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."
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."
The 25 years with Oppenheimer, however, "was worth it. He was an unusual person; in fact, maybe you'd even say he was unique. There's this wonderful documentary film of Oppenheimer called The Day After Trinity: Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb. And there's an interview with Hans Bethe, who was a great genius of physicists, who says, 'Oppenheimer was just the smartest man I ever met.' He was one of the smartest men anybody has ever met. Bethe was awed by Oppenheimer, who not only understood what everybody was doing in physics, but read French, 18th-century French poetry, the Bhagavad-Gita, and kept up on new good literature. He was on top of everything. For a physicist, he was untypical. He lived comfortably in all of these worlds. The world of art, the world of literature, the world of poetry."
"Yes. Women loved him. But he also was not a..."
"Yes. He had an affair here, affair there, but he wasn't chasing people. Things happened, things happened. I guess."
(In an earlier interview, Mr. Bird and Professor Sherwin noted: "Oppenheimer was not a philanderer, but he did have a caring and sweet affair with Ruth Tolman, the wife of one of his friends, the physicist Richard Tolman. To his enemies this was scandalous. But 'Oppie's' friends -- all his students and closest friends called him Oppie -- and Ruth's friends supported and protected them.")
We talked more about the 1954 security hearing. We agreed that the atmosphere of the '50s, the suspicion of intellectuals and liberals, was not unlike that of today. Oppenheimer, who had never been a Communist Party member, trusted, I said, "in the facts to keep him from having his security clearance lifted."
"Yes. He was trusting in the facts, he believed in rationality, he assumed that there was a fair outcome that was going to take place with respect to the hearing, and all of that was wrong, and the whole strategy that Oppenheimer's defense team promoted was wrong because they incorrectly analyzed the environment they were going into. They thought it was a reasonably fair hearing. And of course it wasn't. It was a hearing that was designed to give the government what it wanted.
"The hearing itself was a star chamber in which a long list of illegal practices were used to be sure that Oppenheimer's security clearance was pulled. The tapping of lawyers, of Oppenheimer's lawyers' telephones, allowing the prosecutor to meet daily and privately with the Hearing board to influence their views, the daily reports from the FBI on illegal wiretap information, the refusal to clear Oppenheimer's lawyer, give him a security clearance so he could adequately prepare the case, and so on and so forth. All of that has led Kai and me to believe that there's a case to have the hearing board's verdict overturned. And on behalf of the family, we're going to try to do something about that."
"The Army-McCarthy hearings were going on at the same time," I said, "as Oppenheimer's security hearings."
"And again, that's part of the relevance of the political scene today. It's not analogous in the sense of being the same thing, but the carelessness, the willingness to push personal liberties and judicial process aside in the hysteria of the moment is something that we're living with today -- trying to guard against it a lot better than we did back in the early 1950s. But this is a story that's a reminder."
"Why would you suggest that young people read American Prometheus?"
"First of all, I'd tell them this is a wonderful read. It's filled with drama and all of the elements of a good novel, and it's true. It has all the elements of a classic Greek tragedy. Oppenheimer had everything going for him and then, there are these little flaws. And he had great enemies, and he had a great battle, which he himself had created.
"It's also about, in part, the effort to control nuclear weapons and prevent the nuclear arms race. And we're still living with that.
"I think it's more likely that we can have a nuclear war now but that it's less likely that within 24 hours of the first weapon going off that all human habitation will be destroyed. So, there's that difference. But, as to the book, I think that it describes what it is to struggle with a problem that is bigger than all of us. And in a sense, a problem that we're still struggling with and with which our children will have to struggle."
"Oppenheimer's story," I said, "is a sad story. It's interesting to me that no matter how many times I have read his story -- and I have read it as written by various authors -- I always hope that life is going to turn out well for Oppenheimer. I always root for him to win, even though I know he will lose."
"Well, it's curious, but again, it's the human spirit at work, and in some ways, in some larger context, you know we have to hope that in the end, he does win out. He was fighting the good fight, and it's hard to win a good fight."