In Other Words
Man of the Hour: James B. Conant, Warrior Scientist by Jennet Conant
In August 1945, the first atomic bombs detonated in Japan. Chemist James Bryant Conant watched as the world began to grapple with the devastating implications of nuclear energy. For Conant, the bombs were “his Frankenstein creation.” Few had been more involved in the events leading up to the dawn of the Atomic Age than the chemist and thenHarvard president Conant, who had spent the final years of World War II overseeing the nation’s foray into weapons of mass destruction. He advocated for America’s involvement in the war, recruited scientists, counseled J. Robert Oppenheimer and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, sat on the first atomic committees, and oversaw the direction of each national laboratory working to cull nuclear materials into weapons.
“Aware of its immense cost, awesome power, and profound military and diplomatic advantages, and assured of the wishes of the American public, they never questioned the basic assumption of whether it [the bomb] should be used at all,” Jennet Conant writes in her new book Man of the Hour, a granularly detailed tribute to her grandfather’s place in history.
The elder Conant shaped much of the modern world and warfare through his actions in the early 20th century, much like an unseen puppet master moving the strings. But it was an uneasy role, one rife with calculating and unyielding decisions made within a Machiavellian vacuum. “To insure victory in the shortest span of time,” he said in 1943, “no sacrifice can be too great.”
Atomic energy and war games are a familiar subject for Jennet Conant, who is known for the nonfiction history 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos (Simon & Schuster, 2005). But Man of the Hour has a distinctly more personal air. Conant reconstructs her grandfather’s life through family diary entries, government documents, and newspaper articles, adding both intimacy and weight to the chronicle of a man seeking greatness.
In 1920, James Bryant Conant, then twenty-seven, had three ambitions for his life, which his fiancée, Patty Richards, chronicled in her diary. She called them “Jim’s air-castles.” “1. To be the greatest organic chemist in America; 2. President of Harvard; 3. A public servant in some cabinet position such as Sec. of the interior.” Conant would achieve all of these goals in some form.
As a child, he had a personal chemistry laboratory in his home, a precursor to a scientific passion that led to his Harvard admittance. He was soon acclaimed for his brilliance in the field and offered his first government job, during World War I, secretly crafting the toxic chemical Lewisite. It was meant to aggressively attack German soldiers who had already begun deploying mustard gas on the battlefield. The war ended before America used Lewisite. But the experience would inform his work on the Manhattan Project.
Conant went on to become president of Harvard, where he reformed the curriculum, advocated for standardized testing to select bright minds from around the country, regardless of class status, and ultimately oversaw the first admittance of women on campus. He also watched his university turn into a military training ground as World War II reached America and young students were transformed into soldiers.
Conant describes how her grandfather’s influence during the Manhattan Project and following World War II shaped policy that led to a United Nations treaty on atomic weapons and efforts to control nuclear power that have extended to the present. But it could not curtail the Pandora’s-box effect that resulted from the atomic detonations, compelling an arms race with Russia, the extensive mass production of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, and
a legacy of environmental damage and human suffering in the U.S. and worldwide.
At odds throughout the book is the author’s attempt to humanize Conant’s reputation as a compelling, charismatic scientist with the man who facilitated unconscionable harm. Jennet Conant writes that before the bomb was dropped on civilians, Oppenheimer “was already thinking ahead: to their place in history, or perhaps a special corner of hell. So much of their work seemed macabre, the moral dilemmas about what they were doing grating their conscience like the sand in their teeth.” These moral contemplations, personified by Conant’s life, feel astute for the modern reader.
The threat and existential repercussions of nuclear war have never moved entirely out of the world’s periphery since 1945. But in the past year, America has inched its closest to nuclear detonation in decades. In early 2017, the Doomsday Clock, created in 1947 to reflect nuclear danger, was positioned at two and half minutes to midnight, with midnight reflecting nuclear war, the closest it has been since the early 1980s.
The Department of Energy plans to ramp up plutonium pit production and modernize the weapons that would carry the bombs to foreign enemies. North Korea has escalated the frequency and precision of its nuclear tests. And the U.S. has a president who not only lacks diplomatic skill but has a history of volatile and petty retaliatory behavior. In light of this political climate, a group of non-proliferations advocates were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Oct. 6 for their work campaigning for nations worldwide to abolish nuclear weapons.
The considerations of politicians and scientists who first contemplated such warfare still resonates, chillingly. After witnessing the first nuclear test in southern New Mexico, Conant wrote that the bomb appeared as “a cosmic phenomena like an eclipse.
“The whole sky suddenly full of white light like the end of the world,” he wrote. “Perhaps my impression was only premature on a time scale of years!”
Jennet Conant presents “Man of the Hour” at 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 6, at Collected Works Bookstore (202 Galisteo St., 505-988-4226).