Friday, October 5, 2007

Review of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tregedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin.

From beginning to end I was captivated by the story if this enigmatic man, Robert Oppenheimer. He was sometimes arrogant, sometimes naive, and sometimes full of deep wisdom. He was sharp and charismatic to some, though others found him cold. He had a great gift for seeing the big picture and synthesizing ideas, which made him an especially effective leader of the scientists at Los Alamos working on one of the greatest scientific accomplishments of the century, the harnessing of atomic energy and the creation of the atomic bomb. He had to accept responsibility for the terrible destruction that his creation brought to the world but he didn't regret what he had done. At first I didn't understand why, but now I see his wisdom. The science which led to the making of the bomb was being realized by scientists all over the world and it was inevitable that someone was going to make it. In Oppenheimer's case, he felt it was urgent to beat the Nazis to it if they were indeed on track to produce it, which it turns out they really weren't, but he couldn't have known that at the time.

What left me most troubled after reading Oppenheimer's story was not his role in the creation of the bomb, but the way he was treated in the 1950's when his enemies sough to destroy him politically because they didn't agree with his pacifism. Oppenheimer was against the nuclear arms race and especially the creation of the hydrogen bomb, a much more powerful weapon than the atom bomb. The H-bomb couldn't really serve a military purpose, it wasn't even a city destroyer, it would destroy many cities at a time. In Oppenheimer's mind it would be more worthwhile to produce smaller tactical nuclear weapons for combat use, but the republicans in power felt that it would be wiser to instead focus on having the biggest bomb possible, thereby deterring anyone form ever attacking us for fear of total annihilation.

It is true that Oppenheimer had a past worthy of inspection for someone so close to so many national secrets, but despite the fact that no one managed to find him guilty of any crime other than making some "poor decisions" he was still left completely ruined by these accusations. Although the Atomic energy Commission "inquiry" found him totally loyal to America, they decided he was nonetheless a security risk. Why? Because he disagreed about the direction America was headed in foreign policy.

As I read the tactics used by his accusers I was shaken by the realization that nothing they did then couldn't happen today. While I don't want to believe that full scale McCarthy trials could happen in exactly the same way today I think a great scientist or intellectual like Oppenheimer could be taken down privately, the way Oppenheimer was, without justice and in the name of security. This kind of injustice does little to improve security, and even worse, it diminishes the likelihood that we as a society are going to come up with the solutions we need to face tomorrows security challenges because we have disbarred, alienated, or scared off our greatest minds from speaking up when they recognize a problem.

After finishing this book I sat and reflected upon the story and the potential for similar injustices taking place today and I wept. This story must be known by everyone.There is no black and white right and wrong to it, in the end Oppenheimer is not the golden hero, his enemies shamed, instead we are left to reflect upon our past and present actions, as Oppenheimer did his, and accept responsibility for our part in it, whether for good or for evil. Our ability to avoid future disasters depends on our ability to understand this and learn from it.

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. Vintage Books, New York. 2005

No comments:

Post a Comment