David E. Lilienthal

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David E. Lilienthal
David E Lilienthal 1937.jpg
David E. Lilienthal before a Senate committee in 1937.
Member, Wisconsin Public Service Commission
In office
Governor Philip La Follette
Co-Director, Tennessee Valley Authority
In office
President Franklin D. Roosevelt
Chairman, Tennessee Valley Authority
In office
President Franklin D. Roosevelt
Harry S. Truman
Preceded by No predecessor
Succeeded by Gordon R. Clapp
Chairman, United States Atomic Energy Commission
In office
President Harry S. Truman
Preceded by No predecessor
Succeeded by Gordon Dean
Personal details
Born David Eli Lilienthal
(1899-07-08)July 8, 1899
Morton, Illinois
Died January 15, 1981(1981-01-15) (aged 81)
New York City
Spouse(s) Helen Marian Lamb
Alma mater DePauw University
Harvard Law School

David Eli Lilienthal (July 8, 1899 – January 15, 1981) was an American public official best known for leading the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Atomic Energy Commission. He was co-author with Dean Acheson (later Secretary of State) of the 1946 Report on the International Control of Atomic Energy which outlined possible methods for international control of nuclear weapons.

Early life[edit]

Born in Morton, Illinois, David Lilienthal was the oldest son of Jewish immigrants from Austria-Hungary. His mother, Minna Rosenak Lilienthal (1874-1956), came from Szomolány (now Smolenice) in Slovakia, emigrating to America at age 17. His father Leo (1868-1951) was from Hungary, serving several years in the Hungarian army before emigrating to the United States in 1893. Minna and Leo were married in Chicago in 1897, then moved to Morton where Leo briefly operated a dry goods store.[1] Leo's business venutres took the family several places; and young David was raised principally in the Indiana towns of Valparaiso and Michigan City.[2] Although he spent part of his sophomore year in Gary, he graduated from Elston High School in Michigan City in 1916.[3][4]

Education and marriage[edit]

Lilienthal attended DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1920.[5] There he joined Delta Upsilon social fraternity and was elected president of the student body.[6] He was active in forensics and won a state oratorical contest in 1918.[7] He also gained distinction as a light heavyweight boxer.[8] At DePauw Lilienthal met his future wife, Helen Marian Lamb (1896-1999), a fellow student who was born in Oklahoma and moved with her family to Crawfordsville, Indiana, in 1913.[9] They were married in Crawfordsville in 1923.[10]

After a summer job in 1920 as a reporter for the Mattoon, Illinois, Daily Journal-Gazette, Lilienthal entered Harvard Law School.[11] Although his grades were only average until his third and final year at Harvard, he acquired an important mentor there in Professor Felix Frankfurter, later an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court.[12]

Law practice and appointment to the Wisconsin Public Service Commission[edit]

With a strong recommendation from Frankfurter, Lilienthal entered the practice of law in Chicago with Donald Richberg in 1923.[13] Prominent in labor law, Richberg gave Lilienthal a major role in writing his firm's brief for the appellants in Michaelson v. United States, 266 U.S. 42 (1924), a landmark case in which the Supreme Court upheld the right of striking railroad workers to jury trials on criminal contempt charges.[14] Richberg also assigned Lilienthal to write major parts of what became the Railway Labor Act of 1926.[15] In 1925, Lilienthal assisted criminal defense lawyers Clarence Darrow and Arthur Garfield Hays in their successful defense of Dr. Ossian Sweet, an African American physician put on trial in Detroit for killing a white man who was part of a mob that attacked Sweet's home.[16] Lilienthal reported on the case in an article he wrote for The Nation.[17]

Lilienthal left Richberg's firm in 1926 to concentrate on public utility law,[18] He was one of the lawyers for the city of Chicago in the case of Smith v. Illinois Bell Telephone Co., 282 U.S. 133 (1930), in which a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court resulted in a refund of $20,000,000 to telephone customers who had been overcharged.[8] From 1926 to 1931, Lilienthal also edited a legal information service on public utilities for Commerce Clearing House.[8] In 1931, Wisconsin's reform-minded Republican governor, Philip La Follette, asked him to become a member of the state's reorganized Public Service Commission.[19][20]

As the commission's leading member, Lilienthal expanded its staff and launched aggressive investigations of Wisconsin's gas, electric and telephone utilities.[21] By September 1932, the commission achieved rate reductions totaling more than $3 million affecting over a half-million customers;[22] but an ambitious attempt to force a one-year 12.5 percent rate cut on the Wisconsin Telephone Company, a subsidiary of AT&T, was quashed by the Wisconsin courts.[23] After La Follette's defeat in the 1932 Republican primary election, Lilienthal began putting out feelers for a federal appointment in the new Democratic administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.[24]

Lilienthal and the Tennessee Valley Authority[edit]

David E. Lilienthal listens to testimony at a Congressional hearing in 1938 called to investigate charges brought against the TVA by its former chair, Arthur E. Morgan.

Lilienthal's credentials for overseeing the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) were earned as a member of the Wisconsin Public Service Commission under Wisconsin's innovative governor Philip La Follette. Lilienthal performed very well in that post, and he was aided in joining the TVA by the persistent lobbying of his old law professor Frankfurter.

The TVA was established in the view that the Federal government ought to bring cheap hydroelectric power into rural areas which had not access to it. In the darkest days of the Great Depression, many of the TVA's allies were thinking well beyond hydroelectric power; they favored sweeping Federal powers to modernize the region's infrastructure through electricity, attract industry, and improve the economic and social lives of rural people. Accordingly, the TVA established extensive education programs, and a library service that distributed books in rural hamlets that lacked a library. Opponents led by Wendell Willkie said the TVA was hostile to private enterprise and socialistic.

Atomic energy[edit]

In January 1946, U.S. Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson asked Lilienthal to chair a five-member panel of consultants to a committee composed of himself and four others advising President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of State James F. Byrnes about the position of the United States at the United Nations on the new menace of nuclear weapons.[25] As Lilienthal described the purpose of Acheson's request:

Those charged with foreign policy -- the Secretary of State (Byrnes) and the President -- did not have either the facts nor an understanding of what was involved in the atomic energy issue, the most serious cloud hanging over the world. Comments...have been made and are being made...without a knowledge of what the hell it is all about -- literally! [26][27]

The result was a controversial 60-page Report on the International Control of Atomic Energy, better known as the Acheson-Lilienthal Report. Released in March 1946, it proposed that the United States offer to turn over its monopoly on nuclear weapons to an international agency in return for a system of strict inspections and control of fissile materials.

Lilienthal was fascinated and appalled by the information he soon absorbed about the power of the atomic bomb. On January 28, 1946, he wrote in his journal:

No fairy tale that I read in utter rapture and enchantment as a child, no spy mystery, no "horror" story, can remotely compare with the scientific recital I listened to for six or seven hours today. ...I feel that I have been admitted, through the strangest accident of fate, behind the scenes in the most awful and inspiring drama since some primitive man looked for the very first time upon fire. [28][29]

David E. Lilienthal (right) met with General Leslie R. Groves (left), Director of the Manhattan Project, at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, on October 1, 1946, to discuss the transfer of responsibility for atomic energy to the new Atomic Energy Commission, which President Harry S. Truman nominated Lilienthal to chair.

From October 28, 1946 to February 15, 1950, Lilienthal chaired the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), and was one of the pioneers of civilian control of the American atomic energy program. He hoped to administer a program which would "harness the atom" for peaceful purposes, principally atomic power.[30]

The AEC was responsible for managing atomic energy development for the military as well as for civilian use, and Lilienthal was responsible for ensuring that the Commander-in-Chief would have the use of a number of working atomic bombs.

As chairman of the AEC in the late 1940s, during the early years of the Cold War, Lilienthal played an important role in managing relations between the scientific community and the U.S. Government.

In his 1963 book Change, Hope and the Bomb, Lilienthal criticized nuclear developments, denouncing the nuclear industry's failure to address the dangers of nuclear waste. He suggested that a civil atomic energy program should not be pursued until the "substantial health hazards involved were eliminated".[31] Lilienthal argued that it would be "particularly irresponsible to go ahead with the construction of full scale nuclear power plants without a safe method of nuclear waste disposal having been demonstrated". However, Lilienthal stopped short of a blanket rejection of nuclear power. His view was that a more cautious approach was necessary.[31]

Lilienthal as businessman[edit]

Lilienthal resigned from the Atomic Energy Commission in 1950, concerned that after years of relatively low-paying public service, he needed to make some money to provide for his wife and two children, and to secure funds for his retirement.

He worked for several years for the investment bank Lazard Freres, saying later in his journal: "A serene life apparently isn't the thing I crave. I live on enthusiasm, zest; and when I don't feel it, the bottom sags below sea level, and it is agony, no less." In 1955, he formed an engineering and consulting firm called Development and Resources Corporation (D&R) which shared some of the TVA's objectives: major public power and public works projects. Lilienthal was able to leverage the financial backing of Lazard Freres to found his company. He hired for D&R former associates from the TVA.

D&R focused on overseas clients, including the Khuzistan region of Iran, the Cauca Valley of Colombia, Venezuela, India, southern Italy, Ghana, Nigeria, Morocco, and South Vietnam.

Lilienthal as writer[edit]

In May 1917, as a 17-year-old college freshman, Lilienthal met a young lawyer in Gary, Indiana. He later recalled that the lawyer

noticed how seriously I was looking at life in general and suggested as a remedy for this and as a source of amusement and self-cultivation the keeping of a diary of a different sort than the "ate today" "was sick yesterday" variety, but rather a record of the impressions I received from various sources; my reactions to books, people, events; my opinions and ideas on religion, sex, etc. The idea appealed to me at once.[32]

Lilienthal kept such a journal until the end of his life. In 1959, Lilienthal's son-in-law Sylvain Bromberger suggested that Lilienthal consider publishing his private journals. Lilienthal wrote to Cass Canfield at the New York publisher Harper & Row, which eventually published his journals in seven volumes, appearing between 1964 and 1983. They received largely positive reviews.[33]

Lilienthal's other books include TVA: Democracy on the March (1944), This I Do Believe (1949), Big Business: A New Era (1953) and Change, Hope and the Bomb (1963).

Last years[edit]

His company D&R struggled financially during his final years. A promised infusion of capital from the Rockefeller family was not fully realized.

In 1980, Lilienthal had two separate serious health problems, requiring both a bilateral hip replacement and cataract surgery in one eye. He needed crutches and a cane at various points. Eye problems made it almost impossible to read or write, two of his great comforts in times of stress.

He died in his sleep in January 1981.[34]

Awards and honors[edit]

In 1951 Lilienthal was awarded the Public Welfare Medal from the National Academy of Sciences.[35]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Neuse, p. 2.
  2. ^ Neuse, pp. 2-3.
  3. ^ Neuse, pp. 5-6.
  4. ^ "Elston High School, Michigan City, Indiana, 1901 to 1919". Retrieved February 27, 2012. 
  5. ^ Who Was Who, Vol. VII, p. 381.
  6. ^ Neuse, p. 12.
  7. ^ "Oratory and Debate at early DePauw". DePauw University. Retrieved February 10, 2012. 
  8. ^ a b c Current Biography, 1944, p. 413.
  9. ^ Neuse, pp. 9-10.
  10. ^ Montgomery County, Indiana, Marriage Index, 1875-2010. Crawfordsville District Public Library Local History Database. Helen had completed her M.A. at Radcliffe while David was a law student at Harvard. McCraw, Morgan vs. Lilienthal, p. 20.
  11. ^ Neuse, pp. 19-20.
  12. ^ Neuse, pp. 20-22.
  13. ^ Neuse, pp. 24-25.
  14. ^ Neuse, pp. 29-30.
  15. ^ Neuse, pp. 32-33.
  16. ^ Neuse, p. 28.
  17. ^ David E. Lilienthal, "Has the Negro the Right of Self-Defense?" The Nation, December 23, 1925, pp. 724-725.
  18. ^ Neuse, pp. 35-38.
  19. ^ Neuse, p. 43.
  20. ^ The body to which Lilienthal was appointed was still called the Railroad Commission. It became the Public Service Commission on June 8, 1931. "Shaping Utility Regulation in Wisconsin". Wisconsin Public Service Commission. Retrieved February 14, 2012. 
  21. ^ Neuse, pp. 45-48.
  22. ^ Neuse, p. 50.
  23. ^ Neuse, pp. 53-54. See also Wisconsin Telephone Co. v. Public Service Commission, 232 Wis. 274; 287 N.W. 122 (1939); cert. den. 309 U.S. 657; 84 L.Ed. 1006, 60 S.Ct. 514 (1940), in which the Wisconsin Supreme Court held that to authorize rate orders without hearing would be to confer unlimited arbitrary power to take utility property.
  24. ^ Neuse, p. 61.
  25. ^ The other committee members were James Bryant Conant, Vannevar Bush, John J. McCloy and Leslie R. Groves. In addition to Lilienthal, the consultants were: Chester I. Barnard, President, New Jersey Bell Telephone Company; J. Robert Oppenheimer, formerly of the Manhattan Project; Charles Allen Thomas, Vice President and Technical Director, Monsanto Chemical Company, and Harry A. Winne, Vice-President in Charge of Engineering Policy, General Electric Company.
  26. ^ Lilienthal Journals, Vol. 2, p. 10.
  27. ^ Quoted in Cooke, p. 42.
  28. ^ Lilienthal Journals, Vol. 2, pp. 24-25.
  29. ^ Quoted in Cooke, p. 45.
  30. ^ President Truman announced Lilienthal's appointment to the AEC on October 28, 1946. "Truman Atom Board Text". New York Times. October 29, 1946. Retrieved January 31, 2012.  He was confirmed by the Senate on April 9, 1947. "LILIENTHAL WINS SENATE VOTE, 50-31, AS U.S. ATOM HEAD". New York Times. April 10, 1947. Retrieved January 31, 2012. 
  31. ^ a b Wolfgang Rudig (1990). Anti-nuclear Movements: A World Survey of Opposition to Nuclear Energy, Longman, p. 61.
  32. ^ Lilienthal Journals, Vol. 1, p.1.
  33. ^ Neuse, p. xvi.
  34. ^ Neuse, p. 315
  35. ^ "Public Welfare Award". National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved 17 February 2011. 


Further reading[edit]

  • Ekbladh, David. (2002). 'Mr. TVA': Grass-Roots Development, David Lilienthal, and the Rise and Fall of the Tennessee Valley Authority as a Symbol for U.S. Overseas Development, 1933–1973. Diplomatic History, 26(3), 335–374.
  • Ekbladh, David. (2008). Profits of Development: The Development and Resources Corporation and Cold War Modernization. Princeton University Library Chronicle, 69(3), 487–505.
  • Hargrove, Erwin E. (1994). Prisoner of Myth: The Leadership of the Tennessee Valley Authority, 1933–1990.
  • Lilienthal, David. (1944). TVA: Democracy on the March.
  • Lilienthal, David. (1971). The Journals of David Lilienthal, Vol. V, 1959–1963.
  • Lilienthal, David. (1983). The Journals of David Lilienthal, Vol. VII, 1968–1981.
  • Wang, Jessica. (1999). American Science in an Age of Anxiety. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-4749-6.

External links[edit]

Awards and achievements
Preceded by
Hedda Hopper
Cover of Time magazine
4 August 1947
Succeeded by
Cyril G. Illingworth
Preceded by
George H. Shull
Public Welfare Medal
Succeeded by
James R. Killian, Jr.