American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

by Derwood Hunsdale-Talbot on August 6, 2009

By Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin
Review by D.B. Lee
american-prometheus-oppenheimer

In all the published photographs of Robert Oppenheimer, there appear to be very few of him smiling. In most we see an enigmatic face, often not looking directly at the camera, and even when it is, the eyes appear to be gazing somewhere beyond the photographer. Notable, because this is the man acclaimed by history as perhaps the only scientist of his time who could have charmed, cajoled, encouraged and emboldened his fellow physicists (and the countless engineers, chemists, etc.) through the (literally) monstrous task that was the Manhattan Project.

American Prometheus is an exhaustively researched biography of a brilliant, cultured elitist who, despite his prodigious talents, could have easily become a relatively minor player in the development of theoretical nuclear physics. (Although his exceptional work in the late Thirties predicted the cosmic phenomenon that would later be called a black hole.) Fate stepped in the form of General Leslie Groves who, against formidable objections, saw the potential in Oppenheimer. As he later said, “He’s a genius. A real genius… Why, Oppenheimer knows about everything. He can talk to you about anything you bring up. Well, not exactly. I guess there are a few things he doesn’t know about. He doesn’t know anything about sports.”

Thanks to now unclassified documents, we’re able to gain unprecedented insight into the how Oppenheimer led the effort to create the atomic bomb, and to an even more revealing degree, the great cloud of suspicion, envy and mistrust that swirled around him, often without his knowledge. (Cue ominous music as Edward Teller and J. Edgar Hoover enter the story, men vital to eventually destroying Oppenheimer’s career and reputation.)

The story after the war, which occupies nearly half the book, is a heartrending portrait, not just of an extraordinary man, but of the nation he served. The great cloud that surrounded Oppenheimer was just a piece of a much larger plague of paranoia that was beginning to grip the United States. Inadvertently, “Oppie” may have fed that fear with early statements such as “Atomic weapons, even with what we know today, can be cheap.” Within three weeks of the bombing of Nagasaki, he helped form the Association of Los Alamos Scientists and drafted a document urging international control of nuclear weapons.

At this point, only Einstein was a more famous scientist. From this height, he was pushed to fall. The book goes into meticulous detail on how his rivals unsheathed their long knives and made certain he was exiled from the work he loved, and made impotent in affecting nuclear policy.

American Prometheus is the best portrait yet of Oppenheimer, but ultimately the reader lacks true intimacy with the subject. Perhaps that is the very nature of the man. There are images in the book showing him at the White House, in 1963, receiving the Fermi Prize from President Johnson. At the reception, we see Oppenheimer greeting Edward Teller. Oppie is smiling.

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