By John Horchner
Those who can’t wait until summer to see Christopher Nolan’s movie “Oppenheimer” with Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer along with a star-studded cast, might do well to consider a new book by Emily Strasser, “Half-Life of a Secret: Reckoning with a Hidden History,” due out in April.
Strasser writes how in her 10th grade history class in Atlanta, she learned about the Manhattan project. She also had an epiphany during class: “George, my grandfather, helped build an atomic bomb.”
She writes how she always knew he worked in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. She knew her father grew up there.
But she just thought of Oak Ridge as a place to buy pizza when visiting her grandmother’s lake house 20 twenty miles to the east. She didn’t realize it was one of three secret cities created by the government to develop the atomic bomb.
However, Strasser’s interest in what her grandfather had done grew with each passing year. In July 2015, while still a student pursuing a degree from the University of Minnesota’s Master of Fine Arts program, Strasser visited Hiroshima.
Emily Strasser brought along a photograph of her grandfather, George Strasser, who rose to assistant plant manager at Oak Ridge, to the 70th anniversary commemoration of its bombing. The photo was a stand-in for the photo she alludes to throughout the book. That photo shows Mr. Strasser standing in front of a mushroom cloud during a test of a nuclear explosion.
Strasser’s book is billed as history and memoir by Amazon, but it reads like a novel to me. It reads like a novel because it has characters like her grandfather who acted, at least at first, without awareness of all the ways he was hurting himself or others.
The book reads like a novel because it follows twists and turns and eventually uncovers the messy side of Oak Ridge where, she writes, there was “…a whole tangled mess left behind by half a century of a rushed and secretive arms race with little regard to the long-term consequences on human health and the environment.”
It reads like a novel because it does not shy away from confronting big ideas: “… we might say the bomb was the result of the unresolved phantoms of a nation founded on stolen land, genocide and slavery, a history of denying the humanity of others.”
Besides its plot, Strasser builds the context the Americans used to view the world in the 1940s. (Some of this research was also used to help produce season one of a 2020 BBC podcast entitled, “The Bomb,” which she hosted.)
I couldn’t help but remember my dad’s story about reaching Japan as a sailor aboard one of the United States big navy ships after the atomic bombs were dropped. He has told me he felt that since the Japanese unleashed kamikaze pilots, they just wouldn’t have stopped fighting any other way.
Strasser mentions an often repeated and still disputed story that the American military made 500,000 purple hearts in anticipation of a land invasion of Japan but adds: “This story is repeated by those who want to justify the atomic bombings by invoking the presumed human toll avoided by using the bombs.”
She asks if producing the bomb was necessary, it does not explain why we needed it to continue afterward.
“Oak Ridge did not disappear…” she writes, “…production continued.”
On a visit to the library, I ran a search for Oak Ridge at the card catalog. I found many government reports. One report titled “Oak Ridge Reservation Annual Site Environmental Report (ASER)” stated: “The U.S. Department of Energy operates three sites on the reservation: the East Tennessee Technology Park (formerly the K-25 Site)…”
I stopped reading. That’s where Strasser’s grandfather worked.
The report continues: “Government-sponsored activities on the reservation date back to the Manhattan Project and continue to the current day. Both past and current activities involve hazardous chemicals and radioactive materials.”
Soon after WWII ended, several groups of scientists fought to share nuclear knowledge worldwide, she writes in her book, and “…advocate for international governance of nuclear knowledge and facilities.”
However, Strasser writes that this idea soon was stymied by military and civil authorities, and scientists, including her grandfather, were told to keep everything a secret and were subject to routine lie detector tests to prove that they were keeping their knowledge within the plant.
I paused, looked off to the side and stared across the library floor.
I recall how Strasser’s book mentions that Native American activists around Oak Ridge have reported seeing many relatives die of cancers.
I was jolted suddenly by the sound of an alarm. It was the librarian announcing that the place would be closing in 15 minutes.
Right now, I think it’s an open question whether we can evolve as a species to reach a higher level of consciousness that we need to survive.
This may require admitting where most of us are right now. Still sleeping and daydreaming. We can thank a writer like Emily Strasser for doing her part to wake us up!
John Horchner lives in St. Anthony Park and is a professional writer