Oral History Interview with
Member of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, 1946-50; Special Assistant to the President on atomic energy matters, 1953; and Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, 1953-58.
Admiral Lewis L. Strauss
June 16, 1971
Jerry N. Hess, Harry S. Truman Library
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]
This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.
Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.
Opened May 2012
Harry S. Truman Library
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Oral History Interview with
Admiral Lewis L. Strauss
Washington, D. C.
June 16, 1971
Jerry N. Hess, Harry S. Truman Library
HESS: Admiral, I believe it would be proper at the start of our interview to remind researchers who will use this transcript in years to come that they should be sure to read your excellent book Men and Decisions.* Some of the subjects we might have covered in an interview of this nature have probably been covered quite adequately in your book.
Perhaps a good starting point would be to ask you to recall your earliest recollections of Mr. Truman.
STRAUSS: My earliest recollections of Mr. Truman are not precise as to date. He was a Senator, and a member of one or more committees of the Senate, before which committees I testified in behalf of the Navy Department during the war. My recollection is that he chaired a
*Men and Decisions, by Lewis L. Strauss. Doubleday & Company, Inc., New York, 1962
committee on the conduct of the war. That was not, I don't believe, its title.
HESS: That was really a title that he tried to keep away from, that was the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, which came to be known as the Truman Committee.
STRAUSS: Yes, that refreshes my memory on that point.
HESS: Was he present at the times that you testified? Do you recall?
STRAUSS: I feel confident that he was, but I could notI could not swear that he was. In any event, he struck me in those days as being a very fair and judicial man, and I was not surprised when I learned in the press that he had been nominated to the vice-presidency for Mr. [Franklin D.] Roosevelt's final term--what turned out to be his final term.
Mr. Truman was on good terms with Secretary [James V.] Forrestal, and although I was a line officer in the Navy, I think my age, and the fact that I was a reservist and had had no Annapolis training, led me to be used in a capacity where I was, effectively, an assistant to the Secretary, Special Assistant to the Secretary, rather than having a duty in the bureaus of a more technically naval
aspect. I did report for duty, having been ordered up, in the early months of 1941. I was assigned to duty in the Bureau of Ordnance where, oddly enough, I was made General inspector of Ordnance, and I organized the inspection service for the Bureau. Later I consolidated the inspection services for all of the material bureaus of the Navy.
But towards the end of '41 Forrestal, who then had become Under Secretary and, following Frank Knox's death, succeeded him as Secretary, installed me close to him. We had known each other for many years before that in the banking business as very active competitors of one another. I enjoyed this association with Forrestal, and I am obligated to that association for having really brought me to the President's attention.
HESS: Before we move away from Mr. Forrestal, you may have covered most of what you want to say about him in your book, but just what would be your assessment of Mr. Forrestal's value to the United States, both his public and his private service?
STRAUSS: Well, comparisons are odious, but I think he was probably the most valuable civilian in the military area. It's true that Mr. [Henry L.] Stimson, a man of
vast experience, was still living, still Secretary of War, but his age and health had reduced him to two or three hours of work in the forenoon. And it was well-known to his friends, and his staff, and those who saw him regularly, that that was all that he was able to accomplish.
Does that answer your question?
HESS: Yes, it does.
One other thing on Mr. Forrestal. I have heard it expressed that in 1949 he may have been on the way out anyway, due to a pro-Arab, pro-oil, anti-Jewish attitude that he may have had.
STRAUSS: I've heard
HESS: Would you comment on that?
STRAUSS: I have heard that stated. I believe it to be absolutely untrue. I could only say positively that he certainly was not anti-Jewish. Not only did he know what I was a Jew (I started to say a devout Jew, I don't think anyone can claim that for himself), he knew that I was an observant and a believing Jew. Had there been latent anti-Semitism in his attitude, it would have been experienced by me, and I did not experience it.
I never heard anything that would have typed him as
being pro-Arab. That he was "pro-oil" would mean, I suppose, in the minds of those who coined that expression, that he favored the position of the American oil industry which, to the extent that it had large investments in the Middle East, would be quite naturalbut not to the disadvantage of his country or industrialists in other areas.
No, Forrestal was an able, upright man who was on his way out in 1949 because literally he had worked himself to death. That was plain to me and to others who knew him. He was a casualty of the warclearly so.
HESS: You've indicated in your book that you met with him in March of 1949 and was shocked by his appearance.
STRAUSS: Yes, he was haggard, and this was well before the much reported interview that he had with the President when the President told him, as he should, I think, have told him, that he was no longer up to the demands of the job. It may well be that Forrestal was disturbed to hear it from the mouth of the President, and shocked at the fact that he was to be succeeded by Louis Johnson, a man whom he regarded as a politician primarily, although I could tell you things about Louis Johnson greatly to his credit, and indicative of both
ability and patriotism.
HESS: Would he deserve better than what many of the historians are giving him?
STRAUSS: Yes. Yes, he was a statesman. We became friends, but our contacts lasted really only for the short period of my service after his appointment. He was appointed in
HESS: March of '49.
March of '49, and I served until April of '50, so for about a year of his service I saw something of him. As a matter of fact, he had recommended me to the President to be chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission after [David E.] Lilienthal had resigned.
I found among my papers (which I had looked over here this morning in preparation for your visit), that I had gone to see Mr. Johnson, at his request, in January of '50, and he told me that he had made this recommendation to the President, and later told me that Mr. [Clark M.] Clifford, in an interview with the President at Key West, had told Mr. Truman that that would be a political mistake, and that he thought Mr. Lilienthal was responsible for having procured this advice to the President from Mr. Clifford.
As a matter of fact, it made no difference to me as I had resolved not to remain longer with the Commission. Had the President not accepted my recommendation to go forward with the hydrogen bomb, I would have left from sheer discouragement and the feeling that we had taken a wrong course. And had the President accepted my recommendation, as he did, I'd decided to resign because I did not want my colleagues to operate under the embarrassment of having to go ahead on a project which I had initially recommended and which they had so vigorously opposed.
HESS: Was this the major reason for your resignation?
STRAUSS: It was.
As a matter of fact, I resigned on the day that the President made his decision, which was the 31st of January, 1950, and it's an easy date for me to remember because it was my 54th birthday.
HESS: Did partisan politics often play a role in the policy decisions
STRAUSS: Of the Commission?
of the Commission.
STRAUSS: I would say not at all.
HESS: This brings to mind the subject of the original composition of the Commission. The Commission members
were announced at a news conference on October the 28th of 1946, and out of the five, four, including yourself, were Republicans, and one, David Lilienthal, was an Independent.
STRAUSS: Well, Mr. Lilienthaleach man should speak for himselfbut Mr. Lilienthal's public life had been entirely under Democratic administrations and appointments.
HESS: Do you think he was a little more Democrat than he was independent?
STRAUSS: I would think so. Now that's just an expression of my believe based on many conversations with him.
Mr. [Sumner T.] Pike was certainly not a practicing Republican.
Dr. [Robert Fox] Bacher was a scientist. He has never joined any Republican group of scientists since 1946, and I don't believe he had before.
Mr. [William Wesley] Waymack was a Republican. He was the editor (had been the editor), of the Des Moines Register. I would characterize him as a liberal Republican.
As to my own politics, when the President asked me to take on the job in July of that year of '46, I
told him that I was aI said, "Are you aware, Mr. President, that I am a Republican?" I think I added, "And a black Hoover Republican at that."
And he said, "I don't care what your politics area. I hadn't looked into that aspect of it. I know that you will do your duty without partisanship if you take this job on."
I then said, perhaps foolishly, "Well, how did you happen to select me? How did I happen to come to your attention?"
To which he replied, "I don't mind telling you. I asked a number of people for lists of names and though your name wasn't at the top of any of the lists, you were the common denominatoryou were on every list. That's why I asked you."
I recall that I then asked, "Who are the others I am to serve with?" And he named four men. I made a note of them at the time and not one of them was on the Commission as it was finally appointed. Either he had not received their acceptances, or they thought better of it and turned it down, or perhaps he had not yet approached them.
HESS: Do you think that the President set out and made a
conscious effort to divorce partisan politics from the Atomic Energy Commission?
STRAUSS: I have a real assurance of that in this story which I have not seen printed anywhere. As a matter of fact, he told me this himself, and I think it may well have been at a time when others were present, but I do not recall who they were. He said that when the McMahon Bill was being considered in the Congress, an amendment was discussed to the effect that the President, in appointing the commission, would be charged to see that not more than three of its five members of it should be of his own party, and the other two members of the opposition party. And he had let it be known that if that were done, if that amendment were adopted, he would veto the bill because he said, "That would be an introduction of politics into this whole setup and I believe a President would be affronted by the evidence that the Congress had assumed that he might name all the Commissioners from his own party. "The administration of Atomic Energy is too important and above partisanship," he added.
This made a great impression on me at the time and I'm sorry that I cannot precisely recall either
the date or the occasion.
HESS: Well, one thing I took from your book. On August the 1st of '46, at the time that he signed the Act, the President's remarks were not released by the White House press office, so they were not in the Public Papers of the President, but I took a quote from your book which is on page 388, and Mr. Truman says: "I consider that this bill is not in the best public interest since it invests the atomic energy program with an aura of uncertainty and of partisan politics." So even at the time that he was signing it, he was pointing out that there were some things about it that he did not like.
STRAUSS: I was not with him at the moment he signed it, but I read the engrossed bill in the Cabinet Room after he handed it to me that morning. I believe I tell in my book how his invitation had reached me on the Pacific coast and how I had returned without knowing what I was coming back to.
HESS: Thinking it was a practical joke.
STRAUSS: I thought it was a practical joke at the coast but, having talked it over with ex-President Hoover, we
had both concluded that the President was about to offer me the chairmanship of UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration), and I said I didn't want to do it. And Mr. Hoover had said, "Well, you must go. When the President sends for you, you must go whatever the inconvenience. But you do not have to accept an offered appointment if you feel it is unsuitable to you."
So I was surprised when he handed me the engrossed A.E.C. bill. I had never seen an engrossed bill before. I was interested in the appearance of it. Have you ever seen one?
HESS: No, I haven't. I understand they are rather nice looking though.
STRAUSS: Well, it's printedit's printed, not typed, on larger than legal-size material, which has some substance to it, almost like cardboard.
HESS: Is it vellum?
STRAUSS: No, a quite heavy paper. The margins are ruled so that the text is, in effect, framed within double-ruled margins.
The moment I started to read it, I recognized it for what it was. I had testified before the
Congress on the billon its predecessor bill, introduced bythe name escapes mebut a Congr