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From 1953 until 1988, the Savannah River Plant (SRP) manufactured thirty-six metric tons of plutonium for America’s nuclear arsenal. It also produced tritium for hydrogen bombs. The SRP consisted of five reactors and related facilities for refinement and waste disposal. Thousands of people worked there. The site remains under the control of the federal government but has since been diverted to other uses. It spreads over 310 square miles bordering on Georgia and covering parts of three South Carolina counties.
As Kari Frederickson makes clear through her admirably researched and gracefully written book, the SRP encompasses a similarly broad swath of historiographical themes. Other sites like Hanford and Los Alamos have received attention in studies about national defense. Although scholars of the South acknowledge the importance of defense spending and have examined military installations, they have overlooked places such as the SRP and Oak Ridge. Frederickson positions her study within the framework of this literature. In addition, she demonstrates how the SRP shaped the labor movement, the growth of the middle class, the evolution of corporate culture, the increased authority of scientific experts, the rise of the consumer economy, the decline of the Democratic Party in the South, and the end of Jim Crow segregation.
Frederickson organizes her book chronologically with each chapter addressing a larger theme. She starts with the 1949 detonation of a fission bomb by the Soviets, which spurred the Truman administration to pursue thermonuclear technology and led to a November 1950 announcement that the DuPont Corporation would build the SRP. She also discusses how the Korean War lent urgency to the effort and how politicians such as James Byrnes, Strom Thurmond, and Mendel Rivers worked to locate the plant in South Carolina.
She provides an overview of the area the SRP would affect while [End Page 541] making the case that Aiken County could serve as a lens for examining the entire South. Cotton cultivation dominated the economy. The town of Hamburg was an important railroad terminus during the nineteenth century. Nearby, the textile factory at Graniteville had been a pioneer in mill village paternalism. These also made Aiken County a target during the Civil War and the site of an 1865 battle. Some of the worst racial violence of Reconstruction took place in Hamburg and Ellenton. Despite such incidents, the county served as a tourist destination for affluent “winter colonists.” Other newcomers included Strom Thurmond, who practiced law in Aiken after stepping down as governor.
The book’s most poetic chapter is about the removal of eight-thousand people who lived on the site and the destruction of entire towns, including Ellenton. Frederickson writes a compelling analysis of the differing ways in which inhabitants and appraisers conceptualized the value of land. She emphasizes how both viewed their actions in terms of patriotism. She tells how some residents uprooted tombstones to prevent exhumation of their loved ones. She reminds readers that many of the dispossessed were sharecroppers who received no compensation for losing their homes.
Construction of the primary SRP facilities occurred between 1951 and 1956, which coincided with campaigns to eliminate racial segregation and give workers the right to organize unions. Although the federal government was ostensibly committed to these twin goals, Frederickson demonstrates that they were overshadowed by Cold War imperatives, DuPont’s corporate culture, local resistance, and the technical requirements of jobs.
Unlike Hanford or Oak Ridge, the SRP did not provide employee housing. That experience raised concerns about the governmental control that came with such amenities, so nuclear workers in South Carolina relied upon existing communities. Frederickson explains how this free-market solution overwhelmed the infrastructure and the ability of local officials to manage growth. Subsequently, she describes how the SRP fostered greater social mobility and increased participation by residents of Aiken County in the consumer economy. Part [End Page 542] of this change came through DuPont’s efforts to downplay its role as an arms manufacturer. In addition to advertising its contributions to...