Synopses & Reviews
On April 12, 1954, the nation was astonished to learn that scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer faced charges of violating national security. Why had the charismatic leader of the Manhattan Project the man who led the team that developed the atomic bomb that ended World War II been catapulted into overnight disgrace?
In this riveting narrative, bestselling author Priscilla J. McMillan draws on newly declassified U.S. government documents and materials from Russia, as well as in-depth interviews, to present the truth about the downfall of America's most famous scientist. Focusing on the fraught years 1949 to 1955, McMillan re-creates the escalating conflict between the liberal scientists led by Oppenheimer, who tried to head off the rush to a new arms race, and a cabal of hard-line air force officials, anti-Communist politicians, and the rival scientists led by Edward Teller, to seize control of U.S. policy and build ever more deadly nuclear weapons, starting with the H bomb.
This conspiracy, occurring at the height of the McCarthy era and sanctioned by a misinformed President Eisenhower, was a watershed in the cold war, poisoning American politics for decades and creating dangers that haunt us today.
"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)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Oppenheimer fell, McMillan writes, thanks to a conspiracy and to a newborn culture of governmental control of science, whereby 'the scientist is less and less likely to speak out against government policies' the condition, she adds, of subsidized science today. Excellently researched and argued." Kirkus Reviews
"This compact study elegantly parses a central accusation...that Oppenheimer was disloyal for opposing the hydrogen bomb essentially, for voicing his opinion." New Yorker
"For anyone interested in biography and history, you can't do better than Johnson's treatment of Oppenheimer." Marvin Kalb
"An epochal American story superbly told....A book worthy of its momentous subject and worth waiting for." Strobe Talbott
In this riveting narrative, bestselling author McMillan draws on newly declassified U.S. government documents and materials from Russia, as well as in-depth interviews, to present the truth about the downfall of America's most famous scientist.
About the Author
Priscilla Johnson McMillan is an associate of the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard and the author of the bestselling Marina and Lee. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, Harpers Magazine, and Scientific American, among other places.