While I was serving as U.S. Commissioner General at Expo 2020 Dubai, I read a remarkable book that is back in the spotlight. American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, was the inspiration for the current box office hit Oppenheimer.
This 721-page-long book is tough to read at times, and incredibly captivating. Twenty-five years in the making and exhaustively researched, the biography won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006. It’s a captivating portrait of a brilliant, complex, and flawed figure who played a critical role in shaping the course of 20th-century history.
Robert Oppenheimer was the charismatic theoretical physicist who led the Manhattan Project, a top-secret government research program that ultimately led to the successful testing of the world’s first atomic bomb, code-named “Trinity,” in 1945.
The authors trace his journey from early education at New York City’s Ethical Culture School to his time at Harvard and Cambridge. After studying quantum physics in Germany, he established a theoretical physics school in Berkeley, California. Due to his involvement in social justice causes, he sometimes worked with advocates who were communists. Later, he led Los Alamos, turning it into a powerful nuclear weapons facility.
Despite his pivotal role in the development of nuclear weapons during WWII, Oppenheimer became known for his complex feelings about their use. He expressed deep concerns about the devastating potential of atomic bombs and the ethical implications of their deployment. His famous quote from the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” reflects his somber realization of the power he helped unleash.
In the 1950s, in the midst of the Cold War, Atomic Energy Commission chairman Lewis Strauss, thermonuclear “superbomb” advocate Edward Teller and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover convinced the Eisenhower administration that Oppenheimer could not be trusted with America’s nuclear secrets. His security clearance was revoked by the U.S. government because of his opposition to the development of the hydrogen bomb and his association with left-leaning political and social causes.
However, he continued to contribute significantly to the field of theoretical physics and served in various academic and scientific roles.
Like the Titan who gave mortals the gift of fire – leading the gods to punish him and the whole of humanity – Oppenheimer’s legacy is one of incredible contributions to science along with ethical debates surrounding nuclear weapons.
American Prometheus is a profound, accessible study of a genius, as well as an exhilarating history of what was happening behind the scenes during World War II and the Cold War. By exposing the madness of this period, the narrative poses thought-provoking questions about our choices for the future. I highly recommend reading it.