cover image James B. Conant: Harvard to Hiroshima and the Making of the Nuclear Age

James B. Conant: Harvard to Hiroshima and the Making of the Nuclear Age

James Hershberg. Alfred A. Knopf, $35 (948pp) ISBN 978-0-394-57966-5

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. (Nov.)