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Ron Radosh

Lenin Does Vegas!

June 20th, 2010 - 2:43 pm

Being a historian who has written a few times on historical museum exhibits, I also went to the Smithsonian affiliate in Vegas, the Atomic Testing Museum.

Despite well conceived exhibits,  I left it more than a bit disappointed. The emphasis is on the atomic testing that, in the 1950s, one could evidently see from the site of the old Fremont Hotel in between gambling.  Hence the display of the manikin in their fallout shelter, appropriately clothed for the occasion.

The film in the museum’s main theater contains interviews with some of the old timers who spent most of their lives on the test site, supervising the blast. They are proud of their work, and the role they played in helping the United States achieve nuclear capability and hence providing the military strength that led to the end of the Cold War. But their interviews skirt the issue of whether the known radiation sickness and illness of the many military personnel who witnessed blasts and then went on to the blast site was both morally wrong and unnecessary. The voiceovers argue that the government did not know at the time that they were subjecting troops and other personnel to danger, and that despite the personal danger, the testing was necessary. The problem is that in fact it was well known at the time by scientists that exposure to such radiation was extremely dangerous, and those subjected to it were essentially lied to.

Secondly, some of the text accompanying the exhibits is plainly incorrect. At one point, the museum-goer is informed that Americans spying for the Soviets did so in order to receive the high payments given them for their espionage at Los Alamos and elsewhere. In fact, the scientists who gave secrets to the Soviets, like Ted Hall and Klaus Fuchs, and the spy rings like that set up by Julius Rosenberg, engaged in espionage for ideological reasons. They wanted Stalin to have the bomb, which they believed the Russians were entitled to and prevented from having by U.S. policy. They were essentially Soviet and not American patriots. For a museum meant to educate those who visit it, such an error is inexcusable.

One final tip should you consider going to Vegas. Don’t go now or in the summer — wait for cooler weather. It is so hot it is almost impossible to go outside for more than a few minutes. And if you do go, do not walk more than one or two blocks! Trust me on this one. Save your walking for the night.

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