Oak Ridge 1 Franklin Roosevelt was good at many things. For one, he could keep a secret. Of course, he was in on the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb, but he kept what he knew sub sigillo. The urgency of the project was based on the concern that Nazi Germany would build such a weapon first and was known to be trying very hard to find out what kind of research and development was going on in the United States.

So Roosevelt kept his counsel — in fact, he kept it to a fault. Although he was aware of his own fragile health, he never said a word to Harry S Truman, his vice president. Truman found out about the project only after Roosevelt’s sudden death in 1945.

If nothing else, Roosevelt’s secrecy set an example for the subjects of Denise Kiernan’s enlightening and witty book, The Girls of Atomic City. These were  the young women who were among tens of thousands of Americans recruited to work at the Clinton Engineering Works outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, one of several sites that housed the operations that led to the bomb that would be deployed against Japan.

Oak Ridge 2 CEW consisted of four plants — one of which was the largest building in the world — that were built on a massive tract of land the government more or less appropriated, muscling out the farmers and others for whom the area had been both home and livelihood. Along with the plants, the government and its contractors built a sort of town, Oak Ridge, to serve as the residential community for CEW workers, both civilian and military. Some of the employees also lived outside the plant and commuted.

CEW had one goal: to enrich uranium to the point that it could be used as the fuel for the atomic bomb being developed by scientists at other sites in the country, most notably Los Alamos, New Mexico. None of the tens of thousands of men and women who worked at the plant knew what was taking place there, except that it was a project designed to win the war. They didn’t know they were refining uranium; they never heard uranium mentioned. Each person was directed to perform the task to which he or she was best suited, but was not told the purpose of the task. Some folks spent their days or nights monitoring gauges and recording the readings; some folks inspected pipes for leaks; some did mathematical calculations; some repeated chemical experiments — the same ones over and over again. Some worked at jobs not directly related to the core purpose of CEW — secretaries, nurses, shopkeepers, custodians.

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Everyone was told, repeatedly and forcefully, not to ask questions about what took place at CEW and not to discuss with each other or anyone else any aspect of work at the plant. Employees knew that they were being watched all the time by official personnel and by fellow workers who had been recruited as internal spies. And employees who noticed that someone suddenly vanished from a work site knew that person had probably been overheard speaking out of line and had been jettisoned from the complex with a stern warning to keep quiet.

It was only after the bomb had been deployed against Hiroshima in August 1945, causing unprecedented casualties and property damage, that the workers learned the truth about CEW and about what they had unwittingly made possible. As Denise Kiernan skillfully reports, there was a mixed reaction, a combination of relief, elation, remorse, and foreboding. People were glad that the war would finally end, but many were deeply shaken by  the carnage in Japan and worried about what new force had been unleashed in the world.

Oak Ridge 4As the title suggests, Kiernan is especially interested in the young women, including several specific ones, who left home, in some cases along with their families, to work at CEW. Some sought better pay, some sought any kind of work, some were motivated by a yen for adventure. At Oak Ridge, they found what in many ways was a spartan existence, a town without sidewalks but with plenty of ankle-deep mud. Many also found friendship and even romance and, if they were black, the same Jim Crow restrictions on their lives that they had experienced back home. While she tells the story of Oak Ridge and CEW, Kiernan simultaneously traces the development from theory to experiment to technology of nuclear fission, the principal that led to the bomb, and she calls particular attention to female scientists who played significant if under-appreciated roles in that process.

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Grynszpan 6
Last year I reviewed a book about Erik Jan Hanussen, a mentalist and con man who first flourished and then crashed and burned in Berlin during the Nazi era — an Austrian Jew posing as a Danish aristocrat. Hanussen struck me as one of the most bizarre characters in the drama of that time, but he has to make room in the pantheon for a puny Jewish teenager who is the subject of Jonathan Kirsch’s arresting book, The Short Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan.

Grynszpan 2Herschel was living with his Polish parents in Hamburg, Germany, when the Nazis came to power. During the run-up to the Holocaust, when Adolf Hitler’s scheme was to make life so unbearable for Jews that they would leave the Third Reich by their own volition, Herschel’s parents became concerned about his wellbeing. Their solution was to send him west when he was 15 years old, and he wound up living with his uncle and aunt in Paris.

During his sojourn, Herschel’s parents and siblings were among about 12,000 Polish Jews who were abruptly taken from their homes by the Nazis and deposited on the Polish side of the border with Germany. From the refugee camp there, Herschel’s sister wrote to him, describing the harsh conditions.

After an argument with his uncle over the question of helping the Grynszpans financially, Herschel bolted from the apartment and, on the following day, bought  a revolver, entered the German embassy on a pretext, and shot a young diplomatic aide, who died from the wounds.

Grynszpan 1When he was taken into custody by French authorities, Herschel, who saw himself as some kind of avenging angel, immediately and then repeatedly told them that he had shot the man, Ernst Vom Rath, in response to the treatment of Polish Jews and, in particular, of his own family.

The Nazis reacted to the murder with the carefully staged mob rampage that destroyed Jewish businesses and synagogues and terrorized Jewish people throughout Germany and Austria on the night of November 9 and 10, 1938 — the so-called Kristallnacht.

Meanwhile, Hitler and his partners in paranoia had a different take on the crime. They saw it as the work of the “international Jewish conspiracy” that actually existed only in their nightmares. Hitler sent representatives to both observe, manipulate, and exploit the proceedings against Herschel.

Before the case was played out, however, Germany invaded France, and after Herschel, with the connivance of the French, dodged the grasp of the Nazis in a chain of events that sounds like a Marx Brothers scene, he fell into German control.

Adolf HitlerHitler, employing a brand of logic of which only he was capable, decided to stage a show trial so that the international community would conclude from this solitary crime that Jews everywhere were plotting to take control of Germany if not the whole world.

Kirsch describes the elaborate investigations and other preparations the Nazis made for this spectacle, inquiring into the most remote details of Herschel’s background.

But Hitler didn’t know whom he was up against. The hundred-pound dropout pulled the rug out from under the Nazi propaganda machinery by telling interrogators that he and Vom Rath had actually been involved in a homosexual relationship that went sour. It was a idea that had been suggested to him by one of his lawyers while he was still in French custody. The Nazis were stymied. Given Hitler’s horror of homosexuality, they couldn’t let the show trial go ahead and take a chance that Herschel’s claim would become public. On the other hand, they also couldn’t simply do away with Herschel after making such a big deal about how the case would be tried in public. The trial was postponed — indefinitely, as it turned out.

In a way, that’s where this story ends. No one knows what became of Herschel Grynszpan, although the debate goes on about whether he was a megalomaniac lone ranger or an overlooked hero of the Jewish resistence.

It’s a wonderful yarn, and Kirsch tells it like a novelist, exploring the psyche of an oddball teenager who played a quirky role in the biggest historic epoch of the twentieth century.

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GEORGE ROBERTS

GEORGE ROBERTS

Perhaps I just wasn’t paying attention, but my impression is that the War of 1812 didn’t get much air time when I was in elementary and high school. Where American history was concerned, as I recall, it was all about the Revolution and the Civil War. It took me a while to catch up; it was relatively recently that I caught on that the War of 1812 was, in effect, a continuation of the Revolution.

Among the things I didn’t know about the war was that black men, free and slave, fought on both the American and British sides and also on behalf of the Spanish authorities who were futilely trying to hang onto the Florida territories. Gene Allen Smith, a history professor at Texas Christian University, covers that in detail in his book The Slaves’ Gamble: Choosing Sides in the War of 1812. 

An important aspect of this story is that the British, strapped for resources because their government was fighting what turned out to be the decisive war with Napoleon Bonaparte in Europe, encouraged American slaves to bolt from their masters and either emigrate to a British possession — notably Nova Scotia — or enlist in military service. Either way, the British promised the slaves their freedom.

Drum used by black drummer Jordan B. Noble at the Battle of New Orleans.

Drum used by black drummer Jordan B. Noble at the Battle of New Orleans.

Besides filling their ranks, the British saw this strategy as a means of undermining the Southern economy. The number of slaves who took advantage of the opportunity was slight compared to the million-plus who were in bondage at that time, but the fact that the British were welcoming slaves sent shock waves through the South, where white people always feared a slave rebellion.

Although this is a story about a war fought on many fronts over three years, Smith puts a human face on it by providing anecotes about particular black men who played a part in the epoch.

One example was George Roberts, a free Marylander who served during the war on numerous American privateers — private vessels that harassed and even seized British shipping on the U.S. government’s behalf. Another was Jordan B. Noble, who was born a mixed-race slave in 1800 and joined the 7th U.S. Regiment as a drummer in 1813. He served in the Battle of New Orleans and later took part in the Mexican, Seminole, and Civil wars.

ANDREW JACKSON

ANDREW JACKSON

A sad if not surprising episode in this history concerned Andrew Jackson, who recruited slaves to help in protecting New Orleans from a British attack. Jackson promised to free the slaves in return for their service, but, Smith writes, never intended to do so. Jackson, according to the author, “committed them to his cause rather than permitting them to assist the British, and this tied them to the United States.”

Allen explains that, once the war was over, the impact of the British strategy had the unintended effect of strengthening the plantation system in the South and opening new territory — namely, what had been the Spanish Floridas—to slavery. In general, the competence and bravery black soldiers  and sailors  contributed to the American cause during the War of 1812 was not adequately rewarded. On the contrary, some of the worst experiences for black people in the United States were yet to come.