“The True, Dramatic Story of Robert Downey Jr.’s ‘Oppenheimer’ Villain 2 Photos, 1 Video”

Dan Diamond/The Washington Post
A pair of 1959 letters to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Warren Magnuson (D-Wash.), preserved in the National Archives, urging the Senate to confirm Strauss as U.S. commerce secretary and criticizing Democrats for playing politics.

This piece contains spoilers for “Oppenheimer” (2023).


Lewis L. Strauss was once a very important man in Washington. An admiral who helped run the Navy’s weapons efforts in the 1940s. The chairman of America’s atomic energy commission in the 1950s. Confidant and friend of President Dwight D. Eisenhower – so close that when Eisenhower left the White House in January 1961, his first stop was a lunch hosted by Strauss.

But there’s a vivid scene near the end of “Oppenheimer,” director Christopher Nolan’s cinematic portrayal of America’s atomic age and the people who shaped it, that tries to capture Strauss at his lowest point: his infamous rejection by the Senate in June 1959, when he was blocked from joining Eisenhower’s Cabinet.

In the film, Strauss – played by actor Robert Downey Jr. – steps into a Senate hallway and is immediately swarmed by photographers.

“The FLASHBULBS EAT STRAUSS ALIVE,” the film’s script reads.

The scene is a perfect Hollywood finale – karmic justice after Strauss helped destroy physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer’s career, engineering a 1954 showdown that left the World War II hero stripped of his government security clearance and publicly tarred as a Communist sympathizer. And while Strauss lost his Senate fight, Downey is favored to win an Academy Award on Sunday for his portrayal of the embattled official.

In reality, Strauss’s rejection by the Senate in 1959 was only partly driven by his feud with Oppenheimer. It was shaped much more by presidential politics, a pair of journalists and a particularly vindictive senator – none of which were included in the film.

Strauss’s battle to be confirmed as commerce secretary became the Eisenhower administration’s most significant fight with Congress, notable for its sheer length. The Senate spent more than three months considering Strauss’s nomination, diving into every aspect of his career and questioning his personal honesty, in a saga that predicted today’s bitter confirmation battles – but was seen as bizarre in 1959, when Senate confirmation was treated as a formality.

“I consider the delaying tactics employed by your committee concerning the nomination of Admiral Strauss to be politics at its lowest level,” J. Miles O’Brien, a Connecticut ophthalmologist, wrote on May 2 to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Warren Magnuson (D-Wash.), six weeks into Strauss’s hearings. O’Brien’s letter is preserved in the National Archives alongside many such missives – as well as pleas from scientists and others questioning Strauss’s trustworthiness and urging senators to scrutinize him further or block him altogether.

Strauss’s prickly stewardship of America’s atomic efforts had also left him with many Washington enemies, who strategized on how to defeat his nomination. Among them were political columnist Drew Pearson, who struck a secret deal with Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Tex.) for favorable press coverage if he hindered Strauss’s confirmation. Sen. Clinton Anderson (D-N.M.), the chairman of a Senate committee that oversaw the government’s atomic commission, also had come to loathe Strauss in their dealings and believed he was untrustworthy.

“If Lewis Strauss is turned down by the Senate, he will hold the bleak distinction of being the first Cabinet appointee in U.S. history rejected because of his personality,” Time wrote in a cover story on June 15.

Johnson, the Senate leader, two days later shocked Strauss and his defenders by scheduling his confirmation vote with mere hours of advance notice. Republican senators who had traveled as far as Colorado and Utah for speaking engagements raced back to D.C. aboard Air Force jets in a bid to save the nomination. Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) filibustered for hours to stall the vote.

Their efforts failed. The Senate rejected Strauss on June 18 on a 46-49 vote that ended just after midnight.

“This is the second most shameful day in Senate history,” an irate Eisenhower told his White House secretary later that morning, as he contemplated taking political revenge on Johnson. The only more disgraceful day, in the president’s mind, was when the Senate had tried and failed to impeach President Andrew Johnson nearly a century earlier.

Dan Diamond/The Washington Post
A May 1959 letter to Magnuson (D-Wash.), preserved in the National Archives, written by Donald C. Gordon, an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland.

Winning friends, foes and favor in D.C.

Born in 1896 in Charleston, W.Va., and raised in Richmond, Strauss had ambitions to attend the University of Virginia and study physics, but his family’s financial woes forced him to instead become a traveling shoe salesman for three years.

Determined to work for Herbert Hoover, a similarly self-made man who was named the nation’s food czar during World War I, Strauss talked his way into becoming Hoover’s personal secretary in 1917 after staking out his office at the Willard Hotel and then impressing the future president by offering to work free. Hoover would become Strauss’s lifelong mentor and political patron.

Strauss also rapidly secured a personal fortune. He joined the investment banking firm Kuhn, Loeb & Company in 1919, becoming a partner within a decade and marrying the daughter of one of the firm’s leaders. Later, he pivoted to physics: After his parents died in the 1930s from cancer, Strauss poured his time and financial resources into the work of radioactive cancer treatments, becoming immersed in the emerging world of atomic energy.

Now rich and politically connected, Strauss helped manage the Navy’s procurement and deployment of its weapons during World War II, becoming skilled in bureaucratic infighting and receiving a promotion to rear admiral under President Harry S. Truman in 1945. Truman appointed Strauss in 1946 to the nation’s new five-member atomic energy commission; under Eisenhower, he would chair the group and push policies to expand America’s atomic arsenal, setting the stage for the showdowns depicted in “Oppenheimer.”

Strauss “dominated the atomic policy of the United States to a greater extent than any other man in the formative years of the atomic age,” author Richard Pfau wrote in “No Sacrifice Too Great,” his biography of Strauss.

His strong anti-Communist views won him favor with Republicans but sparked conflict with scientists who feared a nuclear arms race and decried Strauss’s support for nuclear tests that irradiated islands in the Pacific and spewed radioactive material into Earth’s atmosphere. Angered by Oppenheimer’s opposition to developing powerful hydrogen bombs, skeptical of his patriotism and bitter over their personal differences, Strauss worked to undermine the famous scientist, helping arrange a hearing in which Oppenheimer would be forced to testify about his close relationships with several Communists before and during World War II. The panel stripped Oppenheimer of his government security clearance, effectively ending his career.

While the film “Oppenheimer” suggests the public was unaware of Strauss’s involvement in Oppenheimer’s downfall, reporters at the time wrote extensively about his role.

“It was Strauss who directed the preparation of the harshest possible statement of charges; Strauss who called the still-unsuspecting Oppenheimer to Washington to notify him that his [security] clearance was suspended; Strauss who hastened on the trial of the case,” political journalists Joseph and Stewart Alsop wrote in October 1954 in Harper’s magazine.

But some Republicans believed Strauss was right to sideline Oppenheimer, and he won more political favor for jump-starting America’s hydrogen bomb efforts, helping launch the country’s private nuclear industry and working on Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” initiative, a failed bid to avoid a global nuclear-arms race. The Senate twice confirmed Strauss, in bipartisan votes, to serve on the Atomic Energy Commission.

Eisenhower in June 1958 awarded him the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States. Four days later, according to Pfau’s biography, the president approached Strauss with an offer: Would he serve in his Cabinet?

Strauss turned down the president’s invitations to serve as secretary of state or as Eisenhower’s top assistant, a position equivalent to today’s White House chief of staff, saying he felt unqualified for those roles.

But as a banker, Strauss believed he could excel as commerce secretary and help wage a financial Cold War.

“The Soviet economic challenge to the Free World was beginning to become more and more apparent, and the Commerce Department seemed to me that place at which countermeasures might well be developed,” Strauss wrote in his 1962 memoir, “Men and Decisions.”

The commerce post also held special appeal for Strauss: It was his role model Hoover’s old job.

Eisenhower in October installed Strauss as acting commerce secretary and in January 1959 nominated him for the full-time post.

Then Strauss’s real political problems began.

Battling with the Senate

Senate Democrats were riding high at the start of 1959. They held a 30-seat advantage over Republicans after a dominant performance in the midterm elections two months earlier. Now leaders like Johnson were eyeing a bigger prize: the White House.

“With the 1960 presidential elections on the horizon, Democrats in Congress felt compelled to seek issues on which they could conspicuously oppose the President,” Richard Allen Baker, the first Senate historian, wrote in a political journal, “Congress & The Presidency,” in 1987.

They saw an opportunity to score political points as Strauss’s hearing in front of the Senate Commerce Committee finally began on March 17. The hearings would continue for two months, becoming “the leading issue in American politics,” Pfau wrote. Democrats appointed a special counsel to oversee their investigations into Strauss.

The Oppenheimer affair was repeatedly raised – most notably by David Inglis, the head of the Federation of American Scientists, who criticized Strauss’s treatment of scientists and testified that his organization’s delegates had voted 25-1 against supporting his confirmation – but unlike in the film, the matter occupied a fraction of the Senate committee’s time. Some lawmakers still felt the panel was dwelling too much on it.

“I am afraid if we go into the Oppenheimer case we are going to be here until the cows come home,” said Sen. John Pastore (D-R.I.) in a May 1 hearing, urging the special counsel not to revisit it.

The committee spent more time on other issues, including whether Strauss played an inappropriate role in the Dixon-Yates power plant controversy; whether Strauss was planning to tap a wealthy financier for a role advising his department; and whether he had deliberately misled lawmakers in prior testimony.

The sustained attacks on Strauss, an observant Jew, sparked debate over whether they were motivated by antisemitism. But some lawmakers and Strauss himself dismissed that suggestion.

Perhaps the most damaging questions involved Strauss’s character.

Pearson, the influential political journalist, wrote a column accusing Strauss of inappropriately using confidential government documents to attack Inglis during the hearings. The column was fueled by materials spotted in Strauss’s possession by Jack Anderson, Pearson’s reporting partner. Strauss testified that he had not requested any confidential information about Inglis and was soon caught in a lie.

Pearson and Anderson took an active role in organizing resistance to Strauss, shuttling between Senate offices, helping write lawmakers’ speeches and taking other steps that would be seen as wildly inappropriate for journalists, according to Donald A. Ritchie’s biography of Pearson, “The Columnist.” Both journalists ended up testifying against Strauss, accusing him of lying about their reporting, and Pearson repeatedly hammered him in his widely read columns.

The commerce committee on May 19 voted to advance Strauss’s nomination to the Senate floor by a single vote, 9-8. The process of scrutinizing him then began anew.

Clinton Anderson, the New Mexico senator, waged his own one-man campaign against Strauss, walking the halls of Congress with a paper ledger that tracked how many votes he needed to secure to stop his former nemesis from the atomic-energy commission. Anderson called in political favors he’d accrued from lawmakers, including Johnson.

Johnson “paid off a lot of debts to Clinton Anderson by cooperating in Anderson’s efforts” to defeat Strauss, Robert Caro wrote in his biography of Johnson, “Master of the Senate.”

Johnson was not the only Senate Democrat considering the bigger political picture. Several other Democrats also thinking about running for president in 1960, including Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.), had been open to backing Strauss. But they eventually declined to support him, concluded that voting for Strauss would be seen as failing a litmus test for Democratic primary voters. That contributed to an unpredictable fight on the Senate floor, where the vote count was uncertain until the final moments, particularly with some Republicans out of town and rushing to return.

“Senators who participated in this dramatic showdown still recall it as one of the great political bloodlettings of the Senate’s modern history,” Baker, the Senate historian, wrote in 1987.

Tarnished legacy

The bruising battle over Strauss’s nomination was an aberration in the genial Senate. Other confirmation hearings were scheduled and resolved promptly. Kennedy’s nominee for commerce secretary two years later got just one day of hearings; he and the rest of Kennedy’s Cabinet were approved overwhelmingly in a swift Saturday vote just three days later.

But the Strauss affair represented a key step in the Senate reconsidering its “advice and consent” role in the confirmation process. The Washington Post’s editorial board commended the Senate for sending a message to the White House about their shared responsibility for running the government, and historians say the fight laid the groundwork for the modern political era, in which presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Donald Trump each saw three failed Cabinet nominations.

“The Strauss affair marked the beginning of a period of Senate independence from executive dictation,” Baker said.

Eisenhower wrote in his 1965 memoir “Waging Peace” that the episode shook his faith in democracy to withstand the political maneuverings of “jealous, vindictive and little men.”

But the former president said he was reassured by Strauss’ character, comparing him to the first U.S. president, George Washington, who brushed off attacks late in his career to become a revered political figure. As a retired statesman, Strauss would keep “his temper, his dignity and the admiration and respect of history,” Eisenhower predicted.

That did not happen. Strauss stewed over his treatment; in his memoir, he devoted a single chapter to one of the most infamous episodes in modern Senate history, confessing that he could not view his experience objectively.

He also ended up sidelined in a Washington controlled by Democrats in the 1960s and was largely forgotten in popular culture until “Oppenheimer” revived his story last year – with the blockbuster film depicting him as the hero’s nemesis.

Strauss died of cancer complications in 1974.

Pfau, his biographer, acknowledged that Strauss’s prickly, secretive nature made him easy to caricature. But the self-made man was determined to never back down and never apologize – even if that meant immolating his career in the process.

“In certain situations,” Pfau concluded, “he thought honorable suicide better than cowardly surrender.”