LEWIS L. STRAUSS PAPERS
Scope and Content Note
In later years, Herbert Hoover was very proud of the fact that so many of the
young men who helped him bring relief to starving Europe during World War I had
gone on to successful careers in business, industry and government service. The
list included many corporation presidents, congressmen and senators, and even a
future presidential candidate; but none of them amassed a more impressive list of
accomplishments, or earned the affection of their former "Chief" to the extent
that was enjoyed by his former principal assistant, Lewis L. Strauss.
Seldom have there been public careers that more closely resembled the example
of Horatio Alger. Born in Charleston, West Virginia in 1896, Strauss was the son of
Rosa Lichtenstein and Lewis Strauss, a successful wholesaler of shoes. The family
moved to Richmond and young Lewis attended the city's public schools. As valedictorian
of his class he would have been entitled to a scholarship at the University of Virginia,
but a bout with typhoid fever prevented him from graduating with his class. He
recovered to find his father's business seriously endangered by the recession of 1913-14.
The company desperately needed aggressive salesmen and, as a dutiful son, young
Lewis responded to his family's need.
Although he never attended college, Strauss would later go on to head the
Atomic Energy Commission, arguably the most important scientific enterprise ever
conducted by the federal government. Instead of going off to college, young Strauss
became the star salesman for his father's business. Three years later, when the U.S.
finally entered World War I, he had saved enough money to finance his education. But
in February of 1917 he chanced to read about Herbert Hoover's efforts to save the
Belgians from starvation and Hoover's recent appointment as U.S. Food Administrator.
Acting on his mother's advice, Strauss decided to volunteer his services without pay for
a few months as Hoover's administrative assistant.
Hoover soon came to appreciate the initiative and executive abilities of his young
assistant, giving him ever larger and more challenging assignments. One of these
assignments involved the coordination of Food Administration programs with the Jewish
Joint Distribution Committee. This brought him into contact with Felix Warburg, a
partner in the international banking firm of Kuhn, Loeb and Company. Hoover was
not the only one capable of recognizing talent when he saw it; and Warburg soon
recruited Strauss for his firm. According to legend, Hoover provided Strauss with an
uncharacteristically fulsome recommendation in which Hoover promised to refund all
of the salary paid to Strauss over the next ten years if his employers did not feel that
they had gotten their money's worth. Several months before the expiration of the trial
period, the senior partners announced Strauss' elevation to a full partnership.
Although there are a few earlier items, Strauss' papers essentially begin with his
work with Hoover from 1917 to 1919. These activities are reflected in one linear foot
of files concerning the work of the Food Administration and the American Relief
Administration. While some of these materials may be duplicated in the official records
of the two organizations, it is nearly certain that some of them have not survived in
Strauss continued as an active partner in Kuhn, Loeb until 1941; but his papers
do not present a comprehensive picture of the firm's business or his role in it. Rather,
one is treated to a succession of tidbits--scattered details which will provide the careful
researcher with many interesting insights into the firm's clientele, manner of operation
and high ethical standards.
In 1925 Strauss accepted a commission in the naval reserve as an intelligence
officer. With the outbreak of war in Europe, he volunteered for active duty in 1939 and
again in 1940 and was called up in early 1941 for what was to be a ninety day tour of
duty. He was assigned initially to the Bureau of Ordnance where his skills in management
and industrial finance were put to very effective use.
Strauss' managerial talents were quickly put to use on a number of special
projects: improving the Navy's inspection system to speed up the flow of war materials,
making torpedoes work the way they were intended, and stimulating the Navy's research
and development programs. His performance soon brought him to the attention of Frank
Knox, the Secretary of the Navy and Undersecretary James V. Forrestal who utilized
his talents to create the Navy E award which provided incentives to manufacturers,
co-ordinate the development of the proximity fuse, and establish a mechanism for the
termination of defense contracts once the end of the war was in sight.
During this latter period of the war, Strauss also served on the Army-Navy
Munitions Board and the Naval Reserve Policy Board. Reserve officers had been treated
very unfairly during the War by discriminatory personnel policies that ignored the
achievements of many fine reserve officers (with decorations and promotions) while
ensuring rapid advancement, suspect decorations and choice assignments for regular
officers. With the end of the war rapidly approaching in 1944, the Navy's top brass
finally recognized that it would be impossible to maintain an adequate peace-time Navy
if they could not convince a large number of reserve officers to become career
Unfortunately, the cream of the reserve corps were also those who had suffered
the most under the old system. The vast majority of them had let it be known that they
had no intention of staying in the Navy. Furthermore, as one particularly capable and
disillusioned reservist pointed out, many of the disgruntled officers were certain to return
to Washington after the war--as members of Congress. Strauss' appointment to the
Board ensured that reserve grievances would be addressed. More importantly, Strauss'
contributions to the Board's discussions may have served to alleviate some animosity
and skepticism as to the seriousness of the Navy's intentions for it was widely recognized
that he had been doubly discriminated against, first as a Jew and second as a reserve
Soon after Knox's death in May 1944, Forrestal created a special position in the
Navy Department for Strauss as his personal "trouble shooter". Strauss also came to the
attention of President Truman as a result of his tenure on an inter-service committee
on the future role of atomic energy. A few months later, in July 1946, Truman
appointed Strauss as one of the commissioners of the new and highly controversial
Atomic Energy Commission.
Strauss' service on the Atomic Energy Commission was to take place under
two presidents at critical junctures (1946-50 and 1953-58) in the life of the
Commission. Commission members soon found themselves faced with truly awesome
responsibilities as they sought to establish basic operating policies and procedures.
The destructive potential of atomic weapons was fresh in everyone's mind and the
importance of keeping such terrible weapons out of the hands of dictators and
irresponsible nations was evident to all of the commissioners. A further complication arose
from the fact that Roosevelt and Churchill had made important decisions and secret
agreements during the war which were at variance with the Commission's enabling act.
Strauss regularly found himself in disagreement with his colleagues. When he
offered to resign, President Truman assured him that when he "appointed a five-man
Commission (he) did not expect a Chairman and four 'yes men'" and that he didn't
"want it that way". Furthermore, the President said that he was "very pleased with
what you are doing and more than satisfied with your work on the Commission." So
Strauss stayed on but became progressively more determined to leave.
One of the first, and in many ways the most fundamental, of Strauss' dissents
came in regard to security. As the only commissioner who had wartime experience
in making decisions affecting national security, Strauss recognized the need to tighten
up on the security surrounding our atomic secrets. In the spring of 1946, he was
disturbed by the confession of British physicist Allen Nunn May that he had spied for
the Soviets. In November 1946, General Leslie R. Groves warned Commission
chairman David Lilienthal that, while the questionable connections of some of the
scientists working on atomic projects had been overlooked in the past, the time had
come to eliminate them from such assignments.
Strauss' investigations soon revealed many important security violations. Perhaps
the most serious violation was the issuance of passes which allowed free access to
all parts of the AEC's main office at all hours to British scientists and diplomats who
had not undergone security checks. Among those receiving the passes were Soviet spies
Klaus Fuchs and Donald MacLean. The security question was crucial, but information
concerning Russian nuclear research, was absolutely vital. Strauss worried about
Soviet progress and proposed, in April 1947, that the U.S. develop the ability to monitor
the upper atmosphere for telltale bursts of radioactivity that would reveal the first
successful detonation of an atomic device by the Russians. The new system was finally
in place early in 1949. A few months later, filters aboard a specially modified B-29
provided the first conclusive proof of a successful Russian test.
Armed with this information, Strauss sought the support of the scientific
community in urging President Truman to authorize the development of the hydrogen
bomb. It was soon evident that not all of the physicists agreed. Led by Robert
Oppenheimer, some scientists felt that we were entering upon an unnecessary arms race
and that our refusal to go ahead would convince the Russians to do likewise. After a
prolonged debate in the Commission, the Congress, the National Security Council
and the press, President Truman decided on January 31, 1950 to authorize the
development of the hydrogen bomb.
Later that day, having demonstrated the validity of his concerns about security,
long range detection and the development of the hydrogen bomb, Strauss penned his
resignation. Evidence, which did not become available until 1968, firmly established the
fact that the Russians had already begun to work on the development of the hydrogen
bomb--as early as November of 1949. Strauss' biographer, Richard Pfau, has pointed
out the significance of Strauss' foresight.
Without Strauss' determined campaign, the Soviet Union might have developed
a stockpile of thermonuclear weapons that the United States could not counter. If so,
would the Soviets have shown the same restraint as the Americans had shown during
the period of their monopoly? Rather than rely on such a thin hope, Strauss made sure
the United States built the superbomb.
Although he had retired from public life, Strauss continued to advise Truman on
defense issues and took an active interest in the development of the hydrogen bomb and
nuclear power. Finding his new position as personal financial advisor to the
Rockefeller brothers tame by comparison, he was soon ready to return to public arena.
Newly elected President Eisenhower persuaded him to return to the AEC, this time as
its chairman, in May 1953.
In August 1953 the Soviet Union announced that it had perfected a hydrogen bomb.
Despite the obvious intention of the Soviet Union to press ahead, Oppenheimer
continued to call for "candor" in fully disclosing the United States' progress and insisted
that the United States continue to rely only on atomic rather than thermonuclear
weapons. This presented Strauss with two worries. What could be done to slow down
or, better yet, to divert the arms race? The other problem concerned Oppenheimer himself.
The security check that had preceded Oppenheimer's security clearance in
1947 had uncovered information about his past associations and activities that had
raised questions about his loyalty and trustworthiness. The information had been
inconclusive at that time so it was decided to issue the clearance. By the time of his
return to the Commission in early 1953, Strauss suspicions were aroused as he noted
that Oppenheimer had continued to oppose the development of the hydrogen bomb,
had sought to stop the long-range detection program and, in arguing against the
development of the super bomb, had grossly underestimated the Soviet ability to
develop a bomb. Strauss had also been informed of recent instances in which
Oppenheimer had sponsored communist sympathizers for important positions.
In the summer of 1953 Strauss took steps to block Oppenheimer's access to
classified information and asked the FBI to monitor Oppenheimer's movements.
On November 20, 1953 Strauss received an FBI report on Oppenheimer which he
forwarded to the President. After studying its contents, Eisenhower decided to
exclude Oppenheimer from access to atomic information. Oppenheimer was informed
of the allegations against him, was provided with a copy of the FBI's report and was
given the option of resigning or appealing. A four man, independent panel headed by
Gordon Gray heard Oppenheimer's appeal and, by a three to one vote, decided not to
reinstate Oppenheimer's security clearance. The decision was reviewed and ratified by
a four to one vote of the Commission.
The issue had been decided, but as future events were to demonstrate, the matter
was not forgotten. The denial of the security clearance became a cause celebre,
especially in the American press. Oppenheimer and his defenders declared that
he was the victim of a "witch hunt" by Strauss. Since the FBI report was confidential
and contained classified information that could not be released, Strauss could not use
its contents to defend himself and thus acquired a large number of enemies with long
As the Oppenheimer matter was reaching its conclusion, the top leaders of the
Eisenhower administration searched for a strategy to slow the nuclear arms race.
Eisenhower asked Strauss to direct this effort and to prepare a proposal to present to
the UN. Code named "Wheaties" after the breakfast cereal they consumed at secret
early morning meetings, the task force sought an escape from nuclear confrontation
and a costly arms race. The proposal, which Eisenhower introduced before a special
session of the UN on December 8, 1953, envisioned a new era in which the power of
the atom might be put to work in peaceful pursuits such as powering merchant vessels,
providing cheap electrical power, and medical research.
The proposal, which the press dubbed "Atoms for Peace", had a very positive
initial impact. As Strauss' papers make clear, however, it was difficult to translate this
idealistic statement of principles into meaningful reality. The formation of the
International Atomic Energy Agency, which Strauss steered through a reluctant Senate,
was supposed to be a first step toward the age of a peaceable atom. However,
disarmament talks continued with few practical results, stalled for lack of agreement on
inspection and verification procedures.
As the end of Strauss' term as AEC chairman approached, Eisenhower was
eager to reappoint him. Strauss, however, was not enthusiastic about the grilling he
would doubtless receive during the Senate confirmation hearings and opted to retire.
After a brief vacation, during which the President presented him with the Medal of
Freedom, Eisenhower again offered him a choice of positions. Since the departure of
Sherman Adams the President had not found a satisfactory replacement for he now
offered the job to Strauss. Feeling not "particularly qualified" for this unusual
position Strauss declined.
Eisenhower then asked if he would be interested in succeeding John Foster
Dulles as Secretary of State. Dulles was already showing signs of fatigue in his bout
with cancer; but Strauss hesitated to be promoted over the head of his friend,
Undersecretary Christian Herter.
Finally, Eisenhower offered to appoint him Secretary of Commerce. This was
not only a position for which Strauss was eminently qualified; but, as he told the
Senate confirmation committee, a good position from which to fight the Cold War.
The Soviets had recently begun an economic offensive on several fronts: dumping
products on world markets, offering attractive barter agreements, and pressuring our
allies to remove trade restrictions on strategic materials.
Strauss had more success in countering the Soviet offensive than he did in his
confrontation with the Senate. During his years of public service beginning with the
withdrawal of Oppenheimer's security classification, and continuing through the debates
over the validity of the Dixon-Yates power contracts, nuclear testing, and the
development of nuclear power, Strauss had accumulated a number of opponents.
None was more implacable, however, than Senator Clinton P. Anderson who led the
forces opposing Strauss' confirmation.
By delaying the beginning of the Senate hearings from his appointment in
October 1958 until March 1959, Strauss' enemies hoped to allow time for opposition to
develop. The crucial vote was thus delayed until June 18, 1959. In the meantime,
Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson sent Bobby Baker to inform Senate Democrats
that the Strauss vote was to be a test of party loyalty. The appointment was defeated
by a margin of 46 to 49. The press, which had largely sided with Strauss during his
ordeal, was highly critical of the Senate decision. In his biography of Strauss, entitled
No Sacrifice Too Great, Richard Pfau offers an interesting critique of Strauss' influence
on the nation's nuclear policy; but it is only in Strauss' own papers that one discovers
his day to day immersion in the details of AEC operations and the complexities of
policy decisions with regard to everything from Atoms for Peace, desalinization projects,
disarmament talks, and Dixon-Yates to fallout worries, the development of nuclear
power, and weapons testing. Relations with Congress' Joint Committee on Atomic
Energy are well documented in files such as: "Atomic Energy Commission", "Clinton P.
Anderson", "Dwight D. Eisenhower", "Memoranda for the Record", and "Power:
Documentation for Strauss' brief tenure in the Commerce Department is
relatively sparse and more difficult to work with because most of the files for that
period are name files rather than subject files. Nevertheless, there is an extensive body
of material concerning the confirmation hearings and some information concerning
foreign trade, attempts to introduce the metric system, relations with the press, trade
with Russia, and the Eisenhower administration's efforts to improve transportation. At
a bare minimum the papers provide tantalizing previews of "what might have been" if
Strauss had been confirmed.
Documentation for Strauss' numerous civic endeavors, personal life and interests
is readily available and appears to be very complete. Additional information concerning
his activities can be found in Men and Decisions, his memoirs published by Doubleday