James B Conant began his scientific career as a chemist and eventually became one of the chief scientists in the Manhattan Project, president of Harvard University and an advocate for arms control. The science and military events that shaped his life are familiar subjects for acclaimed author and journalist Jennet Conant, whose books 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos and Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science that Changed the Course of World War II offer in-depth histories of a cultural, political and scientific past that continue to shape Northern New Mexico's present. In her latest work, Conant delves into a key figure in US history and in her own family: her grandfather.
SFR: When I interviewed you in 2005 about 109 East Palace, we talked about the idea that Los Alamos was 'the chief morality tale of your childhood.' Has that view evolved?
JC: I think this book was always looming ahead of me from the moment I became a writer; I just wasn't at all ready to write it when I started. I picked Tuxedo Park—I think consciously and maybe a little unconsciously—and then it became clear to me that it was a very parallel tale: It was another … leader of a war time laboratory … another family that was torn apart by the war, another family that struggled with some of the same problems of depression that tore my family apart. … When I wrote 109 East Palace, I was tip-toeing toward it; my grandfather was a bigger character in that book. And then, when I came up to this one, my father was dying and I was interviewing him a great deal and I realized I had to write this book.
Your grandfather was 25 years old when he helped oversee creating poison gas as part of World War I efforts. It wasn't used, but what role do you think that played in his thinking about both chemical and atomic warfare?
Hugely, if you look at the young man he was, he was really a pacifist. He made himself extremely uncomfortable on Harvard's campus by being opposed to the war. War fever grabbed the campus, [but he] did not want any part of that war and then he had no choice. He was on his way to enlist when he got snapped up by one of his chemistry professors who said, 'You'd do more good using your brain.' He didn't want to do it; he called making poison gas beating the devil at his own game. When World War I ended, it was with enormous relief that he returned to academia.
Your grandfather faced criticism in 1933 for becoming president of Harvard, including from former Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who blamed science for much of the world's mess. Is it fair to say that skepticism about science and leadership trailed your grandfather's career?
It definitely trailed for a long time at Harvard; a lot of people didn't think he was the right man for the job and a lot of people at Harvard thought scientists were narrow, pedantic people buried in a microscope. … But in the end … he turned out be a very far-sighted leader … in his active role as an interventionist, and carrying the torch for [President Franklin D] Roosevelt as an interventionist. He also really had to battle very hard to open up Harvard: He wanted it to be a school of merit, and it was not when he took over.
How do you think your grandfather would respond to today's climate, both on the nuclear side as well as public education, which he also made a focus in his life?
He would be so appalled we were back at a nuclear confrontation … but he would be at least as heartbroken by the state of our public schools: They were actually what he thought made us a great country. He spent the last 15 years of his life talking about how they were the engines of democracy, and unless … every citizen had a chance to advance, our democracy would erode from within. He saw that as much or more of a threat than fascism or totalitarianism—that without an educated citizenry, our democracy would begin to fail.
This interview has been condensed and edited for space and clarity.
Jennet Conant in Conversation with Lorene Mills
6 pm Friday Oct. 13. Free. Collected Works Bookstore and Coffeehouse, 202 Galisteo St., 988-4226.