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Review: 'Girls of Atomic City'

Posted: August 28, 2014 - 6:57am
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Nuclear bomb test on Bikini Atoll and Enewetak, October 31, 1952.  Digital Vision
Digital Vision
Nuclear bomb test on Bikini Atoll and Enewetak, October 31, 1952.

They were not told where they were going. They were not allowed to talk about their jobs. They watched gauges and added numbers without knowing what they meant. They were recruited to spy on one another.

Their lives were in code: X-10, K-25, Y-12. They tried to maximize R in their E boxes and minimize Q from the D units. 723 reacts with 753 to make 745 which is also TC15 and becomes TC14. Tubealloy, yellowcake, product.

They can only travel with ID passes and their ID passes limit where they can travel.

People disappear without explanation.

It reads like a classic dystopian novel — only it’s true. Welcome to the strange world of “Girls of Atomic City” by Denise Kiernan, an intimate story about the lives of the women of the Manhattan Project who worked to end World War II without knowing what it was exactly that they were working on.

It was an arms race and a vitally secret one. Tens of thousands of people were needed to work on the Gadget, but they couldn’t know about the Gadget. So knowledge was compartmentalized: Everyone only knew how to do exactly what she needed to and not an iota more. And even that little bit could be dangerous if it combined with what your friend, roommate or husband knew to create a critical mass.

Kiernan writes that propaganda coated every surface of the Reservation at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. It constantly reinforced the message of secrecy with slogans such as:

“Keep mum about this job. Think! Are you authorized to tell it?”

“The enemy is looking for information. Guard your talk.”

And my personal favorite:

“What you see here,

What you do here,

What you hear here,

When you leave here,

Let it stay here.”

Amid this secrecy and stress, private lives went on. These women struggled through long, mind-numbing and body-numbing shifts. They stomped through the constant mud of the rapidly constructed town. The girls in the book went to dances, got married and found they couldn’t ask what their husbands did all day. Others lived in packed dorms and ate at one of the many cafeterias and are approached by “dapper men” who asked them to listen in on their fellows’ conversations.

Many people seemed content with their ignorance. They knew they were doing their patriotic duty — so their bosses said, therefore it must be true — and that they were making better wages than they would otherwise. As Kiernan writes, “Few Oak Ridgers cared whether they were let in on the Secret, so long as the war ended, and brothers would come home again.”

A few got closer to the truth than the rest, but they didn’t dare mention it. In this book, there are no genre heroines who figure out the evil truth and fight the system. When the Secret finally does come out after Hiroshima is bombed, people react in various ways: elated that the war is finally over, devastated at their small part in the deaths of thousands.

Some seem just relieved to finally be able to talk freely.

Kiernan describes one scientist who “was seen driving through town, yelling out the window of his car, without a care or fear in the world, for all to hear: ‘Uranium! Uranium! URANIUM!’”

But it’s terribly strange, after being trained by so many Orwellian novels to view the secretive, totalitarian government as an enemy, as something completely foreign to everything the United States is, to find that they’re us. And that the evil that they have planned is the very thing that ended the war and brought our boys home.

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