This extract is based on the book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer, published again as the movie Oppenheimer has generated a lot of interest. This book was first published in 2005, by Knopf, Penguin US. In 2008 Atlantic Books UK acquired the book and released it again in June 2023 and it’s being distributed by Penguin Random House India.

On August 6, 1945, at exactly 8:14 a.m. a B-29 aircraft, the Enola Gay, named after pilot Paul Tibbets’ mother, dropped the untested, gun-type uranium bomb over Hiroshima. John Manley was in Washington that day, waiting anxiously to hear the news. Oppenheimer had sent him there with one assignment — to report to him on the bombing. After a five-hour delay in communications from the aircraft, Manley finally received a teletype from Captain Parsons who was the “arming” officer on the Enola Gay — that “the visible effects were greater than the New Mexico test.” But just as Manley was about to call Oppenheimer in Los Alamos, Groves stopped him. No one was to disseminate any information about the atomic bombing until the president himself announced it.

Frustrated, Manley went for a midnight walk in Lafayette Park, across from the White House. Early the next morning, he was told that Truman would make an announcement at 11:00 a.m. Manley finally got Oppie on the phone just as the president’s statement was released on nationwide radio. Although they had agreed to use a prearranged code for conveying the news over the phone, Oppenheimer’s first words to Manley were: “Why the hell did you think I sent you to Washington in the first place?”

That same day, at 2:00 p.m ., General Groves picked up the phone in Washington and called Oppenheimer in Los Alamos. Groves was in a congratulatory mood. “I’m proud of you and all of your people,” Groves said.

“It went all right?” Oppie asked.

“Apparently it went with a tremendous bang….”

“Everybody is feeling reasonably good about it,” Oppie said, “and I extend my heartiest congratulations. It’s been a long road.”

“Yes,” Groves replied, “it has been a long road and I think one of the wisest things I ever did was when I selected the director of Los Alamos.”

“Well,” replied Oppenheimer diffidently, “I have my doubts, General Groves.”

Groves replied, “Well, you know I’ve never concurred with those doubts at any time.”

Attention please

Later in the day, the news was announced over the Los Alamos public address system: “Attention please, attention please. One of our units has just been successfully dropped on Japan.” Frank Oppenheimer was standing in the hallway right outside his brother’s office when he heard the news. His first reaction was “Thank God, it wasn’t a dud.” But within seconds, he recalled, “One suddenly got this horror of all the people that had been killed.”

A soldier, Ed Doty, described the scene for his parents in a letter he wrote the next day: “This last 24 hours has been quite exciting. Everyone has been keyed up to a pitch higher than anything I have ever seen on such a mass scale before. . . . People came out into the hallways of the building and milled around like a Times Square New Year’s crowd. Everyone was looking for a radio.” That evening a crowd gathered in an auditorium.

One of the younger physicists, Sam Cohen, remembers a cheering, foot stamping audience waiting for Oppenheimer to appear. Everyone expected him to come onstage from the auditorium wings, as was his custom. But Oppenheimer chose to make a more dramatic entrance from the rear, making his way up the center aisle. Once onstage, according to Cohen, he clasped his hands together and pumped them over his head like a prize-fighter. Cohen remembers Oppie telling the cheering crowd that it was “too early to determine what the results of the bombing might have been, but he was sure that the Japanese didn’t like it.” The crowd cheered and then roared its approval when Oppie said he was “proud” of what they had accomplished.

By Cohen’s account, “his [Oppenheimer’s] only regret was that we hadn’t developed the bomb in time to have used it against the Germans. This practically raised the roof.”

It was as if he had been called upon to act out a stage role, one to which he was truly not suited. Scientists are not meant to be conquering generals. And yet, he was only human and so must have felt the thrill of pure success; he had grabbed a metaphorical gold ring and he was happily waving it aloft. Besides. the audience expected him to appear flushed and triumphant. But the moment was short-lived.

For some who had just seen and felt the blinding light and blasting wind of the explosion at Alamogordo, the expected news from the Pacific was something of an anticlimax. It was almost as if Alamogordo had drained their capacity for astonishment. Others were merely sobered by the news. Phil Morrison heard the news on Tinian, where he had helped to prepare the bomb and load it aboard the Enola Gay. “That night we from Los Alamos had a party,” Morrison recalled. “It was war and victory in war, and we had a right to our celebration. But I remember sitting... on the edge of a cot ... wondering what it was like on the other side, what was going on in Hiroshima that night.”

Alice Kimball Smith later insisted that “certainly no one [at Los Alamos] celebrated Hiroshima. But then she admitted that “a few people” tried to assemble a party in the men’s dormitories. It turned into a “memorable fiasco. People either stayed away or beat a hasty retreat.” Smith, to be sure, was referring only to the scientists, who appear to have had a decidedly muted — and different — reaction than the military enlisted men.

Doty wrote home: “There were parties galore. Invited to three of them, I managed to get to only one. . . . It lasted until three.” He reported that people were “happy, very happy. We listened to the radio and danced and listened to the radio again ... and laughed and laughed at all that was said.” Oppenheimer attended one party, but upon leaving he saw a clearly distraught physicist retching his guts out in the bushes. The sight made him realize that an accounting had begun.

This extract has been published with permission from Atlantic. The book is distributed by Penguin Random House in India

Title: American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

Authors: Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin 

Publisher: Atlantic Books

Pages: 736

Price: ₹899