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The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer: and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race Hardcover – July 25, 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
Harvard historian McMillan (Marina and Lee) focuses on the nine-year span in the late 1940s and early '50s when Oppenheimer, who had spearheaded the development of the atom bomb, was transformed from a hero into an alleged security risk, accused of spying for the Soviets. In light of the outstanding new biography American Prometheus and other recent scholarship on Oppenheimer, this account doesn't transform our perception of the man or the case, but it does fill in background on the anti-Communist agitators inside and outside the federal government, such as Atomic Energy Commission member Lewis Strauss, who conspired to "destroy Oppenheimer and make [Edward] Teller the leader of the scientific community" because of the latter's enthusiasm for (and Oppenheimer's doubts about) developing the hydrogen bomb. McMillan makes Teller one of the chief villains, dwelling on his contentious relations with other atomic researchers and underlining her contempt for his role in creating a massive, "superfluous" nuclear arsenal. The idealistic claim that Oppenheimer could have slowed or prevented the arms race through sheer force of personality is less convincing. Still, this is a damning record of the "travesty of justice" perpetrated through the smear campaign against Oppenheimer. (July 25)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
The revoking of Robert Oppenheimer's security clearance, which caused his dismissal from the National Security Council and effectively ended his influence in the shaping of U.S. nuclear policy, constituted a tragic last act in the career of the father of the atomic bomb. Harvard professor McMillan offers a meticulously detailed account of the trial and the McCarthy-era shenanigans that surrounded it. Much of this story has been told before, most recently in Bird and Sherwin's definitive biography of Oppenheimer, American Prometheus (2005), but McMillan digs deeper, providing more evidence of the double--dealing by Oppenheimer's nemesis, security council member and McCarthy ally Lewis Strauss, and by rival physicist Edward Teller. She also argues persuasively that, had Oppenheimer remained on the council, he might have prevented the full-scale escalation of the arms race. Unfortunately, the security hearing makes for much less compelling reading than the human story of Oppenheimer himself, told so effectively in American Prometheus. Still, this account provides rich supplementary reading for those with an intense interest in the beginnings of the atomic age. Bill Ott
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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What the book is more closely about is precisely the 1954 security clearance hearing, although McMillan spends about the first half of the book winding up to the subject in roundabout ways. She clearly has done her homework and has stories to tell, but she gets caught in the middle often: for example, when she goes into some depth on Teller and his contributions to the H-bomb, she appears to be digressing to slap Teller around if her real focus is the Oppenheimer security hearing, but on the other hand she doesn't go into enough depth if her purpose is to analyze the post-war community of (thermo-)nuclear bomb research.
Also, the book needed an editor to pick up the places where she repeats vignettes or quotes that she related 50 pages earlier; this unfortunately makes the book come off slapdash at times, although I think it was actually meticulously researched (no doubt just squeezed out under deadline). And, stylistically, the book's general methodical, dry tone (suitable to the material) is occasionally punctuated by McMillan's outrage with melodramatic chapter endings like: "the vast arsenal of superfluous nuclear weaponry that curses us today." My heart is with her, but she compromises the book with unbalanced rhetoric like this every 20 pages or so. One almost feels that she just couldn't stand being sober any more and has to yell out.
So the book has a number of failings, yes, but it's still largely readable and it makes an excellent supplement to more consequential books. I would certainly start with the like of Gregg Herken's The Brotherhood of the Bomb before reading this one. But coming to this book after Herken's, it does a nice job of filling in some of the gaps by virtue of a narrower focus and a number of authorial interviews providing little insights here and there. Not a must read by a long stretch, but not a waste of time for sufficiently interested readers.
This book is a classic example: delineating the decline and fall of J. Robert Oppenheimer not through any fault of his own or any hint of disloyalty or whiff of impropriety, but strictly because of the machinations of a cast of thoroughly dishonorable characters who took it upon themselves to become Robert's enemies. Politics is never a clean business (like sausage-making...) but it's particularly heinous what was done to Oppenheimer since his motives, in opposing nuclear proliferation, were head-and-shoulders more "civilized" than the wolf pack pursuing him. Narrow minds and twisted moralities won the battle -- as often happens -- and a generation of schoolchildren grew up cowering under our desks during monthly nuclear attack drills.
History is the study of events, but people create the events. Sometimes bad people make the decisions, and everyone suffers.