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The Quiet American


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 a more informative (and also succinct) account of the educational Conant, would have made for a superior book. It’s not a question of doing justice to the chronology of Conant’s life; it’s a question of doing justice to its meaning. For Conant’s educational philosophy—which, since it was the educational philosophy of the president of Harvard University, once commanded a large and attentive audience—and Conant’s political philosophy were reciprocal things. Conant believed that admissions policy was a weapon in the battle against communism; and he believed that the existence of a Communist state in possession of nuclear bombs was a factor in the formulation of admissions policy.

Hershberg is perfectly aware of this connection. But (as he more or less confesses) he isn’t particularly interestedin the admissions side of the business, and this is, I think, because he underappreciates the extent to which American educational doctrine in the postwar period was just as historically conditioned as American military doctrine, and no more inevitable or permanent. The educational views of people like Conant rose to prominence at the beginning of the cold war, and their authority began to dissipate around the time of its demise. Those views had as much effect on life in the bipolar world as big defense contracts did. Conant helped to create the atomic bomb; he also helped to create the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Americans born after 1945 were raised in the shadow of both.

Conant was not, on the evidence of Hershberg’s book and of his own writings, an especially colorful character. He seems to have cultivated, even as a Harvard undergraduate, the personal style dictated by the First Commandment of university presidency: Offend no one. He liked committees; he liked to chair committees; and when he wasn’t being invited to serve on or to chair someone else’s committee, he was likely to be starting up a committee of his own. In a time when consensus was the official face of public policy, he was the consummate stage manager of consensus.

He was therefore much more successful as an administrator than as a politician: he preferred to work his will anonymously, and the prospect of public division invariably made him pull in his horns. If he was compelled to cast a vote on a controversial matter, he took every care to keep his ballot a secret one—a cautiousness that could sometimes be ridiculous. In 1961, the journalist Carl T. Rowan was nominated to join the very establishmentarian Cosmos Club, in Washington, DC. Conant, as a longtime Washington insider, belonged to the Cosmos, and he agreed to write a letter on Rowan’s behalf. Rowan would have been the club’s first black member; when he was rejected by the admissions committee, in 1962, there was an embarrassing public scandal, in which some distinguished gentlemen threatened to resign and some equally distinguished gentlemen vowed to stay on and fight segregation “from within.”

Conant, Hershberg tells us, was tortured by indecision: when the ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith, and the governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, took opposing stands, what was the ex-president of Harvard to do? He was deeply relieved when the matter was resolved, by a vote of the membership in favor of nondiscrimination, before he had to declare his own position. In 1962, Conant was no longer a Harvard official; he was no longer a public official; he believed in racial integration wholeheartedly. But the thought of breaking ranks made him miserable. This was not a man well-equipped to face the 1960s.

The two-word ideological gloss on Conant is “liberal anti-Communist,” but he was a liberal anti-Communist of a particular mid-century stripe—one of those high establishment figures for whom, at the deepest level, “liberal anticommunism” was an oxymoron. Liberalism is about the tolerance of ideas and practices; anticommunism, as Conant interpreted it, is about the intolerance of one idea and one practice. These views can co-exist much of the time; but at certain moments the anticommunism asks the liberalism for a concession, and then a conflict comes into view, and the liberalism is in danger of being trumped, if ever so hesitantly and apologetically, by the anticommunism. Hershberg is exceptionally good—it is the principal excellence of his book—at discovering these moments in Conant’s career. He discovers a lot of them, and examines them intelligently. Two are especially interesting.

The first has to do with the bomb. In 1945, Conant became a member of the Interim Committee (“so-named,” says Hershberg, “to forestall congressional charges of executive usurpation of authority”), which had been formed to advise Truman on atomic issues. On May 31, the issue was the use of the bomb against Japan. According to the minutes: “At the suggestion of Dr. Conantthe Secretary [of War, Henry L. Stimson] agreed that the most desirable target would be a vital war plant employing a large number of workers and closely surrounded by workers’ houses.” Conant’s suggestion became, of course, atomic reality. Hiroshima was bombed on August 6, Nagasaki on August 9 (before Japanese officials had had time to inspect the damage from the Hiroshima explosion). There were 300,000 casualties. On August 14, Japan surrendered.

Conant seems never to have doubted that the destruction, without warning, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the wisest thing to do, and he never publicly expressed regret for it afterward (though Conant’s grandchildren told Hershberg they remember him admitting privately, very late in life, that the Nagasaki bomb had been a “mistake”). Tactically, the decision involved a calculation, subsequently much disputed, about the number of lives it would have cost to win the war by conventional means (which would undoubtedly have included the continued firebombing of Japanese cities). But Conant’s reasoning wasn’t only tactical. He was given to geopolitical speculation anyway, and as one of the few people privy to knowledge about the bomb from the inception of the nuclear program, he had had plenty of time to contemplate its usefulness in strategic terms.

The consideration that dominated his long-term thinking was the need for international control of atomic weapons. Conant believed that unless the American government was willing, after the war, to share nuclear information with the other powers, and to submit to the authority of an international atomic energy commission, it would sooner or later find itself engaged in a ruinous arms race. (Conant’s friend J. Robert Oppenheimer believed the same thing; they were right about the arms race.) But Conant also believed that unless the American public was convinced, by some kind of demonstration, of the bomb’s terrible power, it could never be persuaded to accede to international regulation, for it would be unable to imagine what an indiscriminate holocaust a nuclear war would inevitably be. He may have thought, too, although here the evidence is not so clear, that the Soviets, while still without a bomb of their own, required a similar demonstration to draw them to the arms control bargaining table.

Was Conant’s advice to bomb Hiroshima therefore influenced by a desire to show the world, by the instantaneous incineration of several hundred thousand Japanese citizens, how monstrous a weapon he had helped to produce? And was the decision of the administration as a whole dictated by a desire to impress the Soviets, with a view either to persuading them to agree to international atomic regulation, or to chilling any postwar expansionist intentions they might have harbored?

It must be said that Hershberg’s guidance on these questions is not altogether satisfactory. The story of the decision to use the bomb has been his greatest research interest, and this is therefore the richest section of his book; but it is also the densest. On the one hand, he appears to credit revisionist historians, such as Gar Alperovitz, who have suggested that future relations with the Soviet Union were in the minds of the men who decided to use the bomb against Japan. But he cites very little in the way of written evidence to support this claim, and he concedes that the Interim Committee’s decision-making was dominated by a desire to end the war as quickly as possible and with the least loss of life. In Conant’s case, Hershberg trails his coat a bit, sometimes seeming to suggest that Conant was motivated fairly directly by his “demonstration” logic, and even by thoughts about postwar relations with the Soviets. But his single definitive piece of evidence comes from after the war.

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