• Email
  • Print

Failing Safe

The Journals of David E. Lilienthal

by David E. Lilienthal
Harper & Row, 666 pp., $10.00 each

Instinctively one distrusts a dialogue with the self which is designed to be overheard. It is a performance. And except in the hands of a great performer, it is likely to be a bad performance. I find most diaries dull. “These are of the books,” Charles Lamb said, “I give away.”

Having read David Lilienthal’s journals (which, he says, were “made in the beat of daily life,” and now stand essentially as they were written), I have given them away. Mr. Lilienthal has had an interesting and useful life, but he is not an interesting thinker and his journals are neither very instructive, nor edifying, nor intimate, let alone racy. They may safely be kept on open shelves.

Yet this is not the whole story. The parts, if not the whole, of the journals are worth looking into. They are of our time and they illuminate a phase of it. The first volume deals with the American political and economic scene during the New Deal and in particular with Mr. Lilienthal’s work as head of the TVA; the second volume with the years which ushered in the atomic age and spawned an era of folly, paranoia, and enforced conformity to wicked and stupid ideas which continue to infest our house. Throughout both of these periods Mr. Lilienthal was a high civil servant. In 1933 Roosevelt appointed him to the board of directors of the newly created Tennessee Valley Authority. In this post he served for twelve years, earning for himself first a national then an international reputation.

No one was better suited than Lilienthal for the TVA job. He is a man of high intelligence—though not, as he proudly proclaims, an intellectual, nor as he confesses, “profound.” He is immensely energetic, resourceful, imaginative in practical matters, and enviably stubborn. When Lilienthal fixed on a project for TVA, he would not let go, even when his masters were indifferent or opposed, even when odious and venomous politicians such as Senator McKellar did their best to humiliate and crush him. He was a supremely dedicated, incorruptible public servant. Neither flattery, to which, being human, he was not impervious, nor criticism, to which, being thin-skinned, he was not insensitive, deflected him from what he conceived to be his duty.

The TVA was a triumph which owed much not only “to the vision of a Norris and the boldness of a Roosevelt, but to the men who were in charge of its destinies from the beginning”—the two Morgans, and, above all, Lilienthal himself. Yet these journals kept by the principal architect of TVA are largely a busy, overlong chronicle of trivia. It is impossible to follow the grand design. The journals tell us remarkably little about TVA planning and growth, about its major problems, about the questions that must have arisen in day to day administration and the obstacles that had to be overcome to turn the Valley into living proof of what men can accomplish. This is not to say that the journals for the TVA years are devoid of interest. The long battle with Wendell Willkie over the acquisition of the private power installations in the Valley makes good reading; so does the feud with Harold Ickes. Lilienthal’s account of his relations with Franklin D. Roosevelt, of his association with many major and minor figures of the New Deal—Henry Wallace, Harry Hopkins, Donald Richberg, Senator Norris, Felix Frankfurter among them—is often lively and perceptive. And the partying, gossiping, maneuvering, back-biting, furnish their share of amusement. But amidst these ephemera, the TVA gets lost, as if Lilienthal himself had mislaid it. We know, of course, that this was not the case. TVA was always his first concern, but the chatter in the journals is unworthy of his devotion.

The matter is made worse because Mr. Lilienthal is an indifferent writer. He is capable of relaxed passages and clear argument and there is much insight in his biographical vignettes. But his prose is usually pedestrian. He runs on with tedious discussions of government and politics. He reports the fluctuations of his humor without really admitting us to his person. He is embarrassingly sentimental and even confiding about his children and his wife without in fact telling us much about them. Writing up his daily adventures, Mr. Lilienthal is sometimes carried away to such expressions as “when,” “wow,” “gosh,” and “darn.” An airplane landing is described as taking place “lickety split.” When it rains hard it rains like “billy-hell.” But the major impression of the journals is that they are simply interminable. Some thousands of years ago the Egyptian Civil Service laid down laws for concise expression. I recall a letter, quoted by Sir Ernest Gowers, from a Minister of Finance to a senior civil servant: “Appollonius to Zeno, greeting. You did right to send the chickpeas to Memphis. Farewell.” A well wisher, of whom Mr. Lilientual has many, should have embroidered this on a sampler and sent it to him.

The second volume, on atomic energy, is more exciting than the first. There is more shuttling about in high places, events move from crisis to crisis, catastrophe seems to lurk around every corner. But the record is distressing not only because of the gravity of the events, but because the treatment of them is oblique and peripheral. There are innumerable details about such matters as spies, security risks, missing documents, conferences with the President and the problem of living with the members of the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy, most of whom were too stupid, too puerile, too indifferent, or too blood-thirsty to understand what should be done about atomic energy. Yet rarely does the reader feel that he is admitted to the heart of the matter, to the terrible questions that should have been faced. Either Lilienthal did not see them, or is not telling what he saw. Never really at home in international affairs—his few comments on the gathering darkness in Europe and Asia during the 1930s are astonishingly naive—he is deeply disturbed but unable to evolve a mature and coherent position with respect to foreign relations. This failure is of course reflected in his decisions at AEC. Reading about the TVA period, whatever the journal’s shortcomings, one could scarcely fail to remember that Lilienthal had built well. But his career at the Commission was another matter.

The period began with high promise. The Acheson-Lilienthal Report, while not the masterpiece so many persons believed it to be, was nonetheless a rational, humanitarian attempt to grapple with the problems of international control of atomic energy. It was a step into the light. But it was only a momentary step, and when, as was inevitable, it was rebuffed by the Soviets at the UN, our government soon scrambled back into the safety of darkness and unreason.

The journals plainly imply that Lilienthal did the main work on the Report, but his account is scanty. To be told the facts about the bomb was a “soul-stirring experience…I feel that I have been admitted, through the strangest accident of fate, behind the scenes in the most awful and inspiring drama since primitive man looked for the very first time upon fire.” Not much more is said than that. That his demeanor in these matters is self-effacing even vis à vis his journals seems a little disingenuous. He finds it hard to talk to himself about himself without embarrassment. It is true he has a natural modesty, but he is also a skillful politician.

The Report gave no joy to that venerable myth, Bernard Baruch, who was chosen to present its proposals to the UN. What he understood of it he didn’t like, and he did his best to sink it. After his vanity had been repeatedly buttered, he went along. Lilienthal’s reputation skyrocketed and it was not surprising that when the lists were opened for candidates for the new Atomic Energy Commission, set up under the McMahon Act, he found himself a front-runner for the chairmanship. I myself was among those asked by the White House for a slate. I recommended Lilienthal. I confess, even with the benefit of disillusionment, I would probably recommend him again if the circumstances were repeated.

Truman tried to get Conant for the chairmanship, then Karl Compton. Both refused; neither was in fact suited for the post. Then he nominated Lilienthal, who was almost overcome by the honor. The job was undeniably prestigious and had a ghoulish kind of glamour, but it turned out to be much less important, let alone useful, than the chairmanship of the TVA. Lilienthal, of course, had no way of foreseeing this, nor did those who drafted the McMahon Act. In our innocence we imagined the chairman might be not only a great conservator of human and material resources, but a powerful force for peace.

The confirmation hearings were as exciting as they were unpleasant. McKellar, though not a member of the committee, got himself invited so that he could pursue his favorite pastime. In his vulgar, brutal, senile way he made Lilienthal’s life almost unendurable for several weeks. Most of the committee members thoroughly enjoyed themselves; even those who knew better would not interrupt the baiting. Lilienthal showed extraordinary restraint. The high point was his “This I do believe” speech before the committee in answer to one of McKellar’s imbecile questions. It brought senators to the verge of tears, the first honest expression of emotion which several of them probably had experienced since infancy. Overnight it seemed to make Lilienthal eligible for the national Pantheon. The confirmation carried by such an impressive margin that Baruch could pretend that he had been batting for Lilienthal all along. This Lilienthal did not believe.

What followed was an anticlimactic farce and tragedy. The AEC, carrying man’s hope, was to have soared; in truth it never got off the ground. From the beginning it was little more than the management trust of a government-owned bomb cartel. All but an insignificant fraction of its huge appropriations was spent on fabricating bomb material, on designing and testing weapons. A good deal of public relations noise was made about the funds allotted to medical and isotope research. The AEC had the national “image” to think about. But the arithmetic belied the image. The support given to “pure” research, to studies in medicine and biology, was miniscule compared to the support for better, bigger (as well as smaller), more leyhal, more “sophisticated” weapons. The commission tempted young scientists with lucrative salaries, captured and imprisoned them; it corrupted colleges and universities with large grants and benefactions of dazzling machinery; its actions warped the syllabus and made the mere teaching of physics seem a paltry thing compared to “research.”

In furthering the cause of disarmament, the AEC played, if anything, a negative role. It did little to educate government or the public about the basic insanity of the arms race. Congress, the military, the White House, the press, expected and clamored for only one thing—to outrun the Russians. The Commission obliged. Thus it paved the way for such phenomena as that inexorable accountant, Keeper of today’s Bills of Mortality, Robert McNamara, who periodically refreshes the nation’s courage by boasting of how many times over we can kill every single Russian and Chinese and still have enough weapons left to deter World War IV.

The dangerous and absurd notion that the U.S. had a secret and that our salvation lay in preserving it was fostered as much by the AEC as by the Pentagon. When on rare occasions the agency tried to liberalize this policy, it found itself trapped by its earlier pronouncements. Another of the Commission’s unforgivable practices—developed to a fine art after Lilienthal’s stewardship—was to deceive the public about radioactive fallout from bomb tests. It lied about the quantities and deliberately minimized the dangerous effects on both the living and the unborn.

What was Lilienthal’s share in this folly and wickedness? The job became a “horror,” a “nightmare” increasingly difficult to shake off. That he is by deep conviction a man of peace no one can doubt. That he regarded the rigmarole of secrecy and security as inane and dangerous is amply supported by his journal. That he was opposed to the decision to proceed with the hydrogen bomb is a matter of record. (In this he was backed by the scientists composing the General Advisory Committee of the AEC.) Yet he went along with almost everything; he protested neither deceptions nor follies. Like many another decent and reasonable man he appears to have been caught up in the cold war and the attendant frenzies of militarism and nationalism. What could he have done? Could he have been tougher? Could he have found an ear for reasonable proposals at the highest level? Could he have persuaded the former naval person, Lewis Strauss (now, by the way, at the apex of his career as principal scientific advisor to Barry Goldwater), to a less primitive outlook, enticed to high mindedness the Iowa cornball, Bourke B. Hickenlooper, or calmed Harry Truman’s temper to the point where he would not regard every Soviet caper as a personal affront? These are rhetorical questions. He could not have done any of these things. He is the man he is and things are what they are. Nor could he have resigned and carried his case to the public. He is not of the stuff of martyrs; and it would probably have served little purpose if he had been. The AEC never had a chance, nor did Lilienthal. The five years he spent on the Commission deserve no monument. There is an Arabic saying: God sells knowledge for labor, honor for risk.

  • Email
  • Print