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Lewis Lichtenstein Strauss
Eisenhower and Strauss discuss Operation Castle, 1954.

Lewis Lichtenstein Strauss (January 31, 1896 – January 21, 1974) was an American Jewish businessman, public official, and naval officer. He was a major figure in the development of nuclear weapons and nuclear power in the U.S.[1]


Early life

Strauss was born in Charleston, West Virginia. His father (also Lewis Strauss) was a successful shoe wholesaler. At the age of 10, he permanently lost the vision in his right eye in a rock fight. (This injury later disqualified him from military service. His family relocated to Richmond, Virginia. He was valedictorian of his high school class, though due to typhoid fever in his senior year, he was unable to graduate with his class.

Strauss had planned to study physics at the University of Virginia. But when he finally graduated, 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' mother had also encouraged him to perform some kind of public or humanitarian service. It was 1917. World War I was raging in Europe, and Herbert Hoover was head of the Committee for Relief in Belgium (CRB). Strauss volunteered to serve without pay as Hoover's assistant. Strauss worked hard and well, and soon was promoted to Hoover's private secretary, a post in which he made powerful contacts that would serve him later on. His service with the CRB lasted till 1919.

Strauss himself 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 CRB 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.

Warburg brought Strauss to Kuhn Loeb, where he became a full partner in 1929 and was active in the firm until 1941. During this period 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 where 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.

World War II

Despite his disqualification for regular military duty, Strauss applied to join the Navy Reserve in 1925, and received an officer's commission. 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 was promoted to Rear Admiral. He served on the Army-Navy Munitions Board and the Naval Reserve Policy Board.

When James V. Forrestal succeeded Knox in 1944, he employed Strauss as his personal trouble-shooter.

Strauss and the atomic bomb

Strauss' mother died of cancer in 1935; his father in 1937. Because of this, and his early interest in physics, Strauss established a fund for physics research that could lead to better radiation treatment for cancer patients. The fund supported Arno Brasch, who was working on producing artificial radioactive material with bursts of X-rays. Brasch's work was based on previous work with Leo Szilard, who saw in this work a possible means to developing an atomic chain reaction. Szilard had already foreseen that this could lead to an atomic bomb. Szilard persuaded Strauss to support him and Brasch in building a "surge generator"; he ultimately provided $20,000.

Through Szilard, Strauss met other nuclear physicists such as Ernest Lawrence. Szilard kept him up to date on developments in the area, such as the discovery of nuclear fission and the use of neutrons. In February 1940 Szilard asked him to fund the acquisition of some radium, but Strauss refused, having already spent a large sum.

Strauss had no further direct involvement with atomic-bomb development during the war. At the end of the war, when the first atomic bombs were ready for use, he advocated dropping one on a symbolic target, such as a cedar forest held in reverence by the Japanese, as a warning shot. He also recommended a test of the atomic bomb against a number of modern warships, which he thought would refute the idea that the atomic bomb made the Navy obsolete. This led to Operation Crossroads, the first atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll.

The Atomic Energy Commission

In 1946, the U.S. transferred control of atomic research from the Army to civilian authority under the newly created Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Strauss was appointed by President 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 cooperation with Britain that had been informally promised by Roosevelt. He was increasingly unhappy in his position, but President Truman asked him to stay on. Strauss also urged that the U.S. 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.

Return to the AEC

In 1953, President Eisenhower appointed Strauss as chairman of the AEC. Strauss was by this time 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."[2] He was referring to Project Sherwood, a secret program to develop power from hydrogen fusion, not uranium fission reactors as is commonly believed. [3] [4]

Strauss and Oppenheimer

During earlier term as an AEC member, Strauss became hostile to J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who had been scientific director of the Manhattan Project. In 1947, it was Strauss, then a trustee of the Institute for Advanced Studies who presented Oppenheimer with the Institute's offer to be its director. (Strauss himself had also been considered for the job.)

But Strauss, a conservative Republican, had little in common with Oppenheimer, a liberal who had had Communist associations. Oppenheimer opposed H-bomb research; Strauss was all for it. Oppenheimer wanted maximum openness about nuclear research; Strauss wanted to keep everything as secret as possible.

When Eisenhower offered Strauss the AEC chairmanship, Strauss named one condition: that 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.

But Strauss deeply distrusted Oppenheimer. He had become aware of Oppenheimer's former Communist affiliations (before World War II), and questionable behavior during the war, and began to think that Oppenheimer might even be a Soviet spy. He was encouraged in this by William Liscum Borden, a young staff member of Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was skeptical, but passed on the accusation.

Strauss in any case disagreed bitterly with Oppenheimer on many policy questions. 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. The FBI tapped Oppenheimer's phone and bugged his house.

In April 1954, there was a hearing before an AEC Personnel Security Board. It lasted a month, and became a circus. In the end, despite the support of numerous leading scientists and other prominent figures, Oppenheimer was stripped of his clearance as Strauss had wanted. Strauss was perceived as a witch-hunter, pursuing a vendetta fueled equally by personal dislike and paranoid suspicions. [5] [6] [7]

After the AEC

Strauss' term as AEC chair ended in 1958. Eisenhower wanted to reappoint him, but Strauss feared the Senate would reject him, and would in any case subject him to ferocious questioning. Besides the Oppenheimer affair, he had clashed with Senate Democrats on several major issues.

Eisenhower offered him the post of White House Chief of Staff, but Strauss did not think 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, and this 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. His nomination was rejected 49-46 in August 1959. [1]

On July 14, 1958, Strauss was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Eisenhower

Strauss died in Brandy Station, Virginia in 1974.


  • The American Presidency Project
  • Bird, Kai; Sherwin, Martin J., American Prometheus. The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer  
  • Pfau, Richard (1984). No Sacrifice Too Great: The Life of Lewis L. Strauss. Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia. ISBN 978-0813910383.  
  • Rhodes, Richard (1995), Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, New York: Simon and Schuster, ISBN 0-684-80400-X  
  • Rhodes, Richard (1986), The Making of the Atomic Bomb, New York: Simon and Schuster, ISBN 0-671-44133-7  


  1. ^ a b
  2. ^ Too Cheap to Meter?
  3. ^ Pfau, Richard (1984) No Sacrifice Too Great: The Life of Lewis L. Strauss‎ University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, p. 187, ISBN-13 978-0813910383
  4. ^ David Bodansky. Nuclear Energy: Principles, Practices, and Prospects. pp. 32. Retrieved 2008-01-31.  
  5. ^ Rhodes, Richard (1995), Dark Sun: The Making of the HYdrogen Bomb, New York: Simon and Schuster, ISBN 0-684-80400-X  
  6. ^ Rhodes, Richard (1986), The Making of the Atomic Bomb, New York: Simon and Schuster, ISBN 0-671-44133-7  
  7. ^ Bird, Kai; Sherwin, Martin J., American Prometheus. The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer  

External links

Political offices
Preceded by
Sinclair Weeks
United States Secretary of Commerce
Served under: Dwight D. Eisenhower

November 10, 1958 – August 7, 1959
Succeeded by
Frederick Henry Mueller


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