Jennet Conant has written four acclaimed, bestselling books about World War II (Tuxedo Park, 109 East Palace, The Irregulars, and A Covert Affair). Her abiding interest in World War II is inspired by her grandfather—the subject of her new book, Man of the Hour: James B. Conant, Warrior Scientist.
James B. Conant set an extraordinary example of public service without ever holding elected office. A member of the greatest generation, there was probably no one who made a larger mark in more areas of American life, shaping national policy as a bold educational reformer, scientist, nuclear pioneer, Cold War diplomat and statesman for over fifty years.
He was a towering figure who stood at the center of the great public decisions of his times. As an eminent young scientist, he supervised the production of poison gas in WWI. As the Nazi threat loomed, he led the interventionist cause in WWII, helmed the Manhattan Project, and made the recommendation to drop the bomb on Hiroshima to bring the war to an end. Afterwards, he became one of America’s first Cold Warriors, tried to convince the Atomic Energy Commission to reject the hydrogen bomb, and campaigned tirelessly for the international control of atomic weapons. He continued to play an important role in cold war politics as President Eisenhower’s High Commissioner, and then ambassador, to Germany, helping to secure the country’s future and strengthen Europe’s defences against Soviet aggression. He achieved national prominence in his 20-year reign as president of Harvard—the very symbol of the intellectual and social elite—and yet was a champion of meritocracy and open admissions, helping to create the SAT, and devoting his later life to improving American public schools as the “engine of democracy.”
For a man who spent his entire life in the public eye, he was intensely private. For all his brilliance, he had very little insight into his fellow man, and often blundered in his management of people, particularly those closest to him. He made the ambitious decision to marry the young daughter of his Nobel-prize winning department head at Harvard, and loyally stood by her as one after another of her family was felled by depression and bipolar disorder. He never understood the grievous illness, or found a way to cope with it, but struggled to keep his wife from succumbing, in the process alienating both his sons.
Jennet Conant’s research is based on hundreds of documents and diaries archived at Harvard, and many interviews with Manhattan Projects scientists, Harvard colleagues, friends and family. What is new here are the many personal letters and diaries that help to illuminate the man himself, from the chip he had on his shoulder from growing up in class-conscious Boston, to the agonizing decisions he was forced to make while serving his country in three wars—two hot and one cold—and the burden of guilt he bore for always putting his work first. With Man of the Hour, Jennet Conant paints a rich, nuanced portrait of a uniquely American life.