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The Girls of Atomic City, by Denise Kiernan.

January 27, 2016

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of The Women who Helped Win World War II, by Denise Kiernan. Touchstone (2013).   371 pages.

5 stars — FAVORITE

Popular history at its best. Enjoyable, fact-filled history focusing on the variety of women and men whose secret work at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during World War II, contributed to the first atomic bombs.

Denise Kiernan is not an academic historian, but a free-lance journalist and a writer for television. She is a gifted story-teller, not bound by academic conventions, but committed to extensive research, careful identification of sources, and fair, unbiased writing. Her account is grounded in the scientific and political narratives of the creation of the atomic bomb, but skillfully keeps those stories in the background. She brings to the book the ability to compile extensive information into a coherent narrative.

In The Girls of Atomic City, Kiernan gives detailed accounts of the lives of the famous and unknown people who did the actual work of refining the uranium for the first atomic bombs at the newly created community of Oak Ridge. The acquisition of land in an isolated Appalachian valley was the first step in the establishment, within only a couple of years, of a military “reservation” housing 75,000 people, many of them in quickly built housing. The priority was on achieving production goals as fast as possible. Absolute secrecy was enforced with each worker having the least possible knowledge to do a job. Husbands and wives were forbidden to share information about their work. With men abroad, women filled an unusual number of the jobs. Young rural women from the surrounding mountains were especially welcomed because they were believed to be docile and unquestioning. The army men involved at the site insured romances was abounded. As the “military reservation” became a town, social and psychological problems had to be addressed.

Kiernan has sent long hours in archives and interviewing those who worked and loved at Oak Ridge. In order to tell a coherent story out of her mass of information, she focuses on eight women who worked there, telling us the details of their days and their reaction to the strangeness of their situation. Two of the women were secretaries, two monitored the knobs and switches that facilitated the refining of the uranium, one was a scientist, one a statistician, and one, a black woman who did janitorial work. By including a black woman, Kiernan is able to describe the various ways in which segregation and discrimination continued to hamper African Americans at Oak Ridge. Unsurprisingly, they held the most menial jobs. Strict segregation was observed with African Americans kept out of the swimming pool and other recreational sites. When white couples were married, they could live together, but not blacks, who were crowded into the least acceptable “hutments.” A black man, hurt badly in an automobile accident, was given a radioactive injection because  scientists wanted to know the affect on human bodies.

Kiernan is full of praise for the women and men who worked at Oak Ridge, but she does not celebrate the creation and dropping of the first atomic bombs. She notes the debates over the bombs’ actual use, but makes no effort to establish blame or praise. Instead she describes the ambivalence that both scientists and ordinary workers felt about having created such a deadly weapon used to kill noncombatants.

I fully recommend The Girls at Atomic City to a wide range of readers including both casual and academic historians. Kiernan does an excellent job of helping us all understand how World War II affected Americans on the home front.

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 27, 2016 9:50 pm

    Goodness, I’ve been so busy feeling depressed and angry about the scientists who developed nuclear weapons, I never thought about the people who worked lower down in the hierarchy, and how they might have felt about it after they could see their effects.

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