OPPENHEIMER: The Years of Risk by James W. Kunetka

OPPENHEIMER: The Years of Risk

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In his diligent, lackluster account of the Manhattan Project, City of Fire (1978), Kunetka necessarily focused on Oppenheimer, presenting him in a sympathetic light. Here, somewhat more fluently but in equivalent detail, he traces Oppenheimer's life from his precocious boyhood through the Los Alamos years, the postwar decade of government consulting, the fateful loyalty hearings and their aftermath. Unlike the recent TV-series bio and Peter Goodchild's companion book, which attempted an emotional portrait of Oppenheimer, Kunetka sticks to the straight-and-narrow: Oppenheimer as savant and scientist, persuader and sometimes persuadee. There are ample examples of the Oppenheimer style, the mannerisms, the ways with words, the low tolerance for stupidity. (There is very little, however, on persons important to Oppenheimer: Jean Tatlock, wife Kitty, brother Frank.) What Kunetka does best--through the sheer density of meetings, talks, memos, exchanges of ideas--is to convey the complexity of the decision-making process. Nowhere was this more crucial than during 1949 and 1950 when pressure to develop a crash program for the superbomb was mounting. Oppenheimer's opposition was partly a matter of scientific judgment, partly a matter of moral repugnance; but if the enemy were to develop superbombs, he averred, the US would have no choice. This sort of equivocation, infuriating to Oppenheimer's enemies, was a factor in raising the security-clearance issue. As before, Kunetka is informative and fair-minded. Better than the TV melodrama, then, if pallid alongside the Alice Smith-Charles Weiner compilation of Oppenheimer letters and memorabilia.

Pub Date: Nov. 15th, 1982
Publisher: Prentice-Hall