March is Women’s History Month, providing an apt setting for a discussion last week about the dawn of the atomic age as seen from a woman’s perspective.
As part of the Rae Dorough Speaker Series, Janet Beard, author of the historical novel, “The Atomic City Girls,” spoke at Livermore’s Bankhead Theater.
Beard’s novel was published last year. It looked at lives and working conditions at one of the secret U.S. facilities in Oak Ridge, Tenn., where uranium was enriched for the first atomic bomb.
Beard grew up in eastern Tennessee, but knew nothing about the atom bomb project when she toured an Oak Ridge science museum as a young schoolgirl.
Years later, she told the Bankhead audience, she had just published her first novel when she saw a television documentary that made her realize there was a story to be told – a second novel -- in the everyday lives of people who worked in Oak Ridge.
The story would unfold mainly through the experiences of a young woman, a recent high school graduate named June who gets a job operating a Calutron, one of the machines that painstakingly enriched uranium in the fissile component uranium-235 for an atomic bomb.
In the novel’s timeframe, 1944 and the first half of 1945, the purpose of the work was top-secret, understood only by a very few.
Most workers knew nothing beyond the assurance that they were “contributing to the war effort” at a time when U.S. soldiers were dying in Europe and in Asia, fighting adversaries powerful enough to threaten the survival of American democracy.
The Great Depression was still fresh in people’s minds, so a steady wage was welcome even when the job was dull and repetitive.
June was bright, curious and observant, but as a Calutron operator, it would have been highly unusual – and a major infraction – for her to be told the military purpose of her work.
To the author, however, allowing her to learn the secret would make her a more interesting character.
It would also help strengthen the tension between ignorance and knowledge that drives much of the novel, highlighting the moral dilemma facing a nation that was secretly developing a massively destructive technology to end a massively destructive war.
A number of the book’s broad themes resonate today: personal responsibility for actions taken collectively during wartime, the rise of big government, racism, patriotism, the influence of secrecy on democratic processes.
Essential to June’s development is her relationship with Sam, a hard-drinking physicist from Ernest Lawrence’s Berkeley “Rad Lab”, who understands and is deeply troubled by the military purpose of the Oak Ridge plant.
It is Sam who, drunkenly and improperly, reveals the secret purpose of the enrichment work to June. She then must begin to deal with the moral issues that will confront most of her fellow workers only after the bomb is dropped, when the war ends and the Oak Ridge role is revealed.
In the weeks before the bomb is delivered, Sam himself experiences profound misgivings and guilt, approaching personal collapse as he foresees the destruction to be caused by the bomb.
In contrast, the predominant view of the Oak Ridge workforce – many of whom lost friends and relatives in overseas fighting -- would be overwhelming pride and joy on learning that the war is over and they had helped win it.
Sam’s personal reactions underscore the moral challenge that faced many other scientists, as well as leaders in Washington.
Sam is Jewish and has deep personal reasons to join the atomic bomb project, which originated in fear that the scientifically advanced and virulently anti-Semitic German Nazis would develop the bomb first and conquer the world.
On the other hand, after Germany’s defeat, the bomb was now to be used for a different purpose – ending the war in the Pacific, saving countless American lives while destroying entire Japanese cities with their populations of non-combatants.
Changed World Forever
“The Atomic City Girls” offers a view of historical events that changed the world forever.
As the war ended, national leaders engaged in debates that would lead to development of more powerful thermonuclear weapons.
A nationwide nuclear weapons complex would include Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, established in the early 1950s, as well as the Livermore campus of Sandia National Laboratory, opened a few years later.
Globally, the political and technological rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union would last for decades, morphing into new and perhaps more dangerous forms as the USSR collapsed and nuclear weapons technology spread around the world.
Today, a newly aggressive Russia is joined by China and North Korea as potential nuclear adversaries to the U.S.; India and Pakistan face each other with nuclear arms; and the West worries that nuclear weapons could be developed or stolen by terrorists, rogue states and hostile countries like Iran.
Despite the book’s title, which Beard said was chosen by the publisher, some other key characters are male.
Two are Joe and Ralph, black former sharecroppers from Alabama who become part of the huge Oak Ridge construction workforce, which peaked at 75,000.
Beard felt that to reflect the spirit of the time and place, she had to deal with Jim Crow segregation, which was an integral part of the American South and which the government did little to resist in its single-minded focus on technological success.
Joe is relatively accepting of the discriminatory system, Ralph far more resistant and determined to push change.
Women and History
In general, Beard told the Bankhead audience, she believes that history is presented too often from a narrowly male perspective.
From childhood, she recalls stories of political events and military battles, portraits of leaders and thinkers who are nearly always men.
Women, especially talented or highly educated women, are typically depicted as “outliers,” she said.
“I wrote this book for a lot of reasons, but one of them was that I wanted to celebrate women’s stories and show that other side of things that we’re not always taught…to celebrate women’s history, because I truly believe that all history is women’s history.”
She indicated that she is not interested in silencing the male view of history, just in giving equal time to the female perspective.
“I have a daughter and I hope she grows up in a world where we teach those women’s stories just as strongly and often and loudly as we do the men’s stories that we have all been taught.”