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My Grandfather and the Bomb

For James B. Conant's family, Los Alamos was a grim morality tale.

May 02, 2005|Jennet Conant

Guilt can run in countries the same way it does in families, passed down from generation to generation. It is that way with the bombing of Hiroshima, which almost 60 years later continues to haunt us as a nation, just as it never ceased to trouble the conscience of those individuals who had a hand in the death and destruction visited on that city on Aug. 6, 1945.

It is that much more difficult and painful if the action in question was undertaken by someone close to you, someone much admired and beloved, as was the case with my grandfather, James B. Conant, a proud and austere Yankee and former president of Harvard, made more approachable by age and the twinkle in his eyes. I cannot remember a time when I did not know that he was a celebrated World War II scientist, and that as a top administrator of the Manhattan Project he had helped usher into being the tremendously powerful atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, and three days later on Nagasaki, and brought the conflict to a quick and fiery end.

Los Alamos was the chief morality tale of my childhood, as intrinsic, formative and fraught as the most morbid of Mother Goose nursery rhymes are to other children. I spent my early years in Cambridge, Mass., surrounded by the brilliant physicists and chemists who had served their country at that hour of need. As I grew older, I could identify Robert Oppenheimer as their fearless leader, Cyril Smith as the man who built the bomb's metal casing, and George Kistiakowsky as the brains behind the detonator. Together with my grandfather, they were my nuclear version of the Fantastic Four.

The other side of the story -- and I came to learn that every story has another side -- was not driven home to me until my parents moved to Japan in the summer of 1970, when I was 10. I could not help being acutely aware that I was living in a country my grandfather had once tried to blow to smithereens. By then, I had already gleaned enough during tense family dinners to have more than a few inklings of doubt about what happened to Japan during the vengeful summer of 1945. Children sense anything that is amiss.

In the late 1960s, my liberal parents often squared off with my grandfather about the war in Vietnam and were full of recriminations about his Cold War mistake of aligning himself with the American military against an ideological enemy.

My father would list my grandfather's transgressions, his complicity in the secret military effort to develop chemical weapons and the atom bomb, and his recommendation of the subsequent -- and in their view senseless -- decision to use it against Japan, especially in light of later reports revealing that country's willingness to surrender if it could keep its emperor. A special place in history was reserved for my grandfather for suggesting, during a crucial May 31 meeting of the president's Interim Committee, that "the most desirable target would be a vital war plant employing a large number of workers and closely surrounded by workers' houses."

When I was 12, my parents took me to Hiroshima, to the scene of the crime. We toured the skeletal remains of the buildings that had been preserved as a testament to the holocaust that had taken place there.

At the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, erected at ground zero, we sat and watched the horrifyingly graphic documentary made in the aftermath of the attack, showing the black and burning city and the unspeakable suffering of those who survived the blast, their scorched skin hanging down like torn rags from their bones, radiation eating away at their insides as they slowly and painfully died. My mother walked out of the theater in the middle, sick to her stomach. As I listened to the somber narration, I realized with a certain shock that my grandfather, whom I had always looked upon as one of the heroic figures of the war, was regarded by some as a mass murderer, responsible for helping to create the most diabolical weapon in the history of mankind.

We were living in Tokyo then, and on the long train ride home I looked at the Japanese faces staring back at me and wondered what they would think if they knew.

The next time I saw my grandfather again was a few months later in Hawaii in 1973, on his 80th birthday. My parents were not invited, a sign that the deep rifts in our family never entirely healed.

We stayed in a hotel not far from Pearl Harbor, the scene of the deadly airstrike that began all the killing. I looked at my grandfather, white-haired and slightly stooped, and understood for the first time the magnitude of the personal responsibility he carried.

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