Man Of The Hour: James B. Conant, Warrior Scientist”
By Jennet Conant
Simon & Schuster
608 pages $30
“Man Of The Hour,” written by James Bryant Conant’s granddaughter, Jennet, seems an apt enough title.
It makes reference to the U.S. government calling upon an unelected person, James B. Conant (1893 – 1978), to perform valuable service for the country time and time again. As our author notes, Conant set a great example as “a bold educational reformer (President of Harvard), scientist, nuclear pioneer, Cold War diplomat and statesman for over fifty years.”
Not only that, another statesman and friend, Dean Acheson (1893 – 1971), had already written “Present At The Creation,” a Pulitzer Prize winning book in 1970 about his being a chief architect of the post-war world. So that title was gone.
That said, “Man Of The Hour,” may be too heavy a load for those who aren’t history buffs. Don’t look at the start for Conant growing up in New England. Instead we’re thrown into a chapter entitled “Atomic Pioneer,” with Conant, then President of Harvard; America’s Secretary of State, Francis Byrnes; and other senior officials of the Allies after the war, piled into a cavernous banquet hall in snowy Moscow on Christmas Eve, 1945.
They were there to savor Russia’s sumptuous repast for its partners in World War II victory. The Russians served “guinea hen, beef, lamb and other delicacies, arrayed like a flotilla of silver down the long table, along with oceans of booze …” writes Conant. Not surprisingly many senior officials got stiff on vodka and other drink, which was the Russian intention. Nothing is left to chance by hosts looking for information.
Conant stayed sober throughout. All present were required to listen to Vyacheslav Molotov mouth off about Russia’s being uninterested in helping control the proliferation of the atomic bomb. In fact, why would Russia have a care about this? It was secretly building one of its own.
Finally, Stalin shut Molotov off, after Molotov suggested semi-humorously that Conant may have some of the A-bomb formula in his pocket.
Conant replied innocently, “I can say that the scientists of Russia and those of the other countries represented here tonight worked together to win a common victory.”
Stalin saw this contretemps at dinner working to Russia’s disadvantage. He was displeased with Molotov. So Stalin arose, acknowledged Conant’s work on the bomb and expressed the hope that the prospective weapon could be used for peaceful purposes.
Still, Stalin, murderer of millions, was nobody’s dupe. He asked Conant about his calculated riposte to Molotov that involved working together for peace: “Those were fine words, but were they sincere?”
Reader: If this material so far is up your alley, then this is your book. Conant is a careful writer who relishes detail. She’s earlier written about Robert Oppenheimer, Julia Child and the OSS, and Roald Dahl and Brit spy rings in Washington, D.C.
The second chapter of the book, entitled “A Dorchester Boy”, deals with James Bryant Conant growing up with a kind of reverse snobbery. The Conants were an old family, whose most famous ancestor was Roger, the founder and first governor of Salem, Massachusetts, who “missed the boat” in 1623, three years after the “Mayflower.” James himself had a deep disdain for anything that smacked of aristocracy himself. He had a chip on his shoulder according to his cousin “Muffy” Henderson Coolidge that made him “almost allergic to pomposity and pretension of any kind.”
So think about this Dorchester boy from the wrong side of the tracks becoming President of Harvard at 40. This was a major headline in the Boston papers on May 8, 1933, when someone so young and utterly obscure, as our writer puts it, assumes the throne of the country’s oldest and most important university.
It was almost enough to make Boston Brahmins gag. His predecessor, A. Lawrence Lowell, had been president for twenty-five years. What a change. And as the corny saying went, “the Lowells speak only to the Cabots, and the Cabots speak only to God.” Conant did not go to Groton or St. Paul’s. Nobody in his family before himself had ever gone to Harvard.
So how did he do it: the presidency and everything after? His granddaughter writes, “he put his faith in empiricism. Science was the way to invent a new future, with the promise of change, discovery, and dazzling possibility,” writes Conant. His mother put it even more succinctly when informed of his being named president of Harvard. “Everything, to him, works out by formula.”
Without arguing Mother Conant wrong, life for her son and everybody else doesn’t go that way most of the time.
Even so, those interested in what worked and didn’t work by formula in James B. Conant’s life should read this excellent book.
Michael D. Langan reviews books for The Buffalo News. During a government career that spanned 20 years, Langan was senior adviser to the Under Secretary of the Treasury for Enforcement. Part of his responsibility was overseas transnational crime.