Martin Sherwin, Prize-winning Biographer of Oppenheimer, Dies at 84

A historian of the nuclear age, he and his co-author, Kai Bird, won a 2006 Pulitzer for their book about the scientist behind the atom bomb.


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Martin J. Sherwin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as the father of the atom bomb, and a scholar who plumbed the history and impact of the nuclear age, died on Wednesday at his home in Washington. He was 84.

The cause was complications of lung cancer, his wife, Susan Sherwin, said.

A history professor and prodigious researcher, Dr. Sherwin had devoted two decades to his Oppenheimer book before joining forces in 2000 with Kai Bird, a friend and author. Together they completed the book “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” (2005), which won the Pulitzer for biography and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2006.

Dr. Sherwin also wrote “A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and its Legacies” (1975) and “Gambling With Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis,” (2020), which “should become the definitive account of its subject,” the historian Talmage Boston wrote in The New York Times Book Review.

Dr. Sherwin originally expected to spend five years on the Oppenheimer book but was incapacitated by what Mr. Bird described as “biographer’s disease” — the inability to stop researching and to start writing. As the executive director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and the author, most recently, of a biography of Jimmy Carter, Mr. Bird was a qualified diagnostician.

For Dr. Sherwin, the Cold War and the legacy of the atomic age reverberated in his personal life.

He mined uranium in Wyoming one summer between semesters at Dartmouth College. And as a Navy officer during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, he and fellow officers in San Diego learned of American plans to disperse military aircraft to Mexico beyond the reach of Soviet rockets. They “joked that the beaches of Baja ‘would be a delightful place to die,'” Dr. Sherwin wrote in “Gambling With Armageddon.”

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


Mr. Sherwin and Mr. Bird’s biography was “a work of voluminous scholarship and lucid insight, unifying its multifaceted portrait with a keen grasp of Oppenheimer’s essential nature,” Janet Maslin wrote in The Times.Credit…Naum Kazhdan/The New York Times

He also felt, in his own time, reverberations of the McCarthy period and Oppenheimer’s place in it.

After World War II, Oppenheimer opposed nuclear proliferation and development of the hydrogen bomb, and his security clearance was revoked in the 1950s because of suspicions that he had Communist sympathies.

“Quite bluntly, any attempt to label Robert Oppenheimer a Party member is a futile exercise,” the authors of “American Prometheus” concluded, “as the F.B.I. learned to its frustration over many years.”

In an interview with the Tufts Journal in 2005, at a time of war in Iraq and Afghanistan following 9/11, Dr. Sherwin said McCarthyism represented “a historical warning that democracy is vulnerable to the government’s abuse of power.” That warning, he said, had a contemporary resonance given what he described as the “secrecy in government, the citation of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism, the manipulation of public anxiety and the creation of the enemy within, the enemy without.”

Reviewing “American Prometheus,” Janet Maslin of The New York Times described it as “a work of voluminous scholarship and lucid insight, unifying its multifaceted portrait with a keen grasp of Oppenheimer’s essential nature.”

That nature, she wrote, expressed itself in “charm and bravado on the surface, Dostoyevskian darkness underneath.”

Martin Jay Sherwin was born on July 2, 1937, in Brooklyn to Harold and Mimi (Karp) Sherwin. His father was a children’s clothing manufacturer, and his mother was a homemaker who worked as a secretary to help pay for her son’s college tuition.

After graduating from James Madison High School, he enrolled in Dartmouth intending to pursue a career in medicine, then dabbled in geology and philosophy. He ended up graduating with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1959.

He served in the Navy as an intelligence officer in Japan and Hawaii, then earned a doctorate in diplomatic history in 1971 at the University of California, Los Angeles. His dissertation became the basis for “A World Destroyed,” his first book, which suggested that President Harry S. Truman’s decision to use atomic weapons had less to do with ending the war than with intimidating the Soviets.

In 1980, Dr. Sherwin joined the faculty of Tufts University, where he established the Nuclear Age History and Humanities Center. He and Evgeny Velikhov, a Russian physicist, set up a project in which students and scholars at Tufts and Moscow State University came together by satellite TV. Dr. Sherwin retired from Tufts in 2007 as professor emeritus. He also taught at George Mason and Princeton Universities.

In addition to his wife, Susan (Smukler) Sherwin, he is survived by a son, Alex; a sister, Marjorie Sherwin; and four grandchildren. His daughter, Andrea Sherwin, died of cancer in 2010.

Mr. Bird said by email that when he joined the Oppenheimer biography project, Dr. Sherwin told him to expect a few gaps in his research. Mr. Bird said he didn’t find any. Instead, he said, he discovered that Dr. Sherwin, “for an academic, had an ear for the rhythm of good narrative writing.”

“It was a rare collaboration,” he added. “We were still friends at the end.”

They were such good friends, in fact, that they were contemplating another joint project: a book about captured American B-29 crew members who were spared execution by a Japanese commander and taken to Hiroshima to see the devastation wrought by the atom bomb. On the day he died, although weakened by cancer treatment, Dr. Sherwin was still editing the proposal.

He and Mr. Bird also learned that day that the director and screenwriter Christopher Nolan planned to adapt their Oppenheimer book into a movie starring Cillian Murphy as the physicist.

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