Sunday, January 14, 2007

American Prometheus

I grew up in the Cold War.

As a child I always lived in large population centers (with strategic importance). One of the ongoing memories of my elementary school experience was the drill where we'd all file out of our classrooms, line up along the lockers in the hall, duck down and cover our heads with our little hands.

Duck and cover.

It was generally understood we practiced this exercise in case those perfidious Russkies dropped the Hydrogen Bomb on us. As I grew older, I came to understand this would accomplish little, save perhaps making it easier to sweep up our incinerated remains (assuming there was anyone left to do the sweeping).

One of the few voices raised against the development and stockpiling of nuclear weapons -- which led to the insanity that came to be known serendipitously as MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) -- was that of J. Robert Oppenheimer, subject of American Prometheus: the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, an excellent biography by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin.

Oppenheimer, who led the government's efforts to develop the first atomic bomb, came to see the use of nuclear weapons as terrorism and genocide, an attitude that was cemented by the bombings Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the time the Japanese government had been negotiating terms of surrender. At the time many of the scientists who worked on the atomic bomb felt a "demonstration" of its power should be given before unleashing it.

Oppenheimer's pre-war politics (which he made no secret of) were unabashedly liberal. 1930's University of California, Berkeley, where he taught, was awash with far-left politics. More than a few friends and associates had connections with the Communist Party, which attracting many by its championing of racial equality, union rights, anti-fascism and other progressive causes. Indeed his wife's first husband and his brother were both members of the Party.

After the war, Oppenheimer actively promoted arms control, opposing the development and use of the hydrogen bomb, a project championed by the ambitious and prickly Edward Teller, a Hungarian emigre. This earned him the enmity of some powerful enemies, including Teller and conservative government officials and military branches (the Strategic Air Command seethed at his suggestion that smaller "tactical" battlefield weapons be funded, at the expense of "strategic" city destroying weapons).

He also earned the wrath of Lewis Strauss, a thin-skinned shoe-salesman who rose to become a powerful Wall Street banker, and who served on and later chaired the Atomic Energy Commission. Strauss, among those who advocated amassing a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons, came to view Oppenheimer as disloyal and lead the movement to strip him of his security clearance.

Eventually, Oppenheimer's name would be rehabilitated, in the sixties. The controversy surrounding Strauss's involvement in the affair caused his confirmation as Eisenhower's Secretary of Commerce to be narrowly defeated in Congress.

Teller became a near pariah in scientific circles and emerged as a darling of conservatives. In 1958 he proposed excavating a harbor in Alaska by setting off a series of hydrogen bombs, and in the 1980's championed Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars Defense"), another hair-brained, unworkable scientific fantasy.

Though told with a definite bias towards the subject, the book does not omit mentioning his warts. Oppenheimer could be arrogant, aloof and misguided. But he could also be charming and generous to a fault to his friends.

American Prometheus: the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer is an absorbing chronicle of Oppenheimer and the times he lived in, especially the the anti-Communist hysteria of the post-war era. Funny how history repeats itself -- the terms "Communist," "Communist Sympathizer" and "Fellow Traveler," remind one of how the word "Terrorist" has become the broad brush used in today's world by right-wing politicians and pundits.

Another excellent book I've read that covered much of the time and cast of characters is Brotherhood of the Bomb, by Gregg Herken.

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