The Quiet American

James Conant
James Conant; drawing by David Levine


James Bryant Conant was made president of Harvard in 1933, when he was forty. He had been a professor of chemistry, and was sufficiently untested as an administrator to have been passed over, not long before, by his own high school, Roxbury Latin, during its search for a new headmaster. But he proved an active and modernizing educator. Conant had supervised the production of a poison gas (never used) called lewisite during World War I, and shortly after the outbreak of World War II, he was invited to join a government body created to oversee scientific contributions to military research. In 1941, he was appointed head of a subgroup known as S-1, which was the code name for the atomic bomb, thus becoming the chief civilian administrator of American nuclear research and, eventually, a principal figure in the decision to drop the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. He continued to play a role in the articulation of nuclear policy after the war, and in 1953 left Harvard to become Eisenhower’s high commissioner, later ambassador, to Germany. After his return to the United States, in 1957, he undertook a series of widely circulated studies of public education, underwritten by the Carnegie Corporation. In 1965, his health began to fail, and he gradually withdrew from public life. My Several Lives, an autobiography notable for its reticence, appeared in 1970. He died in 1978.

It’s a career that touches on many areas—science, government, education, the cold war, the national security state, the politics of the atom. But it doesn’t touch on that many areas, and it is a little disheartening to pick up James Hershberg’s book on Conant, which runs to nearly a thousand pages, and read, on page seven, the words, “I have not attempted a full biography.” The impulse is to respond, “I’ll just wait for the full one, then,” but the thought is stifled by the prospect of a volume even more massive.

Hershberg’s disclaimer is not, as it turns out, quite accurate. James B. Conant is a full biography; it’s just an unevenly proportioned one, and this is the consequence of the project’s genesis. It began as Hershberg’s senior thesis, at Harvard, on Conant’s role in nuclear policy from 1939 to 1947, which then developed into Hershberg’s doctoral dissertation, at Tufts, on Conant’s role in nuclear policy from 1945 to 1950. These rather specialized studies constitute the core of the present book, to which the material needed to make it presentable as a life has been added: the story of Conant’s service as postwar emissary to Germany, which is fairly detailed, and an account of his work as an educational administrator and policy-maker, which is cursory.

Well, relatively cursory. For although Hershberg has many strengths as a historian, concision is not among them; and it is hard not to feel that a more succinct account of the nuclear Conant, together with…

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