Who Was Lewis Strauss, Played by Robert Downey Jr. in Oppenheimer
Lewis Strauss served as the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission overseeing J. Robert Oppenheimer. The two often clashed, particularly on the matter of whether or not the US should develop the hydrogen bomb. Strauss used Oppenheimer’s alleged communist sympathies as a basis for revoking his security clearances.
In “Oppenheimer,” directed by Christopher Nolan, Robert Downey Jr. portrays Lewis Strauss, the man who desired to undermine and discredit J. Robert Oppenheimer. The main point of contention between the two was the development of the hydrogen bomb, with Oppenheimer wanting to share information about US weapons and Strauss advocating for a more powerful and secretive approach.
Born in West Virginia in 1896, Strauss came from an immigrant Jewish family. Despite his aspirations to study physics, he worked as a shoe salesman to support his father’s business and later served as an assistant to Herbert Hoover during World War I. After the war, he became a successful investment banker and contributed to financing projects such as the Polaroid camera. He also served as a naval officer in World War II.
Strauss’ modest beginnings are alluded to in “Oppenheimer” when Cillian Murphy’s character pokes fun at him, referring to him as a “lowly shoe salesman.”
In 1946, President Harry Truman appointed Strauss to the Atomic Energy Commission, where he championed the development of thermonuclear weapons like the hydrogen bomb. These bombs can be exponentially more powerful than atomic bombs. Oppenheimer, on the other hand, wanted to halt atomic weapon development and make information accessible to the public.
After his appointment as the AEC chairman in 1953, Strauss continued advocating for the H-bomb’s development and testing. He also initiated a campaign against Oppenheimer, accusing him of communist affiliations.
Strauss was not the only one concerned about Oppenheimer’s communist ties. Several staff members and leaders during the Manhattan Project had questioned Oppenheimer’s loyalties due to his associations with known communists.
One incident that may have fueled Strauss’ motivations was a humiliating encounter during a 1949 hearing, where Oppenheimer publicly embarrassed him. Another scene in the film portrays Strauss feeling slighted as he tries to engage in conversation with Oppenheimer and Einstein, but they ignore him.
Strauss requested the FBI, particularly J. Edgar Hoover, to surveil Oppenheimer. The FBI built a case against Oppenheimer by illegally wiretapping his phone. Simultaneously, Strauss initiated a separate security proceeding within the AEC, resulting in the suspension of Oppenheimer’s security clearances. A letter from William Liscum Borden, former Executive Director of Congress’s Joint Atomic Energy Committee, claiming evidence of Oppenheimer being a “Soviet agent,” further supported Strauss’ actions.
Oppenheimer faced a Senate panel during the Red Scare era, which ultimately revoked his security clearance due to his association with communist activities.
Strauss’ term as AEC chairman ended, and his campaign against Oppenheimer eventually backfired. When he was nominated as Secretary of Commerce under Eisenhower, Senate Democrats strongly opposed him, leading to his confirmation being denied and ultimately marking the end of his tenure in government.
In an interview with Vanity Fair, Robert Downey Jr. shared that Christopher Nolan wanted him to portray Strauss as a subtle, plotting character rather than relying on his usual charm and humor.
“Oppenheimer” has received positive reviews since its release, with a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It grossed $80.5 million in the US and Canada during its opening weekend. The film draws inspiration from the book “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” and features Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer and Emily Blunt as his wife, Kitty.