American Prometheus is far from a new release, but it has gotten a second look thanks to it inspiring the blockbuster movie that hit big screens over the summer. Years in the making and extensively researched, the book is part biography, part political history. Robert Oppenheimer – “the father of the atomic bomb” – was a theoretical physics wonderkid. He grew up in a wealthy family and knew more about physics than most of his professors.
The authors Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, explain in detail how/why he turned out the way he did: a charismatic genius who was however considered an arrogant moron in some social circles. The authors aren’t afraid to hang out his dirty laundry! (We’ll leave the details to those reading the book).
He was late to any political party, primarily because he was so absorbed in learning and teaching physics to the best and brightest. But Oppie became very political. The late 1930s and early part of WW II saw many elite university types, including Oppenheimer, sympathize with the communists because the Soviet Union appeared to be the only power fighting Hitler, who had goosestepped over Europe and only had the Brits to deal with. America was on the sidelines until Pearl Harbour in late 1941.
“Oppie’s” transition from narcissistic nerd to director of the highly classified Manhattan Project at Los Alamos in the 1940s is remarkable and triumphant. He and his colleagues developed the bomb that would change the world. In the process, Oppenheimer taught himself to be a manager and a better communicator.
Authors Bird and Sherwin do an excellent job of untangling the American mindset during WW II and the Cold War. Oppie’s left leanings, youthful flirtation with communism and his overt criticism of nuclear proliferation brought him down. Add to that a justice system that was too political. The bomb may have ended the war, but Oppenheimer realized that others would figure out fusion. The Soviets did it by 1949 and Oppie argued against the morality of the bomb and for international control. Harry Truman called him a “crybaby” and thus the tragedy had begun.
A long (over 700 pages), but great read – 9.8 on a scale of 10.
American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer Copyright 2005 by Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin. Published by Vintage Books, a division of Random House of Canada Limited.
by Laurie Wallace-Lynch