|David E. Lilienthal|
David E. Lilienthal before a Senate committee in 1937.
|Chairman, United States Atomic Energy Commission|
|President||Harry S. Truman|
|Chairman, Tennessee Valley Authority|
Franklin D. Roosevelt|
Harry S. Truman
|Gordon R. Clapp|
|Vice Chairman, Tennessee Valley Authority|
|President||Franklin D. Roosevelt|
|Co-Director, Tennessee Valley Authority|
|President||Franklin D. Roosevelt|
David Eli Lilienthal|
July 8, 1899
January 15, 1981 (aged 81)|
New York City
|Spouse(s)||Helen Marian Lamb|
Harvard Law School
David Eli Lilienthal (July 8, 1899 – January 15, 1981) was an American attorney and public administrator, best known for his Presidential Appointment to head Tennessee Valley Authority and later the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). He had practiced public utility law and led the Wisconsin Public Utilities Commission.
Later 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. As chair of the AEC, he was one of the pioneers in civilian management of nuclear power resources.
Born in Morton, Illinois in 1899, David Lilienthal was the oldest son of Jewish immigrants from Austria-Hungary. His mother Minna Rosenak (1874-1956) came from Szomolány (now Smolenice) in Slovakia, emigrating to America at age 17. His father Leo Lilienthal (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 the town of Morton, where Leo briefly operated a dry goods store.
Leo's business ventures took the family several places. Young David was raised principally in the Indiana towns of Valparaiso and Michigan City. Although he spent part of his sophomore year in Gary, he graduated in 1916 from Elston High School in Michigan City.
Lilienthal attended DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1920. There he joined Delta Upsilon social fraternity and was elected president of the student body. He was active in forensics and won a state oratorical contest in 1918. He also gained distinction as a light heavyweight boxer.
After a summer job in 1920 as a reporter for the Mattoon, Illinois, Daily Journal-Gazette, Lilienthal entered Harvard Law School. Although his grades were average until his third and final year at Harvard, he acquired an important mentor in Professor Felix Frankfurter, later an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court.
While at DePauw, Lilienthal met his future wife, Helen Marian Lamb (1896-1999), a fellow student. Born in Oklahoma, she had moved with her family to Crawfordsville, Indiana, in 1913. They were married in Crawfordsville in 1923, after Helen had completed her M.A. at Radcliffe while David was a law student at Harvard.
With a strong recommendation from Frankfurter, Lilienthal entered the practice of law in Chicago in 1923 with Donald Richberg. 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 in cases in which they were charged with criminal contempt. Richberg also assigned Lilienthal to write major parts of what became the Railway Labor Act of 1926. 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 tried in Detroit for killing a white man who was part of a mob that attacked Sweet's home. Afterward, Lilienthal wrote about the case and issues of self-defense in an article published in The Nation.
Lilienthal left Richberg's firm in 1926 to concentrate on public utility law. He represented 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. From 1926 to 1931, Lilienthal also edited a legal information service on public utilities for Commerce Clearing House. In 1931, Wisconsin's reform-minded Republican governor, Philip La Follette, asked him to become a member of the state's reorganized Railroad Commission, renamed that year as the Public Service Commission.
As the commission's leading member, Lilienthal expanded its staff and launched aggressive investigations of Wisconsin's gas, electric and telephone utilities. By September 1932, the commission achieved rate reductions totaling more than $3 million affecting over a half-million customers. But, its 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. After La Follette's defeat in the 1932 Republican primary election, Lilienthal began putting out feelers for a federal appointment in the newly elected Democratic administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Lilienthal's credentials for being appointed to the three-person board 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 so that the Federal government could develop and distribute cheap hydroelectric power into rural areas that were not served by private utilities. Developed as recovery began from the Great Depression, the TVA was envisioned by its supporters as a federal development vehicle to modernize the region's infrastructure through electricity, attract industry, and improve the economic and social lives of rural people. Accordingly, the TVA also established extensive education programs, and a library service that distributed books in the many rural hamlets that lacked a library. Opponents led by Wendell Willkie said the TVA was hostile to private enterprise and socialistic.
In January 1946, following the end of World War II and victory by the Allies, U.S. Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson asked Lilienthal to chair a five-member panel of consultants to a committee including him and four others, who were to advise 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. At the time, the US held a monopoly on these weapons.
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! 
The result was a 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. This position was highly controversial.
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.
Instead, the United States established the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to provide civilian control of this resource. Lilienthal was appointed as chair of the AEC on October 28, 1946 and served until February 15, 1950, one of the pioneers of civilian control of the American atomic energy program. He intended to administer a program that would "harness the atom" for peaceful purposes, principally atomic power. Lilienthal gave high priority to peaceful uses, especially nuclear power plants. However coal was cheap and the power industry was not interested. The first plant was begun under Eisenhower in 1954.
The AEC was responsible for managing atomic energy development for the military as well as for civilian use. 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 have addressed 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". 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.
Lilienthal resigned from the Atomic Energy Commission in 1950. He was 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. Later he wrote about this period in his journal:
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 leveraged the financial backing of Lazard Freres to found his company. He hired former associates from the TVA to work with him. 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.
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.
Lilienthal kept such a journal until the end of his life. In 1959, Lilienthal's son-in-law Sylvain Bromberger suggested that he consider publishing his private journals. Lilienthal wrote to Cass Canfield at Harper & Row; the company eventually published his journals in seven volumes, appearing between 1964 and 1983. They received largely positive reviews.
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).
His company D&R struggled financially during Lilienthal's final years. A promised infusion of capital from the Rockefeller family was not fully realized.
In 1980, Lilienthal had two separate serious health problems. He had a bilateral hip replacement and cataract surgery in one eye. He needed crutches and a cane at various points. The recovery period from the eye surgery forced him to neither read nor write aside from his final journal entry on January 2, 1981.
He died on January 16, 1981.