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

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


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J. Robert Oppenheimer is one of the iconic figures of the twentieth century, a brilliant physicist who led the effort to build the atomic bomb for his country in a time of war, and who later found himself confronting the moral consequences of scientific progress. In this magisterial, acclaimed biography twenty-five years in the making, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin capture Oppenheimer’s life and times, from his early career to his central role in the Cold War. This is biography and history at its finest, riveting and deeply informative.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375726262
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/11/2006
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 784
Sales rank: 81,531
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Kai Bird is the author of The Chairman: John J. McCloy, The Making of the American Establishment and The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy, Brothers in Arms. He coedited with Lawrence Lifschultz Hiroshima’s Shadow: Writings on the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy. A contributing editor of The Nation, he lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and son.

Martin J. Sherwin is the Walter S. Dickson Professor of English and American History at Tufts University and author of A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and Its Legacies, which won the Stuart L. Bernath Prize, as well as the American History Book Prize. He and his wife live in Boston and Washington, D.C.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
In the first decade of the twentieth century, science initiated a second American revolution. A nation on horseback was soon transformed by the internal combustion engine, manned flight and a multitude of other inventions. These technological innovations quickly changed the lives of ordinary men and women. But simultaneously an esoteric band of scientists was creating an even more fundamental revolution. Theoretical physicists across the globe were beginning to alter the way we understand space and time. Radioactivity was discovered on March 1, 1896, by the French physicist Henri Becquerel. Max Planck, Marie Curie and Pierre Curie and others provided further insights into the nature of the atom. And then, in 1905, Albert Einstein published his special theory of relativity. Suddenly, the universe appeared to have changed.

Around the globe, scientists were soon to be celebrated as a new kind of hero, promising to usher in a renaissance of rationality, prosperity and social meritocracy. In America, reform movements were challenging the old order. Theodore Roosevelt was using the bully pulpit of the White House to argue that good government in alliance with science and applied technology could forge an enlightened new Progressive Era.

Into this world of promise was born J. Robert Oppenheimer, on April 22, 1904. He came from a family of first- and second-generation German immigrants striving to be American. Ethnically and culturally Jewish, the Oppenheimers of New York belonged to no synagogue. Without rejecting their Jewishness they chose to shape their identity within a uniquely American offshoot of Judaism—the Ethical Culture Society—that celebrated rationalism and a progressive brand of secular humanism. This was at the same time an innovative approach to the quandaries any immigrant to America faced—and yet for Robert Oppenheimer it reinforced a lifelong ambivalence about his Jewish identity.

As its name suggests, Ethical Culture was not a religion but a way of life that promoted social justice over self-aggrandizement. It was no accident that the young boy who would become known as the father of the atomic era was reared in a culture that valued independent inquiry, empirical exploration and the free-thinking mind—in short, the values of science. And yet, it was the irony of Robert Oppenheimer’s odyssey that a life devoted to social justice, rationality and science would become a metaphor for mass death beneath a mushroom cloud.

Robert’s father, Julius Oppenheimer, was born on May 12, 1871, in the German town of Hanau, just east of Frankfurt. Julius’ father, Benjamin Pinhas Oppenheimer, was an untutored peasant and grain trader who had been raised in a hovel in “an almost medieval German village,” Robert later reported. Julius had two brothers and three sisters. In 1870, two of Benjamin’s cousins by marriage emigrated to New York. Within a few years these two young men—named Sigmund and Solomon Rothfeld—joined another relative, J. H. Stern, to start a small company to import men’s suit linings. The company did extremely well serving the city’s flourishing new trade in ready-made clothing. In the late 1880s, the Rothfelds sent word to Benjamin Oppenheimer that there was room in the business for his sons.

Julius arrived in New York in the spring of 1888, several years after his older brother Emil. A tall, thin-limbed, awkward young man, he was put to work in the company warehouse, sorting bolts of cloth. Although he brought no monetary assets to the firm and spoke not a word of English, he was determined to remake himself. He had an eye for color and in time acquired a reputation as one of the most knowledgeable “fabrics” men in the city. Emil and Julius rode out the recession of 1893, and by the turn of the century Julius was a full partner in the firm of Rothfeld, Stern & Company. He dressed to fit the part, always adorned in a white high-collared shirt, a conservative tie and a dark business suit. His manners were as immaculate as his dress. From all accounts, Julius was an extremely likeable young man. “You have a way with you that just invites confidence to the highest degree,” wrote his future wife in 1903, “and for the best and finest reasons.” By the time he turned thirty, he spoke remarkably good English, and, though completely self-taught, he had read widely in American and European history. A lover of art, he spent his free hours on weekends roaming New York’s numerous art galleries.

It may have been on one such occasion that he was introduced to a young painter, Ella Friedman, “an exquisitely beautiful” brunette with finely chiseled features, “expressive gray-blue eyes and long black lashes,” a slender figure—and a congenitally unformed left hand. To hide this deformity, Ella always wore long sleeves and a pair of chamois gloves. The glove covering her left hand contained a primitive prosthetic device with a spring attached to an artificial thumb. Julius fell in love with her. The Friedmans, of Bavarian Jewish extraction, had settled in Baltimore in the 1840s. Ella was born in 1869. A family friend once described her as “a gentle, exquisite, slim, tallish, blue-eyed woman, terribly sensitive, extremely polite; she was always thinking what would make people comfortable or happy.” In her twenties, she spent a year in Paris studying the early Impressionist painters. Upon her return she taught art at Barnard College. By the time she met Julius, she was an accomplished enough painter to have her own students and a private rooftop studio in a New York apartment building.

All this was unusual enough for a woman at the turn of the century, but Ella was a powerful personality in many respects. Her formal, elegant demeanor struck some people upon first acquaintance as haughty coolness. Her drive and discipline in the studio and at home seemed excessive in a woman so blessed with material comforts. Julius worshipped her, and she returned his love. Just days before their marriage, Ella wrote to her fiancé: “I do so want you to be able to enjoy life in its best and fullest sense, and you will help me take care of you? To take care of someone whom one really loves has an indescribable sweetness of which a whole lifetime cannot rob me. Good-night, dearest.”

On March 23, 1903, Julius and Ella were married and moved into a sharp-gabled stone house at 250 West 94th Street. A year later, in the midst of the coldest spring on record, Ella, thirty-four years old, gave birth to a son after a difficult pregnancy. Julius had already settled on naming his firstborn Robert; but at the last moment, according to family lore, he decided to add a first initial, “J,” in front of “Robert.” Actually, the boy’s birth certificate reads “Julius Robert Oppenheimer,” evidence that Julius had decided to name the boy after himself. This would be unremarkable—except that naming a baby after any living relative is contrary to European Jewish tradition. In any case, the boy would always be called Robert and, curiously, he in turn always insisted that his first initial stood for nothing at all. Apparently, Jewish traditions played no role in the Oppenheimer household.

Sometime after Robert’s arrival, Julius moved his family to a spacious eleventh-floor apartment at 155 Riverside Drive, overlooking the Hudson River at West 88th Street. The apartment, occupying an entire floor, was exquisitely decorated with fine European furniture. Over the years, the Oppenheimers also acquired a remarkable collection of French Postimpressionist and Fauvist paintings chosen by Ella. By the time Robert was a young man, the collection included a 1901 “blue period” painting by Pablo Picasso entitled Mother and Child, a Rembrandt etching, and paintings by Edouard Vuillard, André Derain and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Three Vincent Van Gogh paintings—Enclosed Field with Rising Sun (Saint-Remy, 1889), First Steps (After Millet) (Saint-Remy, 1889) and Portrait of Adeline Ravoux (Auvers-sur-Oise, 1890)—dominated a living room wallpapered in gold gilt. Sometime later they acquired a drawing by Paul Cézanne and a painting by Maurice de Vlaminck. A head by the French sculptor Charles Despiau rounded out this exquisite collection.*

Ella ran the household to exacting standards. “Excellence and purpose” was a constant refrain in young Robert’s ears. Three live-in maids kept the apartment spotless. Robert had a Catholic Irish nursemaid named Nellie Connolly, and later, a French governess who taught him a little French. German, on the other hand, was not spoken at home. “My mother didn’t talk it well,” Robert recalled, “[and] my father didn’t believe in talking it.” Robert would learn German in school.

On weekends, the family would go for drives in the countryside in their Packard, driven by a gray-uniformed chauffeur. When Robert was eleven or twelve, Julius bought a substantial summer home at Bay Shore, Long Island, where Robert learned to sail. At the pier below the house, Julius moored a forty-foot sailing yacht, christened the Lorelei, a luxurious craft outfitted with all the amenities. “It was lovely on that bay,” Robert’s brother, Frank, would later recall fondly. “It was seven acres . . . a big vegetable garden and lots and lots of flowers.” As a family friend later observed, “Robert was doted on by his parents. . . . He had everything he wanted; you might say he was brought up in luxury.” But despite this, none of his childhood friends thought him spoiled. “He was extremely generous with money and material things,” recalled Harold Cherniss. “He was not a spoiled child in any sense.”

By 1914, when World War I broke out in Europe, Julius Oppenheimer was a very prosperous businessman. His net worth certainly totaled more than several hundred thousand dollars—which made him the equivalent of a multimillionaire in current dollars. By all accounts, the Oppenheimer marriage was a loving partnership. But Robert’s friends were always struck by their contrasting personalities. “He [Julius] was jolly German-Jewish,” recalled Francis Fergusson, one of Robert’s closest friends. “Extremely likeable. I was surprised that Robert’s mother had married him because he seemed such a hearty and laughing kind of person. But she was very fond of him and handled him beautifully. They were very fond of each other. It was an excellent marriage.”

Julius was a conversationalist and extrovert. He loved art and music and thought Beethoven’s Eroica symphony “one of the great masterpieces.” A family friend, the anthropologist George Boas, later recalled that Julius “had all the sensitiveness of both his sons.” Boas thought him “one of the kindest men I ever knew.” But sometimes, to the embarrassment of his sons, Julius would burst out singing at the dinner table. He enjoyed a good argument. Ella, by contrast, sat quietly and never joined in the banter. “She [Ella] was a very delicate person,” another friend of Robert’s, the distinguished writer Paul Horgan, observed, “. . . highly attenuated emotionally, and she always presided with a great delicacy and grace at the table and other events, but [she was] a mournful person.”

Four years after Robert’s birth, Ella bore another son, Lewis Frank Oppenheimer, but the infant soon died, a victim of stenosis of the pylorus, a congenital obstruction of the opening from the stomach to the small intestine. In her grief, Ella thereafter always seemed physically more fragile. Because young Robert himself was frequently ill as a child, Ella became overly protective. Fearing germs, she kept Robert apart from other children. He was never allowed to buy food from street vendors, and instead of taking him to get a haircut in a barber shop Ella had a barber come to the apartment.

Introspective by nature and never athletic, Robert spent his early childhood in the comfortable loneliness of his mother’s nest on Riverside Drive. The relationship between mother and son was always intense. Ella encouraged Robert to paint—he did landscapes—but he gave it up when he went to college. Robert worshipped his mother. But Ella could be quietly demanding. “This was a woman,” recalled a family friend, “who would never allow anything unpleasant to be mentioned at the table.”

Robert quickly sensed that his mother disapproved of the people in her husband’s world of trade and commerce. Most of Julius’s business colleagues, of course, were first-generation Jews, and Ella made it clear to her son that she felt ill-at-ease with their “obtrusive manners.” More than most boys, Robert grew up feeling torn between his mother’s strict standards and his father’s gregarious behavior. At times, he felt ashamed of his father’s spontaneity—and at the same time he would feel guilty that he felt ashamed. “Julius’s articulate and sometimes noisy pride in Robert annoyed him greatly,” recalled a childhood friend. As an adult, Robert gave his friend and former teacher Herbert Smith a handsome engraving of the scene in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus where the hero is unclasping his mother’s hand and throwing her to the ground. Smith was sure that Robert was sending him a message, acknowledging how difficult it had been for him to separate from his own mother.

When he was only five or six, Ella insisted that he take piano lessons. Robert dutifully practiced every day, hating it all the while. About a year later, he fell sick and his mother characteristically suspected the worst, perhaps a case of infantile paralysis. Nursing him back to health, she kept asking him how he felt until one day he looked up from his sickbed and grumbled, “Just as I do when I have to take piano lessons.” Ella relented, and the lessons ended.

In 1909, when Robert was only five, Julius took him on the first of four transatlantic crossings to visit his grandfather Benjamin in Germany. They made the trip again two years later; by then Grandfather Benjamin was

seventy-five years old, but he left an indelible impression on his grandson. “It was clear,” Robert recalled, “that one of the great joys in life for him was reading, but he had probably hardly been to school.” One day, while watching Robert play with some wooden blocks, Benjamin decided to give him an encyclopedia of architecture. He also gave him a “perfectly conventional” rock collection consisting of a box with perhaps two dozen rock samples labeled in German. “From then on,” Robert later recounted, “I became, in a completely childish way, an ardent mineral collector.” Back home in New York, he persuaded his father to take him on rock-hunting expeditions along the Palisades. Soon the apartment on Riverside Drive was crammed with Robert’s rocks, each neatly labeled with its scientific name. Julius encouraged his son in this solitary hobby, plying him with books on the subject. Long afterward, Robert recounted that he had no interest in the geological origins of his rocks, but was fascinated by the structure of crystals and polarized light.

From the ages of seven through twelve, Robert had three solitary but all-consuming passions: minerals, writing and reading poetry, and building with blocks. Later he would recall that he occupied his time with these activities “not because they were something I had companionship in or because they had any relation to school—but just for the hell of it.” By the age of twelve, he was using the family typewriter to correspond with a number of well-known local geologists about the rock formations he had studied in Central Park.

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American Prometheus 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 57 reviews.
SkagitGal More than 1 year ago
The well-written biography is presented with strong voice and revealing examples. It is as much the story of one man's contributions to science as it is a warning shot over the bow of American freedom. It was a thought-provoking read. The first third of the book examines Oppenheiver's leadership of the team that developed atomic weaponry. The second third is a detailed look at the post-war investigations of Oppenheimer's alleged affiliation with the Communist Party, and the last part of the book follows his self-imposed isolation in the aftermath of a carefully designed campaign to discredit him. The authors present Oppenheimer as a mercurial man whose charm and broad intellectual interests created an almost cult-like following, but also generated liaisons and outbursts that would haunt him for life. The story reveals the patriotic pride he felt at his team's ability to fashion the atom bomb, the ethical misgivings over such a destructive weapon, and the sense of betrayal when the military chose to use the weapon on an enemy whose battle had already been lost. Documented in careful detail are the nearly continuous military, congressional, and FBI investigations into allegations of Oppenheimer's membership in the Communist Party and his threat to national security. These activities were conducted without regard for Constitutional due process and lacked even a hint of legal varnish. One man's persistent and vitriolic strategy ultimately succeeded in stripping Oppenheimer of his security clearances, and took the starch out of his public personae. While Oppenheimer remained convinced that peace could be better pursued by open communications rather than threats of mass destruction, his public proclamations became subtle and ambiguous. Together with his wife, he spent a great deal of time away from prying eyes, enjoying a small group of friends on a quiet bay in the Virgin Islands.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Bird and Sherwin amply deserved the Pulitzer for this book, a true, frightening and contemporary telling of, as the subtitle reads, the triumph and tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. The story is utterly fascinating, told in scrupulous and well researched detail butrather than being dry and academic (as Oppenheimer could be), the book is a pageturner. The destruction of his career by Lewis Strauss (with a great assist from Oppenheimer himself) is harrowing and almost physically painful to read. A cautionary tale, a biography, a history, all rolled into a great read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In their book, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin have created a biographical masterpiece that will not soon be outdone. The authors research and writing has given the reader a candid, yet complicated and conflicted portrait of one of America¿s leading scientific minds of the twentieth century. Their research is comprehensive and their writing intelligible as can be seen as Bird and Sherwin recreate Oppenheimer¿s grand yet tragic life from his lecture at the New York Mineralogical Club at age twelve, to the 1954 security hearings in Washington that altered his later life. The question of Oppenheimer¿s affiliation with and membership in the American Communist Party is factually covered in detail along with his battles against the American political system and government powerbrokers. Bird and Sherwin remind the reader that while Oppenheimer may not have won the Noble Prize in physics, he should certainly be given the credit for opening the door for other physicist, such as Ernest Orlando Lawrence, to win the coveted Nobel Prize. While Oppenheimer had a dark side to his personality, the authors show us that Oppenheimer was not only a genius in theoretical physics, but was remarkably well versed in many fields including poetry, art, music, books. . . . He also loved camping in the wilds of New Mexico, and horseback riding near his beloved Pierro Caliente Ranch. Oppenheimer¿s love affairs with country, wife, children, friends, science and women are also well documented. ¿American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer¿ was a great read. It also puts to rest many unanswered and troubling questions concerning the life and times of J. Robert Oppenheimer. This masterpiece of literary work will not be outdone any time soon.
Seghetto More than 1 year ago
This book was amazing. I read it for 3 days straight. I couldn't put it down, I was fascinated by the life of someone so looming in American history. This book goes analytically from the beginning of Oppenheimer's life to his final years of being shunned by the government. There are appearances by other famous characters just as looming in the scientific establishment of the time. Oppenheimer went from first rate scientist to administrator of arguably the greatest scientific program in history. Seeing the change was amazing. This book will make you sad, happy, understanding, and ignite a passion for physics.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An excellent read that was very well written. It not only covers the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, but also an insight into the politics and history of his time.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is an excellent account of Oppenheimer and his times. He was an incredible person dealing with complex moral and scientific issues.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an engrossing review of our country's nuclear policy and the men who initially shaped the nuclear age. Amazingly, the same discussion takes place in our time!
Clif on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A well written biography about an interesting person. It also gives insight into the anti-communist hysteria of the early 50s. Read in June, 2007
orderflow on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A bit slow in some places, but very thorough and insightful.
austinbarnes on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A good pick for our first book club, I thought. Provoked a lot of discussion. Oppenheimer lead a fascinating life, and the authors did a great job telling his story.
Radaghast on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The best biography I've ever read. This isn't just about Oppenheimer, though you will get plenty of information about him. This is the story of physics and physicists. This is a story about the time in history where the citizen scientist was a real force. This is about the very real threat of Communism and the very real misapplication of that threat. It is a story about a scientist who helped mankind figure out how to destroy itself.
iammbb on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I'm at a bit of a loss to explain my reaction to this book.Perhaps, it's due in part to reading it immediately after the rather weak 109 East Palace.Perhaps, it's due simply to how well done it is.All I know is that I recommend it. Highly.American Prometheus is a 784 page paperback book that despite its length is never dense. In crafting their biography, the authors wisely made the decision not to get weighed down with the science that played such a central role in the protagonist's life.The reader is treated to a clearheaded depiction of a compelling man, one which makes no bones about his flaws while at the same time celebrating his triumphs. The book delves into Oppenheimer's life from start to finish and provides the reader with a perceptive perspective on his motivations.The section on the Gray Board hearings and the concomitant government abuses which culminated with Oppenheimer's loss of his security clearance is eerily reminiscent of the government misdeeds during the Watergate era (in the news recently due to the death of Mark Felt) and the more recent attack on civil liberties which we have suffered through under the current administration.
yooperprof on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
aka "An American Tragedy" - biography at its best, melded with social and political history. Particularly notable for the sense of place conveyed through detailed description of cultural environments: cultured intellectual New York in the 1910s; alternative New Mexico in the 1930s; progressive San Francisco in the early 1940s; Los Alamos; academic Princeton in the 1950s.
rivkat on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Oppenheimer was a privileged, awkward prodigy who grew into a privileged, awkward scientific star. Devoted husband to a troubled wife, adulterer, distant parent, devoted friend, capable of great charm and great vitriol and using the latter instead of the former at the worst possible moments, he was clearly a complex figure. He comes off in the book as more amanuensis than self-sufficient scientist, capable of generating great ideas but not interested in working them through, able to see (and show other people) the greatest potential in others¿ scientific ideas even though his own individual scientific contributions may not have been as striking. Initially an idea man, he made himself into an excellent administrator at Los Alamos apparently just by realizing that he was in charge now and that it needed to be done. Hailed as the father of the atomic bomb, he then began to worry about its implications (though while opposing the hydrogen bomb he became a serious advocate of strategic nuclear bombing on the battlefield, so he wasn¿t exactly a purist), and this as well as his lefty history, combined with his habit of making politically powerful enemies, led to the humiliation of having his security clearance revoked at the height of the anticommunist hysteria of the 1950s. It¿s a fascinating story of a contradictory man across a tumultuous period in American society.
buffalogr on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Great biography about the life and times of one of Americas heroes. Also a good narrative of the 1930-1950s. I was especially taken by the discussions of his connection to New Mexico; Los Alamos and Perro Caliente. Finally, the witch hunt AEC "security investigation" of 1954 was an illumination of the search for communists and the destruction of scientific achievement by the political apparatus.
ksmyth on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This definitive life of J. Robert Oppenheimer follows his brilliant career in theoretical physics, and his leadership of the atomic bomb effort at Los Alamos. Sherwin and Bird paint an interesting portrait of Oppie as a man of passion-supporting the Depression era efforts of the American Communist party to aid Spanish Civil War refugees and other Popular Front activities--as well as patriot, clearly supporting the efforts of the United States to develop a weapon that could win the war. Working with the military and its invasive security apparatus while providing the leadership to solve the technical problems facing the Los Alamos scientists, the Trinity test of July 1945, and the atomic bombings of Japan were Oppenheimer's triumph. The story continues as Oppenheimer did his best to corral the American impulse to launch into a bomb-building race to insure an atomic monopoly. Seeking to derail the research into the development of the hydrogen bomb, internationalize the control of fissionable materials, and defuse a coming, dangerous nuclear arms race. The second half of the story is about Oppenheimer's conflicts with an increasingly conservative, anti-Communist bureaucracy, and supporters of the newly powerful Senator Joseph McCarthy. The withdrawal of his security clearance in 1954, through an incredibly unfair process, marks the end of scientists involved in the public policy process, and the beginning of the flight of scientists to corporate interests that became integral to the military/industrial complex. Not a short read, but well written, a narrative that doesn't bog down.
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