When James Bryant Conant assumed the Presidency of Harvard in 1933, he inherited a position that had developed national significance in educational and social arenas. But in 13 years President Conant has travelled far beyond limits that once confined the energies of a University President and has grown into an embodiment of the ascendancy science holds in politics and all major phases of national and international affairs. An evaluation of the growth of this former Chemistry professor into a world figure will emphasize two conditions that lend perspective to what has happened. First, Conant is a leading chemist in an age that has given a favored place to men ow science; second, his achievements as President of Harvard University have lent only minor impetus, both quantitatively and qualitatively, to the growth of the Conant legend.
The shattering impact of the atomic bomb on the political sensitivities of the world was accompanied by lesser waves of awareness that the men involved with the bomb had become legislators of a tremendous share of the future. Of these, Conant, because of the newsworthiness of his Harvard office and previous achievements as a chemist, has been given the greatest attention. This play in the press and radio is well merited, for he took a vital role in the project that began in 1940 and reached a climax at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
To fix the exact position of any one man through the maze of reorganization endured by the Office of Scientific Research and Development and its atomic-energy division, the National Defense Research Committee, would require charts, slide-rules and an intimate knowledge of Washington whimsy. In the case of the men behind the bomb, such a study would only give the diagrammatic relation of man to man and department to subdivision. It would not, for instance, lend itself to an accurate appraisal of Conant's utility as talent scout and supervisor of this talent in the wide area taken in by the Manhattan District, a function on which Conant places much emphasis.
But it is clear that on many occasions during the war Conant the chemist and "field agent" was called upon for decisions far removed from the test-tube and University classroom. His firm contention in 1942 that the bomb could shorten the war came at a time when high military officials considered the whole scheme expendable. It was a force behind President Roosevelt's decision to allow the project to grow beyond the blueprint stage. Later in 1942, Conant, as a member of the Baruch Committee, was asked to find an answer to the rubber, shortage, while, as a member of the still-secret N.D.R.C., he was trying to use the same dwindling stocks of gasoline and construction steel (base materials for the synthetic rubber program) for the production of the bomb. At a later crisis, Bush and Conant were called in by the Army to iron out development kinks postponing the day when the first bomb would be assembled. It was inevitable that Conant would be criticized by those who disagreed with the policies resulting from these decisions. He has been criticized, both privately and in open forum, by men who worked with him and by groups from the outside.
Whatever the effect of this controversy may be, Harvard's President stands as mentor to the powerful science-in-government element that has Washington more or less in awe. It was only logical that Secretary of State Byrnes should take him to Moscow as technical adviser. At the meetings Molotov's lumbering attempts to be gay about the "bomb that Dr. Conant carries in his vest pocket" brought an open apology from Stalin. It is evident that the Kremlin is not taking lightly this new influence on American affairs. The Russian experience may be only the first of many encounters that this product of Puritan stock will have with the earthy give and take of modern diplomatic intercourse. Insiders say that at Moscow he seemed to be learning the footwork and may be able to go through succeeding rounds without mishap. It is likely he will be given further chance. Thus the Conant star has risen to levels where it can reflect over locales as widely separated as San Francisco and Washington. Los Alamos and Moscow. As far as the public is concerned, he seems to have been touched with destiny.