Books: “The Girls of Atomic City”

May 30, 2013

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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3 Responses to “Books: “The Girls of Atomic City””

  1. jkmhoffman Says:

    Reblogged this on kjmhoffman.

  2. shoreacres Says:

    Such an interesting tale. I learned several things just from your review – sub sigillo, which was a new expression for me, the fact that Oak Ridge was created out of whole cloth, and that so many people worked there at such discrete tasks.

    The most fascinating thing is the demand for secrecy. I can’t help wondering if such a thing even would be possible in this era of Twitter and Facebook. Of course,underneath all the chatter, there still are secrets being kept and divulged, sometimes to the chagrin of the parties involved.

    Another fine review about a bit of history I didn’t know in any more than general terms.

    By the way – I went into Amazon to order something yesterday and found “Wit’s End: Days and Nights of the Algonquin Round Table” still sitting in my shopping cart. Apparently I got distracted in the process of purchasing it. The book’s on its way now, and with the summer heat coming on I think it will do just fine for some afternoon reading when it’s too hot to work.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      I had the same thoughts you did about the level of secrecy at CEW: how could such a thing be achieved today? My wife and I were just discussing, in light of the recent Guardian reports, how the digital age has changed the context in which we think about our privacy versus our desire to be safe — and about how much government is too much government. Historically, we develop technology a lot faster than we develop safe and sensible ways to use it. After all, we still can’t figure out how to live with fire without burning down homes, city blocks, and forests. Enjoy the Algonquin gang!

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