American Prometheus

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American Prometheus

Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. New York: Vintage Books, 2005. pp 718. $ 17.95. Paper: ISBN 0375726268


J. Robert Oppenheimer was born into a wealthy Jewish-German immigrant family on April 22, 1904. To any outside observer, Oppenheimer had a very privileged childhood. His parents were secular in their religion, and stressed civic obligation over doctrine. He began his studies at the Ethnic Cultural Society School, a school dedicated to a traditional Liberal Arts education. The school taught that his wealth and education was to be used for the betterment of society. Even in grammar school his keen intellect was recognized and it was not long before he was being referred to as a prodigy. He had a thirst for knowledge of all types. Language, art, and poetry were favorites. His true love, however, was science. Though he had not settled for certain on Physics as his field, his teachers recalled that he excelled in science.

There is little doubt that Oppenheimer was a disturbed individual long before he was involved in making the world’s most destructive weapon. He enrolled in Harvard in 1922 after spending time in high altitude desert of New Mexico to recover from a lung infection (he was a chain smoker throughout his life). The mountains surrounding Santa Fe would play a major role in his life. It was during his tenure at Harvard that friends began to notice erratic and sometimes frightening behavior. He was aloof and seemed unable to connect with anyone on a social plane. Oppenheimer excelled academically and was admitted to Graduate standing because of his independent studies. The portrait painted by Brid and Sherwin of Oppenheimer during these years is one of a deeply troubled and possibly mentally unstable man. There was even an instance where Oppenheimer appears to have poisoned an apple in order to a kill a professor (nothing every came of the event).

After graduating from Harvard, Oppenheimer traveled to Europe to study. There he worked under some of the greatest physicists in the world. It is ironic that a man who would later design a bomb to destroy parts of Germany found comfort and happiness at the University of Gottingen. He was still a nuisance to fellow students and came across as conceded, but his psyche seems to have leveled out. In 1927, he returned to the United States and took a position at the California Institute of Technology. His academic work spoke for itself. Oppenheimer was a genius. There was, however, the question of his politics. Oppenheimer stressed later that he was never very political. Bird and Sherwin discount this statement. His early training at the Ethnic Cultural Society School stayed with him, and seemed to always take an interest in society. He was, according to Bird and Sherwin, a Leftist New Dealer. He mingled in social circles that included members of the Communist Party, and donated money through the party to support the liberal Spanish government in its fight against fascism. His younger brother Frank and wife Kitty, were also members of the Communist Party for a short period. Hitler’s anti-Semitism also appalled him and helped motivate him to join the war effort.

Despite Oppenheimer’s relationship with the Left, he was tapped to head the experimental laboratory at Los Alamos. The army knew of his relationships with former and possibly current party members but still granted him a security clearance. By all accounts, he transformed himself into an able and outgoing manager. Colleagues would later claim that it was Oppenheimer’s ability to inspire and manage that made the Atomic Bomb a possibility. His actual work on the project was limited, but he will forever be remembered as that “father of that atomic bomb.” After the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer began to have second thoughts about his work. Thrust into the limelight as the most prominent scientist of his generation, Oppenheimer took the stance that the awesome power he helped unleash needed to be restrained. He, along with the majority of other scientists on the project, originally joined out of fear that Nazi Germany would develop a bomb before the United States. Bombing a virtually defeated Japanese enemy was a different story. Oppenheimer turned quickly to pacifism. He eschewed the development of a “super” H-bomb, arguing that there was no military justification for the development of such a destructive weapon. He played an active role in the development of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and was a frequent visitor to Washington.

By almost every account, Oppenheimer had a magnetic personality and an ability to charm just about anyone. He did have enemies though. His positions on atomic regulation were not popular with everyone. Lewis Strauss, a proponent of the H-bomb, never liked Oppenheimer and appears to have made it his mission to destroy Oppenheimer. After years of lobbying and constant surveillance of Oppenheimer, Strauss successfully convinced enough politicians that Oppenheimer’s pacifism and past relations with the Communist Party made him unfit to have access to top-secret intelligence. In 1953, the father of the atomic bomb was asked to resign his position as adviser to the AEC. Refusing to step down, Oppenheimer chose instead to subject himself to a hearing. Although not on trial it was clear that Oppenheimer was being judged. Even though the “charges” brought against him stemmed primarily from issues that the army had already looked into, Oppenheimer was fighting an uphill battle. He had no access to the FBI’s thousands of pages on his activities, and because it was not a court of law, all sorts of flimsy evidence was allowed. In the end, the hearing voted to strip Oppenheimer of his security clearance.

The hearings took their toll on Oppenheimer. Though pressured by friends and even Einstein to simply turn his back on the country, Oppenheimer refused. He simply “loved the country to damn much.” In 1963, President Lyndon Johnson awarded Oppenheimer the Fermi Prize—a symbolic gesture acknowledging that he had been treated unjustly. J. Robert Oppenheimer died in 1967 from throat cancer.


David Houpt, Fall 2008

Though not a direct victim of the work of Senator McCarthy, J. Robert Oppenheimer was nonetheless one of the most prominent casualty of McCarthyism. Bird and Sherwin are clearly under the belief that he was the victim of an unjust witch-hunt. As the title of the book suggests, Bird and Sherwin see Oppenheimer’s life as an almost Shakespearean tragedy. He went from being on the cover of Time Magazine and the most celebrated scientist to a security risk in a matter of years. It is truly amazing that a man who contributed so much to the war effort could be so publicly and unfairly treated.

Oppenheimer’s life is a great example of the extent of the 1950s Red Scare. Bird and Sherwin make it clear that it was not uncommon for intellectuals in the 1930s to flirt with Communism. In many instances it seems almost impossible to tell the difference between a Left New Dealer and a Communist. There are events in Oppenheimer’s life that raise questions, but Bird and Sherwin appear to have done a thorough job at researching the available evidence and come to the conclusion that he was never involved in any subversive activities. He was guilty of not being forthcoming with names in the early 1940s (an effort to protect friends and possibly his brother), but this is hardly justification for labeling him a security risk. He was dedicated and loyal to the United States to the day he died.

It is interesting that throughout Oppenheimer’s life, it was often his female companions that were more closely aligned with the Communist Party. Kitty, his wife, was a widow of a Communist who died fighting in Spain. She never denied her politics, but insisted that she had left the party by the time Oppenheimer was involved in Los Alamos. Oppenheimer also seems to have had a long-term relationship with another Communist Party member who would later kill herself. T

Although I know very little about physics and nothing about nuclear physics, Bird and Sherwin were able to convey the extent to which Oppenheimer influenced the field without getting bogged down in complex explanations. The book is designed for a popular audience, and is written with an eye towards that dramatic. Often times this can cause a book to come across superficial but American Prometheus is engaging and thought provoking. There is a nice mixture of narrative and quotation, leading the reader to the conclusion that Bird and Sherwin have mastered the evidence. The end notes are a tour-de-force and demonstrate how much time went into researching the book. Although the authors clearly fall on the side that Oppenheimer was mistreated, they successfully present this position as an accurate portrayal of events.

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