Martin J. Sherwin: His Oppenheimer Biography Won a Pulitzer Prize

From a Washington Post obit by Harrison Smith headlined “Martin J. Sherwin, whose Oppenheimer biography won a Pulitzer, dies at 84”:

Martin J. Sherwin, a Cold War and nuclear weapons historian who won the Pulitzer Prize for co-writing “American Prometheus,” an exhaustive biography of Manhattan Project director J. Robert Oppenheimer that he worked on for a quarter-century, died Oct. 6 at his home in Washington….

Dr. Sherwin devoted practically his entire academic career to writing about nuclear weapons, including their development at the remote New Mexico mesa of Los Alamos, the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the close of World War II, and the near-fatal Cold War standoff of October 1962, when the United States dispatched ballistic missiles to Turkey and Italy, prompting the Soviet Union to follow suit in Cuba.

He argued that World War III was only narrowly averted that month, in large part by chance, and that the threat of nuclear catastrophe remained. Better safety controls and communications systems were essential, along with a reduction of warheads. “What we need is the international control of atomic energy,” he told Charlie Rose in 2005. “We need to eliminate the possibility that nuclear weapons will be part of arsenals.”

Dr. Sherwin wrote three books, including the arms-race and Cuban missile crisis history “Gambling With Armageddon” (2020), while teaching at universities including Princeton, Tufts and George Mason, where he had been a professor since 2007. He became known as a tenacious and sometimes obsessive researcher while traveling to archives across the United States and Europe, and he could be similarly exacting about his prose.

“He used to tell this story about John Kenneth Galbraith, who would say on his sixth rewriting, ‘I think I’ve got it,’ ” his wife recalled. “He could never stop editing or changing something if he felt he could make it better.”

Dr. Sherwin’s methodical approach contributed to the long wait for “American Prometheus” (2005), a 700-page biography that he wrote with author Kai Bird. Together, they traced the life of Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” who grew up in a wealthy German Jewish family in New York, oversaw the Los Alamos Laboratory during World War II, became an outspoken opponent of nuclear proliferation and lost his security clearance in 1954, following McCarthy-era accusations of disloyalty and Communist ties.

“ ‘American Prometheus’ is a work of voluminous scholarship and lucid insight,” wrote New York Times book critic Janet Maslin, “unifying its multifaceted portrait with a keen grasp of Oppenheimer’s essential nature. . . . It traces Oppenheimer’s arrogance to the kind of upbringing that would give him his own sloop at age 16 (he named it for a chemical compound) and lead one of the oral examiners of his doctoral thesis to say: ‘I got out of there just in time. He was beginning to ask me questions.’ ”

On Friday, Universal Pictures announced that filmmaker Christopher Nolan is adapting the book into a movie starring Cillian Murphy, with a scheduled release date in July 2023.

The biography began in 1980 as a solo project for Dr. Sherwin, whose first book, the atomic bomb history “A World Destroyed” (1975), was a finalist for the National Book Award. “I told my editor it would be finished in five or six years,” he said in a 2006 talk at Tufts, but soon realized that writing a biography was “immensely more difficult than writing a history.”

To immerse himself in Oppenheimer’s life, he rode on horseback to the physicist’s New Mexico cabin, as Oppenheimer often did, and interviewed dozens of the scientist’s friends and colleagues. After nearly two decades of work, he sought out a co-author to energize the project in 1999, enlisting his friend Bird over dinner in Boston.

“I forget what we ate,” Bird said, “but I am sure we each had a vodka martini and Marty introduced me to Oppenheimer’s favorite toast: ‘To the confusion of our enemies!’ ” He added that although Dr. Sherwin insisted there was plenty of research left to be done, “it turned out Marty had collected about 50,000 pages of archival documents, covering all aspects of Oppenheimer’s life.”

“As the months rolled by he would call me up and say, ‘Oh Kai, I was rummaging around in this closet in my house in Cambridge and found another box of Oppenheimer material.’ He’d forgotten what he’d done, and had sort of gotten biographer’s disease, which is not uncommon. You keep thinking there’s more people to interview, more documents to find.”

The two authors shared writing duties, trading drafts of individual chapters for about five years, before finishing the book. The literary honors they received, including a National Book Critics Circle Award, seemed to make it easier to look back on the biography’s decades-long conception. “It doesn’t seem so long right now,” Dr. Sherwin said when he won the Pulitzer in 2006. “Only 25 years!”

The older of two children, Martin Jay Sherwin was born in Brooklyn on July 2, 1937….Enrolling at Dartmouth College, Dr. Sherwin rowed on the crew team and planned to go to medical school. But he soon changed course, trying subjects including geology; a summer he spent doing field work at a uranium mine may have piqued his interest in the development of nuclear weapons. He eventually landed on history, and after graduating in 1959, he served in the Navy for four years and received a PhD in 1971 from the University of California at Los Angeles.

Dr. Sherwin joined the faculty at Tufts in 1980. Later that decade, he put his Oppenheimer research on hold to launch the university’s Nuclear Age History and Humanities Center, which sponsored research but was best known for its Global Classroom Project. Led jointly by Dr. Sherwin and Evgeny Velikhov, a Russian physicist, the project used satellite television to link students and scholars at Tufts and Moscow State University, aiming to promote understanding between the two countries.

In addition to his writing and teaching, Dr. Sherwin was an adviser for documentaries including “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age” (1989), a 13-part PBS series. He was also a devoted golfer: He brought his clubs with him while traveling to academic conferences, leading friends to joke that his Oppenheimer book was delayed because he was always on the golf range.

He and his wife of 57 years, the former Susan Smukler, split their time between Washington and Aspen, Colo., where at age 80 he took a class to improve his mogul skiing. In addition to his wife, survivors include a son, Alex Sherwin, of Brooklyn; a sister; and four grandchildren. His daughter, Andrea Sherwin, died of cancer in 2010. Dr. Sherwin was writing “Gambling With Armageddon” at the time and dedicated it to her.

The book argued that the Kennedy administration was largely in the dark about what was happening in Cuba during the missile crisis, and said that a Soviet navy captain had helped block a flawed order to launch a nuclear torpedo on U.S. warships. Dr. Sherwin was in the Navy during the standoff, stationed in San Diego as an air intelligence officer, and said that during an especially tense moment, he was instructed to retrieve top secret orders from an office safe, containing instructions on where his unit should go in the event of war.

“My recollection is that we would deploy to an airfield in Baja California, Mexico,” he wrote in the book. “The rationale was to disperse military aircraft beyond the reach of Soviet missiles. Some junior officers — all of us bachelors — joked that the beaches of Baja ‘would be a beautiful place to die.’

“I did not know until I researched this book how close to death we had come.”

Harrison Smith is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. Since joining the obituaries section in 2015, he has profiled big-game hunters, fallen dictators and Olympic champions. He sometimes covers the living as well, and previously co-founded the South Side Weekly, a community newspaper in Chicago.

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