Man of the Hour

Man of the Hour

James B. Conant – Warrior Scientist

James B. Conant set an extraordinary example of public service without ever holding elected office. A member of the greatest generation, there was probably no one who made a larger mark in more areas of American life, shaping national policy as a scientist, nuclear pioneer, Cold War statesman, diplomat and educational reformer for over fifty years.

He was a towering figure who stood at the center of the great crises and challenges of the twentieth century. As an eminent young chemist, he supervised the production of poison gas in WWI. As the Nazi threat loomed, he boldly led the interventionist cause in WWII, was tapped by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to be one the scientific chiefs at the helm of the Manhattan Project, personally overseeing the massive secret effort to develop the atomic bomb, and making the fateful recommendation to drop it on Hiroshima to bring the war to a quick and decisive end. He went on to become one of America’s first Cold Warriors, led the bitter fight to reject the hydrogen bomb, and campaigned tirelessly for the international control of atomic weapons. He continued to exert his influence as President Eisenhower’s High Commissioner, and then ambassador, to Germany, helping to secure the country’s future and strengthen Europe’s defences against Soviet aggression. He achieved national prominence in his 20-year reign as president of Harvard—the very symbol of the intellectual and social elite—and yet was a champion of meritocracy and open admission, helping to create the SAT, and devoting his later life to improving American public schools as the “engine of democracy.”

In this intimate account of his extraordinary life, his granddaughter, New York Times best-selling author Jennet Conant, draws on hundreds of documents, diaries and letters to reveal the agonizing decisions he was forced to make while serving his country in three wars—two hot, and one cold—and the burden of guilt he bore for always putting duty before family.

For all his brilliance, he never understood the depression that ravaged his family, but struggled to keep his wife from succumbing, in the process alienating both his sons.

With Man of the Hour, Jennet Conant paints a rich, nuanced portrait of a great American leader and visionary, the last of a vanishing breed.



James B. Conant “was one of the 20th Century’s most remarkable men. Conant’s public life has been treated before…. Jennet Conant’s ‘Man of the Hour’ is more compact, more punchily novelistic and far more readable. Ms. Conant is her subject’s granddaughter, and much of this book’s vividness comes from family reminiscences…. The intercutting of the rough and private with the smooth and public gives ‘Man of the Hour’ a gripping and disturbing effect—like the draft of a John Cheever novel…. His granddaughter’s biography is an outstanding portrait of a technocrat, at work and at home.” Wall Street Journal

“Jennet Conant’s latest book, Man of the Hour: James B. Conant, Warrior Scientist, is a magisterial biography of one of the 20th century’s most influential men: her own grandfather. James B. Conant, a brilliant scientist, had a career that was so varied and vital to our country that this book could easily have been called “Man of Many Hours.”” BookPage

“Jennet Conant is one of our leading non-fiction writers, author of acclaimed and bestselling books like Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science that Changed the Course of World War II.” At last, she has turned to the subject that has been looming before her all her life: her grandfather, James B. Conant, who served as president of Harvard University in the pivotal years 1933 to 1953; served as an advisor to Franklin Delano Roosevelt; and played a major role in the development of the atom bomb…. [She] pored through the historical record to produce an engrossing, nuanced portrait of a complex and enormously influential man.” The National Book Review

“Best-selling author Jennet Conant is scientist James B. Conant’s granddaughter, but she displays no bias in this definitive and critical biography.” Booklist

“Jennet Conant is a fine writer, and her biography emerges at a salutary moment. The story of James Conant’s attempts to create a re-intellectualized US government and a better-educated public, and his vision of a shaping role for the United States in an ever-changing world, are important reminders in an age of devalued expertise, educational crises and turbulent governance.” Nature

“Sometimes the best way to understand the news is to put down the newspaper, or cellphone, or close the Internet browser, and pick up a history book. It has a way of putting things in perspective…The point is that all these issues Conant and those of his time were grappling with — social mobility, college access, distorted facts, football, mental health, the atom bomb, Harvard alumni being worried about the state of the nation — are still with us, almost a century later. Dealing with them isn’t necessarily hopeless. Conant climbed mountains for fun on his vacations. He helped defeat the Nazis, widen access to college education, and unleash the power of the atom. He would be the last to counsel despair.” Newsmax



Charlie Rose, 10/24/2017



“The nuclear threat doesn’t stop with North Korea” Boston Globe


We’re thrilled to share early praise for MAN OF THE HOUR:

“This is biography and history at its best. The story of James Conant provides the perfect channel to engage our interest as we journey together through the major turning points of the 20th century. An intimate, sometimes heartbreaking portrait of Conant’s personal life is seamlessly linked to the great public achievements of his remarkable public career.”
—Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Team of Rivals and No Ordinary Time

“No one is better suited to write a biography of James B. Conant, one of America’s historically most important national science advisers, than his talented granddaughter Jennet Conant. She’s made an outstanding and definitive work of it, one that illuminates the whole World War II and postwar eras.”
—Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb.

“From transforming Harvard to overseeing the construction of the atom bomb, James Conant was one of the most influential Americans of his time. Jennet Conant reveals his wisdom and explores his moral ambiguities with the grace of a bestselling author and the insights of a granddaughter.”
—Walter Isaacson, New York Times bestselling author of Leonardo da Vinci and The Wise Men

“James Bryant Conant did more to shape the world than all but a few presidents–developing the first WMD as a young chemist, running the Manhattan Project, governing post-war Germany and inventing the American meritocracy. Now his granddaughter, Jennet Conant, an esteemed historian, has brought his story brilliantly alive. This book is destined to be a biographical classic.”
—Jonathan Alter, New York Times bestselling author of The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope

“A masterly account. . . a perceptive portrayal of a major player in world events throughout the mid-20th century.”
—Publishers Weeklyread review

“Intensely researched, insightful, and rarely dull. Conant deserves a place among the traditional “wise men” . . . This book gives him that place.”
—Kirkus Reviews, read review