The nuclear weapons story is not over

Oppenheimer co-biographer Kai Bird speaks with Nepali Times ahead of Nepal Literature Festival

Kai Bird’s father was a US Foreign Service officer, and spent his childhood in various postings.  After boarding school in India, he graduated in journalism and went on to write books, including The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy, Brothers in Arms (1998), American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2005), The Chairman: John J. McCloy and the Making of the American Establishment, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis (2010), The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames (2014), The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter (2021). 

Bird has visited Nepal many times, and lived here 2007-2011. He will be speaking at the Nepali Literature Festival in Pokhara on 17 February, and spoke to Nepali Times after arriving in Kathmandu this week:

Nepali Times: You went to school in Kodaikanal, started out in journalism in the Subcontinent, and ended up spending a few years in Nepal. What keeps bringing you back to the region?

Kai Bird: I have an affinity for South Asia, and Nepal in particular, because of my youthful experiences here, studying at Kodai, taking third class trains all over India and starting out as a freelance journalist with my wife Susan Goldmark. I love the complexity of the region, the chaos, the uncertainty and the constant surprises. But I also love the food, the colours, the smells and the continuous conversation between the ancient and the modern. 

You wrote books about the Bundy brothers, Robert Ames, Jimmy Carter, Oppenheimer. What draws you to biographies and how is it different than researching and writing other non-fiction?

I stumbled into biography by accident when, as a 30-year-old journalist, I decided I wanted to try writing a book. The subject became John J McCloy, a powerful Wall Street lawyer —and while I initially thought it would take me two years, it eventually took me ten years to write this 800 page biography. I fell in love with the archives and the treasure hunt aspect of the research. It’s was much more difficult than weekly magazine journalism — but much more rewarding. Biography is, I believe, the best vehicle to convey complicated history. It is story-telling, almost novelistic — because no one can truly tell the story of another human being’s life. But if it be a novel, it is a novel with hundreds and thousands of footnotes. And because it is a story about another life, it becomes quite personal and accessible. And along the way, you learn much more intimate history than from a history textbook. 

Some of your biographies are co-written, how does that work? How do you divide up the work?

Co-authorship is difficult. My first biography started out that way — and after eight years my co-author and I parted ways. Biographers have big egos like any other writer. So actually, when Marty Sherwin invited me to join him on his Oppenheimer project, already 20 years in the making, I hesitated. I initially told Marty that I liked him too much to risk our friendship over a biography. He laughed and eventually persuaded me to join him. It turned out to be a very successful partnership and a lot of fun. He did most of the research — and when I started writing a draft of the childhood years, this stimulated him to finally start writing. We went back and forth, trading edits and rewriting each other’s material. It became pretty seamless. 

What was the main reason you chose to co-write about Oppenheimer in American Prometheus?

Oppenheimer is such an essential story to understanding the atomic age — an era we will always be grappling with … Oppenheimer gave us the atomic fire and changed the world forever. I fear that we have become too complacent after so many decades of living with the Bomb. The story is not over and it could still end very badly. But Oppenheimer’s life also resonates with us today because of his role as a scientist who became a public intellectual. Our world is now drenched in science and technology. With AI we are confronting yet another “Oppenheimer moment.” And we need expert scientists, thoughtful, articulate scientists who can explain the choices we face in adapting to all this new technology.

Do you feel that there is a replay of the McCarthyist witch-hunt of the kind that Oppenheimer was subjected in democracies around the world today?

Yes, absolutely. The Oppenheimer story explains the rise of the divisive politics of Donald Trump. Oppenheimer became the chief celebrity victim of the McCarthyite witch-hunts. And today around the globe we seem to be experiencing a similar xenophobia about immigrants, ethnic and religious minorities and workers disrupted by technology and globalisation. It is a politics of paranoia, fueled by insecurities — and it feeds on anti-intellectualism. Maybe the world is changing too fast for most people. And the pace of change makes them retreat into their own narrow-mindedness. Instead of venerating scientific expertise some people want to demonize scientists and intellectuals — and this undermines the notion of a collective humanity. We should recognise that globalisation and science have brought hundreds of millions of people into the middle class.

Oppenheimer's dilemma of balancing a nuclear arms race with the monstrosity of the weapon seems more relevant today than ever before.

It is important to recall that just three months after Hiroshima, Oppenheimer warned everyone that these new weapons were “evil” and were “weapons for aggressors, and weapons of terror”. He also predicted that any nation anywhere, however poor, would be able to develop atomic armaments. So now we have not only America and Britain and France but China, North Korea, and India and Pakistan, and Israel — and perhaps tomorrow Iran — all armed with nuclear weapons. Deplorably, Russia’s Vladimir Putin has threatened the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine. So we live in a very dangerous world. 

Has there been a renewed interest in the theme of your book after the movie especially since its release coincided with conflicts flaring up around the world?

Well, it was only a coincidence that Christopher Nolan began filming Oppenheimer in February 2022 – the same month that Russia invaded Ukraine. But I think the story just resonates with people everywhere, and particularly with the younger generation who have not really been thinking about the danger of nuclear weapons.

Oppenheimer the movie will finally be released in Japan this year because of its sensitivity. But how was the book itself received in Japan after it was published in 2008?

There was a two volume Japanese edition of American Prometheus (published in 2005 in the US) but it sold modestly, until the film was released worldwide. As you say, the film is being released for the first time in Japan only this month

You lived in Nepal and have returned to speak at the Literature Festival in Pokhara. What are your lingering impressions of the country? 

I first visited Nepal in 1969 for a short week as a tourist. I was not even 18 years old — and on my way back to American to attend college. I then came back for several months in 1973, and again in 1976, and again in 1980. And then I returned to live here from 2007-2011 when my wife was posted in Nepal as country director for the World Bank. I also visited Kathmandu for a few weeks in 2015, shortly before the earthquake. And now I am back again for a week. So I have seen a lot of change in Nepal over the decades. It is still a chaotic place, but a beautiful country — and I am astonished at the changes that have taken place in just the last nine years. 

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