American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

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American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

By Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin
Knopf, 2005
736 pp. $35.00

In this stunning blockbuster, two accomplished Cold War historians have come together to tell Robert Oppenheimer's poignant and extraordinary story. They reveal the complexity of a man whose Jewishness was expressed through secular humanism, who was notable for his ethical sense and erudition yet played a leading role in bringing weapons of mass slaughter into existence. Oppenheimer's fears that this achievement would ruin the world led him to urge international control of atomic energy, which, along with his espousal of left-wing causes during the tumultuous 1930s, led him to become the most celebrated victim of the anticommunist paranoia of the 1950s. The authors convey how these great issues appeared to Oppenheimer at the time and describe his interaction with the remarkable figures with whom he was in regular contact -- George Kennan, David Lilienthal, Isidor Rabi, and the antihero Lewis Strauss. The background political context is not fully explored, but this is a small complaint. Bird and Sherwin have undertaken a daunting amount of research, and they do full justice to the complexity of Oppenheimer's story.

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