Atomic Testing Museum

What do nerds do in Las Vegas on Thanksgiving weekend? We threw caution to the wind and drove past the Flamingo and Bally’s to the Atomic Testing Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate in a nondescript building roughly a mile off the Strip.

Ivy Mike

Atomic testing began with the Trinity test on July 16, 1945, in the New Mexico desert, which was followed by the only use of atomic weapons in war when the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9. By the end of the following June, the United States began testing nuclear weapons in earnest, first in the Pacific and, by 1951, at the Nevada Test Site to which the Atomic Testing Museum is dedicated. By the time the Limited Test Ban Treaty went into effect in 1963, the United States had done 331 atmospheric tests. In 1958, in three separate test programs over a single year, the United States detonated 56 weapons in Nevada and in the Pacific. Hundreds more were conducted underground until 1992, when the United States and Russia left the atomic practice field, leaving China, France, India, and Pakistan to test a few more over the last two decades.

Dog, Operation Buster

Inside the museum, we wended through the exhibits, past display cases, placards, timelines, videos. Early on, a placard states: “A common assumption is that America’s nuclear testing program was solely or even primarily intensified to increase the number or destructiveness of weapons. This is wrong. Early bombs were big, heavy, and ‘dirty’ (created a lot of radioactive fallout). As the Cold War progressed, America began to modernize its nuclear stockpile with smaller, radiologically cleaner, and safer weapons.” The United States did increase the number of weapons in our stockpile, and we did make them more efficient—cleaner and lighter, yes, and more destructive, too. The museum is riddled with these sorts of complementary contradictions.

The story of nuclear weapons is rife with versions of events. In Reflections of a Nuclear Weaponeer, Frank H. Shelton recounts the reason Deke Parsons armed the first atomic bomb in flight on its way to Japan: four B-29s had crashed into the ocean yards past the runway just prior to the mission, the Enola Gay was particularly heavy with Little Boy, and Parsons didn’t want to risk detonation if the plane crashed on takeoff. But other accounts present the arming of Little Boy in flight as a well-planned maneuver that Parsons had practiced long before that day, in part because fears existed that, if the aircraft ditched into the ocean, seawater could cause detonation.

View of Hiroshima from Enola Gay

Of Deke Parsons, Time Magazine reported in 1958: “In the remaining years of his life, Navyman Parsons had little to say of his fateful five hours. The years were few. One December night in 1953 Rear Admiral Parsons waked with sharp chest pain. He slipped silently downstairs in his Washington home, picked out to read Volume XI of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, methodically turned to the section marked Heart, Diseases of the. It was too late for Deke Parsons (52); he collapsed and died next day.” There exists a methodical logic in the story of this man’s demise (and we’ve written about the importance of reaching for the encyclopedia), yet his research on the pain he felt at that very moment proved empty. The encyclopedia provided the basic information he sought, and he died anyway, perhaps understanding his condition thoroughly.

One video at the Atomic Testing Museum begins by explaining that soldiers “had many misconceptions of the bomb and its effects.” So, witnessing a detonation “is immensely valuable for any military man.” The bomb becomes the ultimate military weapon designed to obliterate the enemy, yet survivable and not to be feared by our own troops. The film’s narrator explains, “In the minds of men, there was doubt and fear. Now, there is comfort. […] Now we wouldn’t take anything for the experience. We have proved a lot to ourselves.”

The Atomic Testing Museum—and the Nuclear Testing Archive in the same building—explores what exactly we were proving through the testing of atomic and hydrogen bombs. One placard early on in the museum’s circuit announces, “The Nevada Test Site played an essential role in developing superior weapons and ultimately winning the Cold War.” But toward the end, a video suggests, “When we did underground shots, we shielded from ourselves and from the public what nuclear explosions are really like.” Witnessing a nuclear blast, then, served as a reminder why the weapons should not be used. Detonations prevent detonations?

Map of Detonations at NTS

As we drove back to California after a day at the Atomic Testing Museum and another day at the Nuclear Testing Archive, we realized that the college students we teach were born as the nuclear testing program in the United States ended in September 1992. When we were their age, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and Helen Caldicott visited Knox College. We came of age in days of the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents. Southern California has two operating nuclear power plants, and Illinois has six, providing nearly half of our home state’s electricity and more kilowatt hours than England’s nuclear power program.

We wonder whether our students ever think about “what nuclear explosions are really like.” We wonder whether the Atomic Testing Museum’s last words are a prediction of some counterintuitive reminder future generations may want: “Just as during the Cold War, the Nevada Test Site stands ready to insure [sic] the safety and security of the American people.”

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