Revisionist History on an Atomic Scale

By: Greg Mitchell Last month at E&P Online, I wrote a pair of columns triggered by a story in The New York Times by, inevitably, Judith Miller, in which she reviewed the new Atomic Testing Museum in her hometown of Las Vegas. Somehow I managed to avoid making cheap comments such as, "Finally, she knew where to look for actual weapons of mass destruction," or, "She probably didn't need a map from Chalabi to find it." Still, the columns produced some interesting reader reaction.

Miller had presented the museum in a favorable light, despite its downplaying of the many negative aspects of the nuclear era. And she failed to disclose that her father, who booked entertainment for ? and was part owner of ? a major Vegas hotel, stood to gain by the hush-hush official policy toward radiation risks in the 1950s. A reporter at her own paper, Edward Rothstein, after his tour, noted a "crucial flaw" at the museum: its tone of "justification," and its leaving "many unanswered questions about the past."

I also pointed out that Miller failed to mention Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the museum's treatment of the atomic attacks ? this from a reporter who helped pave the way for the war on Iraq by raising the specter of nuclear annihilation. Museum director William Johnson subsequently told me that nowhere in the exhibits is it revealed that anyone actually died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, let alone list the actual numbers (upwards of 200,000, the majority of them women and children).

Those columns drew a lot of e-mail from people who live in the museum's path, so to speak.

A reader named Eric Moon informed me that he had vigiled outside the museum in March. He also revealed that a contingent of atomic bomb survivors, or hibakusha, from Japan would be touring the museum on April 27. How would you like to be an eye-on-the-wall for that visit?

Several letters came from so-called "downwinders" ? residents caught in the shadow of the radioactive clouds that drifted across the country after dozens of bomb tests in the 1950s. Many, especially in Utah, have suffered severe health effects and cancers. "Judith Miller should know better," Mary Dickson, one downwinder, informed me.

She attached a letter she had sent to Miller, setting her straight on some of "the devastating health consequences of nuclear testing. It hasn't been a particularly sexy story for the media to tell, largely because we didn't get sick or die all at once." She told Miller, "tests were conducted only when the winds were blowing away from Las Vegas and the populated West Coast. You were likely spared. Those of us downwind were less fortunate."

Most of the local reporters out there have, like Miller, treated the museum kindly. But I came across a piece by Dennis Myers, news editor of the Reno (Nev.) News and Review, who gave the downwinders their due, so I asked him to send me a few comments via e-mail.

"I grew up in Reno in the 1950s," Myers told me. "I remember being awakened by my parents in the middle of the night to watch the atom bomb tests on KZTV. Our former governor Richard Bryan says his high school yearbook had a mushroom cloud on the cover. Those kinds of experiences are not part of the state's collective memory ? now only 20 out of every 100 Nevadans were born here.

"In those days in the 1950s and '60s, being against nuclear testing in the state was not a position anyone took, and it's important to remember that the state wanted the federal government to bring the tests here. Our officials told us the public supported that stance. It's not clear that this was so. Public bodies did not then hold public hearings, and as documents have come out from under seal we discover that Nevadans were sending letters of concern about the atomic testing to our members of Congress.

"A lot of the change, of course, had to do with the population growth. People brought their concerns with them to Nevada. Governing bodies had to hold public hearings. And finally, it was experience ? the new knowledge of what had been done to the downwinders, for instance. All those things together made nuclear activities as economic development a lot less attractive.

"I think it's essential that the museum reflect the attitudes and the way they caused the cancers and leukemias and other maladies. It needs to reflect the evolution of policymaking, including deception and cover-up, that led to tragedy. Instead, our Nevada politicians seem to have settled on a mantra: 'The testing helped win the Cold War, and the museum tells that story.' Well, there are doubts about that interpretation, and the museum should reflect both the mantra and the doubters. But more to the point, that is not the only story ? or even the most important ? that the museum should tell. First and foremost is the human cost, and that should be central to the museum's exhibits."

Indeed, it would be like telling the history of the Iraq war without highlighting the civilian death toll.


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