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Power in Raw Form

June 30, 2005 By:
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Some reviewers are just better suited than others for certain assignments. I've read a wide range of reviews of American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherman, the first full-scale biography of famed scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer. These assessments, published in prominent media outlets, have been pure distillations or unblemished reflections of the book itself, which is a worshipful portrait of a difficult, conflicted man treated badly during the Cold War. Who was most at fault for this shabby behavior seems to have eluded these critics, or else they've purposefully ignored it.

That's where Harvey Klehr comes in. The author of many seminal works about Communist Party dealings in America, he has been the only reviewer who constructed a more shaded portrait of Oppenheimer, one necessitated by recent disclosures. His piece appeared in the June 6 Weekly Standard.

Oppenheimer was head of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, N.M., the top-secret war-time grouping of physicists that developed the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

The liberal take on Oppenheimer has always been that he was a victim of the scapegoating mood of the Cold War years, that his brilliance was sacrificed on the altar of anti-Communism. His greatest misstep, liberals insisted, was that he spoke out against the arms race after seeing the bomb's destructive power.

He was for cooperation, for mutual understanding, for sharing the secrets behind these terrible weapons. He argued that only by doing so would the superpowers be able to control what he considered the most lethal force in the world. His enemies, though, wanted to brand him a Communist, and make certain he never again had the power he had at Los Alamos.

The truth, we have come to learn in the more than 50 years since then, is far more complex than we could have imagined, and it seems Klehr is the only reviewer who accepts it. Biographers Bird and Sherman dismiss the revelations that came out about Oppenheimer's troubling Communist ties in Gregg Herken's important Brotherhood of the Bomb.

Herken concluded that Oppenheimer had not spied for the Soviets, but that he'd indeed been a party member. Klehr noted in his review that he and his co-author, John Haynes, "argued that the strongest evidence [Oppenheimer] was not a Soviet spy was that, if he had been, the Russians would have gotten even more information about the atomic bomb than they did."

But Klehr makes even more important points, and that's what makes his review so incisive. The suspicions about Oppenheimer were far from paranoia; the scientist often lied to shield friends and relatives who were probably Communists. But the fact that "some of those who brought [Oppenheimer] down were unattractive men with sordid motives does not erase the fact that a hugely talented man who had made major contributions to American security was destroyed because of a series of disastrous political choices he had once made, and then tried to obscure."

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