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BOOK REVIEW: "American Prometheus" by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin

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BOOK REVIEW: American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin (Vintage Books) 2005

“Today that pride must be tempered with a profound concern. If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time wil come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima.

So said 41-year old J. Robert Oppenheimer, the highly-recognized theoretical physicist and “father of the atomic bomb,” who was resigning his directorship at the secret “city on the hill” laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico on October 16, 1945, exactly three months to the day after the successful test of the first-ever atomic bomb at the Trinity Site, near the Jornada del Muerto, an ancient Spanish trail translating as “Journey of the Dead Man.”

And such a name and location is certainly apropos in light of the work the brilliant scientist who was born in 1904 in New York City and would play a major role in the creation of that aforementioned atomic bomb, but also the two bombs, nicknamed “Little Boy and “Fat Man,” which would destroy the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively, and ending World War II in August 1945.

Yes, Oppenheimer is a complicated figure in American and world history. Via the super-secret, government-funded Manhattan Project, he helped get this “genie” out of the bottle, but when it was finally out, well, “(Oppenheimer) seemed to feel that the destruction of the entire human race was imminent,” as noted by President Harry S. Truman’s Commerce Secretary Henry Wallace.

It was with the future Progressive Party presidential candidate Wallace to whom Oppenheimer confided about “his deepest anxieties about the bomb.” And while the sensitive scientist tried to explain to Truman about his deep concerns about this deadly weapon, saying he felt like he had “blood on my hands,” Truman was not about to accept this comment from a “cry-baby scientist,” allegedly saying later about his encounter with Oppie: “Blood on his hands, dammit, he hasn’t half as much blood on his hands as I have. You just don’t go bellyaching about it.” Truman would also tell an aide that he never wanted to see Oppenheimer in the Oval Office ever again.

All of this, and so much more is captured in Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Oppenheimer, American Prometheus, a book that should be on the “must read” list of anyone interested in American history, American warfare and science. Actually, this is a “must read” for everyone, because Bird and Sherwin did an outstanding amount of diligent research is fleshing out this mystical renaissance man who quoted Vedic scripture and smoked like a chimney.

Bird and Sherwin's 2005 book takes the reader over nearly 600 pages and deep into Oppie's life, including much about his wife and children and the problems that surrounded his family, his work and his reputation. But at the very least, Oppenheimer's name will live on, long after the details of The Manhattan Project are lost and/or forgotten.

Raised in a New York Jewish family, young Robert was a smart and sensitive kid who often seemed awkward, nervous and lonely. He was not particularly popular with his schoolmates and jumped at the chance to visit the American West in New Mexico, when invited as a young man by a friend. Oppenheimer would fall in love with the northern New Mexico landscape and would later recommend the boy's ranch site at remote Los Alamos as the location for the secret city which would create the atomic bomb, under his leadership.

And as the subtitle, "Triumph and Tragedy" of Oppenheimer notes, this book is almost Shakespearean in scope. His rise in the academic and scientific communities at Harvard and later in California at Berkeley and Caltech in Pasadena. He was a rising star in many ways. And shortly after completion of the Pentagon on September 11, 1941, under the tough-as-nails leadership of Army Corps of Engineers Gen. Leslie Groves - with the Second World War just getting underway - the race to build the atomic bomb, known as "the gadget," would soon be underway, and Groves would choose Oppenheimer as the man to complete the task.

And this portion of the book makes for exciting and informative reading. All the while, his left-wing connections, his affairs with women while he was married to his unwell wife Kitty, and his seeming aloofness amongst colleagues at Los Alamos, would get him into trouble over time - political trouble.

And following the success of the detonation of an atomic bomb at the Trinity Site, and to the end of the war, the enemies Oppenheimer made along his path in life would prove his undoing. This was when the anti-Communist hysteria was rising (Oppie had had an affair with Jean Tatlock, who had been a Communist until her untimely death by her own hand) and those men, people like Lewis Strauss, who would head the Atomic Energy Commission, did not like Oppenheimer's open apprehensions about nuclear technology and weaponry, especially when Edward Teller was well on his way to developing a hydrogen bomb.

There were hearings in Washington and Oppenheimer - once a king in the wartime era - was torn down and destroyed by fellow Americans who did not like his politics, his independence and his notoriety. There was an air of jealousy and even anti-Semitism (think the Dreyfus Affair in France) amongst his Republican foes and Oppenheimer was worn down by it, becoming an even more notable chain smoker and gaunt figure with icy blue eyes.

Oppenheimer would draw further into himself. He no longer wanted to be a public figure, especially after the hearings led to him losing his government security clearance. He would spend time in the U.S. Virgin Islands, learning the ways of the sea and of sailing. And with the election of John F. Kennedy as president, the Democratic leader was determined to right a wrong and award him in 1963 with the Enrico Fermi Prize, a $50,000 tax-free award and medal for public service.

The authors noted that this act by Kennedy was a "highly symbolic act of political rehabilitation," something that drove his enemies crazy. But in a strange bit of synchromysticism, the man who blew up an atomic bomb on the 33rd degree line of latitude at Trinity would be prevented from accepting the Fermi award from JFK because of an assassin's bullet in Dallas, also on the 33rd degree line of latitude, not far from a river called Trinity. A river that empties into the Gulf of Mexico on the 94th meridian, which I am researching independently.

See James Shelby Downard's Mystical War and King/Kill 33 for more on that ... or this book.

Anyway, the last the American public would see of Oppenheimer was in 1965, on the 20th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. Interviewed by Chet Huntley for the documentary The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, it was here that Oppenheimer opened up and spoke of his thoughts about the Trinity Test, reciting from Vedic scripture in the Bhagavad-Gita: "Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds."

Those ancient words would echo out over the airwaves and into the cosmic consciousness of all human beings, at least those with ears to hear.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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