James B. Conant (1893-1978) was one of the titans of mid-20th-century American history, attaining prominence and power in multiple fields. Usually remembered as an educational leader, he was president of Harvard University for two tumultuous decades, from the Depression to World War II to the Cold War and McCarthyism. To take that job he gave up a scientific career as one of the country’s top chemists, and he left it twenty years later to become Eisenhower’s top diplomat in postwar Germany.
Hershberg’s prize-winning study, however, examines a critical aspect of Conant’s life that was long obscured by government secrecy: his pivotal role in the birth of the nuclear age. During World War II, as an advisor to Roosevelt and then Truman (on the elite “Interim Committee” that considered how to employ the bomb against Japan), Conant was intimately involved in the decisions to build and use the atomic bomb. During and after the Manhattan Project, he also led efforts to prevent a postwar nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union that, he feared, threatened the survival of civilization — an apocalyptic prospect he glimpsed in the first instant of the new age, when he witnessed the first test of the new weapon at Alamogordo on July 16, 1945.
“... a vivid inquiry... a model of historiography; evocative reading...[Conant was] central to atomic policy and progress; the bomb would be as much Conant’s as it was anyone’s in Government. His inner response to that burden responsibility has long been obscured, but it is illumined here.” — The New York Times Book Review
“In his splendid portrait of Conant, James Hershberg has illuminated the life of a pivotal figure in the making of U.S. nuclear, scientific, educational and foreign policy for almost a half-century. But the book is much more: It is not only an insightful narration of Conant’s life; it is also a brilliant and important account of the making of the nuclear age, a chronicle that contains much that is new... Hershberg’s superb study... is a chronicle of Conant’s moral journey and we are the wiser for his having charted Conant’s path.” — Washington Post Book World
“James G. Hershberg ably comes to grips with Conant and his hazardous times... His book is vibrantly written and compelling, and it breaches Conant’s shield of public discretion in masterly fashion, making extensive use of unpublished interviews, diaries, reports, and correspondence pried from private and governmental repositories. It is a huge, ambitious work — a history of the Cold War as Conant encountered it as well as a study of the man.” — The New Yorker
“... a well-written, comprehensive, nonjudgmental but sensitive biography... Conant was involved in so many and such critical events that students of almost any aspect of our public life over the past half-century will find useful the new material and helpful insights in this book... This fine biography of one of the most important and complicated of America’s twentieth-century leaders immediately establishes James Hershberg as one of America’s outstanding young historians.” — Foreign Affairs
“... magnificent... Any reader interested in nuclear weapons, Cold War history or American politics from FDR to JFK will find this biography riveting.” — Chicago Tribune
“... riveting... an impressive achievement... honest and comprehensive in its scholarship, the author has shown himself to be a historian of notable achievement and promise.” — McGeorge Bundy, Nature
“... entertaining... thought-provocative.” — The Wall Street Journal
“... engrossing... A magisterial study of an awesome and intriguing public career.” — Kirkus Reviews
“Hershberg’s outstanding, balanced biography lifts the self-imposed secrecy surrounding a key architect of U.S. Cold War policy and of the nuclear age.” — Publisher’s Weekly
Hershberg's outstanding, balanced biography lifts the self-imposed secrecy surrounding a key architect of U.S. Cold War policy and of the nuclear age. James Bryant Conant (1893-1978), while president of Harvard University and as scientific adviser to the Roosevelt administration, advised FDR of the feasibility of building an atomic bomb; his recommendations spurred the secret crash program that culminated in the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A liaison between the White House and Manhattan Project scientists, Conant in 1945 gave Truman fateful advice on where the new weapon should be dropped. Hershberg, a historian at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, D.C., reveals that although Conant publicly supported U.S. postwar nuclear preparedness, he lobbied secretly for a U.S.-led global nuclear moratorium, a proposal that was ignored. Raised in a working-class Boston suburb, the dapper, coolly rational Harvard educator emerges as a highly contradictory figure: a Cold Warrior haunted by doomsday fears, a chemist who worked on poison gas in WW I, a staunch opponent of Truman's development of the hydrogen bomb who later advocated deployment of ``tactical'' nuclear weapons to contain the purported Soviet menace to Western Europe. While Conant defended academic freedom against the McCarthyite witch hunt, he nevertheless endorsed a policy of automatically dismissing any faculty member who refused to name associates who had attended communist meetings. Evidence set forth here suggests that Conant's Harvard administration turned over confidential information about students to the FBI. Hershberg also skillfully probes Conant's multiple roles as Eisenhower's draconian high commissioner in occupied Germany, critic of U.S. public schools, proponent of massive federal programs to transform the black underclass, and prescient advocate of solar energy. Photos not seen by PW.