The Long Shadow of James B. Conant 3

Stimson accepted his assignment reluctantly: “I have rarely been connected with a paper about which I have had so much doubt at the last moment,” he complained to Felix Frankfurter.5 The article was ghosted by Bundy’s son McGeorge, who presented his drafts to Conant for editorial advice—which, according to Hershberg, was extensive, and which included the insertion of a passage written by Conant himself. Specifically, Conant was insistent that a discussion about modifying surrender terms to permit Japan to retain the emperor be deleted (it “diverts one’s mind from the general line of ar¬gumentation,” as he put it), and that the article be couched not as an argument against nonmilitary alternatives, but as the neutral ac¬count of a decision dictated solely by military needs. And, in the end, it was: “No man, in our position,” it concludes, “and subject to our responsibilities, holding in his hands a weapon of such possibility for accomplishing this purpose and saving those lives, could have failed to use it and afterwards looked his countrymen in the face.” There is no explanation for the second bomb; the Soviet Union, needless to say, is never mentioned.
Henry Stimson had been secretary of war in the administration of William Howard Taft, secretary of state under Herbert Hoover, and secretary of war under Roosevelt and Truman. There was no more credible witness, and “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb” stood, as Hershberg says, “for almost two decades as the authoritative historical record of the events of 1945.” What is remarkable is not that a statesman should wish to fix the record to reflect most favorably on himself: that was, of course, exactly what Conant counted on when he approached Stimson and asked him to put his name on the piece. What is remarkable is that the president of the country’s leading institution of liberal learning, having set in motion a process leading to the publication of the facts about an event, should intervene in order to censor details he judged it undesirable for the public to know.
The manner in which Conant handled the postwar issue of Communist Party members in the teaching profession is revealing, too, although the lesson can be misread. Harvard was celebrated at the time for its refusal to cooperate with McCarthy; but the university’s reputation for resisting the intrusion of government loyalty hounds has been challenged since—for example, by Sigmund Dia¬mond, in a book on the collaboration of universities and intelligence agencies in the early cold war period, Compromised Campus. Diamond suggests that Conant may have acted, while president of Har¬vard, as a confidential informant for the FBI. How credible is the charge? It’s true that Conant’s position on loyalty issues was never exactly heroic. In 1935 he led a drive against a bill in the Massachu-setts legislature mandating a loyalty oath for teachers, but when the bill was passed, he pledged Harvard’s cooperation. His general view seems to have been that an administrative inquiry into a teacher’s political beliefs was a violation of academic freedom, but that the state had a legitimate interest, which universities must respect, in exposing “subversives.” His position on Communists, therefore, was that they should not be hired as teachers (since they were, in his view, subversives by definition), but that no effort should be made by universities to ferret out Communists already on the faculty. Ferreting, he felt, was the kind of thing the government ought to do. He also maintained that any faculty member who invoked the Fifth Amendment when asked about Communist Party associations was, ipso facto, disloyal, and should be fired. (Membership in the Communist Party, it’s worth remembering, was not illegal.)
This sounds like a pretty hard line, but it seems clear that Co- nant’s chief aim was to avoid having to follow it in any particular case. He conceded its inconsistency (it was, basically, a prototype of “don’t ask, don’t tell”: political beliefs are irrelevant to academic merit, but teachers whose politics are discovered to be subversive should be fired), but he was not disposed to clarify it; for he had a presidential yearning to send a signal that would be comforting to everybody. He wanted his faculty to think that the university was committed to academic freedom, and would not pursue investiga¬tions into the politics of its members; and he wanted the government to think that Harvard was staunchly anticommunist, and would not act as a shield for teachers who were manifestly disloyal. It was a very shaky contraption, and fortunately for his reputation as a champion of academic freedom, Conant left for Germany before he was ever required to fly it.
So that when Diamond and Hershberg cite, as circumstantial evidence that Conant acted as an FBI informant, a memo to J. Edgar Hoover from the bureau’s chief agent in Boston noting that Dr. Conant has “indicated his respect for the Bureau’s work and his understanding for its many and varied interests,” they are possibly eliding two points. The first is the innate desire of intelligence operatives everywhere to assure their masters that they enjoy access to the very highest levels of whatever it is they’re supposed to be gathering intelligence about. (“Who? Oppenheimer? Oh, yes, he passed us lots of information. Most cooperative.”) The second is the innate desire of men like Conant to express solidarity of purpose when there is nothing to be gained by appearing uncooperative. That he might have cooperated secretly seems contradicted by the fact that in 1953 Hoover (as Diamond himself reports) ordered a “thorough investigation as to character, loyalty, reputation, associates, and qualifications of Conant,” and by the additional fact that Mc¬Carthy (as Hershberg says) was dissuaded from blocking Conant’s nomination to be high commissioner to Germany only by the per¬sonal intercession of President Eisenhower.

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