November 12, 2021
We visited the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque. It’s a museum that had formerly been located on Kirtland Air Force Base, southeast of Albuquerque, but closed on Sept. 11, 2001, and then temporarily relocated to Old Town Albuquerque before opening in a new facility in 2009. It’s a very impressive museum, with many historical exhibits, plenty of room for traveling exhibits, and a great collection of World War II- and Cold War-era aircraft and missiles.
The museum starts with a historical survey of nuclear research, paying homage to the men and women who discovered the incredible power – for constructive as well as destructive purposes – of splitting an atom. There’s a good bit of exhibit space devoted to the United States’ development of the first atomic bomb, including artifacts from the U.S. Army facilities in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the materiel for the test and actual bombs was created. A short film describing the training of the crews of the Enola Gay and Bockscar, the B-29s that dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was really interesting; it had interviews with many of the members of the Enola Gay crew (conducted some years ago) in which they said they viewed the operations as helping to bring a quicker end to hostilities in the Pacific. In the summer of 1945, everyone in the United States and the country’s allies wanted the war to end.
It’s not easy, but I think it’s necessary, to learn about all of the destruction caused by these atomic weapons. I was moved to see the atomic bomb replicas, realizing that the actual weapons killed many tens of thousands of civilians but also ended a war that Japan was willing to continue with perhaps many more casualties than even Little Boy and Fat Man caused. The idea of an Allied invasion of Japan’s islands, similar to the D-Day invasion of Europe, had, frankly, never even occurred to me – I had never thought about the fact that there had been plans to invade Japan that were developed because of the necessity to keep the Manhattan Project under wraps even to the majority of the U.S. military. Because Japan was running low on military resources, it’s easy to surmise that the planned invasion would have gone the way of the Allies, just as it’s easy to see the victory would have come at a horrific human cost as well.
This is one of the reasons we enjoy going to museums, I think: the information they display fill in a lot of gaps in knowledge that I didn’t even know we had.
The museum had many Cold War-era artifacts inside its building, including disarmed nuclear missiles (some large, some small) that were placed in readiness in Europe in the years following World War II.
“Writing a Wrong”
There was also a traveling exhibit from the Smithsonian Institution that examined the history of the incarceration of Japanese Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1945. “Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II” displayed many artifacts from some of the 10 incarceration camps and many more smaller facilities in which 75,000 Japanese Americans were detained from March 1942 to March 1946. The families had to sell nearly everything they owned in their households and businesses, and carried only what they could take with them to the camps. Some decades later, the U.S. Congress recognized that the civil rights of these people had been violated and President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which formally apologized, and made restitution, to those who had been incarcerated. Some of the camps, which were all west of the Mississippi River, have been developed into U.S. national historic sites, and I believe an effort is underway to get Camp Amache, which was located in far southeastern Colorado near the Kansas border, national historic site status as well. I don’t remember when I first learned about the incarceration camps, but I do know it was well after I’d graduated from high school. It’s a dark period in American history, to me, and I think it needs all of the light that can possibly be shone on it.
World War II and Cold War Aircraft
The exterior grounds of the Nuclear Museum feature seven aircraft developed to deliver nuclear devices (or protect those that did), the sail from the nuclear submarine James K. Polk, and a large variety of disarmed nuclear missiles and rockets. I thought it was interesting that many of these photos have contrails in their backgrounds from aircraft originating from Kirtland Air Force Base.
A B-29 Superfortress, which was the model of bomber used to drop nuclear weapons on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. A replica of the 100-foot tower used to test “The Gadget” at the Trinity test site in New Mexico (see above) is at left.
I was very happy to see examples of two of my favorite Cold War-era aircraft: the F-105 Thunderchief and the Soviet MiG-21 (they’re my favorites for no better reason than I just think they look awfully darned cool).
Much of the museum is devoted to the social impacts of living in a world protected and powered, and threatened by, nuclear power: bomb shelters, advances in nuclear medicine, and nuclear power as a source of sustainable energy.
We spent about four hours at the museum, and they were well spent. I learned much more about subjects and events that I was at least aware of, and I learned plenty more about events I knew nothing about. We talked a lot about the enormous amount of money spent on all of these weapons, and of the lives lost in combat as well as in maintaining them, but we recognize and appreciate that they were built to ensure that Little Boy and Fat Man have been the only nuclear weapons used in war.