54 RI Bar J., No. 7, Pg. 13 (July/August 2006). Book Review: American Prometheus - The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin.

AuthorAnthony F. Cottone, Esq.

Rhode Island Bar Journal

Volume 54.

54 RI Bar J., No. 7, Pg. 13 (July/August 2006).

Book Review: American Prometheus - The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin

Rhode Island Bar JournalVolume 54, No. 7, Pg. 13July/August 2006 Book Review: American Prometheus - The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. SherwinAnthony F. Cottone, Esq.Anthony F. Cottone is a sole practitioner, Senior Assistant City Solicitor in Providence and Chair of the Rhode Island Disabilities Law Center *

Prometheus is most often invoked in modernity as a symbol of "magnanimous endurance of unmerited suffering," or of "strength of will resisting oppression." See Bullfinch's Mythology, Chapter II at 15 (1963). As the myth goes Prometheus was a Titan who rather than submit to his oppressors and provide information which would have threatened the stability of Jove's throne, chose to remain chained to a rock on Mount Caucasus while a vulture continually preyed on his ever-regenerating liver. It is not as often recalled that Prometheus and his brother, Epimetheus, were charged by the gods with the task of making man superior to all other animals. When Epimetheus, having bestowed various qualities upon other animals ran out of attributes, he turned to Prometheus, who "with the aid of Minerva, went up to heaven, and lighted his torch at the chariot of the sun, and brought down fire to man. With this gift man was more than a match for all other animals." Id.

Thus did Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin derive the apt title for their recent, comprehensive and insightful biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the "Father of the Bomb" and undoubtedly one of the most interesting personalities of the prior century. (fn1) This dense, meticulously researched, 722-page book was over twenty-five years in the making and bears the fruit of Sherwin's interviews with most of the principal players. And Prometheus is well written and paced and hard to put down.

We read of Oppenheimer's civic activism and the progressive brand of intellectuality nurtured by the New York City school he attended in his early years, which was run by a reform Jewish movement (the Ethical Culture Society) whose members were instrumental in founding the NAACP and the ACLU; of his wide intellectual pursuits - he not only was an inspiration to a number of Nobel prize-winning physicists, he also was a life-long student of the Bhagavad-Gita (a sacred Hindu scripture which he was able to read in its original Sanskrit), Proust and modern psychiatry; of his role as an admitted "fellow traveler," advocate of organized labor and defender of the Spanish Republic in its fight against fascism in the 1930's; of his managerial acumen and ability to garner the respect and focus the energies of the most talented gathering of scientists ever assembled, attributes which, as much as his own brilliance as a physicist, were responsible for the success of the famed weapons laboratory at Las Alamos, where the world's first nuclear bomb - christened "Trinity" by Oppenheimer prior to its detonation on Sunday, July 15, 1945 - was developed; (fn2) and of his later role for nearly twenty years as director of the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, home at one time or another to personages as diverse as Albert Einstein, T.S. Eliot and John Nash.

Not to mention Oppenheimer's unique and frequently highly abrasive personality and his painful family life, which is dealt with at some length in the book, adding pathos to an already tragic tale. Oppenheimer had two children but family life was stressed not only due to the relentless demands on the scientist's time, but also due to his wife, Kitty's, worsening alcoholism and undiagnosed but apparent psychiatric disorders. As brilliant and articulate as he was and as commanding a presence as he most often made, Oppenheimer was in fact psychically as well as physically frail. He had piercing blue eyes, described by one fellow scientist as "not just blue," but "the bluest eyes I've ever seen, very clear blue," yet he weighed less than 135 lbs. and for most of his life chain-smoked four to five packs of cigarettes a day while somehow also finding the time to develop a pipe-smoking habit.

But none dispute that Oppenheimer was single-minded and highly effective in his role as director at Los Alamos, a single-mindedness fueled by his fierce ambition as well as a fear that the Nazis might beat the United States to the atomic punch. Yet, his ambivalence was evident from the outset. Oppenheimer recalled his mixed feelings while observing the world's first nuclear mushroom cloud by noting that:

We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, 'Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.

See Prometheus at 309.

Oppenheimer became increasingly convinced that dropping the bomb had not been a military necessity. Whether or not this was the case is not the subject of Prometheus but it seems clear that Oppenheimer was shocked when the Soviet Union declared war on Japan two days after Hiroshima and one day prior to Nagasaki, something (unbeknownst to Oppenheimer) that Stalin had promised at both Yalta and Potsdam. As noted in Prometheus:

He later recalled that the scientists at Los Alamos 'didn't know beans about the military situation in Japan. We didn't know whether they could be caused to surrender by other means or whether the invasion was really inevitable. But in the backs of our minds was the notion that the invasion was inevitable because we had been told that.' Among other things, he was unaware that military intelligence in Washington had intercepted and decoded messages from Japan indicating that the Japanese government understood the war was lost and was seeking acceptable surrender terms [prior to the bombs being dropped].

See id. at 300.

In fact, Oppenheimer eventually concluded that the Hiroshima bomb had been used "against an essentially defeated enemy," adding that "it [was] a weapon for aggressors, and the elements of surprise and terror are as intrinsic to it as are the fissionable nuclei." See Prometheus at 474. And he was not alone...

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