by Spencer Howard
In later years, Herbert Hoover was proud that so many of the young men who helped him provide food to starving Europe during World War I went on to successful careers in business, industry, and government service. None of them amassed more impressive accomplishments or earned greater affection from their “Chief” than his former assistant, Lewis L. Strauss. Strauss is most remembered for his tenure as Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and his feud with atomic scientist Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer lost his security clearance in 1953, which resulted in his removal from sensitive atomic research.
Born in Charleston, West Virginia in 1896, Strauss was the son of Rosa Lichtenstein and Lewis Strauss, a wholesaler of shoes. The family moved to Richmond and Lewis attended public schools. As valedictorian of his high school class Strauss was entitled to a scholarship at the University of Virginia, but instead of going off to college, he became the star salesman for his father’s struggling business. Three years later, when the U.S. entered World War I, he chanced to read about Herbert Hoover’s recent appointment as U.S. Food Administrator. Strauss was blind in one eye and unfit for military service, but 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. Strauss stayed at the “Chief’s” side throughout the war and accompanied him to France for the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Hoover provided Strauss with glowing letters of recommendation, which landed him a job with the investment banking firm of Kuhn, Loeb and Company. Strauss continued as an active partner until 1941.
In 1925 Strauss accepted a commission in the naval reserve as an intelligence officer. He volunteered for active duty when war broke out in Europe and was called up in early 1941 for what was to be a 90-day tour. Strauss was assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance, and his managerial talents were quickly put to use on a number of special projects, including improving the Navy’s inspection system and streamlining 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 Strauss’ talents to create the Navy “E Award” program to recognize manufacturers for excellence in both quantity and quality of war production. Strauss also served on the Army-Navy Munitions Board and the Naval Reserve Policy Board.
In 1944, Forrestal created a special position for Strauss as his personal “trouble shooter.” Strauss was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral and later came to the attention of President Truman because of his tenure on an inter-service committee on the future role of atomic weapons. In July 1946, Truman appointed Strauss as one of the commissioners of the new and highly controversial Atomic Energy Commission.
Commission members soon found themselves faced with truly awesome responsibilities as they sought to establish basic policies and procedures for safeguarding atomic secrets. 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 the commissioners.
Strauss was the only commissioner who had wartime experience with national security decisions and recognized the need to tighten up security surrounding atomic secrets. In November 1946, General Leslie R. Groves warned the Commission 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. In 1947, a comprehensive review resulted in the removal of some security clearances, and the reissuance of others. Robert Oppenheimer’s security clearance was renewed.
Strauss worried about Soviet atomic progress and proposed that the U.S. develop the ability to monitor the upper atmosphere to reveal the testing of an atomic device by the Soviets. The system was established early in 1949 and a few months later, sensors aboard a specially modified B-29 provided the first conclusive proof of a successful Soviet test.
Strauss sought the support of the scientific community in urging President Truman to authorize the development of the hydrogen bomb to stay ahead of the Soviets. Led by Robert Oppenheimer, some scientists felt that the United States were entering upon an unnecessary arms race and that refusing to go ahead would convince the Soviets 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. Having succeeded in his advocacy, Strauss resigned from the Commission to return to private life.
Evidence became available in 1968 that the Soviets began working on the hydrogen bomb in November of 1949. 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 peaceful nuclear power. In May 1953 President Eisenhower persuaded Strauss to return to chair the AEC.
Strauss faced new concerns about Robert Oppenheimer, whose 1947 security check 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. In early 1953, Strauss’ suspicions were aroused as he noted that Oppenheimer continued to oppose the development of the hydrogen bomb, sought to stop the long-range detection program, and had grossly underestimated the Soviet ability to develop a bomb. Other officials voiced concerns about Oppenheimer’s past connections to known spies, and his evasiveness when questioned.
In the summer of 1953 Strauss 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, and his security clearance was suspended. 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 three-man, independent panel headed by Gordon Gray heard Oppenheimer’s appeal and, by a two to one vote, decided not to reinstate Oppenheimer’s security clearance. The decision was reviewed by the AEC commissioners and ratified by four to one. Oppenheimer lost his security clearance, and his job. Later independent reviews of the decision determined that some parts of the appeals process had been substantially mishandled, but the evidence against Oppenheimer was sufficient to justify denying his appeal.
The issue had been decided, but the matter was not forgotten. Oppenheimer and his defenders declared that he was the victim of a “witch hunt” by Strauss. A national debate ensued; critics accused Strauss of silencing Oppenheimer for his opposition to the hydrogen bomb, while others saw the decision as a prudent response to a security risk. 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 memories. In 1959 Eisenhower nominated Strauss to serve as Secretary of Commerce; in his confirmation hearings the Oppenheimer incident was dredged up, and Strauss’ nomination was voted down 46 to 49.
Decades later the Oppenheimer saga continues to fascinate, as evidenced by the recent blockbuster biopic. The Lewis Strauss papers are preserved at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and are open for researchers who are interested in Strauss’ side of the story.