Interpreting the Legacy of the Manhattan Project

January 8, 2018Madeleine BienPartner Stories
Oppenheimer House, Los Alamos —Atomic Heritage Foundation

Established in November 2015, the Manhattan Project National Historical Park (MPNHP) preserves three World War II-era sites on which the United States developed the world’s first atomic bomb. The story of the Manhattan Project is one of both significant innovation and immense caution, and MPNHP exists to both educate and challenge visitors about how the world has changed since the nuclear program was first implemented.

During the Manhattan Project, over 5,000 people, including Manhattan Project laboratory director J. Robert Oppenheimer, were based in Los Alamos, New Mexico to design and construct an atom bomb. The Manhattan Project properties owned by the Los Alamos National Laboratory currently have limited public access. However, visitors can enjoy Manhattan Project-era properties in downtown Los Alamos. Bathtub Row consists of seven cottages where the top-echelon scientists lived. Nearby stands Fuller Lodge, a handsome ponderosa pine structure that once was the social center for the Manhattan Project. In addition, the Los Alamos Unit Visitors Center, Los Alamos History Museum, and Bradbury Science Museum provide insights into life on this remote mesa in northern New Mexico and exhibits on the innovations in science and technology that changed the world.

Old photo of a tall concrete reactor tower of the B Reactor at the Hanford location

The B Reactor at Hanford, WA, produced plutonium for the atomic bombs in the Manhattan Project.

Atomic Heritage Foundation

In Hanford, Washington, visitors to MPNHP can tour the B-Reactor National Historic Landmark, where over 50,000 workers irradiated uranium fuel and chemically separated out plutonium. The Hanford, WA location is also the site of another significant act of the Manhattan Project: eviction. Native American tribes were prohibited from using their former hunting, camping and fishing grounds. Agricultural settlers lost their homes, orchards and farmlands as the government took over with little warning “for the war effort.”

The Oak Ridge Reservation in Tennessee was the administrative and military headquarters for the Manhattan Project, and housed three different processes for enriching uranium and building a prototype reactor for producing plutonium. Operated in partnership with the American Museum of Science & Energy, visitors to the site can take a full tour of the secret city and industrial complex that housed over 75,000 people at the end of World War II.

Since 2002, the Atomic Heritage Foundation (AHF) has worked to preserve and interpret the Manhattan Project and its legacy. Their goal is “to provide the public not only a better understating of the past but also a basis for addressing scientific, technical, political, social and ethical issues of the 21st century.”

Black and white image of a group of women walking away form a building at the Y-12 Plant in Oak Ridge, TN

Women workers at the Y-12 uranium enrichment plan in Oak Ridge, TN.

Atomic Heritage Foundation

In addition to their close alliance with the National Park Service, AHF is also a partner to Congress, the Department of Energy, the state and local governments surrounding Manhattan Project sites, and the Manhattan Project veterans and their families.

Given the vast range of complex and deeply personal experiences of the workers at the various sites of MPNHP, the Atomic Heritage Foundation and the Los Alamos Historical Society developed the “Voices of the Manhattan Project,” a public archive of the oral history of Manhattan Project veterans and their families.

As AHF notes, “Some 125,000 people worked in secret locations in communities developed by the government for the sole purpose of the project. Most surprisingly, very few knew that they were working on an atomic bomb.”

The “Voices of the Manhattan Project” aims to share their story.

Tan and green building/shed of the V Site at Los Alamos, New Mexico

The V Site at Los Alamos, NM, where the "Gadget" nuclear device used in the Trintiy Test was designed and assembled.

Atomic Heritage Foundation

Additionally, AHF developed an interactive, interpretive tool call “Ranger in Your Pocket,” which allows users to explore the various MPNHP sites through virtual tours. Each tour features photos and interviews from Manhattan Project veterans and are accessible anytime, anywhere from a mobile device at www.rangerinyourpocket.org.

These types of interpretive tools allow AHF to tell the complicated, diverse, and powerful stories of Manhattan Project National Historical Park. The first-hand accounts humanize the lives of the thousands of men and women who worked on behalf of the United States, at a time in history when the government sought their help.

Eventually, AHF’s interpretive programs will tell the whole story, including the impact of the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The goal is to prompt reflection on the double-edged legacy of the Manhattan Project: unleashing the destructive power of nuclear weapons versus introducing nuclear medicine, nuclear energy and other beneficial uses.

The alpha calutrons used to separate uranium-235 from uranium-238 at the Y-12 Plant in Oak Ridge, TN.

Atomic Heritage Foundation

As our country’s common inheritance, national parks are places to understand our collective history and inform our future. The Atomic Heritage Foundation is partnering with the Manhattan Project National Historical Park to accomplish just that.

Learn more about the Atomic Heritage Foundation on their website at www.atomicheritage.org.


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