Asked if he had been a great reader as a child, the professor allowed that he was only average. He said that he played "a lot of stickball. A lot of punch ball. I was a big Boy Scout, which is probably why I went to Dartmouth. I loved camping and outdoor things. Interestingly enough, Oppenheimer was a great outdoor person."
"Why," I asked, "did it take 25 years to finish this book?"
"I spent the first four or five years after I signed the contract with Knopf working like crazy. Then I had this opportunity to start the satellite-teaching program between Soviet students and my students at Tufts on the history of the nuclear arms race. That not only consumed my time but seemed more interesting than writing a book. That ended about '92, but then I went off to Dartmouth to run an international relations center. I did that for several years, and then I came back and decided I had to finish this book. In the course of a conversation with Kai Bird, I said, 'Hey, would you be interested in jumping on board and helping me get this thing finished?' "
Mr. Bird declared himself interested, and Knopf, said Professor Sherwin, "was generous in rewriting the contract." He added, "We started from scratch in some ways and in other ways moved forward."
We talked then about Oppenheimer, who, growing up in New York, attended the Ethical Culture School. Extremely liberal for its time, the private, progressive school supported ideals of racial equality and social justice.
I suggested to Professor Sherwin that the school's teachings deeply influenced Oppenheimer.
The professor did not disagree. "Certainly, it had a lot to do with his attitudes. There's no question that Ethical Culture was a powerful influence on his thoughts. It doesn't explain everything, but it explains a lot. It's hard to get away from those formative years.
"He was encouraged by his parents, who were instinctively intellectual even though his father wasn't well educated. His mother was, and she was an artist. And, of course, once Oppenheimer got involved with Ethical Culture, that was a very intellectually powerful environment that encouraged his artistic interests. But he was always the odd man out. He was an oddball among even his Ethical Culture friends, most of whom were acquaintances rather than friends."
Einstein, I suggested, was the first "celebrity" physicist.
"You're absolutely right about that. But he stood alone in the 1930s, and there were no others that fit into that category. He had changed how we understood the universe. Of course, there were other people doing great work at the time, but in general unless you followed this sort of thing, you didn't know about them."
American Prometheus's dust jacket features an Alfred Eisenstadt photograph of Oppenheimer. A lit cigarette dangles from his lips, the brim of his trademark porkpie hat shadows his forehead. I said that I was reminded once again of how after World War II, a physicist could be like a movie star.
Professor Sherwin explained that Oppenheimer, after Hiroshima, was known as "The father of the atom bomb. This bomb, of course, was the most dramatic invention, I suppose, in the history of the world. The printing press is more important, but there's nothing that's more dramatic than the atomic bomb. And the physicists had, in secret, built that weapon during World War II and allegedly had saved the United States from a lot of heartache and a lot of dead people by inventing this thing that was used against Japan.
"After the war, it was an extraordinary limelight that nuclear physicists fell under. They were called 'The new priesthood' by some people, and they were great heroes. And of course, the dramatic story that is the Oppenheimer story is a metaphor for the larger story, because in the next ten years the physicists were, let's say, 'whipped into line' in the context of the Cold War. They were made to realize, in a phrase used at the time, that 'Scientists will be on tap and not on top' in terms of decision making.
"The reason that Lewis Strauss and the others went after Oppenheimer was because his voice was too convincing and too loud and too threatening to the policies that they were promoting. And what they were promoting were policies that promoted more and bigger nuclear weapons."
(The professor and Mr. Bird told an earlier interviewer, "Lewis Strauss, a conservative Republican, was appointed chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission in July 1953. He and Oppenheimer had been on opposite sides of nuclear policy questions since 1948. Strauss had come to understand that Oppenheimer would always be opposed to the hydrogen bomb and other nuclear weapons, and therefore he distrusted him. We have discovered that between July and December 1953, Strauss orchestrated a conspiracy with the assistance of J. Edgar Hoover and several others to have Oppenheimer charged with being a security risk.
"Furthermore, and this is important too, Strauss orchestrated Oppenheimer's security hearing and its review by the AEC commissioners to be sure that Oppenheimer was found unfit to hold a security clearance.")
Professor Sherwin said to me, "They wanted the H-bomb, they wanted massive retaliation as the Air Force's strategy, they wanted to be able to wipe out everybody in the Soviet Union and China, and for good measure, Eastern Europe in a 24-hour blitz. And Oppenheimer considered this approach to even military affairs, let alone world affairs, to be insane and genocidal. And he argued against it, and it was seen as a great danger, and so he was vulnerable because of his radical activities in Berkeley in the 1930s and a girlfriend [who had Communist connections] from the 1930s, and they used all that to get him and get rid of him."
Edward Teller, often known as "father of the H-bomb," detested Oppenheimer.
"Somewhere in the book," said Professor Sherwin, "we quote Teller talking to the FBI interviewer and saying that 'Oppenheimer has to be . .. .defrocked,' I think is the term. Teller was a strange guy. He was a very, very strange man. There have been biographies written about him. They don't get it. But somebody will someday do it. I couldn't imagine doing it. I wouldn't want to live with Teller for five or ten years."