Lewis Strauss (1896-1974) was an American financier and government official who served as Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission.
Strauss was born in Charleston, West Virginia. He had hoped to study physics, but his family did not have the money to send him to college. During World War I, Strauss worked under Food Administrator Herbert Hoover. This included working from Paris on the allocation of 27 millions tons of food after the Armistice in 1918.
After the war, Strauss went to work at Kuhn, Loeb, an investment bank. He eventually became a partner and a self-made millionaire. After the death of his mother from cancer, Strauss founded the Lewis and Rosa Strauss Memorial Fund to finance the use of radium as a treatment method. It was because of this that Strauss first met physicist Leo Szilard, who wrote to Strauss telling him of the Hahn-Strassmann paper on the discovery of fission in the hope that Strauss would fund his research.
During World War II, Strauss had a Reserve commission in the U.S. Navy. He joined the Navy’s Department of Ordnance to work on weapons production. In 1946, President Truman appointed Strauss as a member of the newly-created Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). He eventually rose to become its commissioner.
After the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb in 1949, Strauss began to push for the development of thermonuclear weapons. A vocal opponent of the hydrogen bomb was J. Robert Oppenheimer, the lab director of Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. Strauss had actually met Oppenheimer before – he appointed him director of the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton in 1947, despite Oppenheimer’s warning that “there was derogatory information about me.”
Strauss now viewed Oppenheimer as a threat to American security. He met with President Eisenhower, telling him that he “could not do the job at the AEC if Oppenheimer was connected in any way with the program.” Oppenheimer had his security clearance revoked in 1954 for alleged communist ties. As physicist Robert Wilson remembered, “Mr. Strauss was certainly one of the important people in the trial of Oppenheimer, and might have played a role that you would be able to associate with someone in the church at the time of Galileo.”
Strauss went on to serve as the acting Secretary of Commerce under President Eisenhower. Congress, however, later rejected Eisenhower’s nomination of Strauss to hold the position permanently.
Lewis Strauss died on January 21, 1974 in Trenton, New Jersey.