American Prometheus

Oppenheimer biography contains lessons that resonate today

During the summer between his freshman and sophomore years in college, Martin J. Sherwin worked at a uranium mine in Wyoming. Now a professor in the Department of History, Sherwin still recalls hearing the click, click, click of the Geiger counter while on the job. He didn’t know it then, but much of his life would become focused on the history, the politics and the social issues involving the use of atomic energy—more precisely, the development of the atomic bomb, which requires the very substance Sherwin was digging out of the desert.

Sherwin’s new biography, American Prometheus (Knopf, 2005), has been published to wide acclaim. It tells the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who led the Manhattan Project, which resulted in the development and use of the atomic bomb in August 1945.

Oppenheimer is a complex figure who has long tantalized the public. He has been the subject of books, plays, movies and now an opera called “Doctor Atomic,” which premiered in San Francisco on October 1. A brilliant man whose genius was recognized when he was a child, Oppenheimer was charismatic and charming, but he could be difficult, quirky and insecure. Not only was he an accomplished scientist, he turned out to be a top-notch administrator, recruiting and organizing hundreds of scientists in Los Alamos, N.M., who worked under enormous pressure to develop the bomb, believing that if they did not, the Nazis would do it first.

Humiliated by hearings
After the war, Oppenheimer attained the status of popular hero and became known as the “father of the atomic bomb.” But he vigorously promoted international control of atomic energy and turned his efforts to advocating oversight over the weapon he helped create to make sure it never had to be used again. In 1949, he opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb. Ultimately, he was humiliated in 1954 by hearings to determine whether he represented a threat to American security. The proceedings that stripped him of his security clearance violated federal laws, including the illegal wiretapping of his lawyer’s telephone.

“It’s the story,” said Sherwin, “of a remarkable human being who was involved in some of the most important developments of the 20th century—the development of the atomic bomb and the role nuclear weapons would play in the world after World War II. And it raises questions about the debate over national security issues in the 1950s that resonate today.”

Sherwin began working on the book in 1978 but became sidetracked by other projects. In 1985 he founded the Nuclear Age History and Humanities Center at Tufts and also began the Global Classroom Project, linking students in Moscow with students in his classes via interactive television broadcasts. Students and their professors discussed such issues as the history of the nuclear arms age, and later on, other issues such as the environment. The programs were shown on PBS stations in the United States and the USSR, and each spring Sherwin took his students to Moscow.

Martin J. Sherwin © MELODY KO

“To my surprise, it was difficult to pick up the writing…so I invited my friend, Kai Bird, with whom I had written many articles, to join the project.” The book is a compelling personal story of a complicated man who studied Sanskrit and poetry as well as physics, whose students worshipped him but whose own children struggled in a family where both parents had difficulty relating to their children.

Historical warning
It is also the political and social history of the times: The authors write about the communist movement of the 1930s in the United States, the development of U.S. atomic policy, the Manhattan Project and the era of McCarthyism when Oppenheimer was forced out of government service.

“I am very interested in the McCarthy period because it represents a historical warning that democracy is vulnerable to the government’s abuse of power,” said Sherwin. “Of course, that has a certain resonance today: secrecy in government, the citation of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism, the manipulation of public anxiety and the creation of the enemy within, the enemy without. It gives government a lot of leeway to have people so anxious instead of accurately analyzing the dangers that America faces.”

Sherwin said the book has interested the Washington law firm Arnold and Porter in taking up Oppenheimer’s case and reviewing the security hearing to try to clear his name.

Marjorie Howard is a senior writer for Arts, Sciences and Engineering. She can be reached at