Editorial: Conant, Hersey and two schools of thought on the nuclear age

  • In this Sept. 13, 1945, file photo, the Urakami Catholic Cathedral in Nagasaki, Japan, stands waste in the aftermath of the detonation of the atomic bomb over a month earlier.

    In this Sept. 13, 1945, file photo, the Urakami Catholic Cathedral in Nagasaki, Japan, stands waste in the aftermath of the detonation of the atomic bomb over a month earlier. Associated Press File Photo

Posted8/8/2020 2:00 PM

One suburban high school is named for an author who powerfully revealed the human toll of the atomic bomb.

Another suburban high school is named for an educator who played a key scientific role in the creation of that bomb.


John Hersey. James B. Conant.

On this solemn 75th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan, three days after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, it is hard here in Chicago's suburbs not to reflect on the disparate roles those two figures played in history.

It is more than somewhat odd that within 10 miles of each other in the Northwest suburbs lie a high school in Arlington Heights named in Hersey's honor and another in Hoffman Estates named after Conant.

Most high schools seem to be named after the community or region in which they're located. Those that aren't tend to be named after high-profile politicians, such as Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire or local educators of note, such as William Fremd High School in Palatine, honoring a longtime school board member.

Hersey and Conant had no ties to Chicago's suburbs.

And as far as our research could determine, no other high school in the country has been named in honor of either man.

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But both played significant roles in the dawn of the Atomic Age.

A revolutionary Harvard University president, Conant was named in 1941 chairman of the National Defense Research Committee. In that role, he provided scientific oversight for the development of the bomb, spurred on feverishly by concerns that Nazi Germany was racing to build one itself.

After its development, he was part of a committee that advised President Harry Truman to deploy the bomb in order to avoid the loss of American life that an invasion of Japan would have cost.

Those bombs ended the war, wrought horrific suffering, and ushered in the nuclear age.

It's impossible for those of us in 2020 to capture the mood of the country in 1945. But the histories of that time record the joy that greeted Victory in Japan as well as government-shaped impressions that the bomb's destructive force was largely confined to buildings and geography.

Hersey, as much as any single person, changed those perceptions.

He traveled to Hiroshima and in a gripping article in 1946 that occupied an entire New Yorker magazine (and later was turned into a book) told the intimate stories of the survivors. If you haven't read the book, "Hiroshima," do. It is necessary reading.

In making those experiences real, Hersey contributed mightily to the restraint the world has sought on nuclear arms ever since. Possibly, none of us living today would have been able to make our way here without the impact Hersey made on controlling the nuclear ardor.

That's the debt we owe Hersey. Such a service his journalism provided.

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