In his 2012 publication, How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey Across America, UC Irvine history professor Jon Wiener visited Cold War-related historical sites throughout the United States, analyzing the ways this history is interpreted within a public history setting. Wiener came away largely disappointed with his findings. He argues that far too many sites misunderstand, distort, diminish, and omit Cold War history from their interpretive missions, even though these sites are dedicated to educating the public about this history.
Emblematic of these interpretive issues is the Hanford B Reactor site in Southeastern Washington state. The reactor (which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2008) was the first full-size weapons-grade plutonium production plant in the world and remained in operation until 1987, producing plutonium for U.S. nuclear weapons for more than forty years. Wiener writes an entire chapter in How We Forgot the Cold War about his tour of Hanford and concludes that the site’s interpretive leaders have conveniently ignored its history. Rather than explaining the causes, context, and consequences of developing nuclear technology during World War II and its continued production during the Cold War, Wiener’s tour leaders focused on reassuring visitors of the site’s safety and promoting the federal government’s ongoing efforts to clean up radioactive waste around the site. The human consequences of nuclear technology–which include thousands of Hanford workers and residents who have acquired various (and often fatal) cancers because of radiation exposure from the plant–are left out of the narrative.
When President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act in December, seven new national park sites were established and placed under the control of the National Park Service. One of those seven parks is the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, a three-state unit that includes historical sites in New Mexico, Tennessee, and the Hanford B Reactor in Washington.
As the Park Service begins organizing its long-range interpretive plans for Manhattan Project, it’s my hope that the human element of this important story gains prominence. In my opinion science centers, technology museums, and other related sites often struggle to move their interpretations beyond technical descriptions of historical objects, biographies of great inventors, and quantitative facts devoid of context (just look at the local Hanford government’s webpage about the reactor for an example). Less often do visitors learn about the lived experience of technological innovation and how developments in science, technology, and engineering shaped Americans’ day-to-day lives in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
While the federal government should continue discussing cleanup efforts at places like Hanford, more focus on the daily health struggles of Hanford residents allows for new interpretive opportunities that demonstrate the harmful consequences of nuclear technology during World War II and the Cold War Era. Given that Hanford’s history is still recent, perhaps public historians can explore ways to use oral history as a tool for learning more about these stories. As Hanford native Trisha Pritikin warns in her essay on the National Park Service takeover of the reactor, “The legacy of the Manhattan Project is not represented solely by the atomic science. It is also reflected in its destructive effects on the human body . . . the human toll of this project remains a story that must not be silenced or ignored.”
When the doctors told my Grandfather in early June that they hoped to extend his life an additional two months, I immediately thought about conducting an oral history interview with him, even going so far as to get a verbal agreement from him to conduct the interview at his house once he got out of the hospital. Although I knew a lot about my Grandpa and his life experiences, there were parts of his early life that I wanted to know more about and I knew there was a lot of interest from other family members in documenting and preserving his story. My idea came too late, however, and as I outlined in my last post, we lost Grandpa on Thursday, June 12.
I really, really regret that my family and I were unable to get Grandpa’s story before he passed. We should have taken steps to get his story long before this point in time, especially after he was first diagnosed with cancer in 2012. I’m also frustrated because my knowledge of oral history is rather limited even though I’m a professional public historian. I received a little bit of training in oral history while a history graduate student at IUPUI and could probably do a decent informal oral history interview with a family member, but I don’t really have the skills to conduct a professional oral history project.
On the one hand, oral history seems to be a pretty straightforward process. I believe oral historians do a significant public service by giving a voice to those whose experiences may not get into the history books or recognized by the rest of society. Oral historians act as facilitators by empowering the people they interview with tools, context, and questions to help them recall important details of their life and tell their stories. On the other hand, oral history presents its own unique challenges when it comes to accessibility and preservation over time. As Cleveland State University history professor Mark Souther asserts, good oral history projects that engage a wide audience are easily discoverable, interactive, and reusable. Even if I had been able to conduct an oral history with my Grandfather, what equipment would I have used and how would I have preserved this document so as to encourage accessibility and interaction in the future for both family members and other interested parties? I’m afraid I don’t know.
What do you consider to be the best resources for learning more about oral history? If you know of any books, articles, webpages, or anything else that you deem relevant, please let me know in the comments below. I hope to be in a position to someday conduct oral histories of other family members and potentially engage in oral history projects in a professional capacity.