|Acting United States Secretary of Commerce|
November 13, 1958 – June 30, 1959
|President||Dwight D. Eisenhower|
|Preceded by||Sinclair Weeks|
|Succeeded by||Frederick H. Mueller|
Lewis Lichtenstein Strauss
January 31, 1896
Charleston, West Virginia, U.S.
|Died||January 21, 1974 (aged 77)|
Brandy Station, Virginia, U.S.
Lewis Lichtenstein Strauss (// "straws"; January 31, 1896 – January 21, 1974) was an American businessman, philanthropist, public official, and naval officer. He was a major figure in the development of nuclear weapons and nuclear power in the United States.
Strauss was the driving force in the controversial hearings, held in April 1954 before a U.S. Atomic Energy Commission Personnel Security Board, in which J. Robert Oppenheimer's security clearance was revoked. President Dwight D. Eisenhower's nomination of Strauss to become U.S. Secretary of Commerce in 1959 was not confirmed by the Senate.
Strauss was born in Charleston, West Virginia, the son of Rosa (Lichtenstein) and Lewis Strauss, a successful shoe wholesaler. At the age of 10, he permanently lost the vision in his right eye in a rock fight, which later disqualified him from normal military service. His family moved to Richmond, Virginia. He was valedictorian of his high school class, but typhoid fever in his senior year made him unable to graduate with his class.
Strauss had planned to study physics at the University of Virginia. When he finally graduated from high school, his family's business had had a downturn, and they could not afford to send him. For the next three years, Strauss worked as a traveling shoe salesman for his father's company. He was the company's top salesman and saved enough money for college tuition.
However, Strauss's mother encouraged him to perform public or humanitarian service. It was 1917; World War I was raging in Europe, and Herbert Hoover was head of the United States Food Administration (USFA). Strauss volunteered to serve without pay as Hoover's assistant. Strauss worked well and soon was promoted to Hoover's private secretary, which he made powerful contacts that would serve him later on. His service with the USFA lasted until 1919.
Strauss became a man of influence: acting on behalf of a representative of Finland, he persuaded Hoover to urge President Woodrow Wilson to recognize Finland's independence from Russia.
Besides the USFA and its successor, the American Relief Administration, Strauss worked with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JJDC) to relieve the suffering of Jewish refugees, who were often neglected by other bodies. The poor treatment of Polish and Russian Jews that Strauss witnessed instilled in him a powerful anti-Communist sentiment. At the JJDC, Strauss came to the attention of Felix M. Warburg, a partner in the investment bank Kuhn, Loeb & Co. in New York City.
Warburg brought Strauss to Kuhn Loeb, where he became a full partner in 1929 and was active in the firm until 1941, and Strauss became wealthy.
Strauss also became a leader in Jewish causes and organizations. For instance, in 1933 he was a member of the Executive Committee of the American Jewish Committee. However, he was not a Zionist and opposed the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. He instead supported assimilation of Jews as equal citizens of the nations in which they lived. He recognized the brutality of governments like Nazi Germany; in 1938, he joined with Hoover and Bernard Baruch in supporting the establishment of a refugee state in Africa as a safe haven for all persecuted people, not just Jews.
Despite his disqualification for regular military duty, Strauss applied to join the US Navy Reserve in 1925, and he received an officer's commission as an intelligence officer. In 1939 and 1940, as World War II began, he volunteered for active duty, and in 1941, he was called up. He was assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance, where he helped organize and manage Navy munitions work. His contributions were recognized by Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, and he served on the Army-Navy Munitions Board and the Naval Reserve Policy Board.
In 1947, the US transferred control of atomic research from the Army to civilian authority under the newly created Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Strauss was appointed by President Harry S. Truman as one of the first five Commissioners. He served on the AEC until 1950. As a Commissioner, Strauss was very disturbed by the security breaches that were revealed in the postwar years, including the presence of Soviet spies in the Manhattan Project. He supported draconian measures to improve security, including the removal of scientists with "questionable" backgrounds, including many who had played major roles in the wartime research. He opposed the broad co-operation with the United Kingdom that had been informally promised by Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was increasingly unhappy in his position, but President Truman asked him to stay on. Strauss also urged for the US to move immediately to develop the hydrogen bomb. When Truman signed the directive for hydrogen bomb development in 1950, Strauss, considering that he had accomplished as much as he could, resigned the same day.
Strauss became a financial adviser to the Rockefeller brothers but continued to take an interest in atomic affairs.
In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Strauss as chairman of the AEC. Strauss was now one of the best known advocates of atomic energy for many purposes. At Eisenhower's request, Strauss had the AEC develop the "Atoms for Peace" program, which Eisenhower announced in December 1953.
In 1954, Strauss predicted that atomic power would make electricity "too cheap to meter." Regarded as fanciful even at the time, the quote is now seen as damaging to the industry's credibility. Strauss was possibly referring to Project Sherwood, a secret program to develop power from hydrogen fusion, rather the commonly-believed uranium fission reactors.
During his term as an AEC commissioner, Strauss became hostile to J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who had been scientific director of the Manhattan Project.
In 1947, Strauss, a trustee of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, presented Oppenheimer with the Institute's offer to be its director. Strauss, a conservative Republican, had little in common with Oppenheimer, a liberal who had had Communist associations. Oppenheimer opposed hydrogen-bomb research and proposed a national security strategy based on nuclear weapons and continental defense; Strauss wanted the development of thermonuclear weapons and a doctrine of deterrence. Oppenheimer supported a policy of "candor" regarding the numbers and capabilities of the atomic weapons in America's arsenal; Strauss believed that such unilateral frankness would benefit no one but Soviet military planners.
When Eisenhower offered Strauss the AEC chairmanship, Strauss named one condition: Oppenheimer would be excluded from all classified atomic work. Oppenheimer then sat on the General Advisory Committee (GAC) of senior atomic scientists, which reported to the AEC and held a Q clearance. He was one of the most respected figures in atomic science, even briefing the President and National Security Council in 1953.
Strauss, however, deeply distrusted Oppenheimer. He had become aware of Oppenheimer's former Communist affiliations before World War II and questionable behavior during the war, and he began to think that Oppenheimer might even be a Soviet spy. Strauss was also suspicious of Oppenheimer's tendency to downplay Soviet capabilities. In 1953, Oppenheimer stated in the July edition of Foreign Affairs that he believed the Soviets were "about four years behind" in atomic weapons development. The US had exploded the first thermonuclear device the previous year, but it required a two-story building filled with refrigeration equipment to chill the liquid hydrogen. However, only a month after Oppenheimer made his proclamation, in August 1953, the Soviet Union declared and US sensors confirmed that it had tested its own hydrogen bomb. (It was not, however, a staged thermonuclear weapon of the Teller-Ulam design. Scholars have debated for some time whether the Soviet Joe 4 device should be considered a true hydrogen bomb. The first Soviet test of an undisputedly "true" hydrogen bomb was not until 1955.) Moreover, the Soviet device relied on solid lithium-6 deuteride, rather than liquid hydrogen, to boost the yield, making the Soviet device the first truly-deliverable thermonuclear weapon, which proved that the United States was the country trailing technologically in nuclear weapon capability.
In September 1953, Strauss, hoping to uncover evidence of Oppenheimer's disloyalty, asked FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to initiate surveillance to track Oppenheimer's movements. Hoover agreed enthusiastically. The tracking uncovered no evidence of disloyalty but that Oppenheimer had lied to Strauss about his reason for taking a trip to Washington (Oppenheimer met a journalist but had told Strauss that he had visited the White House). Strauss' suspicions increased further with the discovery that Oppenheimer had tried to stop America's long-range detection system in 1948 and 1949, which was the time frame when the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic weapon. In December 1953, the FBI notified Strauss that it would not watch Oppenheimer more closely without a specific request, which Strauss provided. Hoover then ordered full surveillance on Oppenheimer, including illegally tapping his phones.
At first Strauss moved cautiously, even heading off an attack on Oppenheimer by Senator Joseph McCarthy. He had the AEC staff compile a list of charges and surprised Oppenheimer with them in December 1953.
Strauss is perhaps most remembered as the driving force in the month-long hearings, held in April and May 1954, before an AEC Personnel Security Board that resulted in Oppenheimer's security clearance being revoked. Strauss had access to the FBI's information on Oppenheimer, including his conversations with his lawyers, which was used to prepare counterarguments in advance. In the end, despite the support of numerous leading scientists and other prominent figures, Oppenheimer was stripped of his clearance, one day before it would have expired anyway, as Strauss had wanted. Strauss's role has been described as a witch-hunter, pursuing a vendetta fueled equally by personal dislike and paranoid suspicions.
His term as AEC chair ended in 1958. Eisenhower wanted to reappoint him, but Strauss feared the Senate would reject or at least subject him to ferocious questioning. Besides the Oppenheimer affair, he had clashed with Senate Democrats on several major issues, including the Dixon-Yates contract.
Eisenhower offered him the post of White House Chief of Staff, but Strauss did not think that it would suit him. Eisenhower also asked if Strauss would consider succeeding John Foster Dulles (who was ill) as Secretary of State, but Strauss did not want to pre-empt Undersecretary Christian Herter, who was a good friend.
Finally, Eisenhower proposed that Strauss become Secretary of Commerce, which Strauss accepted. He took office as an interim appointee in November 1958. However, Senate opposition to this appointment was as strong as to a renewed AEC term. At the time, the previous 13 nominees for this Cabinet position won Senate confirmation in an average of eight days. Because of both personal and professional disagreements, Senator Clinton Presba Anderson took up the cause to make sure that Strauss would not be confirmed by the Senate. Senator Anderson found an ally in Senator Gale W. McGee on the Senate Commerce Committee, which had jurisdiction over Mr. Strauss' confirmation. During and after the Senate hearings, McGee had charged Mr. Strauss with "a brazen attempt to hoodwink" the committee. After 16 days of hearings the Committee recommended Strauss' confirmation to the full Senate by a vote of 9-8. In preparation for the floor debate on the nomination, the Democratic majority's main argument against the nomination was that Strauss's statements before the Committee were "sprinkled with half truths and even lies... and that under rough and hostile questioning, [he] can be evasive and quibblesome." Despite an overwhelming Democratic majority, the 86th United States Congress was not able to accomplish much of its agenda since the President had immense popularity and a veto pen. With the 1960 elections nearing, congressional Democrats sought issues on which they could conspicuously oppose the Republican administration. The Strauss nomination proved tailor-made.
On June 19, 1959, just after midnight, the Strauss nomination failed by a vote 46-49. At the time, It marked only the eighth time in US history that a Cabinet appointee had failed to be confirmed. That effectively ended his government career. Reportedly, Strauss never recovered.
Strauss died in Brandy Station, Virginia, in 1974.
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| United States Secretary of Commerce