American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Alfred A. Knopf, 2005; 752 pages; $35.
FROM THE DUST JACKET: American Prometheus is the first full-scale biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, "father of the atomic bomb," the brilliant, charismatic physicist who led the effort to capture the awesome fire of the sun for his country in time of war. Immediately after Hiroshima, he became the most famous scientist of his generation -- one of the iconic figures of the 20th Century, the embodiment of modern man confronting the consequences of scientific progress.
He was the author of a radical proposal to place international controls over atomic materials -- an idea that is still relevant today. He opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb and criticized the Air Force's plans to fight an infinitely dangerous nuclear war. In the now-almost-forgotten hysteria of the early 1950s, his ideas were anathema to powerful advocates of a massive nuclear buildup and, in response, Atomic Energy Commission chairman Lewis Strauss, Superbomb advocate Edward Teller, and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover worked behind the scenes to have a hearing board find that Oppenheimer could not be trusted with America's nuclear secrets.
American Prometheus sets forth Oppenheimer's life and times in revealing and unprecedented detail. Exhaustively researched, it is based on thousands of records and letters gathered from archives in America and abroad, on massive FBI files, and on close to a hundred interviews with Oppenheimer's friends, relatives, and colleagues.
We follow him from his earliest education at the turn of the 20th Century at New York City's Ethical Culture School, through personal crises at Harvard and Cambridge universities. Then to Germany, where he studied quantum physics with the world's most accomplished theorists; and to Berkeley, California, where he established, during the 1930s, the leading American school of theoretical physics, and where he became deeply involved with social justice causes and their advocates, many of whom were communists. Then to Los Alamos, New Mexico, where he transformed a bleak mesa into the world's most potent nuclear weapons laboratory -- and where he himself was transformed. And finally, to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, which he directed from 1947 to 1966.
American Prometheus is a rich evocation of America at mid-century, a new and compelling portrait of a brilliant, ambitious, complex, and flawed man profoundly connected to its major events -- the Depression, World War II, and the Cold War. It is at once biography and history and essential to our understanding of our recent past -- and of our choices for the future.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Martin J. Sherwin is the Walter S. Dickson Professor of English and American History at Tufts University and author of A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and Its Legacies. He and his wife live in Boston and Washington, D.C.
Kai Bird is the author of The Chairman: John J. McCloy & the Making of the American Establishment, and The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy: Brothers in Arms. He coedited with Lawrence Lifschultz Hiroshima's Shadow (Writings on the Denial of History & the Smithsonian Controversy). A contributing editor of The Nation, he lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and son.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
Publishers Weekly Reviews: Sherwin has spent 25 years researching every facet of Oppenheimer's life.... Teaming up with Bird, an acclaimed Cold War historian, Sherwin examines the evidence surrounding Oppenheimer's "hazy and vague" connections to the Communist Party in the 1930s.... The political drama is enhanced by the close attention to Oppenheimer's personal life, and Bird and Sherwin do not conceal their occasional frustration with his arrogant stonewalling and panicky blunders, even as they shed light on the psychological roots for those failures, restoring human complexity to a man who had been both elevated and demonized.
Kirkus Reviews: "The second-greatest scientific mind of the atomic era gets respectful but revealing treatment.... A swiftly moving narrative full of morality tales and juicy gossip. One of the best scientific biographies to appear in recent years."
A CONVERSATION WITH THE CO-AUTHOR:
Martin J. Sherwin, on the morning that we talked (he from Washington, D.C., and I from California), said that he was born in 1937 in Brooklyn, New York. He went to James Madison High School, "The same school," Professor Sherwin said, "as Judge Ginsberg. But I didn't go to school with her; she was ahead of me." The professor graduated with a B.A. in history from Dartmouth College and then entered the Navy, serving four years. He spent much of that time in a submarine patrol squadron and as an air intelligence officer and navigator. He was stationed for a time in Coronado.
"Is the Mexican Village still there?" he asked, then reminisced. "Takes me back a long, long way. I was doing that job in the fall of 1962 when the Cuban Missile Crisis was stirring. When people ask, how did I get interested in the subject I write about, which is the history of the nuclear arms race, one thing that I point to as a motivating factor was my experience in the military, of living with the possibility that we were going to have a nuclear war."
"Those were terrifying months during the Cuban Missile Crisis."
"They were. I think they were more terrifying to people who were civilians than to those of us who were young enough to be stupid enough to believe that all we were supposed to do is do our jobs. Those years had a profound effect on me, in retrospect, when I went off to graduate school at UCLA."
After graduation from UCLA in 1967, Professor Sherwin taught at Cal/Berkeley. "You can imagine," he said, "what that was like -- academic nuclear war. A very interesting place to be at that time."
In 1971, the professor left California for Cornell, then Princeton, where he spent a decade. "And then," he said, "in 1980 I was offered this wonderful job at Tufts as a chaired professor of history, which is where I still am."