David E. Lilienthal

David E. Lilienthal

David Eli Lilienthal (July 8, 1899 - January 13, 1981) was an American public official who served in many different governmental roles over the course of his career. He is best known for being a director of the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1933, and the TVA chairman from 1941-1946, and as chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission from 1947-1950.



David Lilienthal was the oldest son of immigrants. His mother, Minna Rosenak Lilienthal, had left a mother behind in Smolenice, Slovakia, emigrating to America with her 11-year-old brother. Lilienthal's father Leo, from Austro-Hungary and then Vienna, had been forced to do heavy labor as an 11-year-old, and had been brutalized by the Austro-Hungarian Army. When Lilienthal later offered his father a trip back to Vienna as a gift, he bluntly refused: "Never want to see it again."

David Lilienthal was born in Morton, Illinois in 1899 and raised in several Indiana towns, principally Valparaiso and Michigan City.

Higher education

Lilienthal attended DePauw University, where he met his future wife Helen Lamb, a fellow student, and joined the Delta Upsilon Fraternity. Lamb was also from a small-town background, in her case from Oklahoma.

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

noted 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...

He would keep such a journal until the end of his life.

Lilienthal then attended Harvard Law School. Although his grades were only average until his third and final year at Harvard, he acquired a very important mentor there in Felix Frankfurter.

Lilienthal and the Tennessee Valley Authority

David 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 on the basis that the Federal government ought to bring cheap hydroelectric power into rural areas which had not enjoyed access to it. But 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

In January 1946, U.S. Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson asked Lilienthal to chair a small panel advising the President and the Secretary of State about the position of the President and the U.S. representative to the United Nations on the new menace of nuclear weapons.

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...

From 1947 to 1949, Lilienthal chaired the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), and was one of the pioneers of civilian control in the American atomic energy program. He hoped to administer a program which would "harness the atom" for peaceful purposes, principally atomic power.

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 science 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 nuclear waste question. He suggested that a civil atomic energy program should not be pursued until the "substantial health hazards involved were eliminated".[1] 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.[1]

Lilienthal as businessman

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

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

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.

Last years

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.

Awards and honors

In 1951 Lilienthal was awarded the Public Welfare Medal from the National Academy of Sciences.[2]


  1. ^ a b Wolfgang Rudig (1990). Anti-nuclear Movements: A World Survey of Opposition to Nuclear Energy, Longman, p. 61.
  2. ^ "Public Welfare Award". National Academy of Sciences. http://www.nasonline.org/site/PageServer?pagename=AWARDS_pwm. Retrieved 17 February 2011. 

Further reading

  • 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

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