An Acclaimed Biographer Takes On Her Grandfather, the Atomic Scientist James B. Conant

Aug 21, 2018

 By Kai Bird
Nov. 7, 2017
James B. Conant, Warrior Scientist 
By Jennet Conant 
Illustrated. 587 pp. Simon & Schuster. $30.
Biography is a notoriously arduous affair. Typically, the biographer spends years in the archives, sifting through documents, folder by folder, box by endless box. One worries about the missing diary or the poignant letter gone astray — or the proverbial suitcase in the attic, stuffed with handwritten love letters, only to be discovered too late. Naturally, the reader may wonder what motivates the biographer’s obsessiveness.
Jennet Conant is the acclaimed author of four previous books about World War II, including two best-selling volumes on Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project. But she is also the granddaughter of James B. Conant, the subject of her new biography. She comes peculiarly well prepared and motivated to write the story of her grandfather — a brilliant chemist, president of Harvard University for two decades, administrator of the Manhattan Project, diplomat and Cold Warrior scientist who helped usher in the atomic era.
Some years ago, Jennet Conant wrote an op-ed entitled “My Grandfather and the Bomb,” in which she revealed that “Los Alamos was the chief morality tale of my childhood.” When she was 10 years old her father, Ted Conant, moved his family to Japan and took his young daughter to visit Hiroshima. She became acutely aware “that I was living in a country my grandfather had once tried to blow to smithereens.” Her father was highly critical of her grandfather, recounting his “transgressions, his complicity in the secret military effort to develop chemical weapons and the atom bomb.” This harsh portrait was at odds with the grandfather she knew, an austere New Englander “made more approachable by age and the twinkle in his eyes.” Young Jennet was caught in the poisonous relationship between her father and grandfather: “the deep rifts in our family never entirely healed.”
“Man of the Hour” is an experienced biographer’s attempt to understand both this family rift and her enigmatic, highly intellectual grandfather. It is a most serious work, well written and evocative of an era when the American foreign establishment exuded gravitas. Conant the biographer wrestles with such weighty controversies as her grandfather’s role in the development of mustard gas during World War I, various battles over free speech and academic freedom at Harvard, the decision to use the atomic bomb on a whole city, the fight over whether or not to build a hydrogen bomb, McCarthyism at Harvard and the rearming of West Germany. It is an astonishing list of highly complicated ethical and political minefields — and for the most part, Conant navigates these debates while acknowledging the competing schools of thought among orthodox and revisionist historians of the Cold War.
But a theme emerges, and perhaps not surprisingly, it is a defense of her grandfather, an intellectual who nevertheless defined “the most desirable target” of the first atomic bomb as “a vital war plant employing a large number of workers and closely surrounded by workers’ homes.” These are chilling words, from a man raised by a mother with Quaker values. But it underscores the granddaughter’s difficult task in trying to craft an empathetic portrait of a man so coldly rational. She handles it by describing the discomfort her grandfather felt about the atomic bomb while acknowledging the views of postwar critics who argue that the weapon was used, in the words of J. Robert Oppenheimer, “against an essentially defeated enemy.” Her grandfather’s motives, she insists, were “honorable.” In his eyes, “it would shorten the war.”
Late in life, Conant wrote a memoir that Conant the biographer describes as “dry and devoid of personal detail.” Her biography tries to compensate for his reticence and delves deeply into what she calls “the dark corners of our family history.” We’re not talking here about the atomic bomb — but suicides, nervous breakdowns, manic depression and bipolar disorder. Conant’s wife, Grace (Patty) Richards, was temperamental, erratic and a distant if not completely dysfunctional mother to her two sons. Patty’s two brothers both committed suicide. And one of her sons, James Richards Conant, suffered repeated bouts of post-traumatic stress, known at the time simply as “combat fatigue,” after the submarine he was serving on nearly sank during World War II. When Conant learned of his elder son’s hospitalization in San Francisco, he sent his other son, Ted (Jennet’s father), to visit him. But he did not warn him of his brother’s condition. Nineteen-year-old Ted strolled into the hospital with candy in hand, only to be escorted into a padded cell where he was shocked to see his brother spewing foulmouthed accusations against their parents. It would be years before Ted would forgive his father for sending him on a get-well visit without “warning him that his brother was ‘stark-raving mad.’”
Grandfather Conant, writes the granddaughter, was emotionally “obtuse.” Ted later recalled the opinion of a well-known psychiatrist, who said, after conversing with Conant about his son’s problems, “that he had never encountered a man of such daunting intellectual prowess who had such a blind spot in comprehending psychological problems or irrationality.” Here, I am quoting, and Jennet Conant cites, what her father told James Hershberg in 1991 for his magisterial biography “James B. Conant: Harvard to Hiroshima and the Making of the Nuclear Age” (1993).
Hershberg’s book covers all the same ground as the granddaughter’s biography. And at 948 pages, it is extremely nuanced and thorough. Conant draws on the same sources, though she also brings to the table some additional family correspondence, journals and photographs. She both relies on Hershberg’s massive archival work and takes issue with those judgments critical of her grandfather. For my money, Hershberg’s biography is still formidable — but there is no discounting this new, relentless and personally invested account.
Kai Bird is executive director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography at CUNY Graduate Center and co-author, with Martin J. Sherwin, of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.”

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