American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer-Kali Bird and Martin J. Sherwin
In August, 1945, the course of modern warfare was changed forever when the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, striking the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Following the successful deployment of the bomb, the Soviet Union and other nations enhanced their own programs to develop a nuclear weapon. The nuclear arms race produced a fear in mankind that still exists today as war continues and dictators drunk on power set their eyes on world domination and a test of egos. It has often been said that the next major world war will be the last war mankind will ever fight. Humanity now has the absolute power to destroy itself literally at the push of a button. Thankfully, since the second world war, there has been no further use of atomic weapons in an armed conflict. But the danger still exists and there have been many who have warned against the escalation of nuclear armament. One of these voices was that of J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967), referred to as the father of atomic bomb and in this excellent biography, an American Prometheus. Kali Bird and Martin J. Sherwin have captured Oppenheimer’s life splendidly making sure that his life is recorded for history.
Today, Oppenheimer’s name is connected with a distant past during war that the world has long tried to forget. Less than eighty years ago, Nazism, Japanese expansion and fascism threatened the security of the world and plunged several nations into the most savage war the world has seen. Allied commanders and German commanders both began to see the potential of a weapon that could end the war in one stroke. Nuclear energy, still then in its early stages became increasingly attractive. The U.S. military enlisted the help of the greatest physicist the country had to offer. A young brilliant mind joined the mission and his life was never the same again. Readers should know beforehand that the book is not heavily focused on the bomb itself. For extensive technical details, it would be best to look elsewhere. This is Oppenheimer’s story and the events that took place in his personal life which became interwoven with his duties at Los Alamos. There is a saying that there is a fine line between genius and insanity and as Bird and Sherwin show us, Oppenheimer walked the line very closely throughout the majority of his life.
The beauty in the book is that the authors truly did an outstanding job of revealing the real Oppenheimer. He was a father, brother, husband and scientist. In addition he was also a perfect example of Jung’s theory of the duality of man. At some points in the book, it is hard to reconcile how such a gentle figure would create a weapon that would later take thousands of lives and put humanity at permanent risk. The book is exhaustively researched and was completely over many years. All of the figures in the book are now deceased but their words are critical in understanding Oppenheimer’s life. It is well-known that following his accomplishments at Los Alamos, he became a proponent of disarmament. His stance earned him the wrath of many in the government and ultimately lead to his secret clearance status being completely revoked during an investigation in his communist ties. The investigation is analyzed perfectly in the book and I could not help at times but to become enraged at the trials and tribulations inflicted upon him. But I remind myself that this was the 1950s, the time when communism was the ultimate evil and Sen. Joseph McCarthy was making a name for himself with his war on communism. The FBI makes an appearance in the book as J. Edgar Hoover enforces his status as the chief watcher of the country. I shudder to think what Hoover would think today about America if her were alive to see it.
To say that Oppenheimer was an unorthodox figure would be an understatement. As I have learned through this book, he was a complex man with a complex life full of many highs and lows. He is a heroic and tragic figure that remains cemented in America’s past. I dare to say that possibly there was no one who truly did know him completely. In the book there is an aura of mysticism about him that many are unable to accurately put into words. The praises from those who knew him are some of the greater moments in the book and highlight why he was such a unique and fascinating individual. And while he is best remembered for the creation of the bomb, we should not forget that he was also a human rights advocate and crusader against the dangers of unrestricted nuclear warfare. As the father of two children, there are many aspects of his relationship with them and of his wife Kitty who plays an important role in the direction that his life took. But throughout all of it, he remained himself, the genius physicist with a love for literature and poetry and from all accounts, the make of a killer martini.
By far, this is one of the best biographies that I have read. For the majority of us who read this book, we will never know what it is like to have created a weapon that could eliminate an entire nation in less than fifteen minutes. It is an incredible burden to bear for even the most radical of us. Lyndon Johnson awarded Oppenheimer the Enrico Fermi award on December 2, 1963 for his contributions to science and the advancement of theoretical physics. It was a fitting honor to a man whose life had nearly been destroyed several years earlier before an investigative committee. His final years read like a Shakespearean tragedy. Although vindicated in the court of public opinion and among his peers, he would remain controversial until his last day as his battle with throat cancer reached its tragic conclusion. He is long gone but his work and words are still with us reminding mankind of the preciousness of life and the cataclysmic threat that exist in nuclear weapons. For those seeking to learn more about Oppenheimer’s life, this is a good place to start.
“The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable. It has led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass; and beyond there is a different country.” J. Robert Oppenheimer