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Five Words that Created a Superpower: “Senator, I Need Your Help”

Posted July 08, 2021

Byron King

By Byron King

Five Words that Created a Superpower: “Senator, I Need Your Help”

Sometimes I marvel at how small things can lead to major results. One last straw breaks a camel’s back, to use an old expression. Or the single snowflake that triggers an avalanche.

Today, we’ll go back 79 years to the early days of World War II in the U.S., when a short meeting in the White House put into motion events that turned the U.S. into a superpower.

It’s fair to say that, at the time, no one really understood how their actions would trigger other actions and then a cascade of history. We can only discern the outline of what happened in historical hindsight.

Then again, we’ll see certain themes here that explain how a nation can leverage its resources to develop great power. And again, in hindsight, we can get some ideas about what the U.S. is doing wrong these days. (Hint: plenty.)

At root, much of this is about people in power understanding how to harness energy, both electrical and human. But there are innumerable other angles as well.

Let’s dig in…

“The President would like to speak with you,” said the courier.  

And with that personal summons, Sen. Kenneth McKellar (1869-1957) of Tennessee, then-chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, walked from his office to the street and entered a waiting car.

It was a short ride to the White House. And within moments of arriving, he was ushered into the office of Franklin Roosevelt, President of the United States. For a private meeting, no less.

Years later, McKellar recalled that Roosevelt was serious and offered few pleasantries. It was not the time for that in early 1942.

The President began with a cursory rundown of grim events. In Hawaii, Pearl Harbor was ruined. The Navy was shattered. The Empire of Japan was rolling across Asia and the Pacific theater. In the Atlantic Ocean, German submarines sank Allied ships every day. While in Europe, the Soviets had just repulsed a German onslaught on Moscow, but that war too was problematic at best.

After a few minutes of discussion, Roosevelt abruptly stopped speaking. He paused and stared at McKellar in the midst of an eerie silence.

Then Roosevelt said, “Senator, I need your help.” 

And then and there begins the story of how America transformed itself from a land impoverished by the Great Depression to a global power that dominated world events for the next four generations.

“We're working on a weapon that will win the war,” continued Roosevelt. “It's top-secret,” he said as McKellar nodded.

“And right now,” the President explained, “this project needs $2 billion. I need Congress to appropriate funds. But the money must be buried inside the budget. Nobody can know the purpose or why we're spending these sums. Can I count on your assistance?”

Roosevelt spoke to McKellar not just as President to Senator, but as an old acquaintance.

McKellar served in the House from 1912-1916 and then was elected to the Senate. Back then a much younger Roosevelt was assistant Secretary of the Navy. They knew each other.

After Roosevelt became President in 1933, McKellar was an enthusiastic supporter of the New Deal, which dovetailed nicely with his patronage-oriented mindset. McKellar especially favored projects that benefitted his home state.

Sen. Kenneth McKellar.

One Roosevelt program in particular was near to McKellar’s heart, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), created by Act of Congress in May 1933, just two months after Roosevelt took the oath of office.

TVA built hydro-dams, thermal power stations and strung electrical lines across its namesake jurisdiction. And now in 1942, all that earlier New Deal era big spending (TVA and much more) was rapidly transforming into a tidal wave of national resources flowing to fight a global war.

In an odd quirk of fate, the President was asking McKellar for far more than support for mere roads and dams. He wanted $2 billion for a top-secret weapon program. And it was a lot of money — over $100 billion today.

Plus, Roosevelt wanted the Senator to use his position and political power to hide that money: to bury everything within mountains of other new wartime spending. Tanks and trucks, ships and submarines, aircraft and armor plate, bullets, beans, boots, blankets, black oil and… a top-secret weapon program about which perhaps 50 people in the entire country understood the scope.

In 1942 Sen. McKellar was 73 years old. He was an old country lawyer who had graduated from the University of Alabama Law School half a century before in 1892. He was no physicist, let alone an atomic scientist, and did not know what this massive program was about.

What kind of weapon did Roosevelt want Congress to fund with $2 billion? McKellar didn’t have a clue. But he leaned forward, looked at the President and smiled. 

“Mr. President,” he said. “I have just one question. Where in Tennessee do you want me to hide it?”

Roosevelt laughed. He understood McKellar’s humor, as well as his sense of purpose.

This was the ultimate political play for the highest of stakes. A top-secret program to win the war? Of course! As long as it’s in the home state of the Senator who signs the check.

Then again, McKellar’s request of Roosevelt was not too much of an ask. Tennessee and its TVA was already dear to the President.

Roosevelt served as governor of New York, from1929-1932, the early years of the Great Depression. Then, as now, New York was home to the nation’s main stock exchange.

From the governor’s desk in Albany, Roosevelt saw all manner of Wall Street financial hijinks and shenanigans, not the least of which came from the nation’s mostly unregulated utility firms, many run by shady holding companies.

The long and short was that Roosevelt believed that many American utilities were high cost, poorly run firms that charged (if not gouged) excessive rates for their unreliable services.

When Roosevelt became President in 1933, he promoted the idea of large-scale public utilities.

Out West, Roosevelt saw immense energy potential in the Columbia and Colorado Rivers, which were already in the planning stages for a series of great hydro-dams. In the Old South, Roosevelt saw energy potential in the coal mines and river valleys of the Appalachian Mountains, particularly centered in and around Tennessee.

Current TVA service area. Courtesy TVA.

To make a long story short, Roosevelt established the TVA to bring flood control, economic development, education, skilled work, jobs and electric power to countless Americans who formerly lived in rural isolation. Indeed, many lived in conditions little changed since the days of the Civil War.

Among all of Roosevelt’s massive government programs, TVA alone was one of the largest public works projects of the 1930s.

And now here it was 1942, and the U.S. was in not just one war but two, in Asia-Pacific and in the Atlantic Basin, reaching over to Europe. All that previous 1930s-era domestic investment in internal improvements (in roads, dams and power projects) was about to pay an unexpected dividend.

And there was Sen. McKellar, offering an impish and humorous, yet serious, reply to Roosevelt’s request for help.

The President wanted to build one of the most important, expensive capital projects in U.S. history. And per McKellar, the money would be there, buried deep in the budget. But in return, that project would be sited in (where else?) Tennessee.

Thus came about the legendary “secret city” of Oak Ridge, Tenn., where the U.S. government performed much of the nuclear development work on the atom bomb.

Oak Ridge was home to key elements of the Manhattan Project and to much else related to nuclear energy development over the past eight decades. Today, it’s home to Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Then again, and in all fairness, the decision to build a secret, wartime, nuclear facility at Oak Ridge wasn't due only to politicking and pork-barreling by Sen. McKellar.  There were other important dimensions. 

Oak Ridge, near Knoxville.

It helped that Oak Ridge was far inland from the Atlantic coastline, nestled in the southern Appalachians and safe from attack by sea or air. Plus, Oak Ridge had access to ample electric power and water, courtesy of numerous TVA energy projects in the region.

There was rail and road transport too, some of it along routes of the old Louisville & Nashville Railroad (L&N) and much of it constructed in the 1930s in connection with TVA work.

And there was a large cadre of skilled labor available in eastern Tennessee, again a legacy of TVA programs which put tens of thousands of people to work building major structures like dams and power plants.

Meanwhile, the basic geography of Oak Ridge itself was significant. 

That is, the landscape is a series of mountain ridges which create three wide valleys. In stark, practical terms, an explosion at one plant would not wipe out the assets in the other two valleys.

By mid-1942 Roosevelt’s secret money began to flow, courtesy of McKellar and his Senate committee.

First came government agents, literally to buy land out from under landowners. Typically, an agent would walk up to a house, hand the owner a notice of condemnation and inform everyone that they had two weeks to move out, with the Army providing labor and transportation.

Payment for condemned land was in almost all cases well above the going market rate for the area, and all funds were deposited on account in the federal district court in Knoxville. An owner could accept the funds or contest the amount in court. But there was no option to remain.

Then came demolition crews who tore down every structure in the newly purchased government domain, except for one small church and a graveyard which both remain today.

After that came literal armies of construction workers, numbering in the tens of thousands.

Remember that $2 billion? It went for engineering work, architecture, labor, lumber, concrete, steel, machinery, electrical equipment and much more. Oak Ridge had its own spur of the L&N Railroad, and every day long trains would roll onto the compound, with well-guarded steel gates shutting after the last car passed.

During a wartime era of scarcity, locals marveled at the vast amounts of fuel, food and materials that went into the area that no one was permitted to discuss.

Sorry, can’t say what I do there. BWK image.

And secrecy was paramount. No one could comment. Workers were vetted for security before being allowed on the site. Everyone signed confidentiality agreements. Husbands and wives didn’t know what their spouse was doing. And few people had much of the big picture in any event.

There were no articles about Oak Ridge in newspapers. Train crews and truck drivers didn’t list Oak Ridge on the traffic manifests. Indeed, the place was not on any public map until the 1950s.

All mail in and out (especially out) was screened through tightly controlled letter drops.

Paramount secrecy at Oak Ridge. National Archives.

Inside the security fences, massive structures went up. It was a construction spree unlike anything anyone had ever seen before (or since). In fact, builders sometimes outraced the architects, pouring foundations and erecting steel before final drawings were available. It was an issue that came to light decades later, when dismantling certain structures became an extremely dangerous matter.

One massive complex was code-named K-25, among the largest buildings ever constructed. It was used to enrich uranium via the gaseous diffusion process.

K-25 Complex, Oak Ridge. National Archives.

Another massive complex was code-named Y-12, where engineers used a process called electromagnetic isotope separation to create nuclear materials.

Y-12 Complex, Oak Ridge. Dept. Of Energy photo.

Out of it all came the nuclear materials, as well as highly skilled scientific and engineering talent that gave atomic power to America, circa 1945 and in the decades since.

Do the math. Pres. Roosevelt asked Sen. McKellar for funds in early 1942. By late in the year, the government was seizing land and beginning construction at Oak Ridge.

In July 1945 — just over 36 months later — the Army tested the world’s first nuclear device in New Mexico. A few weeks later, the U.S. dropped two nuclear weapons on Japan, expediting the end of World War II.

Since then, the U.S. has been a superpower in the world. Yes, bombs in the airplanes and on missiles place awesome power under the control of the U.S. government. But it’s even more than that, because that kind of nuclear power ultimately backs up the nation’s currency.

At root, it all began with a request for funds: “Senator, I need your help.”

And behind that request was an idea for how to harness energy, in this case from the dams of the TVA, to create new sources of even greater energy, using the power within atoms.

Could the U.S. do all of that again? Anything even remotely like it? Well, that’s the subject of another discussion.

And on that note, I rest my case.

That’s all for now… Thank you for subscribing and reading.

Best wishes…

Byron W. King

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