L to R: Robert Downey Jr is Lewis Strauss and Cillian Murphy is J. Robert Oppenheimer in OPPENHEIMER, written, produced, and directed by Christopher Nolan.
In this black-and-white scene from the movie, Lewis Strauss (played by Robert Downey Jr. at left) greets Robert Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy). Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Yes, it’s time for Cardinal to get on the Barbieheimer bandwagon.

Unless you’ve been holed up out in the woods without any internet service – and, to be fair, we do have some places like that – you probably know that “Barbieheimer” is the pop culture mash-up of the two big movies that came out last week. On the one hand, the frothy “Barbie” in all shades of pink. On the other hand, “Oppenheimer,” a movie that’s dark in spirit (and sometimes the black-and-white scenes) about the scientist who led the project to build and test the first atomic bomb. So now we have social media memes of Robert Oppenheimer replacing Ken as Barbie drives her pink convertible through the desert with a mushroom cloud in the background.

More seriously – and more relevant to us – is this: One of the key characters in “Oppenheimer” was a Virginian.

The movie is told in a non-linear format that alternates between the bomb-building, his fight in 1954 to keep his security clearance and the 1959 Senate confirmation hearings of Lewis Strauss, a former Oppenheimer patron who had turned against him. That’s our Virginia connection.

Advisory: Spoilers ahead

YouTube video
One of the trailers for “Oppenheimer.” Lewis Strauss, played by Robert Downey Jr., appears at the 2:38 mark and the 2:54 mark but plays a much bigger role in the actual movie.

Chronologically, we first encounter Strauss – played brilliantly by Robert Downey Jr. – in 1947 when, as a trustee of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, he offers Oppenheimer the position of director. Albert Einstein worked at the institute and we see the three of them by a pond on campus. Later, we see Strauss, as head of the Atomic Energy Commission, conspire to deny Oppenheimer his security clearance on the grounds that he had previously associated with communists – although his true motives may have been more personal. Finally, we see Strauss in his contentious 1959 nomination hearing to be President Dwight Eisenhower’s Secretary of Commerce, where his hostility to Oppenheimer comes back to haunt him. TIME magazine at the time called it one “of the biggest, bitterest, and in many ways most unseemly confirmation fights in Senate history.” In the end, the Senate rejects Strauss, just the eighth time in U.S. history that a Cabinet nominee failed to be confirmed. (The current count now stands at nine, with the 1989 rejection of John Tower as President George H.W. Bush’s pick for Secretary of Defense, although there have been lots more nominees who have withdrawn when it became clear they wouldn’t be approved).

Nowhere in the movie is Strauss’ Virginia background mentioned, although there’s a brief reference to how he pronounces his surname “Straws” – a Southern pronunciation – and how he chafed at being called a traveling shoe salesman. This is the untold Virginia side of that story.

Strauss was born in Charleston, West Virginia, in 1896, the son of Jewish immigrants from Germany and Austria who had come to the United States in the 1830s and 1840s. His family later moved to Richmond, which is where Lewis Strauss grew up. He developed an early interest in physics and planned to enter the University of Virginia in 1913. However, he developed typhoid and had to delay his high school graduation a year.  A brilliant student, he was valedictorian of his high school class. By the time he graduated, though, a recession was underway and the family could not afford to send him to college. Instead, he went to work for his father’s shoe wholesale company. This was an unhappy – and defining – moment of Strauss’s life. TIME magazine wrote in 1959 that “for all his wealth (he is a millionaire) and intellect (even his enemies admit that he is brainy), Strauss seems unable to live down in his own mind an awareness that he never went to college and that he started out as a traveling shoe salesman.”

American food administrators in Europe in 1918. Herbert Hoover is at far left. Lewis Strauss is third from the left. Courtesy of National Archives.
American food administrators in Europe in 1918. Herbert Hoover is at far left. Lewis Strauss is third from the left. Courtesy of National Archives.

His mother encouraged him to seek out public service. Herbert Hoover then was something of a celebrity for serving as head of the Commission for Relief in Belgium that was trying to get food to that war-torn country during World War I.  According to a 1984 biography authorized by Strauss’ estate – “No Sacrifice Too Great” by Richard Pfau – Strauss went to Washington and talked his way into serving as an unpaid assistant to Hoover. From then on, Strauss became a devotee of Hoover – and, eventually, his private secretary both during the war and the post-war reconstruction. According to Strauss’ biography, he persuaded Hoover to urge President Woodrow Wilson to support Finland’s declaration of independence from Russia, an act that echoes to this day with Finland’s recent decision to abandon its long-standing neutrality and join NATO. The European experience made a powerful impression on Strauss in two ways – it introduced him to the horrors of war and hardened him against communism. Both of those things would eventually put him in conflict against Oppenheimer.

Lewis Strauss and his wife, Alice, about 1923. Courtesy of Library of Congress.
Lewis Strauss and his wife, Alice, about 1923. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Hoover also introduced Strauss to his future employers at a New York investment bank. In the years that followed Strauss became renowned for his business acumen – and fabulously wealthy. In time, he was making $1 million a year and was a sought-after member of the New York business community. He served on the board of the Metropolitan Opera and various charities. For all of his insider connections, Strauss always viewed himself as an outsider, according to various histories, including “American Prometheus,” the book on which the movie “Oppenheimer” was based. Strauss was a man with only a high school education traveling in college-educated circles, he was a Southerner in New York – and he was a religious minority who was keenly aware of antisemitism. Some critics said he preferred the “Straws” pronunciation of his name to make himself sound less Jewish but that seems unlikely given his long involvement with prominent Jewish organizations. Strauss served as president of Emanu-El of New York, the flagship congregation of Reform Judaism in the United States. He was on the executive committee of the American Jewish Committee and was active in the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. After his death, many of Strauss’ papers went to the Center for Jewish History in New York, which says “Strauss was deeply committed to American Jewish life and Jewish welfare generally.”

Of more importance to the arc of his life that in death makes him a central character in a Hollywood blockbuster, Strauss retained his childhood passion for science in general and physics in particular. “Avidly keeping abreast of technological developments, Strauss was an initial investor in Kodachrome,” Encyclopedia.com says. “His interest in the atom was spurred by the deaths of his parents from cancer, and he funded the construction of a surge generator to produce isotopes for cancer treatment.” That interest in science would eventually put him in direct conflict with the father of the atomic bomb, but we’re getting slightly ahead of the story.

In 1928, Strauss’ patron Hoover sought the Republican nomination for president – and Strauss was active on his behalf. Hoover faced Democrat Al Smith, the first Catholic nominee of a major party for president. Between his religion and his opposition to Prohibition, Smith’s candidacy created openings in the South for Republicans – and Pfau writes that Strauss was involved in trying to promote Hoover’s cause in the former Confederacy. Hoover did, indeed, win many Southern states once off-limits to Republicans – including Virginia. Pfau also writes that Strauss was so enamored of Hoover that, when he believed in 1930 that a certain New York Democrat possessed documents that might damage the president, Strauss conspired to have two men break into the office to retrieve them. In other words, Strauss orchestrated a 1930-style Watergate break-in.

After the Kristallnacht pogrom against German Jews in 1938, Strauss tried to persuade top Republicans to support a measure to increase immigration to allow more refugees. The bill failed and is seen today as a moral failure on the part of the United States in the face of the rising Nazi threat. Strauss joined with Hoover and financier Bernard Baruch to support the creation of a state in Africa for refugees – and pledged 10% of his wealth toward its establishment. That, too, failed. He was part of another unsuccessful effort that would have paid the Nazis to allow Jews to leave the country. “The years from 1933 to the outbreak of World War II will ever be a nightmare to me, and the puny efforts I made to alleviate the tragedies were utter failures, save in a few individual cases — pitifully few,” Strauss wrote in his memoirs, “Men and Decisions.”

Investment banker Strauss becomes Admiral Strauss

Although a childhood eye injury disqualified him from regular military service, Strauss managed to join the Naval Reserves as an adult, was commissioned as an officer and, when World War II broke out, volunteered for overseas duty. According to another biographer – Barton Bernstein, author of “Sacrifices and Decisions” – Strauss wanted to go into intelligence work but was blocked due to a combination of antisemitism in the Navy and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s dislike of Strauss’ contributions to B’nai B’rith. (Hoover, as we know now, disliked many things.) Instead, Strauss was kept stateside, where he helped organize the production of naval munitions. According to Pfau, Strauss worked with Sen. Harry Byrd Sr., D-Virginia, to organize the Office of Naval Research, which was aimed at keeping certain research until military control. It was during the war that Strauss began to accumulate political enemies in Washington. TIME later wrote that “Strauss, by the extraordinary ingredients of his makeup, is one to arouse superlatives of praise and blame, admiration and dislike. In the eyes of friends, he is brilliant, devoted, courageous and, in his more relaxed moments, exceedingly charming. His enemies regard him as arrogant, evasive, suspicious-minded, pride-ridden, and an excessively rough battler. (‘He has more elbows than an octopus.’).” Pfau writes that President Franklin Roosevelt disliked Strauss and blocked his promotion to rear admiral. President Harry Truman did not feel the same way and Strauss’ promotion went through. Strauss liked to be addressed as “Admiral Strauss” but some naval veterans regarded him as a civilian poser who had never been to sea.

Strauss had no role in the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb but as a top adviser to Navy Secretary James Forrestal, he did have a say in the bomb’s use. In his memoirs, Strauss says he argued against bombing a Japanese city, making the case instead that it be first used on a symbolic site, such as a cedar grove near the resort city of Nikko – a warning shot. “I did my best to prevent it,” Strauss wrote. “The Japanese were defeated before the bomb was used.” That was not Truman’s view.

 The original five Atomic Energy Commissioners at Los Alamos: Robert F. Bacher, David E. Lilienthal, Sumner Pike, William W. Waymack and Lewis L. Strauss. Courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The original five Atomic Energy Commissioners at Los Alamos: Robert F. Bacher, David E. Lilienthal, Sumner Pike, William W. Waymack and Lewis L. Strauss. Courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

After the war, Truman named Strauss to the newly formed Atomic Energy Commission, where he repeatedly clashed with other members – and increasingly, the father of the atomic bomb. We see some of this in the movie, which, based on multiple accounts I’ve read, is pretty faithful to history. In the post-war years there were policy disagreements about whether the United States should share its nuclear expertise with allies, and what other weapons should be pursued. Oppenheimer thought a hydrogen bomb program was a waste of resources; Strauss thought it important to have more and bigger bombs than the Soviet Union, no matter what. Oppenheimer supported exporting isotopes to Norway for medical purposes; Strauss opposed this. In the movie, Oppenheimer is seen mocking Strauss’ point of view at a commission hearing, calling the isotopes less important than electronic devices but “more important than a sandwich.” What Oppenheimer actually said in real life was that isotopes were “far less important than electric devices but far more important than, let us say, vitamins, somewhere in between.” Hollywood may have written the funnier line but Oppenheimer’s real testimony elicited laughter and Strauss never forgave him. One of Strauss’ colleagues once said, “If you disagree with Lewis about anything, he assumes you’re just a fool at first. But if you go on disagreeing with him, he concludes you must be a traitor.” Strauss concluded Oppenheimer was a traitor, or something close to it. He began what Digital Spy calls a “years-long vendetta against the scientist.” Pfau writes that Strauss persuaded Hoover to start bugging Oppenheimer’s phone to see what the FBI could find.

An ardent anti-communist, Strauss seethed about Oppenheimer’s pre-war dalliances with communists – including a romance with psychiatrist (and Communist Party member) Jean Tatlock that the movie shows in graphic ways. Richard Rhodes, author of “Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb” writes that Strauss was especially offended by Oppenheimer’s adultery. All that culminated in Oppenheimer’s security clearance being revoked – and then Strauss losing his confirmation battle when some of the details were exposed. The fact that Strauss had already made a lot of enemies in Washington certainly didn’t help.

Legislative lynching’ or ‘political suicide’

President Dwight Eisenhower meets with Lewis Strauss, then head of the Atomic Energy Commission, in 1954 to discuss hydrogen bomb tests in the Pacific. Courtesy of National Archives.
President Dwight Eisenhower meets with Lewis Strauss, then head of the Atomic Energy Commission, in 1954 to discuss hydrogen bomb tests in the Pacific. Courtesy of National Archives.

Strauss made the cover of TIME twice. The movie shows him using his friendship with TIME publisher Henry Luce to arrange the second one, hoping it would ease his confirmation hearings. It did not. The story itself wasn’t entirely favorable, either. “A vital key to Lewis Strauss’s character is a perfectionism that still seems to nag him at an age when he might have become more mellowed,” the magazine wrote. “It shows in the studied elegance of his tailoring, in a precision of speech that comes natural to him from long habit but seems a bit affected to unfriendly ears, and above all in a fierce reluctance to admit his mistakes, no matter how human and understandable they may have been.”

The movie doesn’t explain all the politics but here they are: Eisenhower suspected that the prickly Strauss might have a hard time getting re-confirmed to the Atomic Energy Commission but wanted to retain someone who TIME called “one of the nation’s ablest and thorniest public figures.” Eisenhower offered him the post of presidential chief of staff but Pfau says Strauss declined because he didn’t think he’d be a good fit. Eisenhower next asked if he’d consider becoming Secretary of State – John Foster Dulles was ill near death. Strauss demurred because he was friends with Dulles’ chief deputy, Christian Herter, who was otherwise in line for the job. In the end, Eisenhower decided to name Strauss as Commerce Secretary. To get around the Senate, he appointed Strauss when the Senate wasn’t in session – a recess appointment. The president hoped that by the time the Senate returned from the 1958 mid-terms, it would be more inclined toward Strauss’ service. It was not.

At the time, Democrats controlled the Senate and were eager to find ways to weaken the Republican administration in the last years of Eisenhower’s second term. “The Strauss nomination proved tailor made,” says an official Senate history. ”During confirmation hearings that quickly turned sour, Strauss displayed a condescending and disdainful attitude toward members of the Senate. His insistence on remaining at the witness table to cross-examine hostile witnesses — and senators — angered his supporters and delighted opponents.”

The official portrait of Lewis Strauss. Courtesy of U.S. Department of Commerce.
The official portrait of Lewis Strauss. Courtesy of U.S. Department of Commerce.

The final vote was 49-46 against Strauss. Democrats may have provided most of the “no” votes but two Republicans also voted against him – and one didn’t vote, so you can argue that those three Republicans ultimately made the difference. Both of Virginia’s senators – Harry Byrd Sr. and Willis Robertson – voted in favor of confirmation.

According to the official Senate history: “President Dwight Eisenhower called it ‘the second most shameful day in Senate history,’ second only to Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial. TIME magazine pronounced it a ‘stinging personal slap . . . U.S. history’s bitterest battle over confirmation of a presidential nomination.’ Others debated whether it was a ‘legislative lynching or political suicide.'”

Pfau writes that Strauss never recovered from the rejection. He retired to a cattle farm in Brandy Station in Culpeper County. He published his memoirs, which spent 15 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. He continued his long friendship with Hoover, who was then a largely ignored figure blamed for the Great Depression rather than being remembered for saving millions from starvation during and after World War I. “Of all the men who have come into my orbit in life, you are the one who has my greatest affections,” Hoover wrote to Strauss. He was working on a book about Hoover when death came in 1974. He was buried in the Richmond Hebrew Cemetery. 

Strauss’ passing merited a front-page obituary in the New York Times: “For about a dozen years at the outset of the atomic age Lewis Strauss, an urbane but sometimes thorny former banker with a gifted amateur’s knowledge of physics, was a key figure in the shaping of United States thermonuclear policy. … In the years of his mightiest influence in Washington, the owlish‐faced Mr. Strauss puzzled most observers. He was, on the one hand, a sociable person who enjoyed dinner parties and who was adept at prestidigitation; and, on the other hand, he gave the impression of intellectual arrogance. He could be warm-hearted yet seem at times like a stuffed shirt. He could make friends yet create antagonisms.”

In his authorized biography, Pfau portrayed Strauss as a man who did what he thought best to protect the nation he loved. In his unauthorized biography, Bernstein says that Strauss was “a man who used such claims to conceal sleazy behavior.”

The “Oppenheimer” movie takes the latter view.

L to R: Cillian Murphy is J. Robert Oppenheimer and Robert Downey Jr is Lewis Strauss in OPPENHEIMER, written, produced, and directed by Christopher Nolan
In a color scene, Robert Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy) talks with Lewis Strauss (played by Robert Downey Jr.) at Princeton University. Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org...