World War II
Tennessee, like the rest of the country, was changed by World War II. The war effort changed the state’s economy and led to a migration to the cities unprecedented in Tennessee’s history. The tiny mountain town of Oak Ridge became the state’s fifth-largest city almost overnight, and is synonymous with the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima at the final stage of the war.
More than 300,000 Tennesseans served in World War II and just under 6,000 died. During the war, Camps Forrest, Campbell, and Tyson served as prisoner-of-war camps. Several hundred war refugees settled in Tennessee, many in the Nashville area.
The war also sped up Tennessee’s industrialization. Industrial centers in Memphis, Chattanooga, and Knoxville converted to war production, while new industries were established in smaller cities such as Kingsport. Agriculture was no longer Tennessee’s most important economic activity. The industrial growth was a catalyst for urbanization. Nashville’s population grew by 25 percent during the war, and Shelby County’s by 35 percent. The war also finally saw the end to the Great Depression.
The war also brought women into the workplace in numbers that were then unprecedented; approximately one-third of the state’s workers were female by the end of the war.
Tennesseans supported the war not only by volunteering, but on the home front as well. Families planted victory gardens, invested in war bonds, and supported soldiers.
Tennesseans served with distinction during the war. Cordell Hull, a native of Pickett County, was U.S. secretary of state for 12 years and is known as the “Father of the United Nations” for his role in drawing up the foundation of that institution.
No community was more transformed the by the war than Oak Ridge. A remote area of countryside west of Knoxville in East Tennessee, Oak Ridge was home to some 4,000 people, most of them farmers. The army was searching for a place to build the facilities to construct an atom bomb, and this 52,000-acre area fit the bill. In 1942 residents of Oak Ridge began to receive notices that they would have to leave because the government was taking their land. Clinton Laboratories, named after the nearest town, was built seemingly overnight. Housing was provided in dormitories, trailers, and “victory cottages.” Scientists, engineers, and researchers moved in, together with blue-collar workers who were needed to labor at the facility, later named Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Work proceeded on schedule inside the laboratory and on August 6, 1945, shortly after 9 a.m., the first atomic bomb was dropped over Hiroshima. Three days later the second bomb exploded over Nagasaki, and on August 14, Japan surrendered.
Oak Ridge remains today a key part of the United States’ nuclear system. While some degree of integration has taken place, Oak Ridge still has a different feel than most Tennessee towns, due in large part to the thousands of scientists and professionals who live there. The Oak Ridge facility also remains a source of controversy, uncertainty, and shame for many Tennesseans who object to the weaponry that was and still is manufactured on their soil.
Tennessee’s industrialization continued after the war. By 1960 there were more city dwellers then rural dwellers in the state and Tennessee was ranked the 16th most industrialized state in the United States. Industry that had developed during the war transformed to peacetime operation.
Ex-servicemen were not content with the political machines that had controlled Tennessee politics for decades. In 1948 congressman Estes Kefauver won a U.S. Senate seat, defeating the candidate chosen by Memphis mayor Ed Crump. The defeat signaled an end to Crump’s substantial influence in statewide elections. In 1953 Tennessee repealed the state poll tax, again limiting politicians’ ability to manipulate the vote. The tide of change also swept in Sen. Albert Gore Sr. and governor Frank Clement in 1952. Kefauver, Gore, and Clement were moderate Democrats of the New South.
© Susanna Henighan Potter from Moon Tennessee, 5th Edition