JAMES B. CONANT by James G. Hershberg


Harvard to Hiroshima and the Making of the Nuclear Age
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 In 1970, organic chemist, Harvard president, and nuclear- weapons mandarin Conant published a ponderous and unrevealing autobiography, My Several Lives. Now, in an even more massive but engrossing look at Conant's public life, Hershberg (a historian at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.) illuminates the importance of this enigmatic and undeservedly obscure figure. Because of the magnitude of his undertaking, as well as the secrecy maintained by both Harvard and the US government over many relevant files, Hershberg has concentrated on Conant's careers as ``atomic bomb administrator, nuclear and scientific adviser to the government, Harvard president during the `Red Scare,' Cold War public figure, and envoy to Germany.'' Nonetheless, Hershberg relates the story of child prodigy Conant's upbringing in a Boston suburb, his rise to academic excellence at Harvard, and his profitable work in the ``chemist's war'' of WW I--where he ``threw himself into the task of producing poison gases, confronting for the first time the moral quandaries involved in a scientist's participation in constructing deadly weapons rather than advancing knowledge.'' After the war, Conant became equally absorbed in his groundbreaking chemical research at Harvard, until, in 1933, he was appointed the university's president--a posting that prompted him to pursue a liberal policy, reforming tenure procedures and making the school more democratic and less hidebound. In 1941, Conant joined a group of scholars studying the question of whether to develop a nuclear weapon, and he played a key role in the Manhattan Project. Until the early 1950's, he constantly advised the feds on nuclear policy--especially on attempts to control the proliferation of nuclear weapons--and he campaigned against the development of the hydrogen bomb. Later, Conant presided over Germany's rearmament and became America's first ambassador to West Germany. Finally, in 1957, at age 65, he commenced a new career as ``author, commentator, and critic on American public education.'' Conant died in 1978. A magisterial study of an awesome and intriguing public career. (Photographs)

Pub Date: Nov. 15th, 1993
ISBN: 0-394-57966-6
Page count: 1024pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 1993