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Lewis Strauss, (1896 - 1974)


In the first dozen years of the atomic age, few men played a more pivotal role in shaping U.S. nuclear policy than the former banker Lewis Strauss. An ardent champion of the hydrogen bomb, he was also a strong believer in the importance of maintaining a large nuclear stockpile. His appointment to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in 1946 (an agency he chaired from 1953 - 58) meant he was well placed to influence both President Truman's and President Eisenhower's decisions on nuclear issues and to oversee the atomic related activities of all federal agencies.

The thorny, owlish-looking Lewis Strauss started out life as a travelling shoe salesman working for his father. He later became an incredibly successful investment banker. By the time he left Wall Street to join the AEC, he was earning a million dollars a year. His new government appointment required him to give up all his business interests, which he told an interviewer, made him feel "like a man who is amputating his own leg."

Early on in his role as an AEC commissioner, Strauss argued that the U.S. needed to have a system in place to detect foreign atomic tests. As it turned out the monitoring system set up at his insistence, was established just in time to detect the first Soviet atomic test in August 1949.

The news that the U.S. no longer had a monopoly on nuclear weapons, pitted Strauss against other members of the AEC including its chairman David Lilienthal. Lilienthal wanted to respond to the Soviet test by increasing the production of atomic bombs while at the same time stepping up the effort to create international controls for weapons of mass destruction. Strauss argued vigorously for a crash program to build a hydrogen bomb: "the time has now come for a quantum jump in our planning... We should now make an intensive effort to get ahead with the super [hydrogen bomb]." Strauss won the day. And in January 1950, President Truman publicly announced a "crash" program to build a superbomb.

Conflict over the H-bomb also created tensions between Strauss and physicist Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb. Strauss told President Eisenhower that he would only accept the position of AEC chair if Oppenheimer played no role in advising the agency. He explained that he didn't trust Oppenheimer partly because of his consistent opposition to the superbomb. Within days of being sworn into office in July 1953, Strauss had all classified AEC material removed from Oppenheimer's office. By the end of the year, Oppenheimer's security clearance was revoked.

Over the years Strauss' arrogance and his insistence that he was always right made him unpopular on Capitol Hill. In 1959, after two months of exhausting hearings, the Senate rejected his nomination to be Secretary of Commerce. The ordeal was publicly humiliating for Strauss, especially after he was caught lying under oath. Afterwards the financier returned permanently to the private sector.
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