Pulitzer-winning scholar Martin J Sherwin dead at 84

Martin J. Sherwin was a leading scholar of atomic weapons. | File  

Martin J Sherwin, a leading scholar of atomic weapons who in A World Destroyed challenged support for the U.S. bombing of Japan and spent more than two decades researching the pioneering physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer for the Pulitzer Prize-winning American Prometheus has died.

Sherwin died Wednesday at his home in Washington, DC, according to his friend Andrew Hartman, a professor of history at Illinois State University. He was 84 and had been battling lung cancer.

Kai Bird, a close friend and the co-author of American Prometheus called him, “probably the preeminent historian of the nuclear age.”

“When we started working on American Prometheus he told me he had lots of research, but a few gaps,” Mr. Bird said, “When I began going through all the materials I couldn’t find any gaps.”

Co-authors Kai Bird, left, and Martin J. Sherwin, right, hold a copy of the book they wrote 'American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer'. | File

Co-authors Kai Bird, left, and Martin J. Sherwin, right, hold a copy of the book they wrote 'American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer'. | File  

Sherwin was a New York City native whose interest in nuclear research dated back to his undergraduate years at Dartmouth College, when he spent a summer working at a uranium mine out West.

Sherwin’s ties to the arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union became frighteningly personal during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

He was a junior officer in the Navy and was told of plans to evacuate from their base in San Diego to a remote location in Baja California, Mexico.

“The rationale was to disperse military aircraft beyond the reach of Soviet missiles,” he wrote in Gambling With Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis which came out last year.

“Some junior officers — all of us bachelors — joked that the beaches of Baja would be a delightful place to die,” he wrote.

He was best known for American Prometheus published in 2005 and winner of the Pulitzer for biography.

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The book was widely praised as a comprehensive and invaluable study of the so-called “father of the atomic bomb” who later had his telephones tapped and his security clearance revoked during the McCarthy era of the 1950s as he advocated nuclear containment and opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb.

Sherwin began working on the book in the late 1970s with an hours-long horseback ride to the mountainside ranch in New Mexico where Oppenheimer once lived.

He continued over the next two decades as he accumulated tens of thousands of pages of research, from FBI files to private correspondence to interviews with those who knew Oppenheimer.

Mr. Bird, whom he had befriended in the 1990s and eventually brought in to help, joked that Sherwin had come down with “biographer's disease”, the inability to know when it was time to stop researching and begin writing.

Pulitzer judges cited Sherwin and Mr. Bird for their “rich evocation of America at midcentury” and called American Prometheus a “new and compelling portrait of a brilliant, ambitious, complex and flawed man profoundly connected to its major events — the Depression, World War II and the Cold War.”

Sherwin was also a popular teacher and lecturer who taught at Princeton University, George Mason University and for much of his career, Tufts University, where he founded the Nuclear Age History Center.

At Princeton, he was an adviser to the author-journalist Eric Schlosser and mentored Katrina vanden Heuvel, now editorial director and publisher of the liberal weekly The Nation, for which Sherwin was a contributor and served on the board of directors.

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Printable version | Dec 3, 2021 1:02:02 AM |

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