Oppenheimer was a tragic figure in the classical Greek sense: a hero for the 20th century, crippled by self-doubt, ultimately destroyed by his own vanity and political naiveté. In this biography, authors Bird and Sherwin brilliantly capture the essence of Oppenheimer's scientific achievements. They also lay bare his personal life, filled with nervous breakdowns, extramarital affairs and moonlit horseback rides through New Mexico.
In retrospect, what seems so staggering is Oppenheimer's faith in the rationality of mankind and its political leaders. He honestly believed the United States might share atomic technology with Stalin and that this gesture would forestall a nuclear-arms race. Gradually, this starry-eyed romanticism would give way to a steely pragmatism in which Oppenheimer merely advocated greater public candor in the nuclear-weapons debate and championed agreements that might have shortened the Cold War by decades. But it was too late.
Oppenheimer's crime, the authors make clear, wasn't that he cavorted with Communists or that he may have lied about being approached by Soviet agents. His loyalty was never really in doubt. The real reason the Atomic Energy Commission stripped Oppenheimer of his security clearance in 1954 was that he opposed the hydrogen bomb, a weapon 1,000 times deadlier than the bombs dropped on Japan. And his temerity would forever alter America's relations with its greatest minds.
American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer By Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin
Alfred A. Knopf, 721 pages, $35.
Martin J. Sherwin appears at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Tuesday, June 18. Free.