Atoms on the Savannah: Kari Frederickson’s Look at Cold War Dixie

University of Alabama historian Kari Frederickson’s new book offers a compelling and insightful account of the Savannah River Project, a truly epic undertaking in which the Atomic Energy Commission and the Du Pont corporation partnered to build a massive facility for producing nuclear material in the 1950s.  It offers a fascinating complement to such works as Margaret Pugh O’Mara’s Cities of Knowledge and Marko Maunula’s Guten Tag Y’all, which have explored the differing paths that Southern communities took to transform their economies after World War II.  Compared to Frederickson’s earlier book on the Dixiecrat revolt, Cold War Dixie spends relatively little time on politics.  The author’s real interest lies in exploring how the federal government and Du Pont literally engineered a new society in the middle of the rural South, and the ways that South Carolinians old and new experienced radical economic change during the Cold War.

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The book’s central trope is modernization, as Frederickson considers how an influx of federal dollars remade the landscape of a poor, rural corner of South Carolina.  The region’s culture was once sleepy and informal, governed by the customs and cycles of agriculture as well as the rule of the local Democratic elite. As the construction of SRP attracted manual laborers, skilled workers, and highly educated scientists, though, the old order was (often quite literally) swept away.  Local schools, roads, and housing strained to accommodate an unprecedented influx of population; established employers in the region feared that job opportunities at SRP might put pressure on the wages they were accustomed to paying, as well as the labor supply they had once taken for granted. Employment at SRP allowed even workers with little education a shot at climbing into the middle class, although opportunities for African Americans at Du Pont were limited, especially in the early days of the project in the 1950s.  Frederickson suggests that the scientists and engineers of SRP stood as exemplars of modernity, harbingers of a future that was clean, efficient, and free—an image that Du Pont was keen to burnish at the height of the Cold War.  These middle and upper-middle class professionals soon brought their own ideas about order and efficiency into government, breaking the political monopoly of the Democratic Party and paving the way for a new era of two-party competition.  Cold War Dixie thus joins a growing body of historical works that emphasize the role of middle-class newcomers in the South’s postwar shift toward the GOP, pointing out that the new Republican base in South Carolina during the 1960s lay in the affluent suburbs that SRP chemists and engineers called home.

One curious aspect of the book is its favorable treatment of Du Pont.  Apart from criticizing the chemical giant for its lead-footed approach to hiring African Americans, Frederickson casts the company in a fairly admiring light.  However, this is a minor shortcoming in an otherwise valuable new entry into the economic and political history of the postwar South.