the story behind the book | kate tuttle

When grandad helped build the bomb

david wilson for the boston globe

“I grew up in Cambridge during the Vietnam War,” said Jennet Conant. “My baby sitters all had boyfriends who were worried about the draft, or brothers who were in the war.” She remembers watching the evening news with her liberal father, who opposed the war. “He would say, ‘See that napalm? Your grandfather developed that at Harvard’s laboratories, and he’s a mass murderer.’ ”

Intergenerational strife over Vietnam was widespread, but it was uniquely resonant in their family; Conant’s grandfather was James Bryant Conant, Harvard’s president for 20 years, a professor of chemistry whose government service included overseeing chemical-weapon development during World War II and helping lead the Manhattan Project as it produced the atomic bomb.

After four previous books, all acclaimed works of nonfiction, Conant has turned to her grandfather’s life for her fifth, “Man of the Hour: James B.
Conant, Warrior Scientist.”


“I don’t think there was a time that I didn’t know that my grandfather had made these terrifying weapons of war and that some people, the people that were demonstrating for peace outside my window, including my own father, felt that what he’d done was terrible,” Conant said. “At the same time, I loved my grandfather.”

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While he never voiced his private doubts about his role working on the bomb — he was “a stoic Yankee,” Conant pointed out — her grandfather felt “tremendous responsibility for having created this fearsome weapon. He felt that he had left America and the world far more vulnerable than he had found it. He really devoted his entire postwar career to trying to urge for arms control.”

What would her “fiercely private” grandfather think of his granddaughter’s book about his life? “He would have mixed feelings,” Conant said. “He would not like any of the family issues being revisited in public.” Still, she added, “I think there’d probably be an element of pride.”

Conant will read at 7 p.m. Thursday at Harvard Book Store.

Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at