The Year History Stood Still


by Stan Brown
history columnist
As we swing into the new millennium, many have speculated on the greatest speech, the greatest personality and the defining events of the century or the 1,000 years that just ended.

The defining hour of the millennium, in my estimation, came almost at the end of the era. Perhaps it seems this way because I came to close to it myself.

Here is the story.

World War II was under way in June of 1942 when I graduated from the eighth grade. In the months that followed, war posters covered the walls of my teen-age bedroom, ethnic slurs about Germans and Japanese were on lips and radio waves, and even we young people bought war bonds by accumulating war-bond-stamps until we could afford a bond.

That fall, I entered the freshman class of University High School, on the campus of the University of Chicago. My daily walk to classes led along the boarded-up entrances of Stagg Field, the stadium that had been named for Alonzo Stagg, that archetype of football coaches. The sport had been discontinued at the University in favor of scholarship, so the abandoned stadium building appeared to contain only empty lockers and gathering dust. That was not the case.

Behind the apparently benign facade of Stagg Field, something was going on that would prove to be the great watershed of the 20th century, if not the second millennium.

It was called The Manhattan Project.

Arthur Compton had brought this project to the University of Chicago from Columbia University in 1942. Enrico Fermi, who fled Fascist Italy with his family in 1938, had joined him. Fermi reported to our government that German scientists were making such progress in atomic physics as to put the allies in great danger. Together with Albert Einstein, he urged the United States' administration to get into the race and beat Germany to the atomic bomb.

Piles of graphite bricks containing balls of uranium housed the first experiments with an atomic reactor. Graphite rods thrust into the pile absorbed the neutrons that were emitted by the splitting uranium atoms. Those rods slowed the reaction and kept the pile from building to an uncontrolled explosion. They were all that stood between success and disaster.

Wednesday, Dec. 2, 1942 was the day when those scientists produced the first controlled, self-sustaining atomic chain reaction. It was the keystone in the development of the "bomb." It was also the key to later developments, such as the nuclear bomb and the nuclear treatment of cancer and other diseases.

The Manhattan Project was not in the vocabulary of us high school students who walked ominously close to the reactor on our way to classes. Nor could we have understood its significance for many years to come. Just then our lives were too full of concerns, such as whether the school's administration would allow us to print an underground newsletter to report something other than the official line in the school paper.

I edited the underground paper, and of course, there were girl and boy things, and dances, and getting our driver's licenses, and coping with gasoline rationing, and working on farms in the summer to replace the men who had gone to war.

Arthur Compton had a lot on his mind also. As the Project proceeded he became convinced this bomb should never be dropped on a populated area. Later The Project moved to Los Alamos, N.M., where the bomb was constructed and tested. Then it went to Oak Ridge, Tenn., where others were manufactured. Many scientists joined Compton and Fermi in being terrified of the Frankenstein they had created, but they were unsuccessful in persuading the government to simply drop the bomb in a wilderness area to show the enemy what America could do.

Instead, two bombs were dropped on cities, and just under five hundred thousand persons were indiscriminately killed. Tens of thousands would later die from the radiation. America had made only three of the bombs, but dropping two would give the impression there were many. It worked. The war ended.

Attending the laboratory grade school at the University of Chicago was John Compton, the scientist's son, who caught his father's terror over the bomb and its potential to destroy. John Compton turned away from physics to philosophy, and went on to be a professor at Vanderbilt University, making his life work the teaching of human values.

Even though we students had no knowledge of the top-secret project, the war slowly intruded into our carefree days. Some of us had brothers whose blue service stars turned to gold in the windows of grieving families.

That summer, I left girlfriends and parents behind to spend my vacation months on a Wisconsin dairy farm. The Ration Board reluctantly issued me a certificate for rubber boots, in which to slosh through the manure while caring for 22 milk cows. It was my summer for coming of age, working from before dawn until after sunset, becoming a man both in muscle and character. I hated the agony of it, but refused to quit because I had made a commitment; it was my war effort.

On Aug. 6 and 15, 1945, the bombs were dropped on Japan, and nine days later Japan surrendered. It was V-J Day, and sirens joined church bells in jubilation. For us high school students the future now seemed unlimited. We would not be drafted, we could go to college, and we could conquer any field we chose. In those days, parents and children often assumed we would choose what our fathers and mothers had chosen. We had known stable families and our sense of security was even deepened by the Great Depression in which families clung tightly together.

The persons who were born after this defining hour in the millennium would be different, and have a world outlook much different from ours.

The development of "The Bomb" was the flash point for a new millennium, which had come 58 years early while men like Fermi and Compton were at work under the empty grandstands of Stagg Field. It was the great divide. Those of us who were born and partially raised before 1942 have difficulty communicating with those raised after The Bomb. To be born on the far side of that divide meant to believe in the future. Tomorrow was worth waiting and working for. One did not need to artificially enhance today's thrill because there would be something better later on.

However, to be born on this side of the divide meant that the future was in question and the present was all one had for sure. One cannot wait to be gratified, because there may be no tomorrow.

So it came to be that there arose the Me Generation and the Now Generation. From their point of view, those of us born before the Bomb will forever be naive and simplistic. There are reasons why communication has so often broken down, but if we understand the reasons maybe we can be more patient in listening to each other.

The world is divided in many ways, but one of the most significant is that some of us stand on one side and some on the other side of the Year History Stood Still.

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