A Wall Street financier who skipped college to sell shoes, Lewis Strauss became one of America's most important atomic-energy advisers during the Cold War. He also became known for his role in the dramatic downfall of the A-bomb's chief developer, physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Strauss took an unlikely path to his perch as atomic policy czar. Born into a horse-and-buggy world in 1896, he first developed an interest in physics as a boy when he used a vibrating tuning fork to make waves in a bowl of mercury while waiting for a dentist to repair his tooth. He devoured books on radiation and wave mechanics in high school, but his dreams of studying physics in college after graduation yielded to the reality of his father’s struggling footwear business.
Instead of toting textbooks, Strauss lugged trunks of shoe samples across the Southeast as a traveling salesman until he volunteered to help with World War I relief efforts spearheaded by Herbert Hoover. “It was clear that to have a hand in feeding the hungry and clothing the naked in Belgium and northern France was to have a hand in history,” Strauss recalled. Strauss so impressed Hoover that he became the future president’s personal secretary before joining a New York investment banking firm in 1919 and eventually earning more than $1 million a year.
After both his parents died of cancer, Strauss established a fund that financed the use of radium as a treatment. That philanthropic work deepened his relationships with physicists working on discovery of nuclear fission. After working administrative jobs with the U.S. Navy during World War II, Strauss emerged at the forefront of America’s Cold War nuclear program.
Strauss Champions U.S. Hydrogen Bomb Development
In 1946, President Harry S. Truman appointed Strauss as one of the first five commissioners of the newly established Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which assumed control of the U.S. nuclear program from the Manhattan Project, the top-secret wartime research and development team that built America’s first atomic bomb. Strauss urged the Pentagon to establish an atmospheric monitoring system, which successfully detected the Soviet Union’s own first atomic bomb test within days of its detonation in August 1949.
With the United States no longer the world’s sole nuclear superpower, Strauss vigorously supported a massive program to develop a thermonuclear “super bomb” that would be 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “The time has now come for a quantum jump in our planning,” he wrote. “I am thinking of a commitment in talent and money comparable, if necessary, to that which produced the first atomic weapon. That is the way to stay ahead.”
Strauss found his support for a hydrogen bomb doggedly opposed by physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the chairman of the AEC’s general advisory committee who led the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Fearing the hydrogen bomb would only accelerate a dangerous Cold War arms race, Oppenheimer also argued for more openness about the size and capabilities of America’s nuclear arsenal, which Strauss thought would only benefit the Soviets.
Strauss successfully lobbied Truman, who publicly announced his decision to develop the hydrogen bomb on January 31, 1950. Less than three years later, the U.S. detonated the world’s first H-bomb, only to have the Soviets follow suit 10 months later.
After leaving the AEC in 1950, Strauss re-entered government when newly elected President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed him as an atomic energy adviser in February 1953. Strauss, who had been a major donor to Eisenhower’s presidential campaign, wielded considerable power as all federal agencies were required to clear their atomic-related activities with him. Months later, Eisenhower asked Strauss to chair the AEC. Strauss agreed on one condition—that Oppenheimer no longer serve as a consultant to the commission.
Strauss Orchestrates Oppenheimer’s Blacklisting
After Strauss appointed Oppenheimer as director of the Institute for Advanced Study in 1947, the relationship had quickly frayed. Oppenheimer perceived Strauss as a meddler and mocked the amateur physicist’s opposition to exporting radioisotopes for medical purposes at a U.S. Senate hearing, leaving Strauss flush with rage. “There was a look of hatred there that you don’t see very often in a man’s face,” AEC chairman David Lilienthal recalled.
The thin-skinned Strauss didn’t forget slights easily. “He has more elbows than an octopus,” noted a colleague. Within days of being sworn in as AEC chairman, Strauss directed the removal of classified documents from Oppenheimer’s office, and he was determined to prove that the “father of the atomic bomb” was no longer a national hero—but a national security threat.
Amid the anti-communist hysteria of the Second Red Scare and the hearings of Senator Joseph McCarthy to expose suspected communists in the federal government, Strauss questioned Oppenheimer’s patriotism. Although he never officially joined the Communist Party, Oppenheimer had been drawn to left-wing political causes and had close friends and family who had been party members at various times. Strauss believed the physicist may have opposed the hydrogen bomb and concealed Soviet attempts to infiltrate the Manhattan Project because he was a foreign agent.
According to Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin's American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Strauss used his media contacts to print defamatory stories about Oppenheimer. After he pressed J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to monitor the physicist, the agency tracked Oppenheimer and illegally tapped his telephone. And having gained Eisenhower’s ear, Strauss sowed doubts about whether Oppenheimer could be trusted; a letter written by one of Strauss’ close confidants made its way to the president, declaring “more probably than not J. Robert Oppenheimer is an agent of the Soviet Union.”
In December 1953, Strauss informed Oppenheimer that his security clearance had been stripped, but the physicist appealed the decision to a three-member panel that launched a month-long hearing in April 1954. After a one-sided proceeding in which Oppenheimer’s lawyers were blocked from accessing confidential material, the panel acknowledged he was a loyal citizen but voted 2 to 1 to revoke his security clearance.
The decision left Oppenheimer’s reputation in tatters. “He was a man of peace, and they destroyed him. He was a man of science, and they destroyed this man,” lamented close friend and fellow physicist Isidor Isaac Rabi.
Five years later, Strauss paid a price for Oppenheimer’s blacklisting. When Eisenhower appointed Strauss as U.S. secretary of commerce, the Senate rejected his nomination after a bitter confirmation hearing in which his treatment of Oppenheimer played a critical role. Strauss was only the eighth Cabinet nominee in U.S. history—and the only one between 1925 and 1989—who failed to win confirmation. Following the defeat, Strauss focused on philanthropic ventures until his death in 1974.