I think a lot about nuclear bombs. They have been an unhealthy preoccupation since I learned about them in third grade. Knowing that we have these terrible weapons on earth will always frighten me. I read as much as I can about them, because somehow it makes me feel better, instead of worse.
The development of the bomb and the history of the Manhattan Project has strange and fascinating characters, unstoppable technology, and huge political decisions – it all adds up to a dramatic story. I’ve read a lot about all of the men who contributed to the development (and use) of the bomb; “The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women who Helped Win World War II” by Denise Kiernan tells a different narrative, the women’s side of the story.
Everything related to the Manhattan Project was super secretive and as time passes more and more information becomes available. Kiernan is a master storyteller who uncovers the story of the women who worked at Oak Ridge, Tennessee on the production of materials for the bomb. Oak Ridge was created in 1942 for the sole purpose of the Manhattan Project. Built fast for 70,000 people (at its peak production), the secret city expanded from a vast expanse of mostly vacant land to a huge city in less than two years. Kiernan writes: “Women infused the job site with life, their presence effortlessly defying all attempts to control and plan and shape every aspect of day-to-day existence at Oak Ridge. The Project may not have known what was to become of the town after the war, but the women knew that while they were there, they would not only work as hard as the men, but they would make it home.”
There are so many history books that are boring, but this is not one of them. Kiernan paints vivid pictures of the young women who were working at Oak Ridge and the lives they had while they were there. Dating, dancing, drinking, slopping in mud, friendships, and marriages were all a part of the activity at Oak Ridge. I kept envisioning my Grandma and Aunt Nanc because they were around the same age as the women who worked there. Parts of it reminded me of stories they have told me. In seventy years the role of women has changed dramatically and these women were true trailblazers. Kiernan writes about some of the women being excited about getting to wear pants to perform the work, “She remembered the first time her little sister Jo saw their mother in pants and a kerchief. Jo started sobbing and wouldn’t stop. She wanted to know where her mom had gone.”
The most interesting part is that the vast majority of the people who worked at Oak Ridge had ABSOLUTELY no idea what they were doing and they didn’t find out until the first bomb was dropped on Japan. They did not ask questions because they were told not to. They heard rumors, but no one wanted to talk about it because they knew that they were always being watched. Signs were posted that said things like “Your pen and tongue can be enemy weapons. Watch what you write and say.”
Kiernan writes: “The result made for a potent mix of anxiety and inspiration for some: the anxiety of not knowing, of being watched, of worrying you might say something out of turn, and the inspiration to stay on the job and do it well, because whatever you were working on was going to end the war. That much you knew, that much you had been promised.” A secret like Oak Ridge could never exist today. This story is unique and extraordinary. I don’t know if anything like it will happen again.
“The Girls of Atomic City” provides a great introduction to the Manhattan project and the basic science that went into making the bomb, so even if you don’t know anything about it you’ll be fine reading the book.
If you read this book and like the nuke aspect of it, I suggest reading Lydia Millet’s speculative fiction novel “Oh Pure and Radiant Heart.” And if you liked the historical part of it, read “Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh and America’s Fight Over World War II” by Lynne Olson. It is a well-written account of isolationists vs. interventionists, and all of the politics involved in WWII.