American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

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by Kai Bird, Martin J. Sherwin, Jeff Cummings
     
 

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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 figuresSee more details below

Overview

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 twentieth 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 twentieth 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 midcentury, 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.

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Editorial Reviews

Janet Maslin
Their book has such range that it connects a trauma that 14-year-old Robert experienced at summer camp with the self-destructive stoicism he would eventually demonstrate on the witness stand. American Prometheus is a work of voluminous scholarship and lucid insight, unifying its multifaceted portrait with a keen grasp of Oppenheimer's essential nature. What did he do upon finding himself in a Capitol Hill elevator with Senator Joseph McCarthy, the embodiment of Oppenheimer's comeuppance? "We looked at each other," the physicist told a friend, "and I winked."
— The New York Times
The New Yorker
J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who oversaw the creation of the atomic bomb, was lauded as a patriot after the United States dropped the bomb on Japan, but nine years later he was disgraced, accused of Communist sympathies and “substantial defects of character.” This commanding biography, the result of twenty-five years of research, reëvaluates that character, and delivers the most complex portrait of Oppenheimer to date: a brilliant but insecure child prodigy who became a charismatic leader; a polymath who learned Sanskrit just so he could read the Bhagavad Gita; an aesthete who mixed infamously strong Martinis; a one-time fellow-traveller who was almost willfully naïve about politics. Drawing on thousands of pages of F.B.I. surveillance records, the authors contend that the scientist was never a member of the Communist Party.
Publishers Weekly
Though many recognize Oppenheimer (1904-1967) as the father of the atomic bomb, few are as familiar with his career before and after Los Alamos. Sherwin (A World Destroyed) has spent 25 years researching every facet of Oppenheimer's life, from his childhood on Manhattan's Upper West Side and his prewar years as a Berkeley physicist to his public humiliation when he was branded a security risk at the height of anticommunist hysteria in 1954. Teaming up with Bird, an acclaimed Cold War historian (The Color of Truth), Sherwin examines the evidence surrounding Oppenheimer's "hazy and vague" connections to the Communist Party in the 1930s--loose interactions consistent with the activities of contemporary progressives. But those politics, in combination with Oppenheimer's abrasive personality, were enough for conservatives, from fellow scientist Edward Teller to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, to work at destroying Oppenheimer's postwar reputation and prevent him from swaying public opinion against the development of a hydrogen bomb. Bird and Sherwin identify Atomic Energy Commission head Lewis Strauss as the ringleader of a "conspiracy" that culminated in a security clearance hearing designed as a "show trial." Strauss's tactics included illegal wiretaps of Oppenheimer's attorney; those transcripts and other government documents are invaluable in debunking the charges against Oppenheimer. 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. 32 pages of photos not seen by PW. (Apr. 10) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
KLIATT
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography, this definitive study of the life and times of Oppenheimer will be useful for student and teacher research on The Manhattan Project. Why brilliant physicists went ahead with work on the atom bomb during WW II even though they knew the horrible consequences, and what happened when Cold War politics entered Oppenheimer's life—these are the themes of this biography. Even though this is lengthy and detailed, as good biography must be, the authors have made it quite readable. The nearly 100 pages of notes, bibliography, and index will help student researchers. KLIATT Codes: A—Recommended for advanced students and adults. 2005, Random House, Vintage, 719p. illus. notes. bibliog. index., Ages 17 to adult.
—Claire Rosser
Foreign Affairs
In this stunning blockbuster, two accomplished Cold War historians have come together to tell Robert Oppenheimer's poignant and extraordinary story. They reveal the complexity of a man whose Jewishness was expressed through secular humanism, who was notable for his ethical sense and erudition yet played a leading role in bringing weapons of mass slaughter into existence. Oppenheimer's fears that this achievement would ruin the world led him to urge international control of atomic energy, which, along with his espousal of left-wing causes during the tumultuous 1930s, led him to become the most celebrated victim of the anticommunist paranoia of the 1950s. The authors convey how these great issues appeared to Oppenheimer at the time and describe his interaction with the remarkable figures with whom he was in regular contact — George Kennan, David Lilienthal, Isidor Rabi, and the antihero Lewis Strauss. The background political context is not fully explored, but this is a small complaint. Bird and Sherwin have undertaken a daunting amount of research, and they do full justice to the complexity of Oppenheimer's story.
Library Journal
Recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in the life, career, achievements, and trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the "father" of the atomic bomb. In 2004, there were two new biographies by significant science writers-Jeremy Bernstein's Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma and David C. Cassidy's J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century. In addition to this current title, another is scheduled for publication in 2005, Abraham Pais and Robert Crease's Shatterer of Worlds: A Life of J. Robert Oppenheimer. This collaboration between writer Bird and English professor Sherwin is an expansive but fast-paced and engrossing work that draws its strength from the insights provided into Oppenheimer's thoughts and motives and the many anecdotes. The book's five parts cover his youth and education, his early career and dalliance with communism, the Manhattan Project, his return to academe and growing political influence, and, finally, his dealings with the FBI and eventual retreat from public life. The emphasis throughout is on Oppenheimer's personality and how he navigated the sociopolitical minefields of the era, with relatively less discussion of his scientific work. For a readable and well-researched biography of the man, this suffices quite well. However, with so many other biographies available, not to mention histories of the Manhattan Project, it provides little new information here. For general readers in larger public and academic libraries.-Gregg Sapp, Science Lib., SUNY at Albany Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The second greatest scientific mind of the atomic era gets respectful but revealing treatment by political journalist Bird (The Color of Truth, 1998) and literary scholar Sherwin (A World Destroyed, 1975). That Oppenheimer (1904-67) was a rare genius is beyond doubt; his colleagues at CalTech, Gottingen and Los Alamos were impressed to the point of being cowed by his intellect, and "Oppie" was far ahead of even his professors in the new world of quantum theory. He was a rare bird in other ways as well. A child of privilege whose very luggage excited discussion among his cash-strapped European colleagues, he identified early with left-wing causes and was reportedly better read in the classics of Marxism than most Communist theoreticians; and, though a leftist, he expressed enough fondness for the U.S. that those European colleagues sometimes thought him a chauvinist. Worldly in many ways, he was something of a naif. In time, he shed some of his clumsiness and became the model of a committed intellectual, unusually generous in sharing credit with students and colleagues and able to wear his achievements lightly. ("I can make it clearer," he once remarked of a thorny physics problem, "but I can't make it simpler.") The authors lucidly explain Oppenheimer's many scientific accomplishments and the finer points of quantum mechanics. More, they examine his life in a political context, for, though one of the fathers of the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer warned against its proliferation and noted, as early as 1946, that our major cities were now susceptible to terrorist attack, the only defense being a screwdriver-to open "each and every crate or suitcase." His prescience and conscience cost him dearly:Oppie was effectively blacklisted for more than a decade and rehabilitated only at the end of his too-short life. A swiftly moving narrative full of morality tales and juicy gossip. One of the best scientific biographies to appear in recent years.
From the Publisher
“The definitive biography. . . . Oppenheimer’s life doesn’t influence us. It haunts us.” –Newsweek“A masterful account of Oppenheimer’s rise and fall, set in the context of the turbulent decades of America’s own transformation. It is a tour de force.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review“A work of voluminous scholarship and lucid insight, unifying its multifaceted portrait with a keen grasp of Oppenheimer’s essential nature. . . . It succeeds in deeply fathoming his most damaging, self-contradictory behavior.” –The New York Times“There have been numerous books about Oppenheimer but they can't touch this extraordinary book's impressive breadth and scope.” –The Miami Herald“The first biography to give full due to Oppenheimer’s extraordinary complexity . . . Stands as an Everest among the mountains of books on the bomb project and Oppenheimer, and is an achievement not likely to be surpassed or equaled.”–The Boston Globe

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781433200120
Publisher:
Blackstone Audio, Inc.
Publication date:
02/28/2007
Edition description:
Unabridged
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 7.40(h) x 0.60(d)

Meet the Author

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 and the Smithsonian Controversy. A contributing editor of The Nation, he lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and son.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
In the first decade of the twentieth century, science initiated a second American revolution. A nation on horseback was soon transformed by the internal combustion engine, manned flight and a multitude of other inventions. These technological innovations quickly changed the lives of ordinary men and women. But simultaneously an esoteric band of scientists was creating an even more fundamental revolution. Theoretical physicists across the globe were beginning to alter the way we understand space and time. Radioactivity was discovered on March 1, 1896, by the French physicist Henri Becquerel. Max Planck, Marie Curie and Pierre Curie and others provided further insights into the nature of the atom. And then, in 1905, Albert Einstein published his special theory of relativity. Suddenly, the universe appeared to have changed.

Around the globe, scientists were soon to be celebrated as a new kind of hero, promising to usher in a renaissance of rationality, prosperity and social meritocracy. In America, reform movements were challenging the old order. Theodore Roosevelt was using the bully pulpit of the White House to argue that good government in alliance with science and applied technology could forge an enlightened new Progressive Era.

Into this world of promise was born J. Robert Oppenheimer, on April 22, 1904. He came from a family of first- and second-generation German immigrants striving to be American. Ethnically and culturally Jewish, the Oppenheimers of New York belonged to no synagogue. Without rejecting their Jewishness they chose to shape their identity within a uniquely American offshoot of Judaism—the Ethical Culture Society—that celebrated rationalism and a progressive brand of secular humanism. This was at the same time an innovative approach to the quandaries any immigrant to America faced—and yet for Robert Oppenheimer it reinforced a lifelong ambivalence about his Jewish identity.

As its name suggests, Ethical Culture was not a religion but a way of life that promoted social justice over self-aggrandizement. It was no accident that the young boy who would become known as the father of the atomic era was reared in a culture that valued independent inquiry, empirical exploration and the free-thinking mind—in short, the values of science. And yet, it was the irony of Robert Oppenheimer’s odyssey that a life devoted to social justice, rationality and science would become a metaphor for mass death beneath a mushroom cloud.

Robert’s father, Julius Oppenheimer, was born on May 12, 1871, in the German town of Hanau, just east of Frankfurt. Julius’ father, Benjamin Pinhas Oppenheimer, was an untutored peasant and grain trader who had been raised in a hovel in “an almost medieval German village,” Robert later reported. Julius had two brothers and three sisters. In 1870, two of Benjamin’s cousins by marriage emigrated to New York. Within a few years these two young men—named Sigmund and Solomon Rothfeld—joined another relative, J. H. Stern, to start a small company to import men’s suit linings. The company did extremely well serving the city’s flourishing new trade in ready-made clothing. In the late 1880s, the Rothfelds sent word to Benjamin Oppenheimer that there was room in the business for his sons.

Julius arrived in New York in the spring of 1888, several years after his older brother Emil. A tall, thin-limbed, awkward young man, he was put to work in the company warehouse, sorting bolts of cloth. Although he brought no monetary assets to the firm and spoke not a word of English, he was determined to remake himself. He had an eye for color and in time acquired a reputation as one of the most knowledgeable “fabrics” men in the city. Emil and Julius rode out the recession of 1893, and by the turn of the century Julius was a full partner in the firm of Rothfeld, Stern & Company. He dressed to fit the part, always adorned in a white high-collared shirt, a conservative tie and a dark business suit. His manners were as immaculate as his dress. From all accounts, Julius was an extremely likeable young man. “You have a way with you that just invites confidence to the highest degree,” wrote his future wife in 1903, “and for the best and finest reasons.” By the time he turned thirty, he spoke remarkably good English, and, though completely self-taught, he had read widely in American and European history. A lover of art, he spent his free hours on weekends roaming New York’s numerous art galleries.

It may have been on one such occasion that he was introduced to a young painter, Ella Friedman, “an exquisitely beautiful” brunette with finely chiseled features, “expressive gray-blue eyes and long black lashes,” a slender figure—and a congenitally unformed left hand. To hide this deformity, Ella always wore long sleeves and a pair of chamois gloves. The glove covering her left hand contained a primitive prosthetic device with a spring attached to an artificial thumb. Julius fell in love with her. The Friedmans, of Bavarian Jewish extraction, had settled in Baltimore in the 1840s. Ella was born in 1869. A family friend once described her as “a gentle, exquisite, slim, tallish, blue-eyed woman, terribly sensitive, extremely polite; she was always thinking what would make people comfortable or happy.” In her twenties, she spent a year in Paris studying the early Impressionist painters. Upon her return she taught art at Barnard College. By the time she met Julius, she was an accomplished enough painter to have her own students and a private rooftop studio in a New York apartment building.

All this was unusual enough for a woman at the turn of the century, but Ella was a powerful personality in many respects. Her formal, elegant demeanor struck some people upon first acquaintance as haughty coolness. Her drive and discipline in the studio and at home seemed excessive in a woman so blessed with material comforts. Julius worshipped her, and she returned his love. Just days before their marriage, Ella wrote to her fiancé: “I do so want you to be able to enjoy life in its best and fullest sense, and you will help me take care of you? To take care of someone whom one really loves has an indescribable sweetness of which a whole lifetime cannot rob me. Good-night, dearest.”

On March 23, 1903, Julius and Ella were married and moved into a sharp-gabled stone house at 250 West 94th Street. A year later, in the midst of the coldest spring on record, Ella, thirty-four years old, gave birth to a son after a difficult pregnancy. Julius had already settled on naming his firstborn Robert; but at the last moment, according to family lore, he decided to add a first initial, “J,” in front of “Robert.” Actually, the boy’s birth certificate reads “Julius Robert Oppenheimer,” evidence that Julius had decided to name the boy after himself. This would be unremarkable—except that naming a baby after any living relative is contrary to European Jewish tradition. In any case, the boy would always be called Robert and, curiously, he in turn always insisted that his first initial stood for nothing at all. Apparently, Jewish traditions played no role in the Oppenheimer household.

Sometime after Robert’s arrival, Julius moved his family to a spacious eleventh-floor apartment at 155 Riverside Drive, overlooking the Hudson River at West 88th Street. The apartment, occupying an entire floor, was exquisitely decorated with fine European furniture. Over the years, the Oppenheimers also acquired a remarkable collection of French Postimpressionist and Fauvist paintings chosen by Ella. By the time Robert was a young man, the collection included a 1901 “blue period” painting by Pablo Picasso entitled Mother and Child, a Rembrandt etching, and paintings by Edouard Vuillard, André Derain and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Three Vincent Van Gogh paintings—Enclosed Field with Rising Sun (Saint-Remy, 1889), First Steps (After Millet) (Saint-Remy, 1889) and Portrait of Adeline Ravoux (Auvers-sur-Oise, 1890)—dominated a living room wallpapered in gold gilt. Sometime later they acquired a drawing by Paul Cézanne and a painting by Maurice de Vlaminck. A head by the French sculptor Charles Despiau rounded out this exquisite collection.*

Ella ran the household to exacting standards. “Excellence and purpose” was a constant refrain in young Robert’s ears. Three live-in maids kept the apartment spotless. Robert had a Catholic Irish nursemaid named Nellie Connolly, and later, a French governess who taught him a little French. German, on the other hand, was not spoken at home. “My mother didn’t talk it well,” Robert recalled, “[and] my father didn’t believe in talking it.” Robert would learn German in school.

On weekends, the family would go for drives in the countryside in their Packard, driven by a gray-uniformed chauffeur. When Robert was eleven or twelve, Julius bought a substantial summer home at Bay Shore, Long Island, where Robert learned to sail. At the pier below the house, Julius moored a forty-foot sailing yacht, christened the Lorelei, a luxurious craft outfitted with all the amenities. “It was lovely on that bay,” Robert’s brother, Frank, would later recall fondly. “It was seven acres . . . a big vegetable garden and lots and lots of flowers.” As a family friend later observed, “Robert was doted on by his parents. . . . He had everything he wanted; you might say he was brought up in luxury.” But despite this, none of his childhood friends thought him spoiled. “He was extremely generous with money and material things,” recalled Harold Cherniss. “He was not a spoiled child in any sense.”

By 1914, when World War I broke out in Europe, Julius Oppenheimer was a very prosperous businessman. His net worth certainly totaled more than several hundred thousand dollars—which made him the equivalent of a multimillionaire in current dollars. By all accounts, the Oppenheimer marriage was a loving partnership. But Robert’s friends were always struck by their contrasting personalities. “He [Julius] was jolly German-Jewish,” recalled Francis Fergusson, one of Robert’s closest friends. “Extremely likeable. I was surprised that Robert’s mother had married him because he seemed such a hearty and laughing kind of person. But she was very fond of him and handled him beautifully. They were very fond of each other. It was an excellent marriage.”

Julius was a conversationalist and extrovert. He loved art and music and thought Beethoven’s Eroica symphony “one of the great masterpieces.” A family friend, the anthropologist George Boas, later recalled that Julius “had all the sensitiveness of both his sons.” Boas thought him “one of the kindest men I ever knew.” But sometimes, to the embarrassment of his sons, Julius would burst out singing at the dinner table. He enjoyed a good argument. Ella, by contrast, sat quietly and never joined in the banter. “She [Ella] was a very delicate person,” another friend of Robert’s, the distinguished writer Paul Horgan, observed, “. . . highly attenuated emotionally, and she always presided with a great delicacy and grace at the table and other events, but [she was] a mournful person.”

Four years after Robert’s birth, Ella bore another son, Lewis Frank Oppenheimer, but the infant soon died, a victim of stenosis of the pylorus, a congenital obstruction of the opening from the stomach to the small intestine. In her grief, Ella thereafter always seemed physically more fragile. Because young Robert himself was frequently ill as a child, Ella became overly protective. Fearing germs, she kept Robert apart from other children. He was never allowed to buy food from street vendors, and instead of taking him to get a haircut in a barber shop Ella had a barber come to the apartment.

Introspective by nature and never athletic, Robert spent his early childhood in the comfortable loneliness of his mother’s nest on Riverside Drive. The relationship between mother and son was always intense. Ella encouraged Robert to paint—he did landscapes—but he gave it up when he went to college. Robert worshipped his mother. But Ella could be quietly demanding. “This was a woman,” recalled a family friend, “who would never allow anything unpleasant to be mentioned at the table.”

Robert quickly sensed that his mother disapproved of the people in her husband’s world of trade and commerce. Most of Julius’s business colleagues, of course, were first-generation Jews, and Ella made it clear to her son that she felt ill-at-ease with their “obtrusive manners.” More than most boys, Robert grew up feeling torn between his mother’s strict standards and his father’s gregarious behavior. At times, he felt ashamed of his father’s spontaneity—and at the same time he would feel guilty that he felt ashamed. “Julius’s articulate and sometimes noisy pride in Robert annoyed him greatly,” recalled a childhood friend. As an adult, Robert gave his friend and former teacher Herbert Smith a handsome engraving of the scene in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus where the hero is unclasping his mother’s hand and throwing her to the ground. Smith was sure that Robert was sending him a message, acknowledging how difficult it had been for him to separate from his own mother.

When he was only five or six, Ella insisted that he take piano lessons. Robert dutifully practiced every day, hating it all the while. About a year later, he fell sick and his mother characteristically suspected the worst, perhaps a case of infantile paralysis. Nursing him back to health, she kept asking him how he felt until one day he looked up from his sickbed and grumbled, “Just as I do when I have to take piano lessons.” Ella relented, and the lessons ended.

In 1909, when Robert was only five, Julius took him on the first of four transatlantic crossings to visit his grandfather Benjamin in Germany. They made the trip again two years later; by then Grandfather Benjamin was

seventy-five years old, but he left an indelible impression on his grandson. “It was clear,” Robert recalled, “that one of the great joys in life for him was reading, but he had probably hardly been to school.” One day, while watching Robert play with some wooden blocks, Benjamin decided to give him an encyclopedia of architecture. He also gave him a “perfectly conventional” rock collection consisting of a box with perhaps two dozen rock samples labeled in German. “From then on,” Robert later recounted, “I became, in a completely childish way, an ardent mineral collector.” Back home in New York, he persuaded his father to take him on rock-hunting expeditions along the Palisades. Soon the apartment on Riverside Drive was crammed with Robert’s rocks, each neatly labeled with its scientific name. Julius encouraged his son in this solitary hobby, plying him with books on the subject. Long afterward, Robert recounted that he had no interest in the geological origins of his rocks, but was fascinated by the structure of crystals and polarized light.

From the ages of seven through twelve, Robert had three solitary but all-consuming passions: minerals, writing and reading poetry, and building with blocks. Later he would recall that he occupied his time with these activities “not because they were something I had companionship in or because they had any relation to school—but just for the hell of it.” By the age of twelve, he was using the family typewriter to correspond with a number of well-known local geologists about the rock formations he had studied in Central Park.

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