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David E. Lilienthal (1899 - 1981)


David Lilienthal first became involved in U.S. nuclear policy immediately after the Second World War, when he was asked to help prepare a report on the international control of atomic energy. Lilienthal was a progressive lawyer, who had spent the previous dozen years running the Tennessee Valley Authority. Together with a board consisting of industry leaders and a committee headed by Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Lilienthal put forward a radical proposal that came to be known as the Lilienthal-Acheson Report.

The document, published on March 28, 1946, suggested that international control of atomic energy might work "if the element of rivalry between nations were removed." This could be done, the document proposed, by assigning "the intrinsically dangerous phases of the development of atomic energy to an international organization responsible to all peoples." This authority would have a monopoly on uranium; it would license the use of "denatured" plutonium, which is difficult to convert into an explosive; and it would spread its mines and factories around the world so that the benefits they brought would be dispersed.

The report was adapted into a proposal that President Truman asked multi-millionaire financier Bernard Baruch to present to the United Nations. Against the protestations of Lilienthal and Acheson, Baruch added provisions, which the Soviet Union found objectionable. The Baruch Plan called for swift and sure punishment for those who violated the rules. The Soviet Union responded by calling for universal nuclear disarmament. In the end, the UN adopted neither proposal.

On January 1, 1947, President Truman established the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and he nominated Lilienthal to be its first chairman. Lilienthal faced a difficult confirmation process, partly because conservatives in Congress worried that the Lilienthal-Acheson report had committed Lilienthal to nuclear disarmament, but also because some in Congress accused him of being tainted with communism. After two scientists' organizations rallied to Lilienthal's defense, Truman intervened on his nominee's behalf and Lilienthal narrowly won confirmation.

Over the next few years, Lilienthal sought to increase the stockpile of atomic bombs. At the same time he looked at ways of encouraging private industry to use nuclear fission. His administration ran into trouble in 1949, when it was revealed that the AEC had granted fellowships to Communist Party members. Accusing Lilienthal of "gross mismanagement," one senator demanded his resignation. Ultimately, the Senate ordered the AEC to require all fellowship holders to sign a loyalty oath swearing they were not Communists.

Despite his role directing the U.S. atomic program, Lilienthal maintained an intense dislike of nuclear weapons. When he was briefed in 1948 on an atomic test series by two scientists from Los Alamos, he complained in his diary about the men's enthusiasm for their work; "that there should not be even a single 'token' expression of profound concern and regret that we are engaged in developing weapons directed against the indiscriminate destruction of defenseless men, women and children...this bothered me."

The U.S. response to the first Soviet test of an atomic device in August 1949 bothered him even more. Reacting in his diary to proposals for greatly expanding the production of atomic bombs, Lilienthal wrote: "We keep saying, 'We have no other course.' What we should say is: 'We are not bright enough to see any other course.' " When the AEC commissioners were asked by Truman to make recommendations on whether or not to implement an accelerated program to build an H-bomb, Lilienthal voted against it.

Lilienthal finally resigned from the AEC in February 1950 and returned to practicing law. But he remained active in Democratic politics until his death from a heart attack in 1981.
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