J. Robert Oppenheimer led the Manhattan Project, which developed the Atomic Bomb that the US Military dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. The Japanese surrendered less than a week later. This project alone would have cemented Oppenheimer's place in history. But his story is far more complex.
Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin's 2005 biography "American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer" tells this story. The book follows Oppenheimer's life, from his privileged upbringing to his rise to become one of the world's most celebrated physicists to the attacks by the FBI, which led to his downfall.
Robert Oppenheimer was a brilliant student at Harvard, excelling in every course he took. He traveled to Europe after graduation to study under Max Born and many of the most famous scientists of the day, where he picked up the nickname "Oppy." He was an awkward student but became a charismatic socialite a few years later when he founded the theoretical physics program at the University of California in Berkeley. Based on his academic reputation, the US Government asked him to lead the Manhattan Project, charged with creating an atomic bomb before Hitler's Germany could do so. His success in developing the bomb (or "the gadget," as his team often called it) brought him fame following the war.
However, with increased Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, the US Government began questioning Oppenheimer's loyalty.
While at Berkely, Oppenheimer made no secret of his leftist political leanings. Although he never joined the Communist Party, he befriended many Communists, including his brother Frank and wife Kitty. In those days, he attended meetings of organizations sympathetic to Soviet Communism. But, like many American Communists of the time, Robert became disenchanted with Soviet Communism after Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler's Germany in 1939. Although Oppy went on to express loyalty to the US and helped create a weapon to use in the war, the CIA used his pre-war associations to revoke his security clearance during the Cold War. It did not help that Oppenheimer differed publicly with the government's stance on nuclear weapon proliferation and the development of the H-Bomb. This was a time in American history when Senator Joseph McCarthy rose to power by stoking the fear of Communism in the public. An incident in which a friend asked Oppenheimer to reveal nuclear secrets to the Soviets compounded his troubles. Oppenheimer refused but misreported the incident to authorities - a mistake that would prove costly during his postwar interrogation.
Much of "American Prometheus" tells of Robert's fight to retain his reputation while the FBI and the McCarthyites tried to tear him down. The book's climax focuses on the postwar hearing designed to revoke Robert's security clearance.
Bird and Sherwin do an excellent job of relating the events that formed Oppenheimer's opinions and character and highlighting key points in his life. Oppy had his flaws but likely did not deserve the politically motivated attacks brought on by those in power after the war.
This book won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography, and Christopher Nolan adapted it into the 2023 film "Oppenheimer." Oppenheimer's story is one of triumph and tragedy, and "Oppenheimer" chronicles his rise and fall.