It was J. Robert Oppenheimer himself who chose the code name "Trinity" for the 1945 test of the atom bomb he had done so much to create. He would say later that he was inspired by a line from the poet John Donne: "Batter my heart, three-personed God." It was just like Oppenheimer, at a moment of triumph, to lay in a note of anguish. He may have been the physicist who led-- who drove--the scientific crash program at Los Alamos, N.M. But he was not a simple man. It tells you something that his idea of the right parting gift for one girlfriend was Dostoyevsky's The Possessed.
Nine years after Trinity, and then the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer was stripped of his government security clearance after an inquiry into his past association with communists. As an effort to prove that he had been a party member, much less one involved in espionage, the inquest was a failure. Its real purpose was larger, however: to punish the most prominent American critic of the U.S. move from atomic weapons to the much more lethal hydrogen bomb.
Two accounts of his complex life can be found in American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Knopf; 721 pages) and 109 East Palace: The Secret City of Los Alamos (Simon & Schuster; 424 pages). To grasp the full dimensions of Oppenheimer's humiliation, you need to understand not only the currents of American postwar paranoia but also the tangled particulars of the man himself. Even a generous evaluation of his fate would call him complicit in his downfall. Whether through hubris or naiveté, he refused to take seriously that his years of association with communists would open him to suspicion. American Prometheus tells his story at length and exceedingly well. The authors, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, employ a mix of thoroughness and judgment that makes this an essential book.
Oppenheimer was just 38 when he was chosen to direct what was called the Manhattan Project. Brilliant and detached, kindly and arrogant, cocksure and tormented, he had long been recognized as a star of the new quantum physics, a man with an acute and elegant mind. During his years as a physics professor at Berkeley and Caltech, he had also signed just about every petition for farmworkers' rights and attended every fund raiser for the Spanish Republic. Oppenheimer always denied that he had ever been a member of the Communist Party. But he never sought to conceal that he had spent much of his professional life surrounded by party members, including his younger brother Frank. Even his wife had been a member before their marriage.