In Other Words

Man of the Hour: James B. Co­nant, War­rior Sci­en­tist by Jen­net Co­nant

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - by Jen­net Co­nant, Si­mon & Schus­ter, 587 pages

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).

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