Tuesday, February 24, 2015

"The Girls of Atomic City" by Denise Kiernan (2013)

One of the greatest things about having friends and family who read books is that you get to swap titles with them. Sure, it means that you sometimes never see some of your great books again, but you get to read new ones at no cost. One of the coolest things about having a brother and a mother who read a lot is that your brother often buys your mother really great books for birthdays and holidays and she often gives them right to you when she's done. This past Mothers' Day, Barry even went the extra mile and got her a signed copy of this one (geez, what a kiss ass!) so when she let you borrow "The Girls of Atomic City" you got to see the handwritten name of the author, Denise Kiernan on the title page every time you opened the book. So cool.

On August 6th, 1945 the sky above an ancient city called Hiroshima was briefly turned into a miniature sun. The flash of unleashed nuclear energy lasted less than one second. Only a tiny fraction of the enriched uranium inside the world's first atomic bomb had ignited in the fission reaction that released so much power, but that tiny fraction was enough. The resulting blast virtually wiped Hiroshima off the map. 100,000 people were instantly killed in that explosion (30 times more than were killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor which justified American entry into the war) but the bomb that killed them hadn't rolled off a mass production assembly line. That bomb, and another one just like it which would destroy the city of Nagasaki one week later, were both products of one of the most massive and specialized military projects of all time.

In 1943 the United States built the largest military production facility in the world, squirreled away in the hills of eastern Tennessee. The surrounding cities were resentful of the influx of strange people with their secure government jobs (especially those who had been evicted from their homes to provide the acreage needed for the classified project). Tens of thousands of workers were brought in to live in a new city that had been hewn from the forests along the banks of the Clinch river. Most of them were women. They had been sworn to secrecy and told not to ask too many questions about what their jobs were. The workers came from all across the Eastern Seaboard and the Deep South. The job they were asked to do was to provide fuel for the world's first nuclear weapon, even though most of them did not know it. These women were refining uranium to a more easily fissile isotope. They were building an atom bomb. They were doing what Iranian scientists today keep ending up getting themselves assassinated for doing.

The government owned-and-operated city that sprang up in order to build the greatest weapon of all time was called Oak Ridge. The strictest secrecy was enforced at all times amongst the thousands of civilian employees there, even when they were off the clock. The Germans were reportedly looking into the science of nuclear energy as well. Many of the most influential minds driving the American project (known to history as the Manhattan Project) had, in fact, fled the fascist tyrannies spreading throughout Europe and were lending their knowledge to the Americans to defeat the governments of their own homelands. But the Americans were also aware that their ally, the Soviet Union, would love nothing more than to sneak a peak at the ground-breaking work being done in Tennessee and in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Officially tasked snitches were sprinkled throughout Oak Ridge and tasked with the duty of reporting anyone who talked about their jobs a little too much or who asked about other people's jobs a little too often.

The objective of the girls living and working in that Atomic City was so secret, in fact, that the government of the United States, a nation built upon the ideal of a free press, established an Office of Censorship (no, seriously, that was a thing). In June of 1943 the Office of Censorship sent a memo to more than 20,000 news outlets "asking" them to no longer publish or broadcast information about fission, atom splitting, atomic energy, atom smashing, or even mentioning radioactive materials. In the years leading up to the war, huge strides were being made in the field of nuclear research. Human beings were beginning to figure out what the power was that held all matter together, the power that fueled the stars that had inspired our imaginations for countless millenia. The American press had leapt to report these developments as enthusiastically as anyone else in the late '30s. After the orders from the Office of Censorship in 1943 all reporting on the subject abruptly ceased. Despite the Orwellian nature of these orders, the memos were sent because the people in authority decided that secrecy and censorship were acceptable offenses in the quest to shorten the war and bring everyone's loved ones home alive, and that was the ultimate goal of the Project.

The women ran huge bays of sophisticated gauges and instruments. They operated some of the largest machines the world had ever known, and they did it with superb ability and efficiency. In fact, unbeknownst to the women, one scientist challenged his highly educated male engineers to operate the calutrons better than the women who had no inkling what they were doing. The women's results from the challenge (a challenge they were unaware they were meeting) left the men in the dust. As the Washington Post put it in their review of this book, "Rosie, it turns out, did much more than drive rivets."

Propaganda posters extolling the virtues of discretion and secrecy dominated every sight line both in the factories and on the street corners. Patriotism in Oak Ridge walked hand in hand with secrecy. Armed guards ensured that no one wandered into areas they weren't cleared for. Checkpoints and badges were standard everywhere but a worker's front door. The FBI and military police ran counter-intelligence programs throughout the city, utilizing both uniformed and undercover agents to keep the project absolutely classified.

Work continued for years in Oak Ridge even though very few people knew exactly what that work was. The neighborhoods were prefabricated and cheap, intended to be temporary. The city was segregated and the black workers lived in hutments or trailers. Married black couples were often not even allowed to live together for reasons that Kiernan was never fully able to explain (possibly because there is no excuse that makes any sense in the 21st century). These restrictions and hardships made it difficult to create any sense of community, especially under the yoke of such strict surveillance and institutionalized distrust. But the women of Oak Ridge were able to forge a sense of community despite the hardships. The socialization and cohesion necessary for any true sense of community would never be possible for the Big Brother police state to provide. It was left to the women of the city to create a sense of solidarity and cooperation within Oak Ridge. Kiernan perfectly describes it as an "Orwellian backdrop for a Rockwellian world."

Despite the oppressive air of government control in Oak Ridge, people fell in love, as we are wont to do. Social organizations were formed and parties were thrown. People went on dates and attended dances. Marriages happened and babies were born. Relationships that would last decades were forged in the secret confines of the largest factory in the world. Somehow, despite all the obstacles, the women of Oak Ridge created a home for themselves.

On July 26th, 1945, just ten days after the first nuclear weapon had been tested in the deserts of New Mexico (a test which remained, like Oak Ridge, a complete secret), the Allies issued the Potsdam Declaration. From the ruins of a defeated Germany, the joined governments of England, France, America, and Russia reiterated their determination to bring utter destruction to Imperial Japan, the only Axis nation still fighting. Japan, however, ignored the warnings.

On August 6th, 1945 all need for secrecy in Oak Ridge was destroyed alongside with the entire city of Hiroshima and 100,000 of its citizens (undoubtedly, even more died in the days and years to come). In a broadcast to the world President Truman himself, with only 82 days in office since FDR had died, told the world what had been happening for three years at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The words many in Oak Ridge had spent years avoiding saying were suddenly being uttered by the president of the United States for the whole world to hear. The world was changing for the people of Oak Ridge, just as the fruits of their years of labor were changing the world for everyone else.

Two days after Hiroshima was destroyed, the Soviet Union officially declared war on Japan. The next day, August 9th, 1945, the city of Nagasaki and tens of thousands of her citizens disappeared in another massive blinding fireball. The flames of nuclear war boiling above the city had been brought to the skies of Japan by the girls of Atomic City. The United States had not only used the first nuclear weapon in war against a populated city, we had done it twice. And a third bomb was ready to be used against a third Japanese city just 8 or 9 days later, but the Empire of Japan finally surrendered on August 14th.

The people who worked at Oak Ridge had dedicated themselves to working in ignorance of their goals because they had been promised that they were going to be shortening the war, that they would be saving American lives. They had done it. An invasion of the Japanese home islands would now no longer be needed to end the war. The nightmarish swarms of Kamikaze planes would not appear over any American invasion fleets as they had off the coasts of Okinawa. The waves of suicidal banzai charges, determined to die in defense of the home islands would never need to be mown down in the Japanese countryside by American soldiers and Marines as they had on Saipan and Guadalcanal. However controversial and regrettable the atomic bombings of two cities is, it is almost certain that had Japan not surrendered in August of '45 hundreds of thousands and maybe millions more people would have needed to die in order to induce any capitulation.

The workers at Oak Ridge did more to shorten the war than most munitions plant employees could ever dream of. Ironically, the people who helped build the first nuclear weapons carried a stigma with them that other munitions workers making more traditional weaponry did not bear. It is certain that the two bombs dropped on Japan killed hundreds of thousands of people, but over 80 million people died in World War II, maybe as many as 120 million (it's hard for crumbling governments to keep accurate records). Those millions did not die in a flash of nuclear light. No, they were killed the old fashioned way, with bullets, bayonets, and conventional bombs, with grenades, and artillery, poison gas, and the age-old weapon called hunger. Why would it be that the people who created one weapon would be stigmatized while the people who created all the others, the ones that did the majority of the killing, would not?

Because what the girls of Atomic City had done was different. They hadn't simply made a new kind of weapon. They had changed the world. And fair or not, what those women had done, in patriotic devotion and out of a desire to bring their loved ones home faster, had made the world a more terrifying place.

On to the next book!

P.S. It was amazing to you that something as monumental as the Manhattan Project was able to be kept secret by so many people. When conspiracy theorists claim fantastically complex cabals are able to keep secrets from the public, one of your best arguments against their theories is that so many people could never keep such an important secret. The girls of Oak Ridge make that argument a little harder for you to make. Your consolation prize however, and the thing that is important to remember is that this secret wasn't as well kept as the US government likes to admit. At least three different spies were placed in the upper ranks of the Project reporting directly to their handlers within Soviet Russia. Joseph Stalin knew exactly what was happening in what was supposed to be the most classified areas on Earth. Also, the secret at Oak Ridge only had to be kept for three years and then the president himself let the entire world in on it. Most conspiracy theories don't end with the president announcing the truth to the world.

P.P.S. The cutting edge of the engineering world today is dominated by another, more innocuous technology, 3D printing. Recently NASA simply emailed a 'recipe' for a wrench to the International Space Station and the astronauts there were able to print it up and put it to use fixing a problem in orbit. Last year engineers were able to completely build a car from the ground up using nothing but a large 3D printer. Where was that printer? The National Laboratories at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

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