- The Secret History of RDX: The Super-Explosive That Helped Win World War II by Colin F. Baxter
During World War II, the federal government established hundreds of bases, shipyards, arsenals, and other wartime facilities across the rural South. The region's prevailing norms were tested by these installations and the demands of military mobilization. Colin F. Baxter documents a chapter of those wartime tensions in The Secret History of RDX: The Super-Explosive That Helped Win World War II.
Research Department Explosive (RDX) was developed in interwar Britain as a more powerful alternative to TNT. Employed in "blockbuster" aerial bombs, antisubmarine weapons, and plastic explosives used by special operations units, RDX was regarded by the Allies as the most versatile and powerful conventional explosive (p. 4). Baxter documents RDX's development as an experimental chemical, the debates within the Allied militaries regarding its safety and effectiveness, and its mass production in the United States and Canada. Using archival sources on both sides of the Atlantic, Baxter traces the complex story that made this explosive a crucial weapon in the arsenal of democracy.
RDX was mass-produced at the Holston Ordnance Works (HOW) near Kingsport, Tennessee. General Leslie R. Groves, who also directed the Manhattan Project and Tennessee's other major wartime complex, Oak Ridge, oversaw construction of the $100 million HOW facility in 1942. The Tennessee subsidiary of the Eastman Kodak Company operated HOW, since the synthesis of RDX required the same compounds used in film stock. At its height, HOW employed 6,800 workers, mostly residents of East Tennessee and neighboring areas.
In documenting the impact of this industrial facility, Baxter describes dynamics familiar to scholars of the period. HOW's presence contributed to Kingsport's swelling population, which grew from about 14,000 to 51,000 during a few months in 1942. HOW helped end the Great Depression in Kingsport but also strained the community's infrastructure. While HOW offered superior wages, the facility faced labor shortages amid the tight wartime labor market. These shortages opened new economic prospects for women and African Americans. Baxter employs oral histories to document the experiences of HOW's female workers, who made up a third of the workforce during the war's peak. Despite the opportunities HOW offered, women also recalled receiving unequal pay for performing work equal to men. The same was true for African Americans. Jim Crow's prevalence ensured a segregated workplace and a limited range of opportunities. However, African American workers challenged these conditions under the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration's Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC). Baxter analyzes several FEPC investigations of HOW to explore the possibilities and the limits of wartime efforts to achieve racial equality. [End Page 739]
The legacy of this factory extended beyond World War II. As a high-security facility, HOW attracted the presence of army counterintelligence officers seeking spies and saboteurs. Most of the investigations had little merit, inspired by paranoid denunciations by neighbors and coworkers. Yet espionage occurred at HOW. In chapter 12, Baxter notes the 1950 arrest of Alfred Dean Slack, a HOW employee who in 1943 smuggled an RDX sample to Harry Gold, best known for assisting the Soviet infiltration of the American atomic weapons program. HOW briefly shuttered operations after World War II but resumed production during the Cold War. The facility remains active, now known as the Holston Army Ammunition Plant.
Colin F. Baxter has provided a well-researched account that clearly documents the scientific and administrative history that made RDX an important wartime technology. His analysis of HOW's impact on Tennessee would have benefited from a deeper engagement with the historiography of the South during World War II and the Cold War. Nonetheless, Baxter's work contributes to the scholarship documenting the impact of World War II on the region.