A-bomb advocate Lewis L. Strauss -- his influence on early policy

No Sacrifice Too Great: The Life of Lewis L. Strauss, by Richard Pfau. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia. Illustrated. 314 pp. $17.95. THE man who may well have played the largest role in shaping America's postwar nuclear policy was not an elected official, nor a physicist, nor even a college graduate. Lewis L. Strauss (pronounced, oddly, ``Straws''), who dominated the Atomic Energy Commission between 1946 and 1958, had hoped as valedictorian of his Richmond high school class to study physics at the University of Virginia. But his plans were twice diverted, once in 1913 when he put off college to help his father in the family shoe business, and again in 1917 when, under his mother's influence, he attached himself to Herbert Hoover, who was directing supply and relief efforts in war-torn Europe. As Hoover's unpaid private secretary, Strauss established a reputation for intelligence, enterprise, and integrity which served him well in his postwar career as an investment banker. During World War II, his work in the Navy's Bureau of Ordnance earned him a promotion to rear admiral. A staunch Hoover Republican, he was appointed by Democratic President Truman to serve on the newly created Atomic Energy Commission, whose first chairman was Democrat David E. Lilienthal, former head of the Tennessee Valley Authority. In 1953, President Eisenhower appointed Strauss as the AEC's chairman. He was already known for his commitment to protecting classified material and maintaining tight security.

Alarmed -- and rightly so, as the evidence cited in this book indicates -- at the possibility that the Soviets were developing nuclear weapons, Strauss pushed hard to establish a long-range detection system to monitor tests by measuring radiation in the upper atmosphere. His other accomplishments were more controversial.

Against many who believed in the public development of nuclear power for peaceful uses, Strauss urged that private companies take on the task in the name of free enterprise. Opposed by Lilienthal, Hans Bethe, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, but supported by Edward Teller and Ernest O. Lawrence, Strauss fought for the development of the hydrogen bomb. Throughout his career, he opposed almost every attempt at reaching a test-ban treaty, apparently because he did not believe that a nation of atheists (the Soviet Union) could be trusted. His intense commitment to what he perceived as the demands of national security led him to believe no sacrifice was too great to defend his country's safety. His own career and integrity would be among the sacrifices.

Strauss was intolerant of dissent, unskilled at compromise. He saw things in terms of black and white. He discounted evidence of the long-range genetic dangers of radioactive fallout, but then insisted on the need for more tests to develop a ``clean'' bomb. Yet, the action that came to symbolize his entire career was his role in engineering the 1954 dismissal of Oppenheimer as a security risk. There were, as this book recounts, ample grounds for his suspicion, but Strauss also violated Oppenheimer's civil rights in the process (he ordered illegal phone taps) and alienated much of the scientific community by what it perceived as an attack on academic/scientific freedom. ``In the end,'' Strauss's biographer writes, ``the Oppenheimer case cost the United States the services not only of Oppenheimer but also of Strauss.'' Appointed by President Eisenhower in 1958 to serve as his secretary of commerce, Strauss, who had made many enemies, was narrowly denied Senate confirmation, and so ended his public career in sore disappointment.

In the tradition of classical biography, Professor Pfau's life of Strauss is a study in the character of a public man. Although he does not delve into Strauss's private life, he provides an interesting and persuasive analysis of how Strauss's Judaism influenced his political views. Unlike the fictional hero of Herman Wouk's ``Inside Outside,'' Strauss was not a Zionist. His patriotism was rooted in his faith in America as a country guaranteeing religious freedom. Insisting there was no such thing as a Jewish race or nationality, he regarded himself as an American of the Jewish religion. Pfau also shows how Strauss's convictions made him suspicious of people who, like Oppenheimer, held that morality was possible apart from belief in a deity.

Crisply written, well researched, and succinctly analytical, this book is a refreshing contrast to Wouk's long-winded, one-sided apologia for the fictional David Goodkind. Pfau has the tact and poise to criticize Strauss as too rigid and simplistic, even while he suggests that Strauss usually tried to do right and often did. Sympathetic yet balanced, this true story of a public life is as compelling as any novel.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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