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Book Forum: Autobiography and Biography   |    
American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer
ARNOLD WERNER, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2005;162:2402-2402. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.162.12.2402
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By Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2005, 722 pp., $35.00.

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The books for this month are a holiday gift list: books to broaden the library and the mind, to provide pleasure and enjoyment, to give to oneself and others.

It is now 60 years since the development of the atomic bomb. The cold war worry of a nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union has given way to fear of rogue states or terrorists unleashing havoc. Today’s concerns were foreseen by many who worked on developing the bomb, including J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist known as the father of the atomic bomb.

This compelling and comprehensive biography of Oppenheimer rewards the reader with a story rich in detail and excitement as it examines the life, relationships, and work of an American genius. Oppenheimer was a particularly complex man who could be generous and charming but could also be arrogant and insensitive. The authors make use of material gathered over a period of 25 years, including interviews with key characters in Oppenheimer’s life, many now deceased, previously secret FBI files, and correspondence heretofore unavailable. The book is populated by a richly presented, fascinating cast of characters. From the secret culture of Los Alamos to the post-World War II period in which right-wing America believed in massive nuclear retaliation as defense policy, the reader is swept into the McCarthyite anti-Communist craze, which ultimately led to the destruction of Oppenheimer’s reputation as well as those of many other scientists and intellectuals.

Oppenheimer was the oldest son of a New York City German-Jewish family that accumulated sufficient wealth in one generation to provide an environment of privilege and intellectual and material indulgence. Secular in outlook, the family was involved in the Ethical Culture movement, a humanist outgrowth of Reform Judaism emphasizing social justice that had considerable impact on Robert. His early life is a portrait of a brilliant boy who was interpersonally immature. He would eventually describe himself as discontented, socially awkward, and arrogant in his younger years. In graduate school he suffered a substantial depression fed by existential struggles and characterized by dramatic and, at times, bizarre behavior. He eventually emerged from this period on his own, established himself as a brilliant and charismatic theoretical physicist, and built a renowned theoretical physics department at Berkeley.

During the economic depression of the 1930s Oppenheimer became a supporter of leftist social causes and could count as colleagues and friends a number of Communists, including his younger brother and one of the great romantic loves of his life. That he never became a Communist himself is well substantiated in FBI files, but his affiliations in those years would repeatedly come back to haunt him. Oppenheimer shed Communist connections once the war began because he did not want them to interfere with his "usefulness to the nation."

The story of Oppenheimer’s brilliant work as director of the central laboratory for the Manhattan Project is in part the story of how General Leslie Groves, who was in charge of the project, chose him. Recognizing his need for an ambitious genius like Oppenheimer for the success of the project, Groves was able to set aside the vast cultural and political divides between them. The elation over the success of developing the bomb was followed by the recognition of the awful consequences of its use. The question of whether dropping the bomb on Japan was necessary to force surrender is amply discussed along with the efforts of scientists to play a subsequent role in the use of the technology they had released.

Prometheus not only gave fire to humans, he also challenged the other gods with his arrogance. Following the war, Oppenheimer was celebrated as a hero. He became director of the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton. Here he had ample opportunity to offend Lewis Strauss, a right-wing member of the Institute’s board of directors who was also chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Oppenheimer opposed the policy of massive nuclear retaliation supported by Strauss in favor of a policy of openness and international control. Oppenheimer was a persuasive speaker and had low regard for Strauss, which he did not hide. Strauss was all too eager to bear grudges over trivial narcissistic wounds. He eventually found a way to get even with Oppenheimer and neutralize his influence. In 1954, he established a hearing board to review Oppenheimer’s security clearance as an Atomic Energy Commission consultant. In a setting that violated constitutional rights as a matter of course, Oppenheimer lost his clearance and was publicly humiliated. The story of Oppenheimer’s destruction, his unwillingness to avoid confrontation, and the collusive forces behind his fall is high drama and reminds us of the horrors of this period in U.S. history.

Oppenheimer’s reputation was eventually resurrected in the 1960s, but the damage of the 1950s left its mark. A life-long chain smoker, he died of throat cancer in 1967 at age 62. The authors have succeeded in producing a very well-written biography that is excellent history and rivals many novels in character development, plot, and excitement.

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