Conant operated at the crossroads of Americas power elite, James Hershberg, the coordinator of the Cold War International History Project at the Wilson Center in Washington, rightly asserts in his introduction. Conant was at or near the center of events in World War II and the Cold War. As the administrator of the Manhattan Project, he provided the liaison between the White House, the military and the scientists. He was present at Alamogordo on July 16, 1945 (his initial terrifying reaction to the light created by the explosion was that the thing had gotten out of hand and the world was blowing up). As a member of the Interim Committee, he played a critical role in selecting Hiroshima as the target for the first atomic bomb. After the war, he tried to persuade the Atomic Energy Commission to reject development of the hydrogen bomb. He was president of Harvard during the McCarthy era, where his record in defense of academic freedom was mixed. He was Eisenhower's ambassador to West Germany, then completed his career as Americas leading educational statesman, working for reform and improvement.
Hershberg began this study in September 1981 as his undergraduate history thesis at Harvard. In the past decade, he has done an immense amount of research and produced a well-written, comprehensive, nonjudgmental but sensitive biography too long for most readers, surely, but welcome to scholars. 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.
Hershberg puts it well: Conant's life . . . offered a window on many of the revolutionary transformations in recent American history the quantum jumps in the relationships tying U.S. science, universities, government, and the military; the shift in U.S. foreign policy from isolationism to global interventionism; the stresses on American education, society, and politics, exacerbated by McCarthyism and the bomb . . . the philosophical and existential alternations in humanity's relationship to the universe after Alamogordo.
Conant was not a particularly likable person, and his reticence makes him a bit dull, but he walked with the truly big men of his era Truman, Eisenhower, Marshall, Acheson, Oppenheimer, Stimson, Dulles, Adenauer and others and had the respect of all of them. He was deeply pessimistic about the future in the atomic age that he had contributed so much to bringing about, but despite (or because of) his fears, he was a militant Cold Warrior. Hershberg concludes that Conant was both a farsighted and lucid leader and a man who displayed the limitations and failings of the American establishment in a period of global conflict, technological change, and domestic tensions.
This fine biography of one of the most important and complicated of America's twentieth-century leaders immediately establishes James Hershberg as one of Americas outstanding young historians.