Below is a book review I composed some time ago. I intended it for the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima. Too wordy for the military newspaper and I did not push it further. Was not a recent book. Also I was hoping to promote the library which needs some attention.
Really a phenomenal book!
American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer- Kai Bird & Martin Sherwin
August 6th, 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the atomic bomb that fell on Hiroshima. The anniversary of an event that destroyed 90% of the city, 20,000 Japanese soldiers, and 70-80 thousand Japanese civilians provides an opportunity to review this biography of the bomb’s origins and the designer’s complex relationship to his work, his country and his conscience.
American Prometheus is a densely detailed history of J. Robert Oppenheimer beginning with his childhood education, his professional work in physics and as the director of the Manhattan Project and concludes with his death in relative obscurity on the island of St. John to lung cancer. At 721 pages, the work is not without lengthy dry spells but it was compelling enough to earn the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 2006.
Oppenheimer was educated in the Ethical Cultural Society in New York, a secular movement that endorsed humanism- the idea that investigation and evidence be promoted over faith and encouraged students to maintain ethical oversight on their work. With such an early fostering of the arts it was odd that Oppenheimer pursued a career in theoretical physics, although an interest in literature and language endured throughout his life. His educational foundation held further relevance later as Oppenheimer reflected on the moral implications of atomic weaponry as an extension to the technical challenges of nuclear physics.
The work reveals a very human hero who was brilliantly intelligent but also deeply flawed. As a student in Europe Oppenheimer attempted to poison one of his professors in a fit of jealousy. As a professor students complained that he was impossible to follow; scribbling equations on top of one another and speaking to the rafters in verbose lectures delivered without notes. His personal life was marred with infidelity and the alcoholism and mental volatility of his wife Kitty.
However, he was the consummate professional, rail thin, always smoking and always dressed in trendy suits and a pork pie hat. Though he had a tendency to offend people (Oppenheimer did not suffer fools lightly) no one could deny his talent and the breadth of his knowledge. During World War II, Army LTC Leslie Groves sought a director to develop nuclear weapons. Oppenheimer convinced Groves that he understood the scope of such a complex interdisciplinary program that involved chemistry, ordnance, metallurgy and engineering in addition to physics. Groves was impressed and named Oppenheimer as the director of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, NM, the high security government facility where scientists and engineers would work under military supervision to develop the bomb.
Oppenheimer was a surprising choice for the position. It was war time and one’s political alignment was under constant scrutiny to make sure he or she was not spying for the nation’s enemies. Oppenheimer’s brother, his wife and a former mistress were all communists or former communists. Oppenheimer had himself donated money to support the Republicans in Spain against Franco’s fascists. Groves waived these concerns away and granted Oppenheimer his security clearance and work on the bomb commenced.
The first detonation of a nuclear bomb was code named Trinity at the White Sands Proving Ground. “Trinity” was assigned by Oppenheimer in reference to the poetry of John Donne. At White Sands the observing scientists made wagers about whether or not the “gadget” would fizzle out or how explosive the results might be. Enrico Fermi, one of the scientists at Los Alamos who oversaw the first controlled nuclear reaction in Chicago, offered to take wagers on whether or not the device would ignite the atmosphere and further whether it would be sufficient to destroy the state of New Mexico or the entire planet. The test was a success with a destructive capacity equivalent to 20,000 tons of TNT. Less than a month later the bombs would fall on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
After the success of the bombings and Japanese surrender the military sought to continue work to make even more powerful hydrogen weapons. Oppenheimer, wishing to maintain control over the weapons he helped to build, exerted his influence to encourage the development of tactical nuclear weapons as opposed to super weapons. For this hesitation, Oppenheimer became a political target, and his history poured open in a lengthy and humiliating trial. Oppenheimer’s past made him an easy target in the witch hunts of “McCarthyite hysteria that had enveloped Washington. Equating dissent with disloyalty.” Oppenheimer and fellow scientists rightly predicted an arms race with the Soviets. They felt that the only way to insure the prevention of a genocidal nuclear war was total disclosure with the (then) Soviet allies about the progress of nuclear weaponry construction. Oppenheimer was labeled a sympathizer and stripped of his security clearance and relieved of his work at Los Alamos.
“I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds.” Quoting the Bhagavad Gita after the test at Trinity, Oppenheimer allowed his guilt to surface and become public. He traveled to Japan many years after peacetime and reflected that he felt “no worse today than I felt the day before”. Oppenheimer was not wrong to have a conscience about his work. In our fear of the enemy we comfort ourselves with interpretations of wartime acts as justified by the ends. It is worth noting that although Japan is a highly sophisticated country they have made a conscious decision not to join the world’s nine nuclear armed nations. Having witnessed a nuclear atrocity on their own soil they refuse to open up the possibility of repeating it, even at the expense of perceived security. That is a position we should reconsider.