Tag Archives: Hiroshima

Appalachia and the atom bomb

Today we mark a noteworthy anniversary in the history of the world—and in the history of Appalachia, although I don’t think we really associate the two as we should.

Lots of people know that the enriched uranium in “Little Boy,” the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima seventy years ago, came from the Y-12 plant at Oak Ridge here in East Tennessee.  At the very least, they know that Oak Ridge was involved somehow in the Manhattan Project.  But while plenty of people know of East Tennessee’s connection to the atomic bombing, I suspect they don’t really “get” it.  “Appalachia” connotes backwardness; people think of the mountains as a place of log cabins and hardscrabble farms, not the advent of the atomic age.

Even here in East Tennessee, it seems to me that we tend to see Oak Ridge’s wartime experience as somehow set apart from the rest of our history, as a kind of singular, brief moment in time when we suddenly became relevant before slipping back out of the mainstream.  Because we’ve let ourselves be convinced of our isolation and exceptionalism, we don’t really “own” this instance that proves how wrong those notions of isolation and exceptionalism are.  But Oak Ridge’s history, and thus the history of the atomic bomb and the world it made and unmade, is a part of Appalachian history.

Part of the job of Appalachian historians, I think, is to figure out how to integrate these aspects of the region’s past that don’t fit people’s expectations into a more comprehensive narrative.  Maybe this would help erode some of the simplistic stereotypes that continue to define popular notions of what the region is, and what it isn’t.  East Tennessee’s role in the creation of the atomic bomb might be a good entry point for this sort of thing, but that won’t happen as long as we see it as some singular development in the region’s history that has little to do with the rest of it.

With that out of the way, here are some links in recognition of what happened seventy years ago today.

Shift change at Y-12 in 1945. Department of Energy via Wikimedia Commons

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Filed under Appalachian History, History and Memory, Tennessee History

Legacies of the bomb

Normally my historical interests lie on the far side of 1865.  After that date, we start moving into the treacherous realm of recent memory.  But here’s a controversial issue that hits surprisingly close to home, at least in the literal, geographic sense.

Today, of course, is the 63rd anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.  Some of the uranium inside that bomb came from the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, about ninety minutes’ drive from my hometown.  Good power sources, sparse settlement, and cheap labor drew the government to the site, along with a series of ridges and valleys to isolate and contain any accidents.

Today, Oak Ridge’s Y-12 National Security Complex still manufactures bomb components, and holds more weapons-grade uranium than any site in the world.  This combination of past and present purpose results in some uproar every August.  Here’s an article from the Knoxville paper detailing this year’s protests and counter-protests.  I hasten to point out that I mention this neither to condmen nor laud what happened at Oak Ridge sixty years ago. 

The force unleashed in 1945 was awesome, but I am more awed by the past itself, a force that can instantly erase the present-day distance between the mountains of East Tennessee and the skies over Japan.

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Filed under History and Memory, Tennessee History