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The Oak Ridge Conundrum of War and Peace

Oak Ridge, Tennessee, “the city that made the atom bomb,” clearly illustrates the difficult conundrum people must face when their government decides to build a stockpile of highly lethal nuclear weapons.

The origins of this conundrum are steeped with justifications like (a) “the bomb” ended the World War II and saved American lives; (b) the weapons protect us from our enemies and have prevented World War III; and (c) the research and manufacture of nuclear products preserve jobs, homes, and the local economy.

From its beginning in 1942 Oak Ridge was an unsettling place.  Located in the lush and beautiful Clinch River Valley of eastern Tennessee, it “mushroomed” into a government “reservation” of 75,000 people living and working in the middle of nowhere so research and production of the atomic bomb could be hidden from the enemy fascists of Germany.  Unfortunately, the farmers and their families who lived there were dispossessed of their property and told to clear out in 10 days. 

Oak Ridge finally produced the plutonium for the “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” bombs dropped on Hiroshima (August 6) and Nagasaki (August 9) killing 140,000 and 80,000 respectively.  Since then, tens of thousands more Japanese have died from leukemia and various cancers attributed to exposure to radiation released by the bombs.  Nevertheless, when Japan surrendered on August 15, Oak Ridgers were jubilant because they were told that their work made a direct contribution toward ending the war. 

Life in the “Secret City” wasn’t easy for the Oak Ridgers, who were mostly civilians literally living behind a security fence under the authority of the Army.  Residents were expected to report any suspicious behavior of their neighbors and fellow workers.  Employees had to sign a pledge not to divulge any secrets about their work, which was so broken down into smaller parts that only the top directors of the Manhattan project knew that the atom bomb was actually being built!

Oak Ridge was conceived of as a temporary city with a single purpose and no one expected it would continue after the war.  Housing was made of cheap, pre-fabricated materials.  Facilities and amenities were meager and mud was everywhere. 

Soon after the war when the Oak Ridge mission was accomplished, some people left the “Secret City” relieved to get out.  Many people, however, wanted to stay because they believed that the knowledge discovered there was too valuable not to be further developed.  Others stayed because they just wanted to keep their jobs.  Then, Eugene Wigner, one of the legendary refugee scientists from Europe who provided the theoretical and practical knowledge that fueled the Manhattan project, created a new, peacetime purpose for nuclear research.  As a result, the city was saved and this new purpose came in the form of radioactive isotopes that are used extensively in medicine (especially for thyroid disease and cancer therapy), agriculture, powering spacecrafts, smoke detectors, DNA analysis, diagnostic imaging and other advanced scientific applications.  Now, the facilities behind the fence are known as the world-famous and highly-respected Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

Oak Ridge, today, is a thriving multicultural community of 27,000.  It has a rich and proud history, good schools and wonderful cultural and environmental amenities that make the city an attractive place to live.  ORNL and the University of Tennessee in Knoxville (25 miles away) help populate the city with well-traveled, well-read, well-educated, well-informed people who are very smart and like living in Oak Ridge.  But even this is a conundrum when it comes to peacemaking activities.

Residents have been involved in various peace causes over the years.  For example, the city entered into a sister-city relationship with Naka-shi, Ibaraki-ken, Japan, on October 29, 1990.  It also hosts the Ulster Project ( where Catholic and Protestant teenagers from Northern Ireland “build a peaceful parity of esteem between each other by building tolerance, trust, and ongoing positive relationships.” 

So far, 11 greenways comprise 1,566 acres of sanctuary for wildlife and native plants as well as trails and other opportunities for residents to enjoy nature in unspoiled settings.   Walking tours and excursion trains take people through the area’s history.

The American Museum of Science and Energy ( provides exhibits on the peaceful uses of atomic energy and serves as a “center for exploration dedicated to personalizing science and technology.”  However, while museums generally help visitors to remember and reflect on the past in order to shape the future, this one has a sense of ironic tragedy with its shiny war exhibits like a replica of “Little Boy” and a Mark 28, the oldest thermonuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal.  I found these exhibits difficult to admire.  In fact, they were downright frightening—second only to the elderly gentleman at the museum’s info desk.  He had worked on “the bomb” and now he was breathing from an oxygen machine and living with cancer, presumably due to his exposure to radiation.

Being a peace activist in Oak Ridge creates a confrontation with the legacy of the “Secret City,” where residents resist engaging in talk or activities that might affect the ORNL’s nuclear weapons research or production.  They risk losing their jobs, government contracts, lifestyles or valued relationships in this tight-knit community and company town.  Now that is a terrible conundrum to live with.

Nevertheless, the Oak Ridge Peacemaking Alliance (ORPAX), begun in 1982, joined other Americans in their concern about the nuclear arms race.  ORPAX joined a group of “outsiders” (another legacy of Oak Ridge living where you were either “inside” or “outside” the security fence) to commemorate Hiroshima Day in 1983.  Even so, it was careful to stipulate that the day would be a memorial to those who died and not a condemnation of Oak Ridge or of the Y-12 plant that made “the bomb.”  These demands were not realized.

Since 1988, the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance (OREPA) has also demonstrated against nuclear weapons at the gates of the Y-12 plant in its Stop the Bombs campaign (  It, too, holds a Hiroshima Day and since 1998 members have made over 500 presentations on WMD and militarism and invited thousands of people to Oak Ridge to demonstrate against nuclear weapons.  Hundreds of OREPA members have also been arrested for acts of civil disobedience on this issue. 

Peace activists report that their Hiroshima observances have been mocked.  Newspaper editorials have issued scathing commentaries against their anti-war activities.  During the 1990s, obstructionists tried to scuttle proposals for an International Friendship Bell whose aim was to unite the people of Oak Ridge and Japan in friendship and remembrance over the terrible death and destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki so that it would never happen again.  But this issue was eventually resolved and the bell stands tall in A.K. Bissell Park and is promoted as a must-see site on the Visitors and Convention Bureau city map. 

When the United States threatened war against Iraq in 2002, Oak Ridge peace activists demonstrated against it—and were met with counter-protests across the street by people who dismissed the activists as “way overboard.”  Nevertheless, some activists are undeterred.  One elderly woman regularly writes letters to the editor in the local newspaper about her opposition to the war despite bloggers’ labeling her a “radical activist.”

Another woman wrote a booklet for high school students on the practical realities of enlisting in the military in order to balance the influence of military recruiters.  She informed parents that the military has access to students’ records and then lobbied the school board to give parents the option of having their child receive information on enlistment.

And one more conundrum:  a lot of the local residents appreciated the activists’ peacemaking efforts even though they don’t stand with them. 

Today, members of ORPAX conduct their demonstrations “in very harmless ways.” said one middle-aged member. 

“We’re not trying to get coverage in the newspaper.  And when we go out to ring the International Friendship Bell on Sundays [in honor of the fallen Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan], we do it more for ourselves in a private way.  If we were public about it, we’d put ourselves at risk.”

Oak Ridgers understand what it means to be a part of a place that has a great effect on the world—in both war and peace.  And in some ways, Oak Ridge still remains a “secret city”—for those who thirst for peace.

However, it is important to recognize that the Oak Ridge conundrum of war and peace reflects the conundrum of our entire nation.  Oak Ridge may be the place where WMD were and are constructed, but all Americans share a responsibility for what we do with these weapons.  For my money, especially on this day of remembrance in Hiroshima, they should all be banned and disassembled.

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Olga Bonfiglio

Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several national magazines on the subjects of social justice and religion. Her website is Contact her at

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