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Journal of Cold War Studies 3.1 (2001) 130-132

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Book Review

The Politics of British Defence, 1979-98

Peter Bacon Hales, Atomic Spaces: Living on the Manhattan Project. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997. 447 pp. $34.95.

This is a very important and beautifully written book. It reviews the creation of the principal sites managed by the Manhattan Engineering District (MED) in the nation's quest to design and build the first nuclear explosives. It is important because the author is a scholar on architectural history and therefore emphasizes the human and environmental impact of the creation and operation of the first nuclear weapons sites. The book thus complements and overlaps only to a very limited extent with the available accounts of the history of the nuclear bomb.

Hales's account has a strongly critical flavor in that it emphasizes the overriding arrogance of the MED in acquiring hitherto undeveloped landscapes for use by the nuclear weapons project and in managing the early nuclear energy complex. Hales's general attitude is reflected in his remark that the goal of the MED was "greater efficiency and control of nature" to produce weapons, which often resulted in the neglect of communities. His account is based on mountains of hitherto unexplored evidence on the history of the project.

What is troubling about the book is its failure to examine the context in which the activities took place. Hales emphasizes the use and abuse of spaces and human resources during wartime without considering whether, and to what extent, peacetime mores can be bent in wartime. How did the identified abuse of land, the abandonment of historical agricultural patterns, and the infringements of public civil process perpetrated by the MED compare with practices in other military fields at that time? During the war, this reviewer took part in military activities at Los Alamos and the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, commuting between the two. Few cultural or attitudinal differences were evident between the nonnuclear military activities at Cal Tech and the nuclear programs at Los Alamos.

Hales dwells extensively on the censorship practices enforced by the MED. He indicates that, especially in the production activities at Hanford (in Washington state) and Oak Ridge (in Tennessee), communications were restricted to those either up or down the line. Employees could request instructions from their supervisors, and orders could be transmitted to subordinates, but communication across different types [End Page 130] of activities was strongly discouraged. At Los Alamos such vertical stratification was countermanded by J. Robert Oppenheimer, who strongly encouraged the cross-fertilization of ideas among cleared participants. In fact, while participating in purely diagnostic activities at Los Alamos, this reviewer attended many general lectures where the receipt of nuclear information was limited only by lack of understanding, not by censorship. Hales identifies many of the abuses of censorship and the general inanity of actual censorship practices. He cites the well-known games that the theoretical physicist Richard Feynman played with the censors and other equally interesting episodes.

Hales's description of the diverse architectural practices at the MED sites is most illuminating. At Hanford, land use and architecture were unimaginative and to a fair extent controlled by the estimated safe distances between the plutonium operations on the one hand and the living spaces on the other. At Oak Ridge, the architectural contractor made an attempt to "humanize" living spaces by incorporating some of the more traditional amenities into housing and by replacing simple rectangular housing layouts with more flexible arrangements. Despite this effort, the lack of quality control and good maintenance actually led to substantially lower standards of living than intended. At Los Alamos the terrain did not permit much flexibility for site development, and the provision of housing was largely controlled by expediency.

Hales makes the interesting observation that the photographic record of the housing and industrial development associated with the MED was centrally controlled, which means that the available photographs largely reflect what MED management wanted to communicate: well-ordered living arrangements and industrial control rooms inhabited by...