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.
- Recollections of a local scientist who started working at Oak Ridge during the Manhattan Project era
- Interested in Oak Ridge’s seminal wartime years? I recommend City Behind a Fence, by Charles W. Johnson and Charles O. Jackson.
- In Japan, designated storytellers are shadowing survivors of the bombing in order to transmit their stories.
- Preparations still underway for a multi-site Manhattan Project National Historical Park
- A look at the physics behind the first atom bombs
- If you want to get a sense of the scale of the Hiroshima bombing, here’s a website that allows you to see the blast radius superimposed over your hometown. (Note that it doesn’t take terrain and weather into account.)
- Historian Gregg Herken on five myths about the bomb
- Younger Americans are less likely than older ones to consider the atomic bombings justified.
- A look at the Enola Gay, courtesy of the Smithsonian
- If you’re up for some atomic history tourism, the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge has an exhibit on the city’s wartime origins. If that doesn’t cut it for you, the Trinity test site holds two “open house” days a year.