It is fitting that an excellent study of Robert Oppenheimer, “the father of the atomic bomb,” would emerge at a time when American politicians are butting heads with scientists over such subjects as global warming, stem-cell research and that golden oldie of discord, evolution. Although government officials were alarmed by Oppenheimer’s left-leaning politics even as he assembled the team that would produce the dreadful bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico, they still treated him with deference, knowing that, to a considerable degree, America’s war efforts were in his hands.
When the A-bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 brought Japan to its knees, Oppenheimer became a national hero. But he had moral qualms about the bombs how they should be used as instruments of foreign policy and whether even more destructive ones should be built. These reservations, occurring as they did during a time when Russia was developing its own A-bombs, led to clashes between Oppenheimer and the more hawkish members of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations and their allies in Congress. In the spring of 1954, Oppenheimer was called before a board of inquiry and grilled for weeks about his real and suspected contacts with Communists before, during and after the war.
Ultimately, the board voted two to one not to renew his security clearance, even though it concluded that he was a loyal U.S. citizen. Publicly, he was in disgrace, but the verdict also made him a cause célebré among academics, the larger liberal community and fellow scientists around the world. As humiliating as his ordeal was, Oppenheimer suffered far less than many others who were trampled in the red scare. He was never imprisoned, never lost his job, never forbidden to travel abroad. By the time he died of throat cancer in 1967, much of his immediate postwar luster had been restored.
Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s richly documented American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer focuses on his across-the-board brilliance, his magnetic (but often caustic) personality and the shifting political milieus that led to his elevation and downfall.