In the relative cool and darkness of predawn mornings in 1950s Las Vegas, people often awoke to see spectacular lights that never stopped dazzling no matter how many times they appeared.
These lights were not from the neon jungle so associated with this adult Disneyland. Their purpose was significantly more ominous.
After the first atomic test lit up the desert sky with a fireball brighter than the sun at 5 a.m. on Jan. 27, 1951, diarist and Vegas resident Georgia Lewis was outraged. She wrote at the time, "The atomic bomb! No one asked us what we thought about it. All the gambling people are furious, for, naturally, they fear that people will no longer come here. . . . It shook us awake with the most terrific blast."
Lewis' words are displayed for visitors to read at the Atomic Testing Museum, dedicated to "the history and science of nuclear testing," a most un-Vegas-like attraction a couple of blocks from the gaming and showgirls of the Strip. It opened in 2005.
It was here that Cold War history took place. In 1952 President Harry Truman designated the Las Vegas Valley as a "critical defense area." This parcel of land, bigger than Rhode Island, was selected because it was less costly than the South Pacific where previous tests had been conducted, and already owned by the federal government and under military control.
Despite Lewis' and the gaming industry's concerns on that January morning in 1951, the people did come back as Las Vegas did what it does best: adapted and capitalized. Before long, mushroom clouds were appearing on souvenirs and lounges were selling atomic cocktails. Additionally, the millions of dollars spent on atomic testing was as much of a boon to the Vegas economy as gaming and Sinatra.
The museum does not take a stand on the morality of nuclear testing.
"We preserve the history of the testing and the workers. We're not in favor or against. We document what took place here," said Matthew Bentley, assistant curator of collections. "We want people to leave here with a simple to moderate knowledge of what nuclear testing does. Everyone hears 'nuclear testing' and thinks mushroom cloud, but much testing was conducted underground."
However, he adds, "It is the atmospheric testing gallery that puts in context the size of the weapons that we used."
So what do visitors think when they exit the atmospheric testing gallery?
"That life is fragile,'' Bentley responds.
The atmospheric testing gallery covers nuclear experimenting from July 1945 until late 1963 when the Limited Test Ban Treaty was ratified. Exhibits include the "Davy Crockett," a small bomb designed to be fired from a missile launcher mounted to the ground or perhaps even a Jeep; and a yellow rocket-shaped cone created to be launched into a mushroom cloud to collect bits and pieces of fallout that would later be analyzed by scientists.
Geiger counters and survey meters used to measure alpha, beta and gamma radiation fill another display case, but the inclusion of pop culture in the museum, such as the birth of the atomic cocktail and a Kix cereal "atomic bomb ring" from 1946 — which would bring the largest ever response to a cereal giveaway — proves that the museum is more than bombs; one does not need a graduate degree from MIT to have a worthwhile experience here.
In the re-created underground bomb shelter, mannequins representing the suburban nuclear family (no pun intended) stand in front of an ominous industrial-sized black canister that held standard issue drinking water supplied to households through the Civil Defense program. The mannequins not only represent Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Citizen and Junior, but also pay homage to mannequins actually used in early atomic bomb tests.
On a 1950s Packard Bell black and white television in the mock bomb shelter, period civil defense films and public service announcements are played. These include the famous duck-and-cover ads, with the animated Bert the Turtle ducking and covering inside his shell, and live action children ducking and covering under their classroom desks, standard procedure as part of school air raid drills that took place regularly along with fire drills. A voiceover advises, "You know how bad sunburn can feel. The atomic bomb flash could burn you worse than a terrible sunburn, especially where you're not covered . . . But if you duck and cover like Bert you'll be much safer."
Visitors in their 30s and younger might find these films silly; my teenage daughter asked, "Did people really believe this stuff?" But these films were not the products of paranoid fringe groups. The roughly five-minute film with Bert the Turtle was a co-production of the federal government and the Safety Commission of the National Education Association.
The closest one can get to the real thing is a re-creation that takes place in the Ground Zero Theater, which makes full use of surround sound and a wide screen. And even though we all knew the big boom was coming as part of the theatrical presentation, it still jarred us. Other films, about test rockets and radiation exposure experiments, can be screened in the Silo Theater, a mockup of a missile silo.
Yet there were people living in the Nevada desert long before Uncle Sam set off bombs there. It is humbling, in a way, to stand before a display case with a crude horse brush and fuel container used by Indian tribes who for centuries made their home on the land that would become atomic testing grounds.
Bentley knows an attraction like this can get lost in a Vegas visitor's itinerary. But he says, "We have an audience all our own. (The museum) is more significant than a Las Vegas show or going to a casino. I beg you to be educated like this at a casino."
Michael Schuman is a freelance writer based in Keene, N.H.