Thursday, April 06, 2017


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American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer, Martin J Sherwin & Bird Kai, Alfred A Knopf, 2005, 591 pp

Another long, sometimes dry, but always informative biography about a huge American figure. It took me over a month, while reading other books along with it, but was worth every minute spent.

It is truly an American tragedy. Oppenheimer, son of Jewish immigrants from Germany, a genius indulged by his parents, as complex a man as you will ever meet in history, became the "father of the atomic bomb" and thereafter spent his life in a desperate attempt to advise the American government as to how a nuclear arms race could be avoided. He failed spectacularly in that second endeavor while simultaneously being revered as the most famous scientist of his day.

His life and times from 1904 to 1967 were an embodiment of the horrors of the 20th century. He lived and added to several conundrums. Can science and progress save mankind? Can the richest and most powerful democracy in the world bring about world peace? Can intelligence, dedication, and persistence win over power and evil?

I could say much more, but if you are interested, American Prometheus will take you on a journey through American history you likely have not taken before. Communism, WWII, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, JFK, the Cold War, and the incredible community of Nobel winning scientists, are all brought together in a monumental effort by the two authors of this book. The research and writing took over 25 years. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 2006 as well as the NBCC Award in 2005.

Why did I read it? When I was a teenager living in Princeton, NJ, another German immigrant, a female photographer, friend of my parents, a woman who would have a huge influence over my life, took me to meet Robert Oppenheimer. He was in the final years of his life, still the head of the Institute For Advanced Study in Princeton, but a fairly broken man, so I was told. What I remember is my sense that I was in the presence of a great man, that he looked ill and beaten. I was told he was suffering from a great sense of guilt over what he had helped create: the atom bomb.

In the biography I learned there was much more to the story. He was not broken by his guilt because he did all he could to atone. He was broken by the Military Industrial Complex and the hysteria of men who so feared communism that they figured having the world's biggest arsenal of atomic weapons was the only solution. God and saints preserve us. 

(American Prometheus is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)


  1. I'm putting this one on my wishlist.

  2. So interesting that you met Oppenheimer; you don't forget things like that! He definitely sounds like a huge, intriguing figure in history. Quite a monumental work, taking 25 yrs in the making. I wonder if you have also read Richard Rhodes's book The Making of the Atomic Bomb? I've always been curious to read it...

    1. Yes, meeting him made a big impression on me. I just saw mention of the Rhodes book today when I was looking at reviews of the Oppenheimer book on Goodreads. I have a feeling I am not done reading about the bomb!

  3. How fascinating to hear that you met Oppenheimer, in many ways a tragic figure. I'm sure that must have made reading his story personal for you.

    1. Yes personal but I have always been anti-nuke and somehow the book made me right!