American Prometheus: Quotes About & From Robert Oppenheimer

What was Oppenheimer’s deepest fear? What sort of person did he admire most? Why is he compared to Prometheus?

In American Prometheus, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin provide a comprehensive biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Although the authors focus on Oppenheimer’s work on the bomb, they also shed light on his personal life, detailing his evolution from adolescent activist to eventual political martyr.

Continue reading for several American Prometheus quotes that provide insights into Oppenheimer’s story.

American Prometheus Quotes

Although Oppenheimer may have been a lesser-known historical figure in 2006, American Prometheus’s widespread success has changed that. In addition to winning the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Biography, American Prometheus gained broad acclaim through Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s 2023 adaptation of the biography to film. Because of American Prometheus and Nolan’s film, Oppenheimer, who died in 1967, is a household name whose story is known by millions.

We’ve collected five American Prometheus quotes and provided them along with context and explanation.

“The kind of person that I admire most would be one who becomes extraordinarily good at doing a lot of things but still maintains a tear-stained countenance.”

This is actually a quote by Oppenheimer that’s included in the book. According to Bird and Sherwin, Oppenheimer’s adolescence and early adulthood were marked by severe emotional instability. Specifically, they contend that Oppenheimer suffered from chronic depression and emotional breakdowns, only to recover in his mid-20s. They note that, according to Oppenheimer’s friend and Harvard University classmate Paul Horgan, Oppenheimer was prone to multiday depressive episodes at Harvard. During these episodes, he became increasingly reclusive and unavailable to even his closest friends.

“Oppenheimer’s warnings were ignored—and ultimately, he was silenced. Like that rebellious Greek god Prometheus—who stole fire from Zeus and bestowed it upon humankind, Oppenheimer gave us atomic fire. But then, when he tried to control it, when he sought to make us aware of its terrible dangers, the powers-that-be, like Zeus, rose up in anger to punish him.”

Bird and Sherwin see Oppenheimer as a modern-day Prometheus, the Greek Titan eternally punished for stealing fire from the gods and imparting it to humanity. They write that Oppenheimer became an increasingly outspoken advocate for nuclear regulation after the bombing, earning him powerful political opponents who sought to excommunicate him. Ultimately, a politically motivated hearing resulted in the revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance, effectively ousting him from the upper echelon of the US government.

“In April 1962, McGeorge Bundy—the former Harvard dean and now national security adviser to President Kennedy—had Oppenheimer invited to a White House dinner honoring forty-nine Nobel laureates. At this gala affair, Oppie rubbed elbows with such other luminaries as the poet Robert Frost, the astronaut John Glenn, and the writer Norman Cousins. Everyone laughed when Kennedy quipped, ‘I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.’”

Although Oppenheimer never regained his security clearance, the Kennedy Administration rehabilitated his political image by awarding him the prestigious Enrico Fermi Prize for public service. According to Bird and Sherwin, this 1963 award was highly symbolic: It represented Democrats’ belief that Oppenheimer was the victim of Republicans’ politically charged attacks the previous decade. And though Oppenheimer remained a divisive political figure, the award signified a shift in his favor just four years before his death.

“There was much that Oppenheimer did not know. As he later recalled, ‘We didn’t know beans about the military situation in Japan.’”

Though Oppenheimer supported using the bomb against Japan, he lacked access to crucial information that, Bird and Sherwin suggest, might have changed his mind. In particular, Oppenheimer didn’t know that Japan was on the verge of surrendering, assuming agreeable terms of surrender could be reached. 

Bird and Sherwin note that this fact is now well-known by historians: By May 1945, the US military had intercepted messages from Japan that expressed a desire to surrender on fair terms. For this reason, high-ranking military officials in Washington were actively discussing ways to induce a Japanese surrender. In July 1945, President Truman even acknowledged in his private journal that, according to US intelligence, Japan was actively seeking peace with the Allied forces.

“His deepest fear was that its invention would inspire a deadly nuclear arms race between the West and the Soviet Union.”

Oppenheimer differed from the military when it came to cooperating with foreign powers. Bird and Sherwin point out that, along with his other panel members, Oppenheimer urged transparency with other international powers—including the Soviet Union. He reasoned that secrecy about the US’s nuclear weapons could spark a deadly arms race, and radical candor was the best route to avoiding this arms race.

In October 1945, Oppenheimer earned a meeting with President Truman, providing him the opportunity to express his concerns about a potential arms race with the Soviet Union. However, Oppenheimer didn’t take full advantage of this opportunity, instead regretfully telling Truman “I feel I have blood on my hands”—a statement Truman took as a sign of weakness.

American Prometheus: Quotes About & From Robert Oppenheimer

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Here's what you'll find in our full American Prometheus summary:

  • The biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer that inspired the movie Oppenheimer
  • Oppenheimer's early life and mental health struggles
  • Oppenheimer's role in developing the atomic bomb and the following hearing

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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