JAMES G. HERSHBERG opens his lengthy biography of James Bryant Conant by saying that it is about a man ``who devoted his career to scholarship and who participated in some of the twentieth century's most tumultuous events....'' The book, ``James B. Conant: Harvard to Hiroshima and the Making of the Nuclear Age,'' moves back and forth between Harvard University - where Conant was a student, then a chemistry professor, and finally president from 1933 to 1953 - and a much wider world.
``Participated'' is the right word to describe Conant's role on that second stage, suggesting as it does something between just being present, on the one hand, and having played an indispensable or even decisive part, on the other. His place in the larger scheme of things is ultimately hard to judge.
Conant helped alert Americans to the danger of German fascism and Soviet communism and was involved with several of the scientific developments of modern times: poison gas in World War I and the atomic bomb in World War II, both of which he worked on enthusiastically; and the hydrogen bomb, whose development he tried to stop.
In those and other ventures, Conant more than lived up to his 1949 estimate of himself as ``one of the outstanding kibitzers of the age.'' But there is also no denying the thrust of his final self-appraisal: He told an interviewer in 1978, a year before his death and apropos of his attempts to have nuclear weapons brought under some form of international control, ``everything I've worked for has been rejected.''
Fifteen years further on, the same might also be said of what Conant was against, namely, the notion that it would serve the national interest for the United States to build and maintain or, worse, use vast arsenals of atomic and hydrogen bombs.
Now that the cold war is over, no one talks about blowing up the world in order to save it from communism. But Conant was onto something in his mordant remark about the frustration of his ambitions: It was post-World War II arms controllers like himself -
and not their more militarist adversaries - whose views on war, peace, and the prospects for human survival in the nuclear age led to a misapprehension of the future.
Although Hershberg never quite draws that conclusion, he offers any number of examples of the mind-set question. One particularly telling case in point is a 1944 prediction by Conant to the effect that, as the atomic bomb became a military reality, only two things could happen: Either there would be a major arms race ``between nations and in the next war destruction of civilization''; or ``a scheme'' would emerge ``to remove atomic energy from the field of conflict.'' As it turned out, the arms race went on apace without either of these eventualities transpiring.
That outcome raises, or ought to raise, some doubts about the adequacy of the late 1940s and 1950s effort to understand nuclear weapons and the threat posed by the former Soviet Union's possession of them.
Hershberg lays out the debate on those subjects in great detail and with an abiding respect for what scientist-statesmen of the day brought to the discussion: a high sense of political responsibility and much expertise. But his extended coverage undercuts his purpose.
After reading page after earnest page on the technical ins and outs of nuclear weapons, it is hard to disagree with Bernard Baruch's comment that the only points worth making about the atomic bomb - then or now - are that it ``went boom and it killed millions of people.''
As for all the agonizing over Russia that Conant and his contemporaries went in for, the cold war might have been less unpleasant to live through, and would almost certainly be easier to make sense of in retrospect, had American scientists, natural and otherwise, taken President Roosevelt's advice (which Hershberg cites, but does not follow): ``I would minimize the general Soviet problem as much as possible, because these problems, in one form or another, seem to arise every day, and most of them straighten out.''
No one nowadays is apt to long for a return to a time when every discussion of science and the military seemed to hinge on questions that involved what Hershberg - quoting other historians - characterizes as ``the very destiny of man.'' But there is something to be said for the sense of priorities in military policy that being in on the making of the nuclear age fostered.
Toward the end of his study, Hershberg describes Conant rounding off a day spent overseeing Harvard's 1952 commencement by walking over to an informal meeting - at McGeorge Bundy's house - of a State Department ``panel of consultants on disarmament.'' Once there, Conant seems to have stolen the show, first by making pointed remarks about American military leaders and their failure to see that ``atomic weapons in the long run are on balance a danger to the United States,'' and then by offering the heretical (for 1952) suggestion that the time had come for a ``No First Use'' declaration on the bomb.
American university presidents are still in the business of giving free advice to the nation's armed forces. But Conant's cosmic concern - that a Defense Department prepared to wage nuclear war might be a menace to all concerned - has given way to more mundane issues.
Judging by the controversy surrounding Gen. Colin Powell's appearance at last year's Harvard commencement, senior academic administrators in and around Cambridge, Mass., now think that the only Pentagon policy they have any right or obligation to inveigh against is the one banning gays from serving in the military.