What Happens in Atomic City Stays in Atomic City

Cassie Benjamin
May 7, 2015 · 8 min read

The bomb that ended World War II came from a place that no one knew about and no one talked about. Essentially, it didn't exist.

The residents of Oak Ridge, Tennessee were never told much, and most people knew better than to search for answers. They trusted in the common understanding that they would be told only what they absolutely needed to know, only when they absolutely needed to know it. But despite their collective ignorance, they all knew one thing — their work would help end the war. This idea, grounded in what seems to be blind faith in the American government, proved to be monumental in successfully completing the project. In the context of Oak Ridge and the atomic bomb, American patriotism and secrecy became one and the same.

Oak Ridge served as the headquarters for the Manhattan Project. Started in response to Albert Einstein’s urgent letter to President Roosevelt 1939, the “Manhattan Project” was the code name for the American research program devoted to developing the atomic bomb. After escaping from the German and Italian regimes, scientists Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi sought refuge in the United States. Aware of the recent scientific discoveries regarding atom splitting in Germany, they were determined to communicate the potential threat of the Axis powers building an atomic bomb, which would cause mass destruction if they won the race. Consequently, American military and government officials deemed it necessary to keep their nuclear pursuits hidden from their opponents.

Due to the highly secretive nature of the project, government officials took great effort to ensure that no one realized the purpose of their work. Military advertisements avoided mentioning specific details about the jobs available in Oak Ridge, and distracted potential workers with the perks of employment. Publicizing the jobs themselves was far too risky; you never knew who might see an ad in the newspaper or on a billboard. In Denise Kiernan illustrates the concept that even convincing people to work in Oak Ridge provided a challenge in secrecy for the American government.

At this point in the war, it was crucial that no one find out about the goal of the work being done in Oak Ridge. No one could even find out that Oak Ridge existed. The U.S. government decided to use space in Tennessee and evicted current residents of the land, but never provided the reason to those unknowing citizens for why they had to relocate. After the secret city was built, it never appeared on any maps of Tennessee. And yet, this city flourished like any other American city.

Swimmers at the Oak Ridge swimming pool.

Home to 75,000 residents at its peak, Oak Ridge quickly expanded far beyond it’s original expected population of about 13,000. Residents enjoyed marketplaces and swimming pools and lived generally normal lives, so they thought, because they were completely unaware of their true roles in the war effort. What became considerably one of the most important factors in ending World War II was kept completely secret from the entire American population…. No one was told details about the work they would do or the job they would have until after they arrived at the facility. Neighbors talked, but never about their work. Even the people working on the project itself did not know the what they were working toward. Everyone was told the same thing:

Because when the American government takes a risk that large without any certainty that it’ll pay off, secrecy becomes even more important.

Every resident and employee was provided with an identification badge, to be worn at all times, indicating his or her level of security clearance.

The ID badge of Colleen (Rowan) Black, one of the leak pipe inspectors at the K‑25 plant.

This badge indicated the access granted to each person, depending on their level of knowledge about the project and the importance of the work. With these badges, government officials could easily identify anyone at any time, in case they overheard residents disclose more information about their work to others than they should. By restricting access to certain buildings and sections of the town, the government could manage the spread of information on a strict need-to-know basis. As such, the government coordinated the lives of thousands of people seamlessly, all in an effort to keep the Manhattan Project secret not only from its war enemies, but also from the American population. Aside from designing and building the atomic bomb itself, keeping it all a secret was the highest priority.

One employee of Oak Ridge, Celia Szapka, illustrated the high level of restriction in a particularly telling comment:

Originally from a small coal-mining town in Pennsylvania, Celia Szapka moved to Washington D.C. in 1938 to work as a secretary for the State Department. In 1942, she accepted a job to work as a secretary for the Manhattan Project at the New York City headquarters on Fifth Avenue. Within the year, she was transferred to work as a secretary at the Oak Ridge location, where she eventually met her husband. It was during these years in Oak Ridge that she experienced the unusual amount of secrecy.

Not only were people kept out of restricted areas, but the understanding that they were restricted by the nature of the project was so strong and so widely accepted that people did not even to enter areas they knew they did not belong. The inherent secrecy of the project had been ingrained into the residents so deeply that they did not even contest it.

This understanding that everyone in Oak Ridge was expected to maintain confidentiality provided the foundation for interactions in the city. But the paranoia of disclosing American secrets did not only refer to America’s war enemies obtaining useful scientific information. Residents also feared punishment from government spies within the city who might hear them speak out of turn. The government established a 1984-esque city (before 1984, of course) in which residents maintained confidentiality out of fear that someone might be watching them. But they could never tell who was watching or when, or if they were really being watched at all.

This phenomenon of government-induced paranoia is evidenced in the story of Helen Hall, who was recruited from her job at a drugstore in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to work as a calutron operator in Oak Ridge because the government needed young, and predictably obedient, women. Invented at the University of California, Berkeley and named in tribute, the calutron (CAL-u-tron) was a machine used to separate uranium isotopes, and proved to be monumental for the Project. After arriving at the reservation, official government men approached Helen and hired her to spy on other employees, listen for people speaking out of turn or talking about their work too much, and “anonymously” report back by sending her notes to a strange address. But of course, Helen could never tell her family, friends, or neighbors that she was spying on her American peers for the American government. People would have turned away from her for her lack of camaraderie. That didn’t seem to be the spirit of the war effort — spying on her peers. Yet, it was deemed necessary in the greater picture to ensure the success of the Manhattan Project until the very end of the war.

Nonetheless, while other residents never knew Helen was one of the people watching them, they certainly believed and feared that someone was watching them and it impacted their behavior in the way the government intended it. Celia Szapka’s experience provides an example of the duality of this situation.

As if the fear of being watched constantly by unknown peers was not enough to keep people quiet, billboards placed throughout Oak Ridge provided constant reminders that secrecy was necessary for success and that residents could never be sure who might obtain private information if they shared it.

This concept referred to any form of communication, both within the community and in correspondence from the city to family and friends outside the boundaries of Oak Ridge. Residents and employees commonly wrote letters back home, but faced challenges in explaining their lives as they were expected to maintain secrecy about so much of what they did on a daily basis. By referring to multiple forms of communication, these billboards reminded people that discussing confidential material could be damaging regardless of the medium.

Billboards placed prominently around the city served as a constant reminder of the responsibility each person held as community member of an secret city created to achieve a secret military initiative.

pen and tongue can be enemy weapons. Watch what write and say.”

“Who Me? Yes Keep mum about this job.”

The phrases and imagery on these billboards succeeded in creating a widespread paranoia among the residents of Oak Ridge by connecting them personally to the devastating affect that a leak of crucial military information would have on America’s success in the war. The billboards targeted everyone, individually, all at the same time. Any resident of Oak Ridge could be the cause for the failure of this supposedly war-ending secret project, so the just the fear of singlehandedly ruining the chance of America ending the World War II seems like it would have been enough to keep people quiet.

A billboard posted in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, on December 31, 1943.

These stories present a realistic depiction of the intense secrecy propagated by the images and messages on billboards throughout Oak Ridge at the height of the war. The story of Virginia Spivey, who worked in the chemical department, depicts what seemed to be the mindset of many Oak Ridge employees:

This overwhelming secrecy established in Oak Ridge as a result of government spying and war propaganda instilled the importance of self-censorship through intentionally created paranoia. There is no doubt that this paranoia greatly impacted the residents actions, or lack thereof. The creation of paranoia among innocent American citizens was deemed necessary for the success of the Manhattan Project, and ultimately that necessity proved true after the bomb was dropped in Japan and the war ended. But, this begs the question then: if the government hid a city from us, what else could they hide?

Secret History of America

New Essays in American Studies from UC Berkeley

Thanks to Michael Mark Cohen.

Cassie Benjamin

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Not your average Cal bear.

Secret History of America

New Essays in American Studies from UC Berkeley