American Prometheus

“There is a dramatic moment and the history of the man, what made him act, what he did, and what sort of person he was. That is what you are really doing here. You are writing a man’s life.” –Isidor Rabi

Like many people my age and younger, I had only a vague sense of J. Robert Oppenheimer. I knew he directed the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, created the Atomic Bomb, and almost immediately regretted his creation. In the aftermath of the war, he quoted the Bhagavad Gita in declaring that he had become death, destroyer of worlds.

I knew he was a physicist associated with UC Berkeley but there my awareness stopped. I stumbled into Oppenheimer again in December at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe where there was an exhibit on the nuclear program. Between reading a couple of pages and the arresting cover image (seen at the top of this post) with Oppie (as his students called him, an Americanization of the Dutch nickname Opje) staring straight ahead, cigarette hanging loosely from his lips, I picked up a copy of Bird and Sherwin’s biography American Prometheus at the gift shop.

I should say up front that Bird and Sherwin imbue American Prometheus with a deep subjectivity and latent moralism that frequently sits in the bones of the genre biography.

Oppenheimer is the subject, so other people come into the story as they intersect with him. For some personalities (e.g. Isidor Rabi, quoted above), this is fine. For others, including his wife Kitty, it ends up flattening and trivializing their experiences that were not easy, to say the least.

Then there is the moralizing. Oppenheimer, in this telling, is a tragic hero, a deeply flawed individual whose contributions went unappreciated. This feature of biography is further heightened in that the book reaches its climax when, in 1953 at the height of the Red Scare, Oppie faces a review of his security clearance against a board conspiring to prove that he passed nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. This hearing nearly destroyed him, making it a natural climax, but as someone unfamiliar with the hearings much of the narrative felt designed to prove that Oppie was innocent to a reader who already knew how this story ended.

With those preliminaries out of the way, what to say about Oppenheimer? Born to a wealthy Jewish family in New York, this slim brilliant boy received an excellent humanistic education at the Ethical Culture School before matriculating to Harvard. A polymath with interests in history, literature, and languages, Oppenheimer wanted to study Theoretical Physics, a field that hardly existed in the US. He tried graduate school at Cambridge (a disaster; he tried to poison a tutor), and then Göttingen, before taking up a joint appointment at UC Berkeley and Cal Tech to establish theoretical physics programs in the US.

But Oppenheimer’s heart was in New Mexico. Visiting there as a frail, sickly teenage he transformed as if by magic into someone who could ride horses hundreds of miles at a stretch without giving it a second thought. Ironically it was the love of this landscape that in part let Oppenheimer to the Los Alamos lab.

Yet, the more profound transformation came in Oppenheimer’s humanism in the Great Depression-era California. Always driven by humanitarian impulses and capable of magnetic charisma, young Oppenheimer could just as easily alienate people he thought beneath him and had little time for anything but his work. Gradually this attitude changed through his work with unions and as he came to recognize the profound threat posed by Nazi Germany. Problems emerged in that the Communist Party of America organized most of the causes Oppie supported and more than one of his friends and students were party members. By the late 1940s, Oppie was a public intellectual and a celebrity weighing in on nuclear politics, but this history made him vulnerable to a cabal of personal, professional, and political enemies who did everything in their considerable power to destroy him. They failed in their ultimate goal, but succeeded in ruining the careers of many people around him, including that of his brother, and in undermining Oppenheimer’s influence.

As an academic, American Prometheus is a fascinating read. On the one hand, it provides a glimpse into higher education of yesteryear, where Oppenheimer nearly didn’t receive his PhD after completing the two year (!!) program because he had failed to register for classes. On the other, though, Oppie presents a mirror on the good and bad of intellectuals. He could be cold, distant, and even cruel if he deemed you beneath his merit, but he was also a warm and supportive mentor who frequently deferred credit for work to his students and junior collaborators. Bird and Sherwin conclude that much of Oppenheimer’s brilliance lay in his ability to see the consequences of other people’s work and push it to the next level rather than doing original work of his own, a trait that made him particularly suited to managing a lab like Los Alamos and later running the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Moreover, his intellectual generosity and ability to synthesize the ideas of others had a magnetic effect drawing into his orbit some of the most remarkable scientists of the twentieth century.

American Prometheus is a long, dense book created from twenty five years of research. I’ll admit to some boredom at times when the material felt repetitive or there was yet another chapter dedicated weighing the evidence on whether Oppie joined the Communist party, chapters that make significantly more sense if you look at the book as funneling toward that climactic hearing. Similarly, my hackles went up at extensive analysis of the psychological states of Oppie and those around him, as well as on the quality of the psychological care he received. And yet, for all of that, Bird and Sherwin open a fascinating window onto a man whose experiences and concerns were equally commonplace and unique in the middle of the 20th century while airing out the story of a man, already suspected of anti-American sentiments, charged with delivering into the world the atomic bomb.


I finished reading R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War, a propulsive and largely delightful fantasy novel driven by the classic trope of wish-fulfillment, albeit this time from a female perspective. I had some issues with the book as a whole, but am very much interested in seeing what else Kuang produces. This morning I started S.A. Chakraborty’s <em>The City of Brass</em>, the first book in the Daevabad Trilogy, and am quite enjoying letting myself be taken away.

Stalin’s Daughter – Rosemary Sullivan

It was as if Svetlana had two modes: abject submission and total rebellion.

The second installment in my month of reading more books by women was Rosemary Sullivan’s biography Stalin’s Daughter, which had the extra virtue of being both by and about a woman. Svetlana Alliluyeva was Joseph Stalin’s daughter by his second wife and, as the title might suggest, lived her entirely life in orientation to the Soviet dictator.

In Sullivan’s telling, Svetlana was her father’s favorite in her earliest years, even while being kept at arm’s length. These two factors sheltered her from her father’s excesses, all the while ensuring that she grew up a believer in communist doctrine even after her mother committed suicide (though the fact that it was a suicide was kept from Svetlana). Svetlana’s own interests were largely smothered by the whims of her father—e.g. her first love was forbidden her not because of his many foibles but because he was Jewish; she was diverted from the study literature in favor of modern history. She simultaneously lived a privileged position and one of great restriction, as is to be expected of a Soviet princess. Nor did the situation change overmuch with Stalin’s death, when her fate, and that of her children, were largely determined by the status of the cult of personality around her family.

The turning point in Svetlana’s life, and the hook Sullivan uses in her biography, was her defection to the US in 1967 while in India to spread the ashes of her deceased Indian partner. Defection in the midst of the Cold War, however, did not change that she was Stalin’s daughter. His shadow remained long and dark as she settled in with such luminaries as George Kennan. Despite the problems Stalin continued to pose her, the only thing worse might be when people in general forget because a small number of people with the ability to make her life very difficult did not.

Svetlana was a complicated woman and, as often happens in biographies, Sullivan slips into the role of armchair psychologist. Most of her observations are at least logical. Svetlana, she believes, was deeply scarred by her parents’ relationship: Stalin was disdainful of women except as sexual objects, Nadezhda died when Svetlana was six and was a distant mother. Moreover, Svetlana had effectively no conception of money or income because of her unique position in Soviet society and a constant need to move. Most of all, Sullivan suggests, was a deep-seated longing for a stable family life that she never had and thus led to numerous assignations, four marriages and two other relationships that probably would have ended in marriage had situations not dictated otherwise. Svetlana was rarely settled, though, and had a constant need for change in home or situation that could turn on a dime—abandoning children in other countries if it came to that—with a personality that flew fickle from charming to despotic without notice.

Svetlana led an extraordinary life (she passed in 2011), but, with few exceptions, the portion of the biography leading up to her defection was stronger than her experiences in America. The latter portions tended to devolve into endless legal wrangling over publications and financial rights when Svetlana’s whims led to hardship. (Svetlana herself lived frugally, but moving frequently, exorbitant donations, and exploitation by her fourth husband, Wes Peters, at the behest of the Frank Lloyd Wright foundation depleted her savings.) Sullivan’s narrative is brisk, despite its periodic and probably unavoidable repetition, laying bare the difficulties Svetlana had holding onto the many relationships made and broken throughout her life and reproducing sections of her lively letters. I quite enjoyed Stalin’s Daughter and particularly appreciated Svetlana’s story as a different perspective on the evolution of the Soviet Union through the twentieth century.

Next up, I’m in the middle of reading Robin Hobb’s Royal Assassin, the second in her Farseer Trilogy.

King of Kings – Asfra-Wossen Asserate

Ras Tafari ruled Ethiopia as regent starting in 1916 and then under the regnal name Haile Selassie when he ascended to the position of Negusa Negast in 1930. His reign lasted until 1974 when the Derg, a council of military officers propelled by famine, military frustrations, and student protests ended the monarchy. This long reign—too long, according to the author—brought about remarkable change in Ethiopia, and Africa more broadly, but those changes quickly left the country behind. Yet, according to King of Kings, the many virtues of Haile Selassie’s rule only became evident in the bloody years of dictatorship, civil war, and now apartheid-esque federation that followed his death.

Descendants of the “House of David” were said to have ruled Ethiopia for three thousand years, but the political landscape of the country into which Ras Tafari was born in 1892 was a patchwork of semi-independent kingdoms all of which traced their descent from Solomon through the Queen of Sheba, with one of those ascending to the position of Negusa Negast. (The way tradition is presented by Asserate, this loose confederacy is actually a precondition of having a a singular Negusa Negast, since without kings underneath him, how could there be a king of kings?) The supreme leadership in Ethiopia was therefore not hereditary, but determined by political alliances, force of personality, and, importantly, the capabilities of each king’s personal army. Ras Tafari was born into a princely family and his father won renown for his role in the Battle of Adwa in 1896, but there were more powerful contenders in 1916 when a regent was chosen for the Empress Zauditu, the daughter of the former emperor Menelik. Ras Tafari was likely chosen because he was not a threat, either in terms of his land holdings or in terms of his physical build. However, his rivals clearly did not count on the young man’s political acumen, and he proceeded to rule the country for nearly six decades.

The Haile Selassie presented by Asfra-Wossen Asserate (whose grandfather was a cousin of H.S.), is a man of contradictions. For instance, he was liberal reformer determined to modernize the country in terms of schools, hospitals, and industry, one who introduced the first two constitutions to Ethiopia, who brought the country into the League of Nations, decried European colonization of Africa, tolerated religious differences, and help found the Organization of African unity. Yet, he used the constitution to centralize power in the absolutist monarchy, firmly believed that he was “The Elect of God,” a title he enshrined in the constitution. By this account, Haile Selassie was the best of paternalistic rulers: he was fair and just, generous with his people, including that he distributed money liberally, paid for students to study outside the country and guaranteed them jobs upon return, and lived frugally himself—-he even accepted the final coup without brutal crackdown. But he also resisted endowing representational bodies with any actual power and became increasingly paranoid about delegating power at all after an attempted coup in 1960 that his oldest son cooperated with. Simultaneously progressive and regressive, Haile Selassie believed himself to be the country and, for a time, he was.

The picture presented here is that Ethiopia was rent apart by two divergent forces, liberalism and conservatism, that, for a time, were successfully united in the person of Haile Selassie to allow modernization. The crisis that precipitated Ras Tafari’s rise to the regency exemplifies these tensions. His cousin, Lij Iyasu, who shared some of the same liberal tendencies (though they evidently hated one another), was designated (though never crowned) emperor of Ethiopia. The monarch was supposed to be chosen by God, but one of the requirements was that he had to belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which, in turn, supported the institution of the monarchy. Lij Iyasu was accused, libelously, of converting to Islam, probably because he endorsed laws upholding some version of freedom of religion. The deeply conservative kings and princes used this as an opportunity to supplant him and raise a man they thought would be more malleable. Of course, they succeeded in empowering a man whose political acumen was greater than his cousin and was able to push a liberal modernizing program in a deeply conservative way.

Asfa-Wossen Asserate suggests that a more flexible monarch and possible a younger one who was willing to accept a constitutional monarchy would have led Ethiopia in a radically different direction. He describes the final coup as taking place slowly over a matter of months where the opposition groups maintained a great deal of reverence for the monarchy, but the monarchy did not change and when they made their first slow attempt on the palace, the whole monarchic system fell apart without resistance and without any popular support.

I went into this book knowing next to nothing about Ethiopia. I can locate it on a map, don’t like their coffee, and a scattered handful of facts like the Italian use of chemical weapons there in the 1930s, but that is it. I came out of King of Kings knowing a little bit more about Ethiopia and a lot more about Haile Selassie. Asfa-Wossen Asserate is at his best when he is teasing out the intrigues within the highest echelon of Ethiopian society, including the royal families, the major players within the army, and the civil service that came into being. In particularly, he does a nice job of charting H.S.’s rise to power and how he managed to position Ethiopia within a radically changing world of colonialism and the early Cold War. However, the accounts of revolts and foreign invasions do not provide a good sense of space and the maps are of limited help. Particularly, I wanted to know more about the regional conflicts within Ethiopia and how these issues contributed to Haile Selassie first gaining and then losing support. As it stands, when someone disappoints H.S., they are dispatched from Addis Ababa to the outer reaches of the Empire and largely cease to matter. These frequently are issues with biography, but my problem with it here was that Asfa-Wossen Asserate had a tendency to overuse shorthands like “student protests” without offering any actual details about the movements.

At times the writing can be a little bit casual and forty page chapters without any sort of section break made King of Kings difficult to read at times. Still, Haile Selassie jumps out of these pages as a remarkable individual who helped guide his country through great upheaval.