TN town built to construct atomic bomb helped inspire postwar suburbia

A story connecting Chicago to the development of the atomic bomb included this paragraph about Oak Ridge, Tennessee:


Aerial image of Oak Ridge, Tennessee (via Google Maps)

The decision had already been made that the atomic bomb would be manufactured in a rural stretch of eastern Tennessee. Designated “Site X,” it quickly became Oak Ridge, a city of 30,000 — designed and constructed under the strictest security. The architects of Chicago-based Skidmore, Owings & Merrill had to draft a master plan without knowing where it would be built. Oak Ridge’s curving roads, dotted with clusters of single-family homes, would become a template for the postwar suburban building boom.

The classic historical work Crabgrass Frontier includes this bit about Oak Ridge:

The mobile home park concept was pioneered in the 1920s and 1930s, but the largest experiment with manufactured or prefabricated houses came in World War II. This 1945 aerial photograph was taken of a part of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a community that not even existed in 1940. In the next few years as atomic workers poured into the area, more than 5,000 trailers supplemented 9,600 prefabricated houses and 16,000 barracks to provide temporary dwellings in this top-secret facility.

Another scholar connects Oak Ridge and Levittown:

His Levittown wasn’t so very different from the utopian plan of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, designed during the way by the prestigious architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings, Merrill, a community itself modeled in part after the TVA communities of the Depression-era utopian Roosevelt planners.

One irony is that the development of the atomic bomb helped lead to existential fear in later suburbs even as the development process helped pave the way for more suburbia.

A connected thought: this is another way that World War II helped contribute to the subsequent decades of sprawling suburbs. In addition to Oak Ridge, World War II helped lead to new loans for returning veterans, pent-up demand for housing (add the war to the Great Depression and little had been built in roughly 16 years), the flowering of the American Dream as including a suburban home (already partly in place in the 1920s), and postwar prosperity with the United States emerging as a victor.


Anthropologists used to convince Americans to eat organ meats during WWII

Need to get Americans to eat organ meats so beef can be sent to soldiers during World War II? Bring in anthropologists:

To head the committee, the NRC recruited anthropologist Margaret Mead, along with German-born psychologist Kurt Lewin (considered to be one of the founders of social psychology). At the top of their agenda: addressing the looming meat shortage. More specifically, they needed to devise a way to convince Americans to abandon their steaks, pork chops, and other familiar cuts in favor of the meats that the soldiers wouldn’t eat—the hearts, livers, and other organs that remained plentiful stateside.

The committee members had their work cut out for them. Organ meats at the time were largely shunned by all but the poorest Americans, considered a marker of low social status or a rural, unsophisticated upbringing—and of all the social taboos, those related to food are among the most difficult to dispel, said Barrett Brenton, a nutritional anthropologist at St. John’s University…

One of the major reasons, they soon found through their research, was organs’ unfamiliarity—people balked at the idea of serving something without knowing its taste or even how best to prepare it. In response, the committee urged the government to produce materials that couched the new meats in more comfortable terms…

And thus, “variety meats” were born. Butchers, who already sold organ meats for fewer ration points than premium cuts, were encouraged to adopt the new term with their customers; so were reporters with their readers…

The effect, though, lasted barely longer than the war itself.

Not quite the glamor of Indiana Jones but still fighting the Nazis by replacing beef with lesser cuts of meat. This also hints of American’s long interest in beef, not just an invention of fast food or post-World War II prosperity.

Would leading anthropologists be willing to join such a war cause today?


Societies may not want women to fight in wars – until they are desparately needed

Here is an interesting piece about women soldiers in history, particularly focusing on their participation in World War II when their countries needed them. Here is part of the argument:

The girls of Stalingrad weren’t the only women to inspire shock and awe in World War II. Great Britain, the United States, and other combatants put hundreds of thousands of females in uniform; the Soviet Union alone recruited roughly a million, sending many into combat as tank commanders, snipers, and pilots. Desperation, not egalitarian ideals, drove these mobilizations; there simply weren’t enough men to fight in history’s largest conflagration…

In many ways, Panetta’s decision is simply a recognition that women are already fighting in combat. The United States has deployed nearly 290,000 in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade. More than 140 have died, many killed by insurgents. With the blurry front lines of modern warfare, even women assigned to noncombat roles sometimes wind up in battle. In 2005, assigned to a protection detail for a military convoy, Army National Guard sergeant Leigh Ann Hester landed in a firefight with Afghanistan insurgents. Jumping from her Humvee, she ran to a ditch where several Americans were pinned down and about to be taken hostage. Opening fire with her M-4, she held off the insurgents, killing three and helping to rescue the men. Hester became the first woman to receive a Silver Star for a direct engagement with the enemy.

Still, Panetta’s decision will be fought hard. Citing reports of sexual harassment in the ranks, some officials worry that women will disrupt the cohesion crucial to combat unit. They also argue that females physically can’t handle the duty.

IN THE END, some people will never accept women in battle—at least, that is, until women are needed.

It strikes me that “normal” social roles can change quite a bit under altered circumstances such as war. So how much is this new directive in the United States allowing women in combat is driven by a need at the front lines? Does this tell us more about the larger capabilities of the US military than changing social norms regarding gender?

Albert Speer’s imagined Nazi Berlin

An essay that discusses the legacy of German architect Albert Speer briefly highlights his plans for turning Berlin into the grand Nazi capital:

Speer quickly moved into the Führer’s inner circle, where Hitler shared his vision with the young architect. Hitler wanted to make Berlin into the most impressive city in the world, conveying the beauty and overwhelming strength of the triumphal Reich that would dominate the world — and Speer was to be the master planner. Speer conceived of the city’s buildings to have what he called “ruin value” — meaning that they were meant to be built to last for thousands of years, like the ancient ruins of Greece. Hitler embraced this concept, which accorded with his vision of a Thousand Year Reich.

The dream of Hitler’s new city, which was to be renamed World Capital Germania, was without parallel in the modern world. Speer planned as the centerpiece a gargantuan domed Great Hall that would hold 180,000 occupants as they listened to the Führer’s speeches. Had it ever been built, Speer’s dome would have dwarfed any structure nearby, and could have contained several domes the size of the U.S. Capitol. Along the sprawling grand avenue leading to the Great Hall would be a German version of Paris’s Arc de Triomphe, intended to dwarf Napoleon’s. Elsewhere, at the Nuremberg rally grounds, construction began (but was never completed) on a German Stadium that would have held 400,000 spectators.

It is not certain that these plans could have been realized. Among other issues, Berlin was built on converted swampland, and there are serious doubts that the ground would have been able to support the huge weight of such structures; test structures built by the Nazis suggested that the buildings would sink well beyond tolerable limits. Regardless of the feasibility, this was art and architecture based on ostentation and megalomania. The plans, of course, spoke of the intoxication with power not just of the state, but of the men who ran it. Speer found himself elevated with breathtaking rapidity to the highest echelons of power, and developed a close personal relationship with the most powerful man in Germany, who was idolized and worshiped by millions of Germans and feared by millions more around the world. Speer looked up to Hitler and seemed to crave his approval. Hitler, for his part, spoke of having “the warmest human feelings” for Speer, and regarding him as a “kindred spirit.” Gitta Sereny writes that “in looks and language, the tall, handsome young Speer probably came close to being a German ideal for the Austrian Hitler.” Speer admitted at the Nuremberg trials that “if Hitler had had any friends, I would certainly have been one of his close friends.” Hitler formed a deep admiration for Speer’s architectural style and ambition. He had always considered himself an artist first, who only became a politician to realize his dream of a powerful Germany, and he saw in the young Speer his own unfulfilled self — someone who was technically capable of achieving his artistic dreams for a Germany that would rule the world.

It is little coincidence that powerful dictators aspire to design and build expansive cities: they want such places to provide a long reminder of their power. There is something about imposing buildings, long avenues, and public memorials and art that can reinforce the powers that be. Of course, as this essay suggests, architects and engineers can get swept up in such plans. Speer went from grandiose plans for Berlin to running the armaments ministry for Germany and increasing production through late 1944 even as Nazi Germany was losing the war on two (three, if you count Italy) fronts.

Wikipedia has more on Speer’s plans for World Capital Germania:

The first step in these plans was the Berlin Olympic Stadium for the 1936 Summer Olympics. This stadium would promote the rise of the Nazi government. A much larger stadium capable of holding 400,000 spectators was planned alongside the Nazi parade grounds in Nuremberg but only the foundations were dug before the project was abandoned due to the outbreak of war. Had this stadium been completed it would remain the largest in the world today by a considerable margin.

Speer also designed a new Chancellery, which included a vast hall designed to be twice as long as the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles. Hitler wanted him to build a third, even larger Chancellery, although it was never begun. The second Chancellery was destroyed by the Soviet army in 1945.

Almost none of the other buildings planned for Berlin were ever built. Berlin was to be reorganized along a central 5 km-long boulevard known as the Prachtallee (“Avenue or Boulevard of Splendour(s)”). This would run south from a crossroads with the East-West Axis close to the Brandenburg Gate, following the course of the old Siegesallee through the Tiergarten before continuing down to an area just west of Tempelhof Airport. This new North-South Axis would have served as a parade ground, and have been closed off to traffic. Vehicles would have instead been diverted into an underground highway running directly underneath the parade route; sections of this highway’s tunnel structure were built, and still exist today. No work was ever begun above ground although Speer did relocate the Siegesallee to another part of the Tiergarten in 1938 in preparation for the avenue’s construction.

The plan also called for the building of two new large railway stations as the planned North-South Axis would have severed the tracks leading to the old Anhalter and Potsdamer stations, forcing their closure. These new stations would be built on the city’s main S-Bahn ring with the Nordbahnhof in Wedding and the larger Südbahnhof in Tempelhof-Schöneberg at the southern end of the avenue. The Anhalter Bahnhof, no longer used as a railway station, would have been turned into a swimming pool.

At the northern end of the avenue on the site of the Königsplatz (now the Platz der Republik) there was to be a large open forum known as Großer Platz with an area of around 350,000 square metres. This square was to be surrounded by the grandest buildings of all, with the Führer’s palace on the west side on the site of the former Kroll Opera House, the 1894 Reichstag Building on the east side and the third Reich Chancellery and high command of the German Army on the south side (on either side of the square’s entrance from the Avenue of Splendours). On the north side of the plaza, straddling the River Spree, Speer planned to build the centrepiece of the new Berlin, an enormous domed building, the Volkshalle (people’s hall), designed by Hitler himself. It would still remain the largest enclosed space in the world had it been built. Although war came before work could begin, all the necessary land was acquired, and the engineering plans were worked out. The building would have been over 200 metres high and 250 metres in diameter, sixteen times larger than the dome of St. Peter’s.

Towards the southern end of the avenue would be a triumphal arch based on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but again, much larger; it would be almost a hundred metres high, and the Arc de Triomphe (at the time the largest triumphal arch in existence) would have been able to fit inside its opening, evidently with the intention of replacing the rather long history associated with this Arch and in particular the unique ceremonies, with reference to the history of France, connected with it, see the French government website on this history.As a result of the occupation of Berlin by Soviet troops in 1945, a memorial was constructed with two thousand of the Soviet dead buried there in line with this proposed ‘Triumphal Arch’. It had been intended that inside this generously proportioned structure the names of the 1,800,000 German dead of the First World War should be carved, that which presumably was known to amongst others the Soviet leaders.

A cautionary tale.

Quick Review (recent reads): The Social Animal, Love Wins, Connected, In the Garden of Beasts, Heat Wave, Travels with Charley

As the summer ended and school started, I was able to get through a backlog of intriguing books. Here are quick thoughts on this varied collection:

1. The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks. I thought I might not like the “story” that Brooks uses to convey research findings but I found it a helpful way to think about the growing body of research about how our brains and emotions affect our lives. Overall, I like Brook’s argument that we should pay more attention to the British Enlightenment than the French Enlightenment emphasis because of how much humans are truly influenced by their emotions and subconscious and not just reason and rationality. I’m not quite sure what Brooks wants us to do with this information in the end (and why use the term “the big shaggy” to describe our subconcious?) but I do enjoy Brooks skewering certain groups in hilarious paragraphs that mirror some of his commentary in earlier books like Bobos in Paradise. And perhaps I’m required to say this as a sociologist but I think Brooks gives short shrift to the role of culture plays in shaping the subconscious. (See a preview post about the book here.)

2. Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell. This book created quite a stir in evangelical circles earlier this year as some, like John Piper, essentially kicked Bell out of their circles. On the whole, I would say the book is uneven: some chapters are quite orthodox in their understanding of God, love, and evangelism while other chapters stray and Bell is not as careful with his words as he pushes boundaries. Also, the book seems aimed less at the general population and more at disaffected evangelicals, an interesting group to address, who can’t come to grips about their beliefs about hell rather. Taking a broader view, the book and the debate around it illustrates several interesting sociological issues: subcultures and drawing symbolic boundaries about who is in and out as well as the how theology and culture influence each other. As a follow-up, I ran into these two videos: MSNBC’s Martin Bashir asks Bell some tough questions (considering the issue of media types asking people about religion, Bashir’s Wikipedia profile includes a quote saying he is a “committed Christian”) in contrast to a fluffier interview with George Stephanopoulos on Good Morning America.

3. Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives by Nicholas Christakis and James H. Fowler. This text could serve as a general audience introduction to the study of social networks. Many of the examples in the book are physiological as these researchers are known for their work on how things like obesity, emotions, and diseases are spread throughout social networks. The takeaway of the book: three degrees of separation is what connects us (those are your friends of friends of friends) and the actions and emotions of those people trickle down to us. I like the emphasis on how people seemingly beyond our immediate control have an influence on us.

4. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and An American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson. This book provides a look at Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s through the eyes of American ambassador William Dodd and his daughter Martha. The story of Germany is of course fascinating: Hitler consolidates power while hardly anyone inside or outside the country challenges him. However, Dodd and his daughter figure it out but they are marginalized, Dodd because he won’t live the opulent lifestyle most US ambassadors were accustomed to and Martha because of her romantic forays and developing ties to the USSR. Even though you know the outcome of the larger story, the story is still interesting as an American academic tries to sound the alarm about the rising tide of Nazism.

5. Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago by Eric Klinenberg. I’ve been meaning to read this for some time as it concerns the 500+ deaths that occurred as the result of a heat wave in Chicago in 1995. Klinenberg performs a “social autopsy,” looking at the various factors and institution involved in the situation. The elderly who were alone were susceptible, particularly in neighborhoods without much street life, the morgues were unprepared, the media was behind in covering the story, and the City of Chicago and Mayor Daley tried to pass the blame. A lot went wrong in this situation, leading to one of the most deadly natural disasters in American history. (Perhaps this book was ahead of its time in looking at the sociology of disasters.)

6. Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck. I like Steinbeck and regard The Winter of Our Discontent and East of Eden as two of the best books I have read. However, this travelogue seems the opposite of his best novels: Steinbeck rambles around the country and offers some disconnected commentary. It seemed like he was trying to not do what he does in his novel: offer sweeping stories with big points about American life and culture. The only part that really grabbed my attention: Steinbeck passed through New Orleans during protests against the integration of New Orleans’ schools in 1960 (immortalized in a Norman Rockwell painting President Obama recent selected to hang in the Oval Office) and talked with some of the residents.

Quick Review: The King’s Speech

The upcoming Oscars seem to be a battle between two films: The Social Network (see my earlier review here and sagescape’s here) and The King’s Speech. I just had a chance to see the second film and have some thoughts about this Best Picture contender.

1. Since this is a historical drama, I expected this film to be somewhat bland and formulaic. It was neither.

2. There is a little bit of a storyline about the gap between British royalty and the common people. In the film, this gap is between King George VI and his speech therapist, an untrained but effective practitioner. The question arises: how can someone rule a country (and empire) if either side has little idea of how the other lives? We could probably ask similar questions today about many of the people at the top of our social hierarchy.

3. The film had more humor, albeit fairly dry, than I was expecting. I don’t know that I would think of Colin Firth as a comic actor but he has some good lines spoken by a struggling character.

4. The context of the film is engaging as Europe inches toward World War II. Even if the timeline in the movie doesn’t quite match the historical record, the struggles of King George VI are heightened by the gathering storm.

5. The peak of the film is a speech by King George VI. Even though it is an important speech delivered at a key historical moment, I appreciated that the musical score and the editing was understated and intimate. Too often, I think films use music and editing as a crutch to cover up less-than-exciting climaxes. Good plots don’t need to be oversold.

6. I thought The Social Network was interesting but not great. In comparison, The King’s Speech is weightier, has better acting, and doesn’t have to rely on edgy dialogue or a current storyline. My vote for the Best Picture (between these two and the other nominees I’ve seen including True Grit, Toy Story 3, and Inception): The King’s Speech.

(Critics also like this film: says the film is 94% fresh with 188 positive reviews out of 199 total reviews.)

Report on how US helped Nazis after World War II

A recently released report suggests the United States helped a number of Nazis after the end of World War II:

The 600-page report, which the Justice Department has tried to keep secret for four years, provides new evidence about more than two dozen of the most notorious Nazi cases of the last three decades.

It describes the government’s posthumous pursuit of Dr. Josef Mengele, the so-called Angel of Death at Auschwitz, part of whose scalp was kept in a Justice Department official’s drawer; the vigilante killing of a former Waffen SS soldier in New Jersey; and the government’s mistaken identification of the Treblinka concentration camp guard known as Ivan the Terrible…

Perhaps the report’s most damning disclosures come in assessing the Central Intelligence Agency’s involvement with Nazi émigrés. Scholars and previous government reports had acknowledged the C.I.A.’s use of Nazis for postwar intelligence purposes. But this report goes further in documenting the level of American complicity and deception in such operations.

The Justice Department report, describing what it calls “the government’s collaboration with persecutors,” says that O.S.I investigators learned that some of the Nazis “were indeed knowingly granted entry” to the United States, even though government officials were aware of their pasts. “America, which prided itself on being a safe haven for the persecuted, became — in some small measure — a safe haven for persecutors as well,” it said.

Even today, everyone can agree on one group of people who were evil: the Nazis. Yet it appears the relationship between the United States, the supposed moral victors in Europe in 1945, had a much more complicated relationship with Nazis than is typically thought.

This reminds me of a chapter by sociologist Jeffrey Alexander. In this chapter, Alexander detailed how the United States was able to claim the moral high ground after World War II – after all, the US had rid the world of both the evil Nazis and Japanese. But by the mid 1960s, the United States could no longer claim this high ground with questions about whether the two nuclear bombs dropped on Japan had been necessary and Milgram’s experiment suggested lots of ordinary people were capable of evil.

How much more interesting information like this is buried somewhere?

Add ‘The Pond’ to the list of US intelligence agencies

According to the AP, papers have recently been released that tell about another American intelligence agency that operated in the 1940s and 1950s:

Created during World War II as a purely U.S. operation free of the perceived taint of European allies, the Pond existed for 13 years and was shrouded in secrecy for more than 50 years. It used sources that ranged from Nazi officials to Stalinists and, at one point, a French serial killer.

It operated under the cover of multinational corporations, including American Express, Chase National Bank and Philips, the Dutch-based electronic giant. One of its top agents was a female American journalist.

The rest of the article contains information on some of the exploits of the organization, how it was founded, and how it ended.

While leaked emails about Journolist or leaked documents through WikiLeaks may be interesting, the information contained in the archives of the United States government and all its agencies would be fascinating.