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National Park Would Memoralize Manhattan Project

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

A new national park is in the works, but this one won't preserve scenic vistas or majestic mountains. Instead, this park will serve as a memorial to one of the most complex periods of American history - the creation of the atomic bomb. Congress has passed legislation to protect three sites that were part of the top-secret Manhattan Project. They're in Los Alamos, New Mexico, Hanford, Washington, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The effort was propelled largely by Cynthia Kelly of the Atomic Heritage Foundation. I asked her about the buildings left behind in those places.

CYNTHIA KELLY: The physical structures range from very modest garage-type buildings at Los Alamos, thrown up for the duration of the war, covered with asbestos shingles and clapboard siding. The contrast is, at the production sites, they were mammoth facilities, and they look like an industrial setting, and they have a large campus of industrial equipment and housing.

BLOCK: And what's the significance? Why should they be preserved as a national park? If you think of Yellowstone or Yosemite or the Liberty Bell - why should these sites be in that category?

KELLY: Well, for 70 years we've essentially ignored our role and our history involved in the making of the atomic bomb. This development changed the course, not only of the 20th century, but has left a lasting legacy for the world today.

BLOCK: Part of the memorial is also oral histories of people connected with the Manhattan Project. And let's listen to senior physicist Leona Woods Marshall talking about the pressure to get the atomic bomb built and also the fear that the Germans would do it first.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEONA WOODS MARSHALL: It was a desperate time. I have no regrets. In wartime I don't think you stand around saying, is it right? I think we did right, and we couldn't have done differently.

BLOCK: How common was it for women, like Leona Woods Marshall, to be working on the Manhattan Project?

KELLY: There were not so many women scientists, but there were a lot of women involved in the project. At Oak Ridge, for example, there were probably, I'm guessing, 10,000 women, maybe 20,000 women who were involved in operating the machinery. There were many wives of the scientists at Los Alamos who were involved in various capacities. Some of them were so-called calculators. They just ran these mechanical machines to add the numbers. This is before computers, so they had to rely on their female participants, and they were called computers.

BLOCK: We heard Leona Woods Marshall there say, I have no regrets. Talk a bit about walking that line between describing the Manhattan Project and the creation of the atomic bomb and the devastation that it created and the nuclear arms race that followed. How do you take that on in the national park?

KELLY: I think it's going to be a challenge, obviously. People come with these notions that it was the best thing since sliced bread and it was good and should be celebrated. Or they come with the opposite notion - that this was horrific and a great mistake and a moral blotch on the United States. But these perspectives are largely - need to be viewed in the context of the time. It's easy to say that in the 21st century - to have these hard and fast views.

BLOCK: Cynthia Kelly, thanks so much for coming in.

KELLY: Thank you.

BLOCK: Cynthia Kelly, president of the Atomic Heritage Foundation and the driving force behind the creation of the Manhattan Project National Historic Park. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.