Friday, October 4, 2013

Mum's the Word

Thought for the day:  The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.  [Albert Einstein]

Secrets? Yes! Workers who followed orders without knowing what they were doing or why they were doing it? Again, yes, yes, yes! Because absolute secrecy was absolutely essential for the success of a secret project conducted in a secret little town that didn't even appear on maps until after WWII had ended.

I'm talking about the Manhattan Project, and a unique town in Tennessee called Oak Ridge.




I'm talking about the creation of the atom bomb.





While visiting friends in Tennessee over Labor Day weekend, we visited the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge... the ideal place to learn more about this little town's role in the Manhattan Project.

Before I take you inside, (so to speak) I have to tell on myself. And Kati. See this parabolic dish? It sits outside the museum. Actually, two of them sit outside the museum, facing each other, and separated by a good distance. The point is to whisper into one... and be heard at the other. Cool, huh? Yeah. Well, I must confess, Kati and I stood in front of this one dish... both of us... taking turns whispering into it. Our husbands, meanwhile, were all but rolling on the ground, convulsed with laughter. Yeah, I know. We get no respect. (It was pretty dumb of us, though... musta been something in that wine we drank the night before...)

Okay, ready to go inside now?

This picture depicts the genesis of the Manhattan Project. Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard wrote a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt, expressing their concerns about the possibility of Germany working to create an atomic bomb. Einstein urged the U.S. to achieve this goal before the Germans did.





                                                              The government agreed.

In September, 1942, the Corps of Engineers was authorized to acquire 56,000 acres of land in Tennessee, and to spend a total of 3.5 million dollars to do so. Why Tennessee? Because of sparse population, acquisition of land would be affordable. The area was also accessible by both road and rail, and most important, the TVA assured the government it could supply the necessary electrical power.

Approximately 1000 families were displaced, and they were notified by letters, such as the one shown in the picture. They were given no choice, and little time to vacate the premises. In the end, a total of 60,000 acres were acquired, at a total cost of 2.6 millions dollars, or about $47 per acre.

By March, 1943, all pre-existing structures had been demolished, checkpoints had been erected, and the entire area surrounded by fences topped with barbed wire. Within a matter of months, the area became Tennessee's fifth largest city, and at the height of construction, a house was built every thirty minutes. Housing included trailers, dormitories, hutments, and single-family dwellings called cemestos. Three window-less manufacturing plants of unprecedented size were built, as well as schools, businesses, community centers, medical facilities, and shopping centers. It was, in essence, a brand new city, built from the ground up, and at breakneck speed. A city shrouded in sworn secrecy.

When workers were asked for suggestions to name their city, fanciful names like Valhalla and Shangri-La were passed over in favor of Oak Ridge, after a nearby hill. However, the city's name only existed within its fences until after the war's end. Outsiders referred to it as Clinton Engineering Works.

Residential plans were originally designed to accommodate 13,000, but by 1945, Oak Ridge's population peaked at 75,000. Another 40,000 commuted in from surrounding communities to work in the plants. The town-within-a-compound bustled with soldiers and civilians, men, women, and children... all protected by barbed wire, roadblocks and armed guards.

According to Jay Searcy, who lived in Oak Ridge as a child, Nobody, nobody was allowed to talk about what he was doing. There was a war on. The enemy was listening. 

And not just the enemy. Approximately one in four workers was a government informant, and all workers were subjected to periodic lie-detector tests.


Then again, if the truth be known, very few people had any idea what they were doing.

We couldn't train them properly because we couldn't tell them what they were doing... We'd have to say, "On that gauge, when that needle turns to the right, you turn this knob to the left." But we couldn't tell them why.  L.W. Anderson, Union Carbide engineer

We cannot tell you what you are going to do, but we can tell you how to do it and we can only tell you that if our enemies achieve what we are trying to do before we do, God help us!  Gladys Owens, who worked with an electromagnetic separating machine known as a calutron. Unbeknownst to her at the time, she was separating uranium atoms.

The three Oak Ridge plants were known as Y-12, K-25, and X-10.  Because of a shortage of copper, almost 15,000 tons of silver were borrowed from the U.S. Treasury to be used as electrical conductors for the electromagnetic coils in the calutrons located in Y-12. (Believe it or not, ALL of this silver was returned to the treasury after the war.) K-25 used another more economical means to separate uranium, and X-10 contained a graphite-moderated nuclear reactor.



Alcohol was strictly forbidden in Oak Ridge, but what can I say? Where there's a will, there's a way. I've seen accounts of liquor being smuggled in past checkpoints inside of dirty diapers, and under women's dresses, clasped between their legs.





Dubbed the Trinity test, the first nuclear device was detonated in July, 1945.

Oak Ridge workers didn't realize what a monumental role they'd played until the atom bombs known as Fat Man and Little Boy were dropped on Japan the following month.





Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding. [Albert Einstein]

There was so much more to see at this museum, too much to cover in a simple blogpost. Photographs of children playing in a schoolyard, of Girl Scouts laughing, of people dancing and having fun... while living within an enclosed compound with a nuclear reactor and radioactive materials struck me as particularly surreal. But this, this was a page in our history. A fascinating page, where an entire city was built in less time than it takes to build a house nowadays. A secret city. A city where things like Teflon and HEPA filters were used for the first time. A city where the atom bomb was born.

                               Until next time, take care of yourselves. And each other.



84 comments:

  1. Scary stuff! Very sobering, and downright depressing! How did you feel afterward? Evil in such a sinister form masked by innocence - the children playing. Did not know this about Tennessee, always thought it was Nevada.

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    1. One of the most astounding things to me was how quickly the entire city was built. I wasn't surprised at how many people worked there without knowing what they were doing, though. Steady pay and the idea that they were "doing something important" that could end the war and bring our boys home must have been an irresistible draw.

      How did I feel? I felt a slight disconnect, to tell the truth. From all indications, Oak Ridge workers and surrounding community members were (and are) extremely proud of their role in developing the bomb, and as you say, the pictures of commonplace day-to-day living going on within a compound alongside dangerous experimentation and developments was unsettling, to say the least.

      What you're probably thinking about is Alamogordo, NM. That's where the Trinity test took place.

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  2. I can't imagine what I would have thought, if I'd received one of those letters from Mr Morgan; none too pleased, I think. Still; it brought an end to the war, without huge (comparatively) loss of lives.

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    1. I'm sure none of the people receiving one of those letters was pleased. Especially the ones whose families had lived on the land for generations. Still, they felt it was their patriotic duty to comply. (Not that they had a choice.)

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  3. I had no idea... very interesting. and scary... gonna read it again... ;)

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  4. You covered the subject of irony in your previous blog post - - but I'm also finding some irony in this one. It's ironic that such a horrendous thing as the atom bomb was devised during such a relatively innocent time in America....and in such a simple and unpretentious place as Tennessee.

    Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think the project could have been so successfully conceived nowadays (if indeed, such a devastatingly destructive force can be called "successful").

    Very interesting.

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    1. Yeah, you're right. And it's pretty doggone ironic that Einstein made that comment about not being able to keep the peace with force, seeing's as how instrumental he was in convincing the government to undertake the project in the first place.

      I don't think a project of this magnitude would stand a chance today. Certainly not without a protracted timeline and a boatload of litigations.

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  5. My Dad was a chemical engineer. During the war he worked on a government project. That is all we knew. He never said what he did or what the project was.

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    1. Interesting. There's an online archive of some of the chemists (and others) who worked on the Manhattan Project, but I imagine the only people included in it are those who submitted their stories. (Or whose families did.)

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  6. Scary, and more than a little sad. I have very mixed feelings about this scientific development.
    And am more than a little angry that we cannot build a town in the same timeframe when natural disasters have rendered populations homeless.
    A fascinating, but not comfortable post.

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    1. Yeah, I think most of us have mixed feelings about this scientific development... even those who were instrumental in its development.

      Ain't that the truth? With all the red tape, rules, regulations, and forms that have to be filled out in triplicate and verified, today's temporary housing after disasters takes forever to get in place.

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  7. Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding. [Albert Einstein]
    Yet is was Einstein who urged the government to develop a bomb??

    If acres today were only $47, I'd buy a couple.

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    1. Yes! That's a supreme irony, isn't it?

      You and me both. It'd be nice to have a big ol' spread of land. (As long as someone ELSE does the mowing, that is.)

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  8. I'm so glad you were actually there and reported on this. I recall hearing the name but I never paid any attention because i was so young. Things we all should know.

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    1. Yeah, I'm really glad we went, too. I bought a book there called "The Girls of Atomic City", and it tells the stories of some of the women, now in their 80s and 90s, who worked in Oak Ridge. I can hardly wait to read their accounts.

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    2. I wonder if I can find that book to buy online? I know a website that does free delivery.

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    3. I'm pretty sure Amazon carries it. The author's name is Denise Kiernan. Good luck! (How neat that you read all the comments... I try to do that on the blogs I visit, too.)

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  9. It's very interesting how things came to past without very few people having the knowledge....

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    1. I guess people didn't ask as many questions in those days.

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  10. I agree with Jon above. How ironic for something so monumentally destructive (and possibly evil) to be created in a place that gave off a sense of innocence by workers who didn't know what they were making.

    I wonder if any of those employees were affected by exposure to radiation?

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    1. According to a bunch of long-term health studies, there's been a "significantly higher" incidence of leukemia and other types of cancer within the Oak Ridge population. Part of that is due to exposure to radiation, and part is due to PCB, mercury, fluoride, and dioxin contamination.

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  11. Oh my gosh this is eye-opening. My goodness...

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  12. Are there any records of health issues with the workers after all was said and done?

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    1. When compared to the general public, the incidence of leukemia and other cancers, as well as Parkinson's disease and ALS, is considerably higher among Oak Ridge workers and residents. Not only were they exposed to the risks of radiation, but they also worked with toxic chemicals like dioxin, fluoride, mercury, and PCBs... which also poisoned the ground water.

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  13. It is ironic that the primary rush to build the bomb was to beat Hitler to it, but Germany fell before the bomb was even needed.

    It ended up being used to force Japan to surrender quickly and avoid a prolonged and brutal invasion, which would have resulted in even more deaths on both sides, and likely a Japan divided like Germany was, since Russia would have probably joined the invasion.

    The great wonder is not that it was used, but that humanity has gone 70 years without it being used again. For that I am truly thankful...

    A great summary of a fascinating and scary time in American and world history, Susan!

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    1. I'm grateful atom bombs haven't been used since the end of WWII, too, but I also have some concern about humanity's short memory span. Some people in the world insist the Holocaust never happened, so it isn't too much of a stretch of the imagination to believe it possible that many also underestimate the devastating power of an atom bomb.

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  14. So many serious things and not at all irrelevant today, just on different fronts.

    The statistic about the informants did not surprise me, we just read a similar one at our house last night about people trying to get into the FBI.

    This was a good post, and good for you for laughing at The Whisper Dish, that thought of that made me laugh too. :) Have a good weekend!

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    1. Glad you laughed about the Whisper Dish. I used to think I was fairly intelligent, but that was a real boneheaded move. Funny, but boneheaded.

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  15. I don't know if Michael Frayn's play 'Copenhagen' has been staged in the US - it's not easy, but basically discusses whether, once we know a thing (like how to split the atom) we can 'unknow' it when we realise the potential for catastrophic destruction. It's worth seeing, if ever it comes your way.

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    1. Thanks! Sounds like that play has an interesting premise. If only it were possible to "unknow" some things.

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  16. Wow never knew all of that
    Be pissed if they tried to drive me from my mat
    All to build a bis arse bomb too
    Doesn't surprise me what those upon high will do

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    1. So many things we don't know,
      Secret tales of wars and woe.
      How'd we get from there to here?
      History books help make it clear.

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  17. That's fascinating. I'd like to visit, in spite of the weirdness of the situation. How come the government could build Oak Ridge, but we couldn't re-build New Orleans?

    Love,
    Janie

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    1. It is definitely a neat place to visit. There's lots more to see than what I covered.

      Good question. For starters, the incentives were a lot different, and nowadays, just filling out all the forms takes more time than it took them to build a house in Oak Ridge.

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  18. Well written--& ABSOLUTELY FASCINATING!!

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  19. Elephant's Child makes such a great point about the speed with which this town was built yet we can't do the same after natural disasters. Shows where the priorities are.
    I knew a little about the Manhattan Project but not much - this was as fascinating to read as it was disturbing.

    Enjoy your weekend, Susan!

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    1. Elephant's Child is a smart cookie. Chocolate chip, if I'm not mistaken.

      You have a super weekend, too!

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  20. This town is not far from where I live. I have actually taken several school children on field trips to this very museum. As a child, our Sunday afternoon drives could only go so far since my father was not an employee and didn't have clearance to enter. It was very exciting to us when the gates were opened after the war.

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    1. Very cool! I hope I did the museum justice. I was very impressed with everything I saw there... except for the victory garden. It was overrun with weeds, and the vegetables were left to rot on the vines. Too bad. It'd be better to omit the victory garden altogether rather than exemplify the concept with a neglected one.

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  21. Wow. This is all new to me. A history lesson for sure. Thanks, Susan.

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    1. My pleasure. I hope you found it interesting.

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  22. I believe I need a Whisper Dish mounted on my head so I can hear what Norma is saying as she walks out of the room. It's not just her either, the whole world seems to be mumbling lately.

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    1. Yeah, I know what you mean. But you might want to get as somewhat lighter version.

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  23. you and your friends get around. That tour, etc. sounds fascinating. There is just so much to see in this world. It's overwhelming. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. We try! Might as well see what we can while we can still get around okay to see it, right?

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  24. Sus, this was really well-written. With your trademark, down-to-earth humor but I still had chills going up my arms by the end of it, and I already knew almost everything you'd written in here because of all the almost obsessive reading I've done on the topic. Just awesome. Thanks.

    Also, I love, love, love the detail of the Whisper Dish. The cogs of my imagination are grinding into action nice and early this morning. (Waggles eyebrows.)

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    1. Thanks, Suze. I'm glad you liked it.

      Oh, you l love, love, love me revealing what a bonehead I can be, huh? (It really WAS funny!)

      I bought "The Girls of Atomic City" from the book store there, but haven't started reading it yet. It'll just have to wait its turn in line.

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  25. hahahahahah, by the time I get a chance to comment you have about 100 comments before me. So popular ! but then your blog is very entertaining and interesting.
    I have been to Los Alamos, up in the pinion forest as I remember and very lovely. We when to the museum and saw how small the bombs were that destroyed so much. It was interesting and so very sad at the same time.
    I have also been to White Sands. They still set off bombs so there are signs about times of road closers. Very surreal.

    cheers, parsnip

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    1. Oh dear, you exaggerate almost as much as I do. But I'm glad you didn't mind scrolling down to leave a comment. It's always so good to hear from you.

      It is surreal to consider that such places of pristine beauty like Los Alamos were used to detonate bombs capable of such ugly death and destruction.

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  26. Very interesting and fascinating post! Throughout your post I wracked my brain to remember why all this sounded so familiar and where I had just recently read about this...and then one of your comments (yes, I read everyone's comments and your responses to them) explained it. I must have read a description of the book The Girls of Atomic City.

    And I agree with you, it must have been surreal.

    From what I understand, Einstein pushed for the development of the atomic bomb and later on was horrified about what had been created.

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    1. Thanks. I'm glad you liked it. Very neat that you've read something about that book, too. I haven't even started it yet, but hope to soon. (Several other books are in line ahead of it.) Also very neat that you read the comments and responses. Sometimes, I think I waste entirely too much time by responding to every comment, but if someone is reading... hey! Not wasted, right?)

      Yes, Einstein and some other physicists, too, expressed horror over unleashing the atom's power. Just because we CAN do something doesn't mean we SHOULD.

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  27. I'm still smiling at that quote at the beginning of your post. What a beautiful and thorough column you've published. I really enjoyed it. Many thanks.

    Greetings from London.

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    1. Thanks. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

      Greetings back atcha from Atlanta!

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  28. Another interesting and informative post as usual. Thanks, Susan.

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  29. Can you imagine trying to do your job when you really have no idea what you are doing?

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    1. In a way, people who worked on massive assembly lines did the same thing. Their only task was to do one repetitive task over and over, without having much understanding of where their "widget" belonged in the finished product. The big difference though, is they at least had an idea of what the finished product was gonna be.

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  30. Dear Susan,
    that was a very interesting post - a secret city, people only partly knowing what they do (as often in real life), people being inventive to smuggle in some life (alcohol), - all this a great background for a really good novel. To investigate and speak with people who lived there, their experiences - thrilling!

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    1. Thanks, Britta. I found it to be very interesting, and I'm glad you did, too. Hmmm, you're right. The secret city of Oak Ridge would make a terrific backdrop for a novel.

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  31. Hi Susan .. I wonder if they got contaminated .. people did here with the various tests the British Government were carrying out - equally in those days you didn't tend to question, but just got on with instructions ...

    It must have been a very interesting visit ... still laughing about you talking to each other in front of the dish ... cracked in the head?!

    Cheers to you - Hilary

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    1. Yes, people who were contaminated by both radiation and nasty chemicals like dioxin, fluoride, mercury and PCBs.

      I dunno if we were cracked in the head or not, but we sure did crack up!

      Cheers!

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  32. Very interesting and informative. Thanks for sharing.

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  33. Been far too long since I've had treated myself to some Susan style information delivered with great entertainment- and here I am laughing at your Whispering Dish incident! How rude of me! But thank you very much for sharing! :-)

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    1. Hi-ya, Lisa! Long time, no hear. I'm glad to hear from you again, but really? You're laughing at an old lady's stupidity? That's okay. I thought it was funny, too.

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  34. Did they take conformism too far here? (Sorry for the irony...)
    Thank you for such an interesting post, Susan. (Your posts are always interesting).

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    1. No need to apologize for using irony. I don't know if it was a matter of conformity, or more a matter of following directions and doing what they honestly believed had to be done in the name of winning the war.

      I'm glad you found the post interesting.

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  35. Looks like a fun-filled, interesting place to spend a day or two. I always appreciate an Einstein quote.

    Be well, Susan.
    xoRobyn

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    1. It was definitely an interesting place to spend a day, especially for history and physics nerds. (Guilty on both counts.)

      You be well, too, Robyn. (And stay that way!)

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  36. Fascinating post! I'd like to visit there someday for sure. It's crazy to think of all they did and how it shaped the world (for better or worse....). Great post!

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    1. Thanks. Glad ya liked it. It's a very interesting place to visit. I think you'd enjoy it.

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  37. I didn't know they displaced people when they moved there. How sad. I did know that even after helping create it, Einstein was against dropping the bomb.

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    1. It must have been especially difficult for those people who were displaced from land that had been in their families for generations.

      Yes, Einstein, and other physicists as well, were fearful of letting the proverbial genie out of the bottle.

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  38. You visit the most interesting places, Susan—fascinating, yet unsettling. I can't imagine working in such an environment. I'm certain folks knew much more about what was going on than TPTB thought. In my experience, employees always do, although the reverse is seldom true. Interesting, that.

    If I'm not mistaken, Einstein considered that letter to Roosevelt to be the greatest mistake of his life.

    VR Barkowski

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    1. In some cases, I'd agree that employees know more than TPTB think they do, but not in this case. How could they have any idea about what they were doing when it was something that had never been done by anyone before? These weren't educated physicists working in these plants; they were ordinary not-very-well-educated people trying to make a buck and do their part (whatever it was) to help win the war.

      You're right. Einsten said as much after he found out later that the Germans weren't trying to build an atomic weapon.

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  39. Very interesting post, as always, Susan. Years ago, we had a neighbor who had worked on the Manhattan Project, only he said he didn't know about the entire project, just a segment that he knew rolled into something else. As time would have it, we met another gentleman who said the same thing. My father said there were whispers something big was coming, but thinking didn't factor in the nuclear bomb as, well, open knowledge of such a thing being possible wasn't there, more toward a jet to counteract the one Hitler was thought to be coming out with.

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    1. How neat that you've known a couple of people who were involved with the Project... AND they were willing to talk about it. Everything I've read said very few people had any real knowledge as to what they were doing, and like you say, at that time, most of the workers... heck, most of the world... had little or no concept of such a possibility as an atom bomb

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  40. What a fascinating post Susan! It is terrifying that most of the people involved didn't know where the project was heading. How horrible that so many suffered from debilitating illnesses afterward. This gives me another great reason to visit Tennessee.

    Julie

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    1. Thanks. I'm glad you liked it. If people had known what they were trying to do and had an inkling of the dangers, I wonder how many would have continued working there. The collective desire to end the war was so enormous, I think many would have kept at it.

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