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

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Kai Bird and Martin J. SherwinBy Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, Borzoi Books, New York, 2005 Click to Buy this Book!

In the Author’s Note and Acknowledgments section, Martin Sherwin informs the reader that this biography was 25 years in the making. The work began in 1979 with a visit to the “Oppenheimer Ranch” in New Mexico, called Perro Caliente (“hot dog”), a few months after Sherwin signed a contract with publisher Alfred A. Knopf. Here he met Peter Oppenheimer, Robert’s son. Kai Bird, author of The Color of Truth, was invited to join him as co-author in 2000. Both authors “acknowledge the percipiency” of two friends who suggested the title of the book, “American Prometheus.” It will be indicated at the conclusion of this review, however, that this is not an appropriate title: J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904–1967) hardly stands up at all by comparison with the Titan Prometheus.

The five-part biography is 721 pages in length, and the reader may soon begin to wonder why it was necessary to include so many personal or private details about the life of Oppenheimer and those he knew or influenced. To the degree that biographical research and writing make no attempt to approach the science of the spirit, as is called for in our time, it risks sinking, by way of compensation, into a haze of insignificant details that will eventually prove tiresome for the most determined of readers. In contrast to American Prometheus, author William Sheehan approaches and enters into the realm of the spirit, although tentatively, in his biography of Edward Emerson Barnard, The Immortal Fire Within.

The Preface of American Prometheus introduces the central theme of Oppenheimer’s personal trials that began in the year 1953 when his life “suddenly spun out of control” after he received a letter from the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) hinting at espionage activities and stating that Oppenheimer had been declared a security risk. The government, i.e., J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, had been hounding Oppenheimer for years with constant surveillance and illegal wire-taps because of his affiliations with the Communist Party in the 1930s. Through long detailed expositions, the authors stress that interest in communism was popular among many young academic intellectuals at that time. They were seeking, through involvement with various left-wing movements, the ideal of a humanitarian social order along the lines of socialism or communal sharing, and were apparently unaware of the dark and brutal side of Russian communism. The conclusions of the AEC’s hearings are revealed near the end of the book, in Chapter Thirty-Seven, titled “A Black Mark on the Escutcheon of Our Country.” “By a vote of two to one, the board deemed Oppenheimer a loyal citizen who was nevertheless a security risk.” Oppenheimer (often affectionately called Opje or Oppie) had his security clearance revoked, yet went on to live the rich and rewarding life of a respected professor of physics and an international celebrity. Ironically, in Latin America the admired physicist was called “El Padre de la Bomba Atomica.” (There is no evidence in this thoroughly researched book that Oppenheimer ever passed on secrets about the atomic bomb to Russia, as claimed in the 1994, 1995 book by Pavel A. Sudoplatov, who had been a KGB agent, a spy and an assassin. Who, besides conspiracy theorists, would believe the word of someone like Sudoplatov?)

A photograph across from page 274 shows Robert as an exquisitely beautiful toddler, with pale blue eyes, in the lap of his handsome father, Julius. As he grew from childhood through youth, maturity and older years he never lost his charismatic, almost feminine beauty, probably inherited from his attractive mother, Ella. But “feminine” belies his predominantly masculine nature. To overcome his “cutie” appearance and sensitive disposition he cultivated physical strength and courage, through love of sailing, and, in New Mexico, hiking, camping, horseback riding and rugged ranch living. He was bookish and studious in childhood and youth and was early recognized as a genius, but his father, through loving guidance, helped him to overcome the associations of sensitive genius with inherent weakness. His parents were very wealthy and as a result Robert enjoyed the privileges of wealth to the end of his life. The authors detail his education at a unique private school in New York City established by the Ethical Culture Society, his 1925 summa cum laude graduation from Harvard University with a BS in chemistry, and postgraduate work at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, England. Although Robert had elected to study chemistry, he was to prove ineffective in laboratory or “hands on” work. At Cambridge he faced “existential crises” with deep depression that brought out “weird” behavior and — of critical importance in understanding him — murderous tendencies, with unprovoked attacks on friends that he was able to stop only in the last moments. Far more serious, he laced an apple with lethal poison (possibly cyanide) and gave it to his teacher at Cavendish, Patrick M. Blackett. Fortunately the apple was not consumed, and Robert’s father managed to prevent any action or prosecution for “attempted murder” that would have destroyed Robert’s life. Robert was required to see a psychiatrist, and outsmarted at least two therapists. He finally came into harmony with his destiny through studies in the abstractions of theoretical physics at the University of Göttingen in Germany. At the time, through the work of Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and others, quantum physics or quantum mechanics “was soon to replace classical physics when dealing with subatomic phenomena.”

The reader will follow how Robert matured in confidence and ability in theoretical physics through his teaching position at Berkeley, California, and became a strong and charismatic leader who was naturally generous and fond of socializing with his students. These developments and stabilities in his life and personality may be attributed to his marriage to Katherine “Kitty” Puening in 1940. Generally, however, Kitty was not well-liked, and friends and acquaintances believed that she exerted a mysterious and powerful influence on Oppenheimer, some describing her as lacking in warmth, and even as “evil.” In addition to their son, Peter, Robert and Kitty had a daughter, Toni. (Toni committed suicide in 1977. Robert’s lover, Jean Tatlock, had also committed suicide.)

Parts Three and Four detail the better-known facts of Oppenheimer’s role throughout the “Manhattan Project” at Los Alamos, New Mexico, that resulted in the successful test detonation at the site he named “Trinity,” located in the Jornada del Muerto Desert near Alamogordo. General Leslie R. Groves had appointed him director of Los Alamos, in no small measure on the basis of his charisma. According to the authors, the dropping of the atomic bombs on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were unnecessary, for the war with Germany was over and Japanese surrender appeared imminent. Many physicists had petitioned to stop use of the atomic bomb, which they considered would be immoral and reprehensible, although their efforts proved too late. Oppenheimer believed that the scientists’ responsibilities ended after the completion of the work at Los Alamos and the successful Trinity test. He never understood why Nagasaki was necessary, add the authors.

A study in depth of J. Robert Oppenheimer reveals him to be a mass of contradictions: feminine and masculine, outstanding physicist yet lover of literature and poetry, strong and weak, sociable and secretive, kind and cruel, moral and immoral, private and public, faithful and disloyal, Jewish but not Jewish, devoted and dangerous, patriotic American and Russian sympathizer, persecuted yet lauded, administrator and teacher yet the best of friends, secular humanist yet a student of the Bhagavad Gita. His peculiar walk was many times observed as decidedly jerky and pronated, which seems to indicate severe divisions and contradictions within the will, divisions that were nevertheless overcome by a powerful intellect. The serious incident involving the attempted murder of his teacher seems to reveal an evil character and evil tendencies that could only have been brought from a past life. Yet he is determined to be a good person and to do good, determined to change his fundamental temperament and character. Through his studies of Hinduism he becomes aware of karma or destiny and probably glimpses his future role in the service of evil. Yet he will turn even this to the good as teacher and leader at Los Alamos, as well as through offering wise guidance during the early years of the atomic age. Consider that he never could have achieved what he did in his lifetime had he allowed evil to rule his disposition in any way. He was smart enough to avoid becoming an actual member of the Communist Party. Anthroposophists and others must continue to get to the truth or not — through spiritual scientific research — of what appears to be a strong connection between the events of Los Alamos and the dark Mesoamerican Mexican mysteries, including the possibility that Oppenheimer was a “black magician” in a prior life in Mesoamerica. It can never be forgotten that the work at Los Alamos resulted in the violent and painful deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings, and it would appear that this fact, and the ushering in of the nuclear age and the so-called “good” uses of atomic power, occurred for no reasons at all, without any justification whatsoever, except to demonstrate American scientific and militaristic superiority and to harp on about a weapon that would end all wars.

Prometheus has been described as a Titan who taught men the use of writing and of the arts, and most importantly, how to use fire. For this deed he was punished by Zeus and was chained to the rocks, in the Caucasus, where each night a vulture, symbolizing human desires, fed on his liver. The name Prometheus means thinking in advance, whereas Epimetheus, the brother of Prometheus, means thinking afterwards or reflecting. Just as Prometheus was chained to the rocks, so modern discoverers and inventors are chained to materialism, to mechanics and purely physical processes, processes that can be seen, physically proven and experimentally repeated. Scientists and physicists continue to take research and discoveries to sub-technical, subatomic extremes, but these are still physical processes, processes that can be visually detected and measured. In some very limited respects Oppenheimer may be likened to Prometheus, although he was never able to work with his hands as do true inventors and discoverers. The fact is, unlike Prometheus, neither his work nor the work of the other scientists at Los Alamos has ever benefited humanity, but rather has brought forth little but death and destruction, aided, consciously or unconsciously, by deep and powerful emotions of unending horror and fear.

And it seems that the only true tragedy J. Robert Oppenheimer knew in his wealthy, privileged, richly-rewarded life was to leave it — to use his own words — with “blood on my hands,” and with deepest regrets. He died in 1967 of cancer of the throat, probably caused by his lifelong habit of heavy smoking. – Review by Martha Keltz.

References: Greek and Germanic Mythology in the Light of Esotericism, Lecture One: The Prometheus Saga, by Rudolf Steiner, 1904. Inner Impulses of Evolution, particularly Lecture Five: Atlantean Impulses in the Mexican Mysteries, The Problem of Natural Urges and Impulses, The Problem of Death, by Rudolf Steiner, 1916.

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