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Reviewed by:
  • American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer
  • Bruce Vandervort and Thomas A. Julian
American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. By Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. New York: A. A. Knopf, 2005. ISBN 0-375-41202-6. Photographs. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xiii, 591. $35.00.

This sympathetic biography by two well-known revisionist historians of the brilliant and still controversial physicist who directed the World War II Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb is clearly meant to be definitive. By invoking the Greek legend of Prometheus, who was punished by the gods for giving man fire, the authors seek to dramatize both the heroic and tragic elements in Oppenheimer's life and career. According to the authors' preface, a quarter of a century in the making, the book contains an impressive bibliography that includes many manuscript and government document collections, including FBI files, as well as over one hundred interviews.

The authors cover much already familiar ground concerning Oppenheimer's public career, including his fall from grace as a result of the 1954 hearings regarding his security clearance, but they also provide much new personal information about his family background and troubled marriage. The New York Times, among others, has reviewed the book favorably, and the History Book Club has selected American Prometheus as one of its featured offerings. Notwithstanding these positive attributes, the book is seriously marred. The authors' prose reflects their continuing animus at the original decision by the Truman administration to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They still assert, despite the conclusive evidence to the contrary recently summarized brilliantly by J. Samuel Walker in Diplomatic History ("Recent Literature on Truman's Atomic Bomb Decision: A Search for Middle Ground," April 2005), that Japan was already defeated and wanted to "surrender," rather than the actual situation that the military clique running Japan sought not to surrender unconditionally, as required [End Page 201] by the Potsdam Declaration in July 1945, but rather to end the war by negotiating results for Japan that went well beyond merely retaining the emperor.

Because the authors say Oppenheimer was never told of the asserted Japanese desire to surrender, he thus becomes even more of a "Promethean," since they imply such knowledge might have caused him to refuse his acquiescence to using the bomb and even helping "weaponeer" its employment by specifying the height at which it should be detonated. The authors also ignore disturbing evidence provided from former Soviet sources that Oppenheimer might have provided information to the Soviet Union about the U.S. atomic bomb project during the course of the work at Los Alamos. If true, this would not necessarily mean that Oppenheimer acted as a Soviet agent, since such an action could well have been motivated by his previous idealistic and sympathetic view of the Soviet Union, a view shared by many educated American elites during the years of the Great Depression. It certainly would have been consonant with his association with Communists and their "front" groups in the San Francisco area, possibly even party membership, prior to the war.

Even the sympathetic David Cassidy, still skeptical of the charges, has pointed out in his Oppenheimer and the American Century (New York: Hi Press, 2005), that as late as 1942, long after the Nazi-Soviet Pact had caused the disaffection of many party members and fellow travelers (a category into which Oppenheimer placed himself during later testimony), Oppenheimer was still supporting Communist causes. Not to at least describe and discuss, even if only ultimately to provide counterevidence and dismiss, such charges, is to undermine seriously Bird and Sherwin's claim to either objectivity or completeness. Whatever questions some scholars like Amy Knight may have raised about the evidence, particularly the oral memoir of Pavel Sudoplatov, who says he was the Soviet secret police official in charge of penetrating the Manhattan Project, it is at least curious that Russia's President Vladimir Putin, in a CNN interview with Larry King in 2000, reportedly asked King why America's leading scientists at Los Alamos had cooperated with the Soviets in helping them build their initial atomic bomb...


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pp. 201-205
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2010
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