The Long Shadow of James B. Conant

James Bryant Conant was made president of Harvard in 1933, when he was forty. He had been a professor of chemistry, and was sufficiently untested as an administrator to have been passed over, not long before, by his own high school, Roxbury Latin, during its search for a new headmaster. But he proved an active and modernizing educator. Conant had supervised the production of a poison gas (never used) called lewisite during the First World War, and shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War he was invited to join a government body created to oversee scientific contributions to military research. In 1941 he was appointed head of a subgroup known as S-i, which was the code name for the atomic bomb, thus becoming the chief civilian administrator of American nuclear research and, eventually, a principal figure in the decision to drop the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. He continued to play a role in the articulation of nuclear policy after the war, and in 1953 he left Harvard to become Eisenhower’s high commissioner, later ambassador, to Germany. After his return to the United States, in 1957, he undertook a series of widely circulated studies of public education, underwritten by the Carnegie Corporation. In 1965, his health began to fail, and he gradually withdrew from public life. My Several Lives, an autobiography notable for its reticence, appeared in 1970. He died in 1978.
It’s a career that touches on many areas: science, government, education, the cold war, the national security state, the politics of the atom. Conant’s biographer, James Hershberg, mostly concen¬trates on the story of Conant’s role in nuclear policy from 1939 to 1950, and although the nuclear Conant is important, the educational Conant is equally important. This is not only because the changes in American higher education for which Conant was largely responsible affected two generations of professors and students—the generation that lived through those changes and the generation that lived through the backlash against them. The educational Conant is also important because Conant’s educational philosophy—which, since it was the educational philosophy of the president of Harvard, once commanded a large and attentive audience—and Conant’s political philosophy were reciprocal things. Conant believed that admissions policy was a weapon in the battle against communism; and he believed that the existence of a Communist state in possession of nuclear bombs was a factor in the formulation of admissions policy. For American educational doctrine in the postwar period was just as historically conditioned as American foreign policy. The educational views of people like Conant rose to prominence at the beginning of the cold war, and their authority only dissipated completely around the time of the cold war’s de¬mise. Those views had as much effect on life in the bipolar world as big defense contracts did. Conant helped to create the atomic bomb; he also helped to create the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Americans born after 1945 were raised in the shadow of both.
Conant was not an especially colorful character. He seems to have cultivated, even as a Harvard undergraduate, the personal style dictated by the first commandment of university presidency: Of¬fend no one. He liked committees; he liked to chair committees; and when he wasn’t being invited to serve on or to chair someone else’s committee, he was likely to be starting up a committee of his own. In a time when consensus was the official face of public policy, he was the consummate stage manager of consensus.
He was therefore much more successful as an administrator than as a politician: he preferred to work his will anonymously, and the prospect of public division invariably made him pull in his horns. If he was compelled to cast a vote on a controversial matter, he took every care to keep his ballot a secret one—a cautiousness that could sometimes be ridiculous. In 1961, the journalist Carl T. Rowan was nominated to join the very establishmentarian Cosmos Club, in Washington, D.C. Conant, as a longtime Washington insider, belonged to the Cosmos, and he agreed to write a letter on Rowan’s behalf. Rowan would have been the club’s first black member; when he was rejected by the admissions committee, in 1962, there was an embarrassing public scandal, in which some distin-guished gentlemen threatened to resign and some equally distinguished gentlemen vowed to stay on and fight discrimination “from within.” Conant was tormented by indecision: when the ambassa¬dor to India, John Kenneth Galbraith, and the governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, took opposing stands, what was the expresident of Harvard to do? He was deeply relieved when the matter was resolved by a vote of the membership in favor of nondiscrimination, before he had to declare his own position. In 1962 Conant was no longer a Harvard official; he was no longer a public official; he believed in racial integration wholeheartedly. But the thought of breaking ranks made him miserable. This was not a man well equipped to face the 1960s.
The two-word ideological gloss on Conant is “liberal anticommunist,” but he was a liberal anticommunist of a particular midcen¬tury stripe—one of those high establishment figures for whom, at the deepest level, “liberal anticommunism” was an oxymoron. Liberalism is about the tolerance of ideas and practices; anticommunism, as Conant interpreted it, is about the intolerance of one idea and one practice. These views can coexist much of the time; but at certain moments the anticommunism asks the liberalism for a concession, and then a conflict comes into view, and the liberalism is in danger of being trumped, if ever so hesitantly and apologetically, by the anticommunism. Two of these conflicts in Conant’s career are especially interesting.

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