J. Robert Oppheimer’s feud with Lewis Strauss became both political and personal

J. Robert Oppenheimer is known to have had a long-running feud with Lewis Strauss but who exactly was the government official and why did he seemingly hate Oppenheimer?

One of the key story arcs in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer focuses on the physicist’s postwar years and the controversial hearings that Lewis Strauss pushed for that turned the director of the Manhattan Project and the father of the atomic bomb into a pariah.

Who is Lewis Strauss?

Played in Oppenheimer by Robert Downey Jr, Lewis Strauss was an American financier, philanthropist, naval officer and government official.

Born into a Jewish family in 1896, Strauss had hoped to study physics at university but due to the recession of 1913, his parents, Lewis and Rosa, could not afford to send him to college.

As a result, this led Strauss into a varied career that included him serving as an assistant to future US president Herbert Hoover in the aftermath of World War I, becoming a self-made millionaire as an investment banker and setting up a memorial cancer research fund in his parents’ names after his mother passed away.

After serving in the US Navy’s Department of Ordnance to work on weapons production during World War II, Strauss was appointed as a member of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) by President Truman in 1946, eventually rising to become its commissioner.

© Universal Pictures

Collision course with Oppenheimer

Strauss’s position as the commission of the AEC put him on course to meet and subsequently clash with J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Initially, the pair got on amicably enough and Strauss presented Oppenheimer with the offer to become the director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where Strauss was a trustee.

However, over the next few years, Strauss and Oppenheimer would cross paths on several occasions, notably in 1947 as the pair clashed over differing opinions on whether the US should export radioisotopes for medical purposes. Later, in 1949, Oppenheimer publicly humiliated Strauss about his scientific knowledge in a hearing on the matter.

The pair’s feud came to a head in April 1954 as Strauss pushed for a series of hearings to question whether Oppenheimer should be stripped of his security clearance following allegations of Communist ties.

Strauss was successful in having Oppenheimer’s security clearance revoked, which prevented the physicist from resuming his work for the government.

As a result, Oppenheimer spent much of his remaining career in academia, giving lectures around the world until he eventually passed away in February 1967 after being diagnosed with throat cancer.

Oppenheimer’s security clearance revocation was reversed in December 2022 after the allegations brought against him in 1954 were posthumously cleared.

Lewis Strauss, meanwhile, would go on to be appointed as the acting Secretary of Commerce by President Eisenhower in 1958 but the following year, the US Senate rejected Strauss taking the position permanently, effectively ending his government career.

Following a three-year battle with lymphosarcoma, Strauss passed away on January 21, 1974.

Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer and Robert Downey Jr as Lewis Strauss in conversation by a pond in Oppenheimer
© Universal Pictures

Why did Lewis Strauss hate Oppenheimer?

Lewis Strauss’s apparent hatred for Oppenheimer was the result of several political and personal differences between the pair.

Firstly, was their respective political beliefs. While Strauss was a staunch conservative belonging to the Republican Party, Oppenheimer was a more left-leaning liberal figure.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Oppenheimer was suspected of having ties to the Communist Party and Strauss exploited these suspicions to have his security clearance revoked.

As discussed above, the pair also clashed several times professionally in their respective positions within the field of atomic energy.

This also translated into their opinions of the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union which gained momentum throughout the Cold War.

While Strauss believed the US should strive to develop thermonuclear weapons such as the hydrogen bomb – thousands of times more powerful than the original atomic bomb – Oppenheimer campaigned against the future use of nuclear weapons.

And finally, their feud also became personal as Strauss and Oppenheimer did not see eye-to-eye on their respective religious beliefs. Both men were born into families of Jewish heritage but while Strauss maintained his faith, he disapproved that Oppenheimer left his Jewish heritage behind.

Robert Downey Jr as Lewis Strauss sat in a car in Oppenheimer
© Universal Pictures

Oppenheimer explodes onto cinema screens on Friday, July 21, 2023.

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