Saturday, August 18, 2007

I'll teach you to burn

Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin's Pulitzer Prize winning American Prometheus is an excellent example of how a biography should be written. The authors focus on how Robert Oppenheimer's upbringing, academic experiences and personality shaped his approach to his successes in teaching and managing the Manhattan project as well as his failures as a politically engaged public intellectual. While it does not replace Rhodes' book as the leading book of the bomb, it is certainly the leading book on this monumental figure.

Oppenheimer was extremely driven and like a tragic play, many of his early actions comes to haunt him in his later years. His participation with leftist causes in the 30s and his relationships with communist party members nearly cost him his role in the Manhattan project and did cost him involvement in the national security structure during the Eisenhower years. Unfortunately, it was Oppenheimer's ways of alienating people, including President Truman and even worse Lewis Strauss that ultimately crushed him.

There is so much to like about this book. For one, Oppenheimer was an amazing person, conversant in multiple disciplines, although his detractors might instead say he was unfocused and uncommitted to deep study of physics. The book also conveys the turbulent 30s with prominent Americans flirting with hard left politics and then the anti-communist back lash of the late 40s and early 50s. For those who don't desire to read an entire book about the Manhattan project, the book manages to cover that reasonably well. The authors, over the course of decades, conducted dozens of interviews with those familiar with Oppenheimer and the detail is incredible.

The outstanding question about Oppenheimer was not whether he was a spy, but whether he was ever a communist. The authors say no, and provide as much proof as is likely. This makes the witch hunt and hearing all the more reprehensible. The section in which he is effectively tried in a show trial goes on a bit long, but is still worth the read.

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