BOOK REVIEW: A Tragic Life: Oppenheimer and the Bomb

By Kuznick, Peter J. | Arms Control Today, July/August 2005 | Go to article overview

BOOK REVIEW: A Tragic Life: Oppenheimer and the Bomb


Kuznick, Peter J., Arms Control Today


BOOK REVIEW: A Tragic Life: Oppenheimer and the Bomb

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

By Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin

Alfred A. Knopf, 2O05, 721 pp.

TO9 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos

By Jennet Conant

Simon & Schuster, 2O05, 425 pp.

Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan

By Tsuyoshi Hasegawa

Harvard University Press, 2OO5, 382 pp.

The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race

By Priscilla McMillan

Viking Press, July 2OO5, 384 pp.

J. Robert Oppenheimer was a fascinating, complex, and extremely seductive figure, but one defined almost as much by his flaws as by his prodigious talents and achievements. As director of the Los Alamos laboratory, Oppenheimer, or "Oppie," as his friends called him, bore major responsibility for building the atomic bomb and some responsibility for obstructing scientists desperately seeking to prevent its use.

Understanding clearly what he had wrought and terrified by the future this augured, he later struggled for international control of nuclear weapons and fought to prevent development of the hydrogen bomb. His contemporaries found him compelling. His best students revered him. Many women adored him. His colleagues appreciated his quick mind, erudition, and brilliance as a theoretician, and they admired his leadership of the Manhattan Project. In the final accounting, Oppenheimer's was a tragic life, the life of a man who succeeded as a weapons maker and failed as a peacemaker.

Because Oppenheimer was such a unique, conflicted, and often embattled individual, historians have always delighted in counterposing him to other dominant figures of his era with whom he collaborated and clashed, including Nobel Prize-winning physicist Ernest Lawrence, Manhattan Project director General Leslie Groves, hydrogen bomb proponent Edward Teller, and Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) chair Lewis Strauss. I would add President Harry Truman, who ordered the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to that list.

As we approach the 60th anniversary of those attacks and observe, with justifiable trepidation, the erosion of the nonproliferation regime, Oppenheimer's life has many lessons to offer us. Valuable new studies by Priscilla McMillan and Jennet Conant and a magisterial biography by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin take pains to distill these lessons.

In American Prometheus, Bird and Sherwin paint a rich portrait of Oppenheimer's early years. Born in 1904 to wealthy, cultured, German-Jewish New York parents, he was a precocious, though sickly, child who at age nine challenged an older cousin, "Ask me a question in Latin and I will answer you in Greek." He delivered his first scientific paper at age 12, graduated from Harvard in three years, and received his doctorate from Gottingen University in Germany at the age of 23. During these years, he could be insufferably arrogant. Future Nobel Prize winner Maria Goppert once presented Oppenheimer's adviser Max Born with a petition signed by seminar members stating that, unless Born reined in the "child prodigy," she and the other students would boycott the class. Oppenheimer also suffered from serious bouts of depression and other forms of emotional instability. In 1928 he received job offers from 10 universities, including Harvard University, accepting a joint position at the University of California Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology.

At Berkeley, he developed a close friendship with Lawrence despite fundamental differences in background, outlook, and approach to physics. The gulf between their worlds became more pronounced during the 1930s as Lawrence, a conservative South Dakotan, gravitated toward California high society and Oppenheimer became part of a Communist milieu socially, intellectually, and politically that included many of his closest students, friends, lovers, and family members. …

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