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

Janet Maslin Review in the New York Times April 21, 2005


New York Times review by Janet Maslin - April 21, 2005

The Physics, Philosophy and, Literally, Dirty Laundry of Robert Oppenheimer Reviewed by Janet Maslin in The New York Times, April 21, 2005 Dec. 31, 2025, is the date inadvertently listed by for the publication of one forthcoming study of J. Robert Oppenheimer. It's a mistake (the book is actually due this summer), but a revealing one. The cavalcade of Oppenheimer studies is vast and unabated. Anyone who ever knew the man and could put ink to paper has weighed in on him, or so it seems. And those firsthand accounts continue to be parsed, dissected and analyzed, sometimes by scholars willing to devote decades to the task. In this midst of such voluminous scholarship, how can Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin's "American Prometheus" purport to be "the first full-scale biography"? The reason, beyond its having the best title, is its span. Oppenheimer's life has often been studied in fragments: scientific (his career as a physicist, among colleagues like Enrico Fermi and Albert Einstein), historic (presiding over the birth of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos), political (the harassment and humiliation of a government investigation during the McCarthy era), moral (questioning the consequences of his breakthrough) and personal (piercing blue eyes, much magnetism, just as much hubris). These authors compile all of it under a single roof. 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." "American Prometheus" sees the full implications of such a gesture: charm and bravado on the surface, Dostoyevskian darkness underneath. It traces Oppenheimer's arrogance to the kind of upbringing that would give him his own sloop at age 16 (he named it for a chemical compound) and lead one of the oral examiners of his doctoral thesis to say: "I got out of there just in time. He was beginning to ask me questions." While its forte is clearly not physics, "American Prometheus" does capture the world in which Oppenheimer established his credentials: thick with future Nobelists, bristling with innovation, cattily competitive. (As one of his fellow scholars remarked about another: "So young and already so unknown.") From this crucible, Oppenheimer emerged with the leadership capabilities that would eventually place him in charge of top-secret research into the creation of nuclear weapons. This book closely examines his effect upon acolytes ("There goes the mother hen and all the little chickens," one Los Alamos resident observed) and his combustible, martini-marinated mixture of charisma and cruelty. "He could make giants feel like cockroaches," one friend said. Toiling for two and a half decades on this account, Mr. Sherwin (who was joined by Mr. Bird in the later stages of assembling it) closely analyzes Oppenheimer's behavior in terms of its ethics. In addition to sifting through specific details about his involvement with Communism during the 1930's ("Quite bluntly, any attempt to label Robert Oppenheimer a Party member is a futile exercise - as the F.B.I. learned to its frustration over many years," the authors state), "American Prometheus" aligns its subject's most critical decisions with both his early education and his ultimate unraveling. It succeeds in deeply fathoming his most damaging, self-contradictory behavior. "American Prometheus" is a thorough examination and synthesis, sometimes overwhelming in its detail. Jennet Conant's overlapping book, "109 East Palace," is much less complex. Taking its title from the quiet little Santa Fe office that served as a gateway to the hidden research colony at Los Alamos, it adopts the perspective of Dorothy McKibbin, a kindly soul who adored Oppenheimer and attended to his staff's quotidian needs. Ms. Conant draws heavily from Ms. McKibbin's memoir, which turns out to be understandably unpublished.

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