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When the Atomic Went Mainstream

Lindsey A. Freeman

Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was established in 1942 by the U.S. government as a secret facility supporting the Manhattan Project. In this passage adapted from Longing for the Bomb, sociologist Lindsey A. Freeman discusses the city’s wrenching postwar “normalization,” as guard towers disappeared and even language itself changed in response to a new, civilian era.

In the immediate postwar years, the government tired of managing the cities of the Manhattan Project and decided that Oak Ridge should undergo the process of normalization. By 1948 the Atomic Energy Commission had outlined three major steps in order to transform Oak Ridge into a self-governing, self-supporting municipality, including the removal of the gates surrounding the perimeter of the city, the opening of the community to the general public along with increased security for the production and research facilities, the introduction of private property, and finally the incorporation of the city into the state of Tennessee.

Through the process of normalization, the intention was not only to normalize the town, but also the Bomb and nuclear industries in general. Taming the atom bomb and its legacies had its challenges. The Project retained a mythic quality; a kind of halo of magic hung about the word “atomic,” conjuring utopian images of flying cars, superheroes, and all sorts of glowing objects resplendent with energy and power. Dangerous? Yes. Powerful? Definitely, but controllable in capable hands, if only barely so. Then, beginning with the Cold War, as atomic conversations slowly transformed into nuke-speak, nuclear power entered into a new sobriety.

From the late 1940s into the 1960s (and arguably even today), “atomic” was an adjective that carried a certain sparkle and shake. People sipped atomic-themed cocktails, entered and were entertained by Miss Atomic beauty pageants, and drove to Las Vegas to watch aboveground tests from the rooftops of trendy hotels. Of course, atomic had a dark side, too, made manifest in such things as duck-and-cover drills and fallout shelter architecture. And by the 1970s and into the 1980s, the frosty stare down between the United States and the Soviet Union became scarier, a catastrophic nuclear event felt more possible, and all things atomic became a little bit less fun.

Atomic’s heir in the grammar of new weapons technology—nuclear—did not carry the same charm: nuclear winter, nuclear meltdown, nuclear arms race, the nuclear option. Atomic, which now seems quaint, was crazy but exciting; nuclear was just plain mad—or MAD, as in Mutual Assured Destruction, the Cold War military strategy of national security employed by the United States and the USSR that used as a rhetoric of deterrence the threat of retaliation, wherein if one side attacked the other, the stricken nation would immediately answer, leaving both sides completely obliterated in an act of “awful arithmetic.”

After the atomic bombings of Japan, it was no longer possible to think of a pre-nuclear world. In the aftermath of the mushroom cloud, new occupations, new social types, and new cities were created—proving once again the concept of “normal” to be a moving target. Oak Ridge was ahead of the curve, pioneering two characteristic features of the Atomic Age: a new kind of American community planning that would spread across the country in the 1950s and the new science of nuclear physics that would shape military and energy policies for decades to come. Even after the federal government’s forced process of normalization—and perhaps partially in response to it—Oak Ridgers never cop to being normal; they cling to their Oak Ridgidness, still different from those outside the now invisible fence, still special, still scientific, still dedicated to Brahms and bombs.

Excerpted from LONGING FOR THE BOMB: Oak Ridge and Atomic Nostalgia, by Lindsey A. Freeman. Copyright © 2015 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.

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