Book Review: ‘American Prometheus’

Mary Brennan

Attention is being paid to J. Robert Oppenheimer today because of an explosion of publicity surrounding the Christopher Nolan film: Oppenheimer. 

The film is based on a book by two Journalists, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, called “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.” The title is particularly appropriate when remembering the fate of that character in the original work.

Someone who defies the gods and must be punished for having an excess of pride.

The authors describe in meticulous detail Oppenheimer’s triumphant rise to fame as the “Father of the Atomic Bomb” They then discuss his ultimate tragedy. His life is catastrophically altered when he is accused of being a Communist, a spy for the Russians. His downfall is carefully orchestrated by a trusted friend who is embittered because he thinks Oppenheimer told Einstein lies about him

The authors combine both the personal details of a very complicated, conflicted person and his navigating in the social and scientific worlds overshadowed by Germany’s World War II attempts at world domination.

Bird and Sherwin begin with details of Oppenheimer’s childhood and demonstrate his outstanding intellectual abilities. His parents considered him a genius. He was raised in a wealthy, Jewish family in Manhattan, the son of an artist and a successful garment manufacturer. He attended the very best elementary and high schools in New York City and excelled in science.

Oppenheimer attended Harvard and Cambridge Universities.

While at Cambridge, he suffered greatly from depression and, in desperation, tried to poison his tutor.

He was saved from criminal charges when a member of the university interceded and recommended the services of an eminent Psychiatrist.

The treatment succeeded. Oppenheimer continued his scientific career as a university professor, known world-wide for his work in quantum physics. Famous and venerated, he was chosen as the lead scientist responsible for the successful completion and devastating destructive capabilities of the bomb. His appointment was surprising in light of his lack of leadership experience.

Bird and Sherwin explain. Leslie Groves, the general in charge of recruitment, was charmed by the scientist. They say, “Oppenheimer understood that Groves guarded the entrance to the Manhattan Project and so he turned on all his charm and brilliance. It was an irresistible performance.” Groves was convinced that Oppenheimer could handle all the cross-disciplinary sections. Others were skeptical. “He couldn’t handle a hamburger stand,” one observer declared wryly.

The charm that won over Groves was due, in part, to the non-scientific parts of Oppenheimer’s personality.  Fluent in several languages, he loved what we call the humanities, especially poetry and music. He was particularly impressed with the Sanskrit piece, “Bhagavad Gita.”

The work emphasizes the ethical consequences of wars.

It was the ethical consequences of his success that provoked his catastrophic downfall.  “I am death. The destroyer of worlds,” he said at the conclusion of the detonation. A quotation from the Gita.

It was true of his own world’s destruction, too. He became an advocate for prohibition of the bombs, treaties between nations to ban bombs and their uses. He was politically denounced as an enemy of the country. His security clearances were rescinded by false claims of political opponents. He and his family were reviled by all his scientist colleagues and by his former public admirers. After a short time of university teaching, he retired. He died young of throat cancer.

Remarkably, in 2022, Oppenheimer was found not guilty of all charges.

Delighted, Bird and Sherwin stated, “What was done to Oppenheimer in 1954 was a travesty, a black mark on the honor of the nation.”

The film is a “should see” for history buffs, political plots’ addicts and movie-makers.

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