Cold War Dixie: Militarization and Modernization in the American South

Jul 22, 2013

“Cold War Dixie: Militarization and Modernization in the American South”

Author: Kari Frederickson                                                                


Publisher: University of Georgia Press

Pages: 256

Price: $24.95 (Paper); $ 69.95 (Cloth); $24.95 (Ebook)

That the South today is enormously changed from the South of the 1930s, no one would dispute. It is a commonplace to attribute a lot of that change to air-conditioning, which led in some direct ways to the growth of the Sun Belt, and to the Civil Rights Movement, which changed and is still changing the culture of the American South.

Some older Southerners remember the impact of WWII and the military in general on the South, as training camps and bases in all services were built and expanded for the war.

In this extensively researched but tidy and readable book, the latest volume in The University of Georgia Press series “Politics and Culture in the Twentieth-Century South,” Kari Frederickson, chair of the history department at the University of Alabama, discusses the powerful effect on the South of WWII and the ensuing Cold War, most particularly the effects of building and operating the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina.

The back story is frightening but fairly simple. The U.S. had a monopoly on the atomic bomb for only a few years. The Soviets developed theirs quickly. We were faced with the decision to build or not build the hydrogen bomb, a fusion bomb of unimaginable power. Although ever using the H-bomb would be morally repugnant, it would be psychologically intolerable if the Soviets had one and we didn’t, so President Truman gave the go-ahead and work began with great fervor in South Carolina.

The installation would be administered by the Atomic Energy Commission and operated by the DuPont Corporation, which had manufactured gunpowder for Thomas Jefferson. To produce plutonium and other nuclear materials for the H-bomb, the government took control of 300 square miles. There were five nuclear reactors built and 200 other buildings. Thirty-five thousand workers were needed to build SRP and the permanent staff was about 6,000.

Beginning in 1950, this region was changed from traditional, rural, agricultural, Democratic to middle-class, suburban, consumer-oriented, educated and Republican, albeit national, Eisenhower Republicans.

The site was chosen partly because the city of Aiken was nearby but mainly because it was deemed “empty” and the majority of houses in the county considered “dilapidated.” Six small towns and villages were leveled. Many homeowners were unhappy with the government offers, however, and went to court represented by, among others, by ex-governor Strom Thurmond.

The lawsuits were marginally successful but the lawyers took “more than a third of the settlement in fees.” This windfall financed Thurmond’s successful run for the Senate in 1954. Frederickson is also the author of “The Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South, 1932-1968” and so very knowledgeable on the career of Senator Thurmond.

As noted, there were huge material and economic changes in the area.

It was hoped by some, especially the NAACP and National Urban League, that there would also be profound racial change; this turned out not to be the case. Integrationists stressed that our image abroad during the anti-communist Cold War was injured if we treated minorities poorly here at home and that it was foolish to overlook any element of manpower. DuPont countered by using “the project’s urgency as an argument against changing social patterns.” Few blacks were hired in positions other than menial.

“Cold War necessities ran up against the peculiarities and particularities of southern culture,” Frederickson writes.

In housing, DuPont opted against a building a company town, thinking it would suggest a “garrison state.” The private sector, unprepared for the huge influx, was overwhelmed; rent gouging and confusion reigned for years. The area became MORE segregated. The schools were overcrowded; the water supply was inadequate; suburbs were built without adequate planning.

DuPont professionals did have a powerful impact, however. As in Huntsville, Alabama, the transplants became deeply involved in civic affairs, from public schools to swimming pools.

Some Old South Aikenites, especially women, were not socially welcoming. In an essay entitled “Horses Don’t Eat Moon Pies,” quoted by Frederickson, Pat Conroy writes that the plant’s employees were the “new Negroes . . . technological Negroes to be sure, but Negroes nevertheless.” Frederickson writes that “DuPont wives started the Town and Country Club after being shunned by local women’s clubs.”

Whatever the initial problems, the plant accomplished its scientific goals successfully. And, Frederickson concludes, the SRP and installations like it “left an indelible imprint on the landscape of the modern South.”