|Acting United States Secretary of Commerce|
November 13, 1958 - June 19, 1959
|President||Dwight D. Eisenhower|
|Frederick H. Mueller|
|Chairman, United States Atomic Energy Commission|
July 2, 1953 - June 30, 1958
|President||Dwight D. Eisenhower|
|John A. McCone|
|Member of the United States Atomic Energy Commission|
November 12, 1946 - April 15, 1950
|President||Harry S. Truman|
|None (office created)|
|T. Keith Glennan|
Lewis Lichtenstein Strauss
January 31, 1896
Charleston, West Virginia, U.S.
|Died||January 21, 1974 (aged 77)|
Brandy Station, Virginia, U.S.
|Resting place||Hebrew Cemetery (Richmond, Virginia)|
|Civilian awards||Medal of Freedom|
|Branch/service||United States Navy|
|Years of service||1941-1945|
|Unit||Bureau of Ordnance|
|Military awards||Legion of Merit|
Distinguished Service Medal
Lewis Lichtenstein Strauss ( "straws"; January 31, 1896 - January 21, 1974) was an American businessman, philanthropist, public official, and naval officer. He was a major figure in the development of nuclear weapons, the nuclear energy policy of the United States, and nuclear power in the United States.
Strauss was the driving force in the controversial hearings, held in April 1954 before a U.S. Atomic Energy Commission Personnel Security Board, in which J. Robert Oppenheimer's security clearance was revoked. President Dwight D. Eisenhower's nomination of Strauss to become U.S. Secretary of Commerce in 1959 was not confirmed by the Senate.
Strauss was born in Charleston, West Virginia, the son of Rosa (Lichtenstein) and Lewis Strauss, a successful shoe wholesaler. Their parents were German and Austrian Jews who came to the United States in the 1830s and 1840s and settled in Virginia. His family moved to Richmond, Virginia and he grew up there, where he attended public schools. At the age of 10, he lost much of the vision in his right eye in a rock fight, which later disqualified him from normal military service. He was valedictorian of his high school class, but typhoid fever in his senior year made him unable to graduate with his class.
Strauss had planned to study physics at the University of Virginia, which he developed an amateur's knowledge of from reading textbooks. By the time he finally graduated from high school, his family's business had had a downturn during the Recession of 1913-1914, and they could not afford to send him. Instead Strauss worked as a traveling shoe salesman for his father's company. He was quite successful; over the next three years, he saved $20,000 (equivalent to $399,000 in 2019), enough money for college tuition. In his spare time, Strauss studied his Jewish heritage and formulated ideas about ways to lead life.
However, Strauss's mother encouraged him to perform public or humanitarian service. It was 1917; World War I was continuing to rage in Europe, and Herbert Hoover had become a symbol of humanitarian altruism by way of his work heading the Commission for Relief in Belgium. Accordingly, Strauss took the train to Washington, D.C., and talked his way into serving without pay as an assistant to Hoover. Strauss and his biographer differ on whether this happened in February or May 1917, but the latter seems more likely.
Hoover became chief of the United States Food Administration. Strauss worked well and soon was promoted to Hoover's private secretary and confidant. In that position he made powerful contacts that would serve him later on. One such contact he made was with Harvey Hollister Bundy. Another was with Robert A. Taft, a counsel for the Food Administration. Following the Armistice of 11 November 1918, Hoover became head of the post-war American Relief Administration, headquartered in Paris, and Strauss joined him there once more as his private secretary.
Strauss became a man of influence: acting on behalf of a nearly destitute diplomatic representative of Finland, Rudolf Holsti, whom he met in Paris, he persuaded Hoover to urge President Woodrow Wilson to recognize Finland's independence from Russia.
Besides the U.S. food relief organizations, Strauss worked with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) to relieve the suffering of Jewish refugees, who were often neglected by other bodies. Strauss acted as a liaison between the Hoover's organization and JDC workers in a number of Central and Eastern European countries. Getting news in April 1919 of the Pinsk massacre in Poland, Strauss pressed the case to Hoover that a forceful response must be made to the Polish government.
Strauss had grown up around Lost Cause romanticism about war, but a tour he took in summer 1918 to devastated Château-Thierry and Belleau Wood battlefields removed from his worldview any such glamorous notions. Similarly, his exposure to Communism in 1919 as part of the Polish-Soviet War led to a powerful and lifelong anti-Communist sentiment.
At the JDC, Strauss came to the attention of Felix M. Warburg, a JDC leader who was a partner in the investment bank Kuhn, Loeb & Co. in New York City, and Harriet Loewentstein, a JDC European head who was an accountant at the bank. In addition Hoover had introduced Strauss to Mortimer Schiff, another partner of Kuhn Loeb, who interviewed Strauss in Paris and offered him a job. In so doing, Strauss turned down an offer to become comptroller for the newly-forming League of Nations.
Strauss returned to the United States and started at Kuhn Loeb in 1919. As a result he never did attend college, a fact that may have later led to the perfectionist defensiveness that he exhibited later in life.
At Kuhn Loeb, Strauss got the firm to do financing for steel companies such as for Inland Steel, Republic Steel, and Great Lakes Steel. He became a full partner in 1929, at which point he was making a million dollars a year, and he endured the Wall Street Crash of 1929 without bad financial damage. With the firm he helped bring to market Kodachrome film for Eastman Kodak and the Polaroid camera for Edwin H. Land.
On March 5, 1923, Strauss married Alice Hanauer in a ceremony at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New York. Born in 1903, she was the daughter of Jerome J. Hanauer, who was one of the Kuhn Loeb partners. She was a New York native who had attended Vassar College and was a skilled equestrian and potter. The couple had two sons, one of whom did not survive early childhood. While in New York, they lived on Central Park West, and later on Central Park South.
He was active in the firm until 1941. In his role as an investment banker, Strauss became wealthy, and given his humble original circumstances he has been considered a self-made millionaire and a Horatio Alger tale. As one historian has written, Strauss's business success was the residue of "luck, pluck, hard work, and good contacts". Due to his lack of higher education, Strauss has also been characterized as an autodidact.
Strauss had involvements in the New York City community. He was on the board of directors of the Metropolitan Opera Company. He was on the board of the American Relief Administration and the American Children's Fund. He was a member of American Bankers Association and New York State Chamber of Commerce.
Strauss worked for the successful campaign of Hoover in the United States presidential election, 1928, and was a member from Virginia that year of the Republican National Committee. During the 1930s, following Hoover's re-election defeat, Strauss was a strong opponent of the New Deal.
A proudly religious man, Strauss became a leader in Jewish causes and organizations. For instance, in 1933 he was a member of the Executive Committee of the American Jewish Committee. He was active in the Jewish Agricultural Society, for whom by 1941 he was honorary president. By 1938 he was also active in the Palestine Development Council, the Baron de Hirsch Fund, and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
He recognized the brutality of governments like Nazi Germany. Strauss first made his concern known in early 1933, writing to President Hoover during the final weeks of his time in office. He unsuccessfully attempted to convince Congressional Republicans to legislatively allow the entry of 20,000 refugee children. In 1938, he joined with Hoover and Bernard Baruch in supporting the establishment of a refugee state in Africa as a safe haven for all persecuted people, not just Jews, and pledged ten percent of his wealth towards it, but that effort did not materialize. Strauss subsequently wrote: "The years from 1933 to the outbreak of World War II will ever be a nightmare to me, and the puny efforts I made to alleviate the tragedies were utter failures, save in a few individual cases--pitifully few."
Strauss was president of Congregation Emanu-El of New York, the largest such in New York City, for a decade, from 1938 to 1948. He was named to the presidency to replace Judge Irving Lehman, and he had previously been chair of the temple's finance committee.
Strauss succeeded in Washington's social and political world despite it being notoriously anti-Semitic at the time. Indeed those experiences with anti-Semitism may have contributed to the outsider perspective and fractious personality that became evident during his later career. He was proud of his Southern upbringing as well as his religion, and insisted his name be pronounced in their Virginia fashion as 'Straws' rather than per the usual Germanic form.
Despite his medical disqualification for regular military duty, Strauss applied to join the US Navy Reserve in 1925, becoming effective 1926, and he received an officer's commission as a lieutenant intelligence officer. He remained in the reserve as a lieutenant commander. In 1939 and 1940, as World War II began overseas, he volunteered for active duty. He wanted to go into intelligence but was blocked, reportedly because the Director of Naval Intelligence, U.S. Navy was prejudiced against Jews and because Strauss's contributions to B'nai B'rith had aroused suspicion on the part of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and others in the U.S. intelligence community. Instead in February 1941, he was called to active duty and was assigned as a Staff Assistant to the Chief at the Bureau of Ordnance, where he helped organize and manage Navy munitions work. Strauss and his wife moved to Washington, D.C., where they lived in an apartment at the prestigious Shoreham Hotel. She served as an operating room nurse's aide during this period.
During 1941, Strauss recommended actions to improve inspectors' abilities and consolidate field inspections into one General Inspectors' Office that was independent of the Navy's bureau system; these changes took hold by the following year. Strauss organized a morale-boosting effort to award "E for Excellence" awards to plants doing a good job of making war materials. The program proved popular and helped the United States ramp up production quickly in case it entered the war; by the end of 1941 the Bureau of Ordnance had given the "E" to 94 different defense contractors. It was adopted across all services in 1942 as the Army-Navy "E" Award, and over the course of the war over 4,000 of them were granted. Strauss's biographer has depicted Strauss as helping to investigate the notorious failures of U.S. torpedoes during the war and coordinate development of the very secret and highly successful anti-aircraft proximity fuse; however histories of these efforts do not indicate that Strauss played a significant role.
When James V. Forrestal succeeded Knox in May 1944, he employed Strauss as his special and trusted assistant. In conjunction with Senator Harry F. Byrd of Virginia, Strauss established the Office of Naval Research, which kept scientific research of naval matters under control of the Navy rather than civilian or academic organizations. Strauss's contributions were recognized by the Navy, and by 1945 he was serving on the Army-Navy Munitions Board, a role that had concluded by the following year. He was also on the Naval Reserve Policy Board.
During the war, Strauss was promoted to commander, then by November 1943 was a captain. He rose in rank and influence due to a combination of his intelligence, personal energy, and ability to find favor in higher places. Strauss's rigid manner managed to make enemies during the war as well, including among others significant disputes with E. N. Toland, chief counsel for the House Committee on Naval Affairs; Representative Carl Vinson chair of that committee; and Admiral Ernest J. King, the Chief of Naval Operations. And a proposed promotion for Strauss in 1944 to rear admiral did not happen at the time due to a variety of factors, including that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had disliked Strauss for years, going back to an incident at an Inner Circle event in 1932, and blocked the move. However Roosevelt's death changed matters, as his successor Harry S. Truman had no negative feelings about Strauss. In July 1945 Strauss was promoted to commodore. Then in November 1945, after the war, Strauss was promoted to rear admiral by Truman.
The promotion to an admiral rank was unusual for a member of the reserve, and as such, he liked being addressed as "Admiral Strauss" even though use of the honorific perturbed some regular officers who considered him a civilian. By this time, Strauss had taken advantage of his ties in both Washington and Wall Street to enter the post-war establishment in the capital. He was also learning how to get things accomplished in Washington via unofficial back channels, something he would become quite adept at.
Strauss's mother died of cancer in 1935, his father of the same disease in 1937. That and his early interest in physics made Strauss establish a fund for physics research that could lead to better radiation treatment for cancer patients. The fund supported Arno Brasch, who was working on producing artificial radioactive material with bursts of X-rays. Brasch's work was based on previous work with Leo Szilard, who saw in this work a possible means to developing an atomic chain reaction. Szilard had already foreseen that this could lead to an atomic bomb. Szilard persuaded Strauss to support him and Brasch in building a "surge generator". Strauss ultimately provided tens of thousands of dollars to this venture.
Through Szilard, Strauss met other nuclear physicists such as Ernest Lawrence. Strauss talked to physicists who had left Nazi Germany and learned about atom-related experiments that had taken place there. Szilard kept him up to date on developments in the area, such as the discovery of nuclear fission and the use of neutrons. In February 1940, Szilard asked him to fund the acquisition of some radium, but Strauss refused, as he had already spent a large sum.
Strauss had no further direct involvement with atomic-bomb development during the war. At the end of the war, when the first atomic bombs were ready for use, Strauss advocated to Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal dropping one on a symbolic target, such as a Japanese cedar grove near Nikk?, Tochigi, as a warning shot. In subsequent years Strauss would say in interviews, "I did my best to prevent it. The Japanese were defeated before the bomb was used."
After the war, Strauss recommended a test of the atomic bomb against a number of modern warships, which he thought would refute the idea that the atomic bomb made the Navy obsolete. His recommendation contributed to the decision to hold Operation Crossroads at Bikini Atoll, the first atomic bomb test after Trinity.
In 1947, the US transferred control of atomic research from the U.S. Army to civilian authority under the newly created Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). In October 1946, in advance of the commission actually coming into being, Strauss was named by President Truman as one of the first five Commissioners. He had been recommended for a position on the bipartisan commission by Admiral Paul Frederick Foster, a longtime friend for whom Strauss had earlier provided contacts in the business world (and who had subsequently helped Strauss get his active duty assignment). Once there, Strauss became one of the first commissioners who speak in dissent from existing policy. He served on the AEC in his first stint until 1950.
One of Strauss's first actions on the AEC was to urge his fellow commissioners to set up the capability to monitor foreign atomic activity via atmospheric testing. In particular, he saw that WB-29 Superfortress aircraft equipped with radiological tests could run regular "sniffer" flights to monitor the upper atmosphere to detect any atomic tests by the Soviet Union. Other people in government and science, including Oppenheimer and Edward Teller, argued that the radiological approach would not work, but Strauss and the newly formed United States Air Force continued on regardless. Several days after the first atomic bomb test by the Soviet Union in August 1949, a WB-29 flight did in fact detect evidence of the test. While Strauss was not the only person who had been urging long-range detection capabilities, it was largely due to his efforts that the United States was able to detect that the Soviet Union had become a nuclear power.
Strauss believed in a fundamental premise of the Cold War, that the Soviet Union was determined on a course of world domination; as such he believed in having a more powerful nuclear force than the Soviets and in maintaining secrecy about U.S. nuclear activities. This extended to allies: among the commissioners, he was the most skeptical about the value of the Modus Vivendi that was agreed to in January 1948, that provided for limited sharing of technical information between the United States, Britain, and Canada (and that was already a stricter set of guidelines than those established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Quebec Agreement of the Manhattan Project era). During the United States presidential election, 1948, Strauss tried to convince Republican Party nominee Thomas E. Dewey about the dangers of sharing atomic information with Britain, and after Dewey lost, Strauss tried to convince Truman on the same.
Following the revelations about the British physicist Klaus Fuchs' espionage for the Soviet Union, and the appointment of the former Marxist John Strachey as Secretary of State for War in the British Cabinet, Strauss argued that the Modus Vivendi should be suspended completely, but no other commissioners wanted to go to that extreme. In general Strauss was very disturbed by the security breaches that were revealed in the postwar years, including the presence of Soviet spies in the Manhattan Project. He supported draconian measures to improve security, including the removal of scientists with "questionable" backgrounds, including many who had played major roles in the wartime research.
Strauss was known for his psychological rigidity; one of his fellow commissioners reportedly said, "If you disagree with Lewis about anything, he assumes you're just a fool at first. But if you go on disagreeing with him, he concludes you must be a traitor." Strauss was increasingly unhappy in his position, but President Truman asked him to stay on.
The first atomic bomb test by the Soviet Union in August 1949 came earlier than expected by Americans, and over the next several months there was an intense debate within the U.S. government, military, and scientific communities regarding whether to proceed with development of the far more powerful hydrogen bomb, then known as "the Super". Strauss urged for the United States to move immediately to develop it, writing to his fellow commissioners on October 5 that "the time has come for a quantum jump in our planning ... we should make an intensive effort to get ahead with the super." In particular Strauss was unswayed by moral arguments against going forward, seeing no real difference between using it and the atomic bomb or the boosted fission weapon that some H-bomb opponents were advocating as an alternative. When Strauss was rebuffed by the other commissioners, he went to National Security Council executive secretary Sidney Souers in order to bring the matter to President Truman directly. In a memorandum urging development of the Super he sent to President Truman on November 25, 1949, the religious Strauss expressed no doubt about what the Soviets would do, writing that "a government of atheists is not likely to be dissuaded from producing the weapon on 'moral' grounds."
When Truman signed the directive for hydrogen bomb development on January 31, 1950, Strauss, considering that he had accomplished as much as he could, submitted his resignation the same day. His last day on the commission was April 15, 1950.
In the United States presidential election, 1952, Strauss originally supported his friend from the Hoover days, Robert A. Taft for the Republican Party nomination. Once Dwight D. Eisenhower secured the nod, however, Strauss contributed substantial monies towards Eisenhower's campaign. In January 1953, President Eisenhower named Strauss as presidential atomic energy advisor. Then in July 1953, Eisenhower named Strauss as chairman of the AEC.
While Strauss had initially opposed Eisenhower's push for Operation Candor, his view and the administration's goals both evolved, and he endorsed the "Atoms for Peace" program, which Eisenhower announced in December 1953. Strauss was now one of the best known advocates of atomic energy for many purposes. In part, he celebrated the promise of peaceful use of atomic energy as part of a conscious effort to divert attention away from the dangers of nuclear warfare. Nevertheless, Strauss, like Eisenhower, did sincerely believe in and hope for the potential of peaceful uses. In 1955 Strauss helped arrange the U.S. participation in the first international conference on peaceful uses of atomic energy, held in Geneva. Strauss held Soviet capabilities in high regard, saying after the conference that "in the realm of pure science the Soviets had astonished us by their achievements ... [the Russians] could be described in no sense as technically backward."
In 1954, Strauss predicted that atomic power would make electricity "too cheap to meter". Regarded as fanciful even at the time, the quote is now seen as damaging to the industry's credibility. Strauss was possibly referring to Project Sherwood, a secret program to develop power from hydrogen fusion, rather the commonly-believed uranium fission reactors. Indeed, on the run-up to a 1958 Geneva conference on atomic power, Strauss offered substantial funding to three laboratories for fusion power research.
Following the unexpectedly large blast of the Castle Bravo thermonuclear test of March 1954 at Bikini Atoll, there was international concern over the radioactive fallout experienced by residents of nearby Rongelap Atoll and Utirik Atoll and by a Japanese fishing vessel. The AEC initially tried to keep the contamination secret, and then tried to minimize the health dangers of fallout. Voices began to be heard for a ban or limitation on atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. Strauss himself downplayed dangers from fallout and insisted that it was vital that a program of atmospheric blasts proceed unhindered. However, Strauss also contributed to public fears when, during a March 1954 press conference, he made an impromptu remark that a single Soviet H-bomb could destroy the New York metropolitan area. This statement was heard overseas as well and served to add to what UK Minister of Defence Harold Macmillan termed a "panic" over the subject. The AEC had commissioned the Project SUNSHINE report in 1953 to ascertain the impact of radioactive fallout, generated from repeated nuclear detonations of greater and greater yield, on the world's population. The British asked the AEC for the report, but Strauss resisted giving them anything more than a heavily redacted version, leading to frustration on the part of Prime Minister Winston Churchill and other UK officials.
Internal debate ensued over the next several years within the Eisenhower administration over the possibility of an atmospheric test ban with the Soviet Union, with some in favor of trying to arrange one, but Strauss was always one of those implacably opposed. Strauss would continue to minimize the dangers of Bravo fallout to the islanders of the atolls, insisting in his 1962 memoirs that they had been under "continuous and competent medical supervision" and that follow-up tests showed them to be in "excellent health [and] their blood counts were approximately normal". Others in the AEC were equally cavalier. In fact, AEC scientists had seen the islanders as a valuable laboratory case of human exposure. The Limited Test Ban Treaty banning atmospheric tests would not be arrived at until 1963, and the U.S. government engage in a series of reevaluations of the health of the islanders, and relocation and economic packages to compensate them, over the next several decades. Strauss and others in the AEC were also dismissive of the dangers Americans faced who were downwind of the Nevada Test Site.
The Sputnik crisis of 1957 led Eisenhower to create the President's Science Advisory Committee. Once that body was in place, Eisenhower began to directly receive a broader selection of scientific information; Strauss lost his ability to control scientists' access to the president and his influence in the administration began to recede. While Strauss had maintained his hostility towards Anglo-American cooperation on nuclear matters since becoming AEC chairman, Sputnik gave great impetus to renewed cooperation on this front. Strauss visited Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to give a message from Eisenhower to this effect, and subsequent talks and hearings resulted in the 1958 US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement coming into place.
During his term as an AEC commissioner, Strauss became hostile to J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who had been scientific director of the Manhattan Project.
In 1947, Strauss, a trustee of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, presented Oppenheimer with the institute's offer to be its director. (Strauss himself, as a man of high intelligence and financial skills if not higher education, had also been considered for the job; he was the Institute's faculty's fifth-ranked choice, while Oppenheimer was their first-ranked.) Strauss, a conservative Republican, had little in common with Oppenheimer, a liberal who had had Communist associations. Oppenheimer opposed hydrogen-bomb research and proposed a national security strategy based on nuclear weapons and continental defense; Strauss wanted the development of thermonuclear weapons and a doctrine of deterrence. Oppenheimer supported a policy of "candor" regarding the numbers and capabilities of the atomic weapons in America's arsenal; Strauss believed that such unilateral frankness would benefit no one but Soviet military planners.
When Eisenhower offered Strauss the AEC chairmanship, Strauss named one condition: Oppenheimer would be excluded from all classified atomic work. Oppenheimer had sat on the General Advisory Committee (GAC) of senior atomic scientists, which reported to the AEC, and he held a Q clearance. He was one of the most respected figures in atomic science, even briefing the President and National Security Council in 1953.
Strauss, however, deeply distrusted Oppenheimer. He had become aware of Oppenheimer's former Communist affiliations before World War II and questionable behavior during the war, and he began to think that Oppenheimer might even be a Soviet spy. Strauss was also suspicious of Oppenheimer's tendency to downplay Soviet capabilities. In 1953, Oppenheimer stated in the July edition of Foreign Affairs that he believed the Soviets were "about four years behind" in atomic weapons development. The United States had exploded the first thermonuclear device the previous year; however, only a month after Oppenheimer made his proclamation, in August 1953, the Soviet Union declared and U.S. sensors confirmed that it had tested its own fusion-based bomb.
In September 1953, Strauss, hoping to uncover evidence of Oppenheimer's disloyalty, asked FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to initiate surveillance to track Oppenheimer's movements. Hoover agreed enthusiastically. The tracking uncovered no evidence of disloyalty but that Oppenheimer had lied to Strauss about his reason for taking a trip to Washington (Oppenheimer met a journalist but had told Strauss that he had visited the White House). Strauss' suspicions increased further with the discovery that Oppenheimer had tried to stop America's long-range airborne detection system in 1948 and 1949, which was the time frame when the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic weapon. In December 1953, the FBI notified Strauss that it would not watch Oppenheimer more closely without a specific request, which Strauss provided. Hoover then ordered full surveillance on Oppenheimer, including illegally tapping his phones.
At first Strauss moved cautiously, even heading off an attack on Oppenheimer by Senator Joseph McCarthy. He had the AEC staff compile a list of charges and surprised Oppenheimer with them in December 1953.
Strauss is perhaps most remembered as the driving force in the month-long hearings, held in April and May 1954, before an AEC Personnel Security Board that resulted in Oppenheimer's security clearance being revoked. Strauss had access to the FBI's information on Oppenheimer, including his conversations with his lawyers, which was used to prepare counterarguments in advance. In the end, despite the support of numerous leading scientists and other prominent figures, Oppenheimer was stripped of his clearance, one day before it would have expired anyway, as Strauss had wanted. Strauss's role has been described as a witch-hunter, pursuing a vendetta fueled equally by personal dislike and paranoid suspicions.
His term as AEC chair completed at the end of June 1958. Eisenhower wanted to reappoint him, but Strauss feared the Senate would reject or at least subject him to ferocious questioning. Besides the Oppenheimer affair, he had clashed with Senate Democrats on several major issues, including his autocratic nature as AEC chair and his secretive handling of the Dixon-Yates contract. Indeed, by this time Strauss had garnered the reputation, as a Time magazine profile put it, of being "one of the nation's ablest and thorniest public figures."
Eisenhower offered him the post of White House Chief of Staff, to replace Sherman Adams, but Strauss did not think that it would suit him. Eisenhower also asked if Strauss would consider succeeding John Foster Dulles (who was ill) as Secretary of State, but Strauss did not want to preempt Undersecretary Christian Herter, who was a good friend.
Finally, Eisenhower proposed that Strauss become Secretary of Commerce, which Strauss accepted. With the 1958 United States Senate elections soon to happpen, Eisenhower announced the nomination on October 24. Strauss took office via a recess appointment, effective November 13, 1958. However, Senate opposition to this appointment was as strong as to a renewed AEC term. This was surprising, given the high level of experience Strauss had, the relative lack of prominence of the Commerce post compared to some other cabinet positions, and the tradition of the Senate deferring to presidents to choose the cabinet heads they wanted. Indeed, at the time the previous thirteen nominees for this Cabinet position won Senate confirmation in an average of eight days. Due to a long-running feud between the two, Senator Clinton Anderson took up the cause to make sure that Strauss would not be confirmed by the Senate. Anderson found an ally in Senator Gale W. McGee on the Senate Commerce Committee, which had jurisdiction over Strauss's confirmation.
During and after the Senate hearings, McGee had charged Strauss with "a brazen attempt to hoodwink" the committee. Strauss also overstated his backing of the development of the H-bomb, implying that he had convinced Truman to support it; Truman was annoyed by this, and sent a letter to Anderson undermining Strauss's claim, a letter than Anderson promptly leaked to the press. Strauss attempted to reach Truman through an intermediary to rescue the situation, but was rebuffed and felt bitter at the lack of support. A group of scientists who were still upset over the role Strauss had played in the Oppenheimer hearings lobbied against confirmation, playing upon their target's name pronunciation by calling themselves the Last Straws Committee.
After sixteen days of hearings the Committee recommended Strauss' confirmation to the full Senate by a vote of 9-8. By now the struggle was in the forefront of the national political news, with a Time cover story calling it "of the biggest, bitterest, and in many ways most unseemly confirmation fights in Senate history." In preparation for the floor debate on the nomination, the Democratic majority's main argument against the nomination was that Strauss's statements before the committee included semi-truths and outright falsehoods and that under tough questioning Strauss tended towards ambiguous responses and engaging in petty arguments. Despite an overwhelming Democratic majority, the 86th United States Congress was not able to accomplish much of its agenda since the President had immense popularity and a veto pen. With the 1960 elections approaching, congressional Democrats looked for issues on which they could flex their institutional strength in opposition to Eisenhower. On June 19, 1959, just after midnight, the Strauss nomination failed by a vote 46-49. Voting for Strauss were 15 Democrats and 31 Republicans; voting against him were 47 Democrats and 2 Republicans.
At the time, it marked only the eighth instance in U.S. history where a Cabinet appointee had failed to be confirmed by the Senate, and it was the first time since 1925. (The next such instance would not take place until 1989.) Eisenhower, who had invested both personal and professional capital in the nomination, spoke of the Senate action in bitter terms, saying that "I am losing a truly valuable associate in the business of government. ... it is the American people who are the losers through this sad episode." The Senate rejection automatically and immediately removed Strauss from the recess-appointed cabinet position.
The Commerce defeat effectively ended his government career. The numerous enemies that Strauss had made during his career took some pleasure from the turn of events. Reportedly, Strauss never recovered. In any case, he brooded over events past.
Strauss published his memoirs, Men and Decisions, in 1962. At the time, Time magazine's review said they "may now remind readers of [Strauss's] many real accomplishments before they were obscured by political rows." The general view of historians is that the memoirs were self-serving.
The tie between President Hoover and Strauss remained strong throughout the years; in 1962, Hoover wrote in a letter to Strauss: "Of all the men who have come into my orbit in life, you are the one who has my greatest affections, and I will not try to specify the many reasons, evidences or occasions." Strauss assisted in the organizing of support for the Barry Goldwater 1964 presidential campaign.
During his retirement he devoted time to philanthropic activities, and to the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and the Alliance Israélite Universelle. He lived on a 2,000-acre farm, where he engaged in cattle breeding and raised prized Black Angus. A book he was working on about Herbert Hoover was never completed.
After battling lymphosarcoma for three years, Strauss died of it on January 21, 1974, at his home, the Brandy Rock Farm, in Brandy Station, Virginia. His funeral was held back in New York at Temple Emanu-El and there was also a memorial service held in the capital at Washington Hebrew Congregation. He is buried in Richmond Hebrew Cemetery along with more than sixty other family members.
Alice Hanauer Strauss lived until 2004, when she died at age 101 in Brandy Station.
The Oppenheimer matter quickly became a cause célèbre, with Strauss frequently being cast in the role of villain, an image that would persist over the next several years, and then on beyond that. Strauss had his defenders as well, who saw the hero and villain roles as being reversed. Such polarized assessments followed Strauss for much of his career. But Strauss was not so simply categorized in either direction; a mid-1950s interviewer found him bland and courteous in one session but prickly and temperamental in a second session. As the New York Times front-page obituary of Strauss stated,
For about a dozen years at the outset of the atomic age Lewis Strauss, an urbane but sometimes thorny former banker with a gifted amateur's knowledge of physics, was a key figure in the shaping of United States thermonuclear policy. ... In the years of his mightiest influence in Washington, the owlish-faced Mr. Strauss puzzled most observers. He was, on the one hand, a sociable person who enjoyed dinner parties and who was adept at prestidigitation; and, on the other hand, he gave the impression of intellectual arrogance. He could he warm-hearted yet seem at times like a stuffed shirt. He could make friends yet create antagonisms.
At the start of his 1962 memoir, Strauss states his belief that "the right to live in the social order established [at the American founding] is so priceless a privilege that no sacrifice to preserve it is too great." This sentiment became the interpretative framework for Richard Pfau's 1984 biography of Strauss, which was authorized by the Strauss estate. In it, Pfau acknowledges the ugly and unlawful episodes in Strauss's life, but presents them as the acts of a man with integrity who felt compelled to do what was necessary to protect the nation. Historian Barton J. Bernstein disagrees with this approach, saying that the framework is too generous and that Pfau errs in "seeing Strauss as a man of great integrity (Strauss's own claim) rather than as a man who used such claims to conceal sleazy behavior."
Decades after his passing, historians continue to examine Strauss's records and actions. Scholar of the early Cold War period Ken Young has studied the historiography of H-bomb development and scrutinized the role that Strauss played in trying to form that history to his benefit. In particular, Young has looked at the publication during 1953 and 1954 of a popular magazine article and book that promoted a highly distorted notion of a hydrogen bomb project had been unreasonably stalled, both before Truman's decision and after, by a small group of American scientists working against the national interest and that Strauss was one of the heroes who had overcome this cabal's efforts. Young points to circumstantial archival evidence that Strauss was behind both publications and may well have given classified information to the book authors involved (James R. Shepley and Clay Blair Jr.). Along the same lines, historian Priscilla Johnson McMillan has made the evidentiary case that Strauss was likely behind Eisenhower's famous "blank wall" directive to separate Oppenheimer from nuclear secrets. Furthermore, McMillan has identified archival evidence which suggests to some degree that Strauss was in collusion with William L. Borden, the congressional staff member who after leaving that position wrote the November 1953 letter that triggered the Oppenheimer security hearing.
Even Strauss's smaller deceptions, such as concocting an excuse to publish the transcript of the Oppenheimer security hearing even though witnesses had been promised their testimony would remain secret, rebounded against him, as the transcript showed how the hearing had taken the form of an inquisition. In the end, Strauss was undone by his own character and actions.
For his European relief work during and after World War I, Strauss was decorated by six nations.
Strauss, then with the rank of captain, was awarded a Legion of Merit by the Navy in September 1944 for his work on Navy requirements regarding contract termination and disposal of surplus property. He also received the Navy Distinguished Service Medal.
In 1955, Strauss received a silver plaque from the Men's Club of Temple Emanu-El for "distinguished service"; President Eisenhower sent a message to the ceremony saying the honor was well-deserved.
The cover of Time magazine featured Strauss twice, once in 1953 when he was AEC chair and the nuclear arms race was underway, and once in 1959 during his Secretary of Commerce confirmation process.