How do decent people get caught up in indecency?
by Rob Neufeld
In her new book, “The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II,” Denise Kiernan follows the life-changing paths, exhilarations, and regrets of nine young women who unknowingly helped build the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“If there was a need for her to know something critical,” Kiernan says about Szapka’s state of mind, “she would be told when the time was right.”
After the Aug. 6, 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, the world as well as Oak Ridge families learned the secret of Oak Ridge, and the news fell like a bomb on the nation’s conscience—not just regarding the issue of whether or not more lives were saved than extinguished by the bomb, but also concerning questions about how the world would be changed by the peaceful as well as the destructive atom.
The stigma of the atomic bomb was taken to heart by Oak Ridge’s museum itself, established in 1949 as the Museum of Atomic Energy, but later renamed the American Museum of Science and Energy, to erase the word, “atomic.”
“Aren’t you ashamed you helped build a bomb that killed all those people?” a museum visitor asked Dorothy James, another one of Kiernan’s subjects, who had been hired as a docent.
“The truth was, Dot did have conflicting feelings,” Kiernan writes. “There was sadness at the loss of life, yes, but that wasn’t the only thing she felt. They had all been so happy, so thrilled, when the war ended…Dot knew the woman wanted a simple answer, so she gave her one. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘they killed my brother.’”
In R.J. Cutler’s documentary, “The World According to Dick Cheney,” to be aired on Showtime Mar. 15, Cheney asserts that waterboarding is not torture and, at any rate, when faced between the choice between honor and duty, duty has to win.
War and politics are big reasons that decent people get involved in indecent causes. I’ll leave out greed because few people would consider that motive morally ambiguous, except when it’s pursued to assure the economic security of one’s own group at the expense of another, in which case it’s more like clan warfare.
Politics involves swaying opinions to gain support, and that brings us to a story related in this column on Oct. 10, 2011, about North Carolina Governor Charles Aycock.
Despite the fact that Aycock believed in Booker T. Washington’s uplift movement—making African Americans equals in society gradually through education—and despite the fact that he risked his governorship to uphold the “equal” part of “separate but equal” schools, Aycock had acted as the lead p.r. man in the Democrats’ race-baiting campaigns at the end of the 19th century, with violent results.
The Democrats had lost the farmer vote block to Republicans, and let ends (their election) justify the means.
Aycock’s devil’s bargain has stained his reputation to the point where his name was recently taken off the state Democratic Party’s western fundraiser.
Likewise, it’s fashionable in many circles to denounce anything associated with the Confederate flag, including the graves of Confederate soldiers who had fought for reasons other than slavery—who had fought, in fact, for homeland security, an issue corroborated by Northern exploitation and inflamed by slaveocrat propaganda.
Thus arises another cause of bad done by good people—self-righteousness. It’s often deemed okay to hate people one has tagged as haters, without seeing the complexity or the humanity of the situation.
And that leads us to one of the most troubling and complex episodes in our region’s history, the Shelton Laurel Massacre. We’re not talking about propaganda here, but about distortions of history to fit the world views of later generations.
Shelton Laurel horror
On Jan. 8, 1863 a group of Madison County mountain farmers ransacked Marshall for salt being withheld by the Confederate Army. A detachment of the 64th N.C. Infantry, headed, in lieu of Col. Lawrence Allen (on suspension for “crime and drunkenness”) by Lt. Col. James Keith, rounded up 13 Shelton Laurel men and boys and, on Jan. 18, executed them without trial.
Keith, Phillip Paludan wrote in his book, “Victims,” was a guerilla fighter, and guerillas, unlike regular troops, “attacked and fled, disguised themselves as civilians, shot noncombatants, (and) rampaged without orders from responsible superiors.”
As Ron Rash, who wrote about the atrocity in his novel, “The World Made Straight,” said, “I think the single most disturbing aspect of the Shelton Laurel Massacre was the youngest victim was also the last one to die,” and thus had to witness the murder of his kin.
The incident is used to support the notion that Madison County was Unionist. It was not. Yes, it voted against a convention to consider secession. That was on Feb. 28, 1861, before the firing on Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for troops. After that, and for 28 months, not one Madison County resident is known to have enlisted in the Union Army.
Unionist feeling in Western North Carolina was aligned with strong feelings about the Revolutionary War, and the role that mountaineers had played in winning it. When President Theodore Roosevelt spoke in Asheville in 1902, he emphasized the Revolutionary War connection to help heal the sectional divide.
But during the Civil War, things were different. Through the course of it, Madison County enlistment in the Union Army did not top 5%. It is more accurate to describe resisters as disaffected Confederates.
Three of the executed Madison County men were 20-plus-year-olds who had deserted from the 64th N.C. regiment after having been drafted following the conscription law enacted by the Confederacy that year.
Two of the victims—Henry Wade Moore and William R. Shelton—according to “North Carolina Troops,” had enlisted before their elders and had been 17 and 16. In other words, they were volunteers who probably would have needed their parents’ permission.
The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan (Simon & Schuster: Touchstone hardcover, Mar. 5, 2013, $26)
Denise Kiernan presents her book, “The Girls of Atomic City,” at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, 55 Haywood St., Asheville, 7 p.m., Sat. Call 254-6734.