Biography of the Bomb

26 September 2023
By Andy Faught

As the book he co-authored becomes a new blockbuster film, Kai Bird ’73 reflects on J. Robert Oppenheimer’s legacy.

Photo illustration of Robert Oppenheimer surrounded by a burst of colors

Beneath his trademark porkpie hat and glossy black eyebrows, J. Robert Oppenheimer gazes fiercely into the camera’s aperture through crystalline blue eyes, a lit cigarette dangling carelessly from his lips.

The image by photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt was taken in 1947, just two years after Oppenheimer’s “destroyer of worlds”—a pair of atomic bombs, for which he was the chief architect during the Manhattan Project—were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an apocalyptic coda to World War II.

The detonations killed between 110,000 and 210,000 Japanese, according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, most of them civilians. That a weapon could inflict such horror incited trepidation in its creator, who spoke out against nuclear proliferation for the rest of his life. “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” he famously said. In the photo, featured on the cover of the book, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, “Oppie” appears to stare into the souls of viewers, challenging humankind to grasp the new and frightening implications for life on Earth.

“What you’re seeing in that picture is the intensity of his personality,” says the book’s co-author, Kai Bird ’73. “He was a very intense, sort of mournful soul. He was always a man who was very painfully aware of how fragile human existence is.”

Reviewing the book in 2005, the year before it won the Pulitzer Prize in biography, historian Gregg Herken praised American Prometheus in the pages of the Boston Globe, noting that it “stands as an Everest among the mountains of books on the bomb project and Oppenheimer, and is an achievement not likely to be surpassed or equaled.”

The book, which Bird authored with the late nuclear weapons historian Martin J. Sherwin, was the basis for this summer’s critically acclaimed film, Oppenheimer, directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Cillian Murphy (chosen for the role, in part, because he shares the protagonist’s haunting, pale-blue eyes). After viewing the three-hour epic, Bird has said that he was “stunned and emotionally recovering.” Audiences reported similar reactions.

In comments to the media, Nolan, who wrote the screenplay, acknowledged the film’s visceral heft: “It is an intense experience, because it’s an intense story. I showed it to a filmmaker recently who said it’s kind of a horror movie. I don’t disagree.”

For Bird, whose books include, most recently, The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter (Crown, 2021), biography is a perfect vehicle to capture the sweep and complexity of epoch-making history.

“Through the life of one person, you can tell a story—narrative—that is gripping and easy to follow, because you’re following one person’s life,” he says. “It explains a larger piece of history. That was certainly true of Oppenheimer. You read that book, and you get a whole understanding of 20th-century America and the dawning of the Atomic Age, World War II, and, most importantly, McCarthyism.”

Kai Bird stands beside an antique truck
Kai Bird on the set of Oppenheimer at Los Alamos

Bird is now at work on American Scoundrel: Roy Cohn and the World He Made, a biography of the late Cohn, the disbarred lawyer who first gained notoriety as Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s attorney during the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954. Cohn later became a fixer for then–New York real estate developer Donald Trump. The book is slated for release in 2025 and will highlight the origins of the cynical political playbook that defined Trump the candidate and Trump the president.

“Roy Cohn made him what he is,” Bird says. “He taught Donald Trump how to lie to the press and to always double down and counter-sue. And he always grabbed the attention of the media.”

Outside of his own writing, Bird is doing his part to nurture new generations of biographers. He’s executive director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the City University of New York, where he lives. Each year, the center awards five $72,000 fellowships to biographers, who meet with Bird monthly to give progress reports on their work. It’s the only academic center in the country devoted to promoting the art and craft of biography.

The written word has always tantalized Bird. Growing up, his reading tastes veered toward amusement. He thrilled to formulaic Hardy Boys mysteries, and he developed an early appreciation of history with books such as the whimsical Ben and Me: An Astonishing Life of Benjamin Franklin, By His Good Mouse, Amos. In high school, he dove into Barbara Tuchman’s classic World War I treatise, The Guns of August, which not only captivated him, but set him on a career path.

“It was about all of these personalities stumbling into war, not thinking that they were going to be involved in a four-year slog,” he says. “It was going to be a quick, victorious expedition. That book made me utterly enthralled with the idea of learning about history.”

Bird majored in history at Carleton, where he was determined to become a photojournalist or a war correspondent. Attending the college wasn’t part of any grand plan. Bird applied to Carleton after his dad met a professor, his name lost to time, in Bombay. “My father told me, ‘It sounds like a good school,’ and he encouraged me to apply.” Although he was born in Eugene, Oregon, Bird lived the life of a foreign national through his formative years, nearly entirely in the Middle East.

He recounts his college days in his 2010 memoir, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate. As a senior, he won a prestigious Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, which allowed him to practice photojournalism for a year in Yemen after graduation. (Bird began freelancing for Newsweek, and, at 26, he got an editing job at The Nation magazine, for which he continues to serve as contributing editor.)

His Carleton social life revolved around the antiwar movement, including demonstrating with classmates at the Minneapolis headquarters of Honeywell, Inc., the defense contractor that manufactured cluster bombs responsible for killing thousands of Vietnamese civilians. (Then-Honeywell CEO Edson W. Spencer was chairman of the College’s Board of Trustees. Bird’s demand that Carleton ditch $500,000 in Honeywell stock went unheeded.)

On May 7, 1970, Bird and 85 Carleton classmates—whom he dubbed the Carleton Ad Hoc Strike Committee—blocked access to the Old Federal Building in Minneapolis, site of a military induction center. Joining the students was 26-year-old Paul Wellstone, an assistant professor of government at Carleton and future U.S. senator. Both men were arrested that day for trespassing (in an ironic twist, the building where the late senator was arrested was renamed in his honor in December 2022). Bird describes himself at the time as “an angry young man, self-righteous to a fault, and naïve.”

Also arrested was Ken Ehrman ’73, a government and international relations major who remembers Bird being a leading anti-war voice. Living abroad, “he had seen this broader perspective in his formative years,” says Ehrman, a retired United Methodist minister in Napa, California, “He was able to put that together through analysis and be a voice of logic and reason.”

In the spring of 1972, Bird met Susan Goldmark ’75 at the campus cafeteria. The daughter of Austrian Holocaust survivors, she possessed a sharp tongue and an equally prepossessing wit. Goldmark was waiting tables in a cook’s coat spattered with spaghetti sauce. The tomato Rorschach, Bird wrote in his memoir, “made her seem adorable.”

The South Asian studies major was taken with the boyish-looking Bird.

“He was worldly, so that was very exotic,” Goldmark says. “And he’s a kind person, he’s very generous, and he has a good sense of humor. What’s not to like?”

The pair married in June 1975 on the Hill of Three Oaks in Carleton’s arboretum. They have a son. Goldmark retired in 2014 as a country director for the World Bank. Like any couple, they have their differences. Goldmark needles her husband’s avowed atheism.

“I keep challenging him,” says Goldmark, who is Jewish. “I mean, at least be agnostic. You don’t know, maybe there is something. We were kind of opposites in many ways. But that’s also given us some strength, because I’m the planner and the organizer, and Kai’s more of the creative person.”

Meantime, Oppenheimer’s legacy looms large in 2023. Analysts haven’t ruled out Russian President Vladimir Putin using so-called tactical nuclear weapons in his invasion of Ukraine. The Atomic Age endures.

Oppenheimer producer Emma Thomas, Kai Bird, and director Christopher Nolan
Producer Emma Thomas, Kai Bird, and director Christopher Nolan on the day they screened Oppenheimer together.

“We’re still trying to survive it, and the story’s not over,” Bird says. “Nuclear weapons haven’t been used since Nagasaki, but who knows? It could be right around the corner.”

Nuclear cataclysm could come in the form of a dirty bomb, a conventional weapon, or an accidental detonation, Bird says. “That Oppenheimer warns against all of this in 1945 is really astonishing,” he notes. “He’s not only the father of the atomic bomb, but he’s this lonely prophet in the wilderness, warning against reliance on these weapons within three months of Hiroshima.”

Oppenheimer’s words are also prophetic in ways he could not have foreseen. Today, conversations focus on the dangers of artificial intelligence, which some posit is an existential threat. There are echoes of Oppenheimer, the tacit cautions from a man 57 years dead. “AI is inevitable,” Bird says, “but we should have an informed debate by expert scientists who have developed this technology on how to control it, how to regulate it, and how to weave it into society without destroying humanity.”

Bird hopes the movie revives interest in Oppenheimer and his legacy. Before the film’s July release, Nolan flew Bird to Los Angeles in May for a private screening in an empty IMAX cinema. Nolan positioned Bird “in the middle of the theater, where he thought the best viewing option was.” Nolan sat at the end of the row, 30 seats away.

In the empty theater, the two men watched Oppeheimer, who for a few hours was again bigger than life. The film trades in moral ambiguity. For many moviegoers, it was an enervating experience. When the credits rolled, Bird says he was “exhausted emotionally.” But he was unequivocal: “It’s a brilliant movie.”

Posted In

Appears in Issues: