Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Lewis Strauss (1958–1959): Secretary of Commerce

Lewis Lichtenstein Strauss was secretary of commerce under President Eisenhower from November 13, 1958, to June 19, 1959. Strauss was valedictorian of his high school class and was supposed to attend the University of Virginia, but he contracted typhoid and did not graduate in time. After he recovered from his illness, he joined his father's shoe business as a traveling salesman in 1913, rising to become the company's best salesman and, by 1917, earning enough money to go to college.

Instead, Strauss volunteered as an unpaid assistant to Herbert Hoover, then an engineer conducting relief efforts during the First World War. He impressed Hoover, who took him on as his personal secretary (1917-1919). Strauss also worked with the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to distribute food parcels to Jewish people affected by the war.

Strauss turned down an offer to be comptroller for the League of Nations in 1919 and returned to the United States to join the New York banking firm Kuhn, Loeb and Company, becoming a partner in 1929. At the same time, he pursued his private interest in physics and in nuclear physics in particular. Strauss became a lieutenant in the Naval Reserve and worked as an intelligence officer; he was activated in February 1941 and became staff assistant to the chief of ordinance until 1943.

He was made special assistant to Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal in May 1944 and promoted to rear admiral by President Truman in November 1945. He next became a member of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), sitting on that board from 1946 to 1950. Strauss returned to government as Eisenhower's special assistant on atomic energy matters in February 1953 and chaired the AEC from July 2, 1953, until June 30, 1958. He aroused controversy because of his role as AEC chair in removing the security clearance of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the prominent physicist who had worked on the atomic bomb project.

At the same time, he served as presidential assistant for the Atoms for Peace program before receiving a recess appointment to the Commerce Department. His nomination aroused controversy, in part because of his involvement in the Oppenheimer matter. On June 19, 1958, Strauss became only the eighth cabinet nominee to be rejected by the Senate, which was heavily Democratic at the time.

After his defeat, he returned to private life, although he helped organize support for Senator Barry Goldwater's presidential candidacy in 1964. Strauss remained active in various causes and charities until his death in 1974.