I have to admit it – Las Vegas is not my kind of town. The glitzy lights, Disneyesque theme casinos, ethos of partying and drinking, the din of the gambling machines and fog of smoke seeping into my hair – none of this enticed me. If it were not for a friend’s wedding, I probably would never have visited Vegas at all.
However, for those unimpressed by the stereotypical Vegas pursuits, there are hidden gems within the city and the surrounding landscape. Hiking in the rocky vastness of the Nevada desert. Petrogylphs and mind-boggling sandstone formations in the Valley of Fire. Tours of the indomitable Hoover Dam and river rafting tours of the Black Canyon. If you are an outdoors addict, Vegas is a convenient home base.
The most under-rated of all of these low-key Vegas attractions is the Atomic Testing Museum. A humble branch of the Smithsonian, the Atomic Testing Museum explores the United States’ development of atomic weapons, starting with the Manhattan Project in World War II and encompassing our country’s atmospheric testing of various bombs, underground testing, and the eventual dismantling of the Nevada testing site in 1992 with the end of the Cold War. We stumbled across the museum on Flamingo Road next to the UNLV campus, tucked into the everyday city of Las Vegas.
I was impressed by just how much information they packed into a small exhibit space. Nevada was home to the primary Atomic Testing Site for the US atomic program, so Las Vegas is a fitting spot for a museum dedicated to the development of atomic weapons in the United States. The exhibits are fascinating. Everyday household items incorporating atomic ideas, such as superhero comic books, fireworks, toys, even modern-day energy drinks. Pamphlets written for the average US citizen, informing them on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack (not that duck and cover would actually protect you from radiation!) I marveled at an entire generation – my mother’s generation – growing up practicing duck and cover drills in school, building bomb shelters in their backyards and legitimately fearing nuclear holocaust. As a post-Cold War child of the 1990s, this is a fear I have never experienced and I cannot begin to comprehend it.
The most dramatic exhibit was the theater designed as a bomb shelter. I sat down with my husband, waiting patiently for the film to start. Without warning, a sudden bright flash blinded us, then a mushroom cloud appeared on the screen as the room around us began to reverberate into the very core of my bones. Effective, even if it can only barely approximate the true experience of a hydrogen bomb’s impact – I hope never to discover the horrifying reality.
We came away with a profound sense of horror. My husband could only state how disturbed and unsettled he felt. The scientific displays on how they tested the bombs both in the atmosphere and below ground were informative, but detached and emotionless. Of greater significance to me were the interviews with those who actually witnessed Nagasaki, Hiroshima and the tests on the South Pacific atolls, such as Bikini Island in the Marshall Islands. I appreciate the various points of view each sailor, Japanese citizen, scientist, and politician brought to the moral issue of developing nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, without other specific features of the exhibit discussing this moral debate, their viewpoints were easily lost in the forest of information. Nowhere did I find a mention of the impact of testing on Bikini Island, in which the US military moved all the local inhabitants off the island, promising they could return to their homes. Today, Bikini Island, once an island paradise, lies mostly abandoned (with the exception of some Department of Energy employees involved in the clean-up), poisoned by atomic radiation. Nearby Elugelab, an island in the Enewetak Atoll, is gone forever, instantly vaporized and reduced to a crater on the ocean floor. The Bikinians’ mistreatment at the hands of the US, when they were relocated to another island and faced a scenario of starvation in 1947, was completely omitted. Of the US sailors who witnessed the tests and suffered from radiation poisoning, very little is mentioned. As a country, we need to remember both why we developed atomic bombs and the impact of our pursuit to develop nuclear weapons, as well as engage in a thoughtful debate over whether our actions were moral and the reasons jusitified. Regardless of where you fall in this debate, it is an oversight by the Smithsonian that is hard to stomach in an otherwise excellent little museum.