My Grandfather and the Bomb

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.

My grandfather never expressed regret for the bombing of Hiroshima, a decision he defended as necessary to swiftly end the war and save hundreds of thousands of Allied and Japanese soldiers. Nor did I ever feel inclined to blame him, especially as I learned more about the fierce and costly battles that had been fought in Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and the terrifying prospect that the planned invasion of mainland Japan might incur the loss of as many as half a million American lives. Though critics have since argued that those figures were inflated, my grandfather, along with the other leaders of the Manhattan Project, was forced to make terrible decisions in the heat of the moment, decisions no man should have to make.


It is easy for revisionists with 20-20 hindsight to question the morality of what he did, easier than for a man who had two sons overseas and who clung to the belief that this new experimental weapon might bring victory and end the fighting once and for all.

It was a tragedy, in the end, for my grandfather and the other Los Alamos scientists, who saw the tremendously powerful new force they helped create used to incinerate hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. It was never their intention to cause the radiation epidemic that followed, yet they did.

It was certainly never their purpose to let nuclear weapons loose on the world, initiate an arms race and allow petty dictators and terrorists the means to cause mayhem at the push of a button, yet that is precisely what happened. As a result, my grandfather took no pride in his wartime service, once confessing to Newsweek, “I no longer have any connection with the atom bomb. I have no sense of accomplishment.”

He devoted the latter part of his life -- he died in 1978 -- to trying to secure international control of nuclear weapons and did not want to recognize himself in the role of destroyer. But the verdict of history, which tormented him in his final days, will deal most heavily with the politicians who waged war, not the scientists who provided them with the latest weapons.


Science has no choice but to move relentlessly forward; it is society that always seems to be slipping backward.

Jennet Conant is the author of “Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II” (Simon & Schuster, 2003). Her new book, “109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos,” is being published by Simon & Schuster this month.