Thursday, May 20, 2004
Thursday, May 20, 2004
This is the third installment of What Tax Profs Are Reading. The goal is to share with the broader tax community reviews of both tax-related and nontax-related books recently read by tax professors. We invite tax professors to submit book reviews for publication on TaxProf Blog.
Jim Maule (Villanova) shares with us his thoughts on James G. Hershberg's James B. Conant: Harvard to Hiroshima and the Making of the Nuclear Age (Knopf, 1993):
This 755-page, heavily footnoted (146 pages) biography of a former president of Harvard who played an influential role in the Manhattan Project, and who later served as U.S. High Commissioner of occupied Germany and then Ambassador to West Germany, is both a chronological account of an accomplished chemist and educator who became a government advisor and a diplomat, but also a solid attempt to get into the mind of a bright, curious, and sometimes aloof fellow who found himself deeply involved in some of the significant historical events of the mid-twentieth century. Hershberg has done his research, and takes the reader on a journey through the life of someone who, as is true for most of us, found himself living a life that took turns hardly anticipated in its earlier years.
Conant's story has been told many times, in magazine articles, interviews, and several books, including his own memoirs, but none are as extensive as Hershberg's tome. Though I was alive for some of the events recounted in the book, I was a child with little or no awareness of the complexity of developments that earned at best a sentence in the high school texts from which I learned 20th century history. Considering the many comparisons being made between the current situation in Iraq and the post-war occupation and recovery of Germany and Japan, it was instructive to learn of the many setbacks, diplomatic disagreements, and crises that punctuated that process and to understand that it was not as simple as some are led to believe. Likewise, the details of postwar atomic diplomacy, the dispute about the development of the thermonuclear bomb, and the McCarthy posturings come across in a new, more detailed light, in the context of Conant's involvement but benefitting from the perspective gained by the passage of 50 years.
After stepping down as Ambassador to Bonn, Conant obtained a Carnegie Foundation grant which he used to study and critique American public education. A believer in rewarding merit rather than family ties or legacy connections, he reformed many aspects of Harvard's education and then picked apart problems in American public education in which were fermenting problems that came to pass as he predicted. He warned of the dangers of ignoring the educational and other social needs of inner city residents, even though his disapproval of civil disobedience left him almost irrelevant as the problems flared into serious civil disturbances. Conant's ability to maintain the helm of Harvard while providing public service to the nation during war at levels rarely seen in current times was astounding. His early years as Harvard's president brought him tenure and other controversies, which he weathered as he reformed the faculty hiring process. What is taken for granted as typical, namely, sending an institution's outstanding graduate students to other universities and inviting back those who prove worthy, became commonplace under his watch. Conant, who started his education as a chemist, married the daughter of his academic mentor, a story within a story that Hershberg gives due respect and consideration. That's the part that motivates me to read about Conant, for his academic mentor, the Nobel Prize winning chemist Theodore William Richards, was the second cousin of my great grandfather, and Conant's wife was the third cousin of my grandfather. Though Conant died before I became immersed in my family history researches, I did correspond with his widow for a few years before she passed away. So understand there surely is some "blood is thicker than water" bias affecting my favorable reaction to this book. Even without that relationship, a story of a teacher turned administrator, an administrator turned government consultant, a government consultant turned diplomat, and a diplomat who returns to the study of education should be of great interest to anyone who is curious about the inner workings of academia and its relationship to government during the middle decades of the 20th century.For prior TaxProf Book Reviews, see: