The Student Newspaper of Lakeside School


The Student Newspaper of Lakeside School


The Student Newspaper of Lakeside School


American Prometheus: Robert versus Oppenheimer


The group of scientists that came together to offset the consequences of their own work on the atomic bomb – after the fact, mind you – was called the Association of Los Alamos Scientists, or ALAS. This ironic abbreviation, eliciting feelings of pity as you look back on the past, is extremely relevant to to the retelling of the life of Julius Robert Oppenheimer, head of this project and father of the atomic bomb, that is American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer’s role in the project is treated as an inevitability, rather than a choice he continued to make each day he was there. Incredible analysis is brought to all aspects of his life besides the most clear fact of all; he led the project that brought death and suffering to hundreds of thousands of innocent citizens in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. How does this story get lost in the hundreds of pages spent building up Robert and villainizing his enemies, and what does this mean for the greater story of nuclear war?

As indicated by its gracious pagecount, American Prometheus tells a complete story of Oppenheimer’s life. We are first introduced to how early set brilliance and childhood loneliness affected his development before he finally found solace in physics. We also learn of his early communist connections (though Oppenheimer always maintained that he had never been a member of the Communist Party.) Oppenheimer’s process throughout the Manhattan Project is followed, with the book culminating in his disastrous 1954 security hearing, where he lost his security clearance and spent the rest of his days as the director of the Institute of Advanced Study.

Despite following many convoluted physics theories and political relationships, authors Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin succeed in keeping you invested. I was consistently impressed with the endings of chapters, which would foreshadow future plot points while providing a satisfying ending to the current chapter. Themes throughout the book were well maintained and integrated as well, such as the journey of Oppenheimer’s scientific discovery and his artistic interests. 

This is arguably the most important part of the book to be analyzing his mental state, and we barely scratch the surface.

Of course, a story being well written isn’t its only criteria, especially when telling the story of a figure as controversial as Oppenheimer. I knew this before starting the book – and yet, as I read, I found the book attempting to convince me that his work wasn’t as devastating as it really was. The comparison of Oppenheimer to Prometheus suggests that he was wrongfully punished, and you can tell the authors wholeheartedly believe this. There are constant references to the backwardness of the foes that Oppenheimer was facing: “Self-righteous to a fault… desperate need to condescend,” (360) of Lewis Strauss and “[his] gross misunderstanding and ignorance” (333) of Harry Truman. While these might have been accurate, the authors choose to use much more emphatic language when describing the behavior of these men but are neutral – even supportive – in describing Oppenheimer’s equally, if not more, destructive behavior. When Germany and Japan were virtually defeated and the scientists of Los Alamos concerned about the consequences of their work, Oppenheimer convinced the majority of them to continue working by arguing that they needed to reveal this new weapon to the United Nations, seemingly prioritizing scientific development over thousands of human lives. The authors leave no comment on this, rather ending the chapter with a quote from one of the scientists present describing Oppenheimer as “angelic, true and honest.” This is only one of many examples of the authors refusing to call out the hypocrisy in Oppenheimer’s actions, despite him obviously having the foresight to understand the real world implications of his work.

This only refers to the explicit wording in the description of these events. Even the structure of the book shows where the true priority lies in the storytelling. Out of forty chapters, only ten focus on the process of creating the atomic bomb. The twelve before it focus on Oppenheimer’s upbringing, and the eighteen afterwards describe Oppenheimer’s efforts to prevent a nuclear arms race and the security hearing he endured because of it. While these other aspects of his life are critical to a full understanding of Oppenheimer’s psyche, the two years of his life in Los Alamos that he’s most known for feel as if they aren’t afforded the attention they deserve. 

Additionally, this section of the book feels strangely impersonable. Despite the complex understanding of Oppeneheimer’s experiences elsewhere in American Prometheus, what are we told was his primary motivation during his time heading the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos? He wanted to beat the Germans to the bomb. This is arguably the most important part of the book to be analyzing his mental state, and we barely scratch the surface. At one point, his friend debates the ethics of Oppenheimer’s work and confronts the question of the Germans having already lost the race, but the only further explanation we’re provided with is, essentially, that they must finish what they’ve started. This could be due to a lack of evidence on the topic, or Oppenheimer not concerning himself with the question during his time there – we as readers don’t know. While the authors have no problem providing their insight when it comes to Oppenheimer’s ambitious enemies or impressive connections, they refuse to condemn Oppenheimer for his work at Los Alamos or to explicitly tie him to it.

While the authors have no problem providing their insight when it comes to Oppenheimer’s ambitious enemies or impressive connections, they refuse to condemn Oppenheimer for his work at Los Alamos or to explicitly tie him to it.

Lastly, there is a clear lack of focus on the victims of the bombings. Over two hundred thousand people died in the attacks, and yet some of the only acknowledgement we get for this great tragedy is Oppenheimer’s remarks of, “Those poor little people.” Nothing better represents this erasure than the first of two image collections included in the book; after a long series of images from Oppenheimer’s early life, two pictures are included from the Hiroshima bombing at the very end, with a short blurb included. The only picture of victims, a mother and child, doesn’t even include their names.

While American Prometheus is clearly a narrative told from Oppenheimer’s perspective, it still adds to the greater story of the atomic bomb. It’s only ignorant to think that the stories of the victims aren’t intrinsic to Oppenheimer and how we should judge his character. The greater flaw with American Prometheus, despite being an amazingly written biography, is that it aims to portray Oppenheimer as a flawed protagonist. While a complex person, as any human is, he was still the head of the project that brought about the atomic bomb. We must remember that this, along with his admirable efforts to control nuclear policy, will always be a part of his person, and that the atomic bomb will always have killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

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About the Contributor
Lael G. ’25
Lael G. ’25, Copy Editor
Lael is disillusioned.   Born May 29th, the universe stopped when Lael entered the world. Per her own recollection (which is “super sharp”), that day the sun shone brilliantly upon the Earth, babies stopped crying, depression was cured, and militants around the world were perplexed as their weapons began to melt into the ground.   Yet, nothing can last forever. For that moment of “Armistice Day all over again” was infinitesimal. Now, Lael spends her days tossing and turning, giving impassioned TED talks in her head, yearning to return the world to that state of bliss. Since elementary school at St. George -- “once a dragon, always a dragon” -- she’s been rallying the masses to her causes through her work in both the “state media apparatus” (the St. George gazette) and her own, underground student operation -- the deliciously subversive “Daily Whatever.”   In high school, her world-changing career in this field has only continued, whether she’s “Doing it for the Duwamish” in her club at school or in downtown Seattle, reporting in the field on student protests for gun control. “It hasn’t been easy,” she says, “I often think philosophically, about my own life and my place in it, and it’s a burden, the weight of it all, you know?” However, despite the heavy consequences of being an ethics bowl superstar, she gets by as Tatler’s faithful copy editor (with just a little help from GamePigeon and her pet cat, Juliet).

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