclear weapons have done, or could do, to human bodies and inhabited landscapes.
The Bradbury Museum in Los Alamos, New Mexico, mentions the number of Japanese killed by the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. But, it avoids any discussion of the particular or unpleasant effects of nuclear weapons on people and cities. Similarly, at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History (NMNSH) in Albuquerque, visitors see a photo of corpses at a concentration camp and violent war imagery in other video clips. However, the museum’s Hiroshima and Nagasaki section avoids any images of Japanese bodies visibly injured by the U.S. nuclear attacks. Instead, it displays “before” and “after” pictures of Nagasaki and Hiroshima and an unremarkable picture of Sadako Sasaki who died of leukemia at age 12. She was 2 when irradiated in the U.S. nuclear attack on Hiroshima.
The harm caused by nuclear weapon production and testing on the environment and people is minimized, misrepresented, or outright snubbed at official U.S. nuclear weapon heritage sites. Native and Indigenous groups in New Mexico have been disproportionately harmed by U.S. uranium mining. Currently, the museum in Albuquerque has an exhibit detailing research on the movement of uranium through ecosystems. The exhibit neglects to mention that this research aims to prevent, mitigate, and reduce harm to human health from past uranium mining in New Mexico. The sole mention of the disproportionate harms caused to the Navajo Nation and Diné by uranium mining was removed in 2016 and replaced with a URENCO sponsored exhibit on uranium enrichment. Thus, the messiness and harm from the production process of nuclear weapons and its colonial patterns are ignored and erased in an ongoing process. Through these practices, official heritage sites sanitize nuclear weapons by ignoring or minimizing the violence and harm associated with their production.
Finally, heritage sites minimize and disregard the impact of peace and anti-nuclear weapon movements during the Cold War. At the Los Alamos History Museum and the NMNSH there are multiple anti-nuclear weapon movement artifacts on display. Yet, neither museum puts those artifacts in historical or social context as part of an enduring mass movement that shaped U.S. nuclear weapon policies and decisions. The Bradbury Museum at Los Alamos and the American Museum of Science and Engineering at Oak Ridge, Tennessee ignore the past and present existence of pro-peace and anti-nuclear weapon movements almost entirely.
The peace and nuclear protest movements in America provide relevant historical examples of ordinary people shaping U.S. nuclear policy through individual and mass action. Erasing the histories of the anti-nuclear weapon and pro-peace movements discourages public involvement and obscures models useful for contemporary public engagement on nuclear weapon policies and practices. We should, and must, do better in our official nuclear weapon heritage efforts.
Martin Pfeiffer is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico (UNM). In addition, Pfeiffer is a Scholar in the UNM National Security Studies Program. A major focus of his research and gonzo journalism is the creation and circulation of meaning at nuclear weapon heritage sites and nuclear archives. As part of this work, Pfeiffer has made substantial use of the Freedom of Information Act to produce new information as well as to interrogate practices of governmentality in nuclear archives and other heritage sites. Pfeiffer has also served as a paid consultant to the New Mexico Museum on aspects of its exhibit “Atomic Histories: Remembering New Mexico’s Nuclear Past” (ran June 3, 2018 thru January 19, 2020). You can access Pfeiffer’s daily rants, reporting, and research results regarding nuclear weapon issues (and cat memes) on his twitter (@nuclearanthro) and you can access his free, public collection of nuclear and national security related media at the Open Science Framework: https://osf.io/46sfd/.