Bird, Kai and Sherwin, Martin J. American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert

 

Bird, Kai and Sherwin, Martin J. American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert
Oppenheimer. New York: Knopf, 2005.

This wonderful book begins with its dust jacket which has a most beautiful portrait of J. Robert
Oppenheimer by Alfred Eisenstadt. This makes it a dust jacket one does not want to lose for,
regrettably, the photo is not reproduced inside the book. That's unfortunate - so hold on to the
dust jacket! And, while you're at it, read the book which, like Eisenstadt's photo, is just
wonderful.

For those of us who lived through the war years and recall the onset of the Cold War, the
Eisenhower Presidency and the McCarthy Era, this book is a detailed, insider's telling of that era.
I remember watching the Army-McCarthy hearings and learning of the Atomic Energy
Commission's (AEC) decision to remove Oppenheimer's security clearance (they occurred
simultaneously). I was in the Air Force at the time and naively believed that their were Commies
and Fellow Travelers doing harm to this country. I did not know, I could not know, of the cruel
and malevolent machinations of the Chairman of the AEC, Lewis Strauss who was manipulating
"Oppie" as revenge for an insult. Lewis Strauss was an evil man and Oppie had him as his boss
both in the AEC (where Oppie was a consultant) and as the Director of the Institute for Advanced
Studies at Princeton, New Jersey, where Strauss was Chairman of the Board. Face it, Lewis
Strauss may have been an erstwhile shoe salesman with all the intellectual powers of that job but
Oppie should have done better than to rile the nitpicker! Strauss was in a unique position to
crucify Oppie and brother, did he take advantage! Strauss nailed Oppie who was - a decade later -
awarded a medal by President Johnson and Strauss was discredited and removed from
government, but the inside story of what was going on, how Strauss pulled off his crucifixion of
a of a genius, makes for great drama. .

There are those who would insist that Oppie's death at an early age (62) - with throat cancer the
official cause - was probably brought on by his constant smoking - cigarettes and a pipe - but
there are readers of this book who would now insist that Oppie was a victim of his era: he was
trying to do the ethical and moral thing in an age dominated by a government of Republicans
with Commies on their minds. It was, after all, the era of J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI and
"Curtains" LeMay at the Strategic Air Command. It was an era dominated by atomic weaponry:
ours versus theirs. And in the muddle of this kind of weaponeering, along comes a humanistic
thinker, a sensible person, who sees these weapons for what they are - mass killers of men,
women and children. Sensibly, he opposes those weapons but he does so in an era when to
disagree was to be disloyal and - Oppie got nailed.

Oh, it was easy enough for Hoover's sleuths to scrounge up "pinko" dirt on Oppie: the guy never
denied his "leftist leanings"! During the Great Depression, the Communist Party USA was not a
subversive organization and a young man trained in Ethical Culture would have found the party's
politics fit well with his own sentiments. He had lots of friends who were members of the party
and he married a woman who had been a member but there is absolutely no evidence at all that
Oppie himself ever joined the party. But to the suspicious/paranoid minds of the day, such
associations as Oppie had were bad; they meant he could not have Q clearance. (Fuchs, a British
citizen and spy for Russia had, by the 50s, given the Russians everything anyway and the whole
damn thing was meaningless.)

Oppie had been the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, the super secret laboratory which
produced the first American atomic bombs. It was Oppie's genius to build that laboratory, with
its prima donnas and its militarists, and its secrecy and all the rest of it, and build it he did and he
gave us the power of the atom. He did it because - as this book makes so abundantly clear - he
loved this country. And his country repaid him with banishment. It is a tale of Aristotelean
tragedy: the hero brought down by his own love. If he had been more willing to play the political
games of the day, more willing to tolerate the fools in power, more able to tolerate the jackasses
who run things, he could have survived. But he died and his story is more than worthy history: it
is great tragedy.

This book has been in preparation for 25 years. It was a long birthing but the product is just
grand.