Did you know that Thursday was the 48th
anniversary of the day that construction began on the Berlin Wall? During the night of August 13, 1961, the city of Berlin, Germany, was divided by a barbed wire fence, which was soon replaced by a concrete wall. Although an entire generation has now grown up since the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall
, it stood for three decades as a very real symbol of the Cold War.
For anyone interested in that period of history, there are a number of sites representing the Cold War and the dawn of the nuclear age in the United States that are now open to tourists. In fact, a number of them are located in the neighboring Southwestern states of New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada, making it possible to construct a unique road trip through an era of 20th century atomic history.
Albuquerque & Santa Fe: Dawn of the Atomic Age
Tourists flock each year to the New Mexico cities of Santa Fe and Albuquerque for their natural beauty and unique mix of Spanish and American Indian culture. But this region was also central to the American effort to develop a nuclear weapon in the 1940s and there are numerous sites that can be visited by anyone with an interest in this history.
A good place to begin is in Albuquerque at the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History
. Formerly known as the National Atomic Museum, it now strives to provide an overview of the role that nuclear science has played in the world. Many of the exhibits are devoted to the development of nuclear weapons and the way in which they were used during World War II and the Cold War, but there are also displays about nuclear energy and medicine.
The Los Alamos National Laboratory near Santa Fe was the headquarters of the Manhattan Project during World War II, where scientists designed the first nuclear weapons. Today, the Bradbury Science Museum
there has photos, documents, newspapers and videos that tell the story of the Manhattan Project. There are also such artifacts as warheads, missiles, nuclear testing devices, and replicas of the bombs that were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Additionally, the nearby Los Alamos Historical Society Museum has a display that tells the story of the Manhattan Project, which was based on the former site of a boys’ ranch school.
White Sands, New Mexico: Ground Zero
Next, head six hours south in New Mexico to the White Sands area. The White Sands National Monument is a fascinating natural wonder that you might also want to visit, but for our purposes this is the area where the first atomic bomb was tested. On July 16, 1945, the Trinity Site
became Ground Zero for the atomic age. Today, a small monument marks the spot where a 19-kiloton bomb was detonated for the first time.
It’s important to note that the Trinity Site is only open to the public on two days each year: the first Saturday in April and October. So if you want to include it on your tour, you really need to plan well. If you can’t make it on one of those days, you can still visit the White Sands Missile Range Museum
and Missile Park. This site long served as a testing ground for both military weapons and rocket technology.
At the Missile Park, visitors can take a footpath that winds through a display of dozens of rockets and missiles that were tested at this location. The museum, meanwhile, includes displays on the early days of rocket science, when the German defector Wernher von Braun led a team of American and German scientists who developed technology that was used for ballistic missiles and later for the U.S. space program.
Tucson: Nuclear faceoff
During the height of the Cold War era, from about the 1960s through the 1980s, there were numerous underground missile complexes scattered across the United States. In these complexes, and in similar sites in the former Soviet Union, thousands of intercontinental ballistic missiles stood ready to be launched and to hurtle the world into a nuclear Armageddon. These sites symbolized the military faceoff between Cold War enemies, but are also believed to have been a deterrent to war since neither country wanted to be responsible for the planetary destruction that would have resulted from a nuclear battle.
A monument to that era now stands south of Tucson, in the town of Sahuarita, Arizona. At the Titan Missile Museum
, visitors can tour an actual underground complex, gaze at an unarmed missile, and see the control rooms from where these missiles might have been launched toward Russia.
Las Vegas: Atomic testing
The final stop in this road trip is about seven hours from Tucson, in Las Vegas, Nevada. Sure, you can make time for the casinos on the Strip, but then make your way to the Atomic Testing Museum
, an affiliate of the Smithsonian, where there are displays on the history of nuclear weapons testing.
On one day each month, tours leave from this museum to the Nevada Test Site
, where 126 nuclear tests were conducted between 1951 and 1962. Hundreds of additional underground tests were conducted in the following three decades, until a moratorium was instituted in 1992. This 1,400-square mile site is 65 miles from Las Vegas. Visitors can see a bit of leftover debris from the earlier above ground tests, as well as large craters that were produced by underground and above-ground blasts. It’s a spooky reminder of the devastating power of nuclear weapons.
Map and directions
Here is a map of this road trip. If you click on the "Atomic tourism" link, it will take you to a larger map and more detailed information about the journey.
View Atomic tourism: Road trip through Cold War history in a larger map
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Photo credit: Public domain image from White Sands Missile Range Museum via Wikimedia Commons.