Lewis Strauss In ‘Oppenheimer,’ Explained: Why Did He Despise Robert?

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We believe that with great ambition comes great insecurity. As depicted in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, Lewis Strauss called himself a self-made man. Maybe he was once just a boy standing in one of the streets of America, looking towards those high offices and assuring himself that one day he was going to conquer them. There are so many rags-to-riches stories that we don’t even want to waste your time mentioning them. But what is worth mentioning is that Lewis Strauss’s story arc isn’t like what you’d see in Disney movies. Instead, it is more tragic, more Shakespearean, or, you can say, Macbethian.

A majority of the black-and-white scenes in Oppenheimer revolve around a Senate Selection hearing that accused Lewis Strauss of wrongly stripping J. Robert Oppenheimer of his reputation in the most merciless way possible. And why? Because he believed that the man humiliated him, not just once but twice, maybe thrice, or maybe over and over again. We believe Oppenheimer humiliated him in his dreams too, and that soon became his worst nightmare. At that point, Lewis Strauss was looking for nothing but revenge. The thing with revenge is that it doesn’t side with reason. It takes away our ability to think rationally and makes us believe that there will be no peace in our hearts until we have destroyed the person who humiliated us.

Strauss met Oppenheimer for the first time in 1947. He had risen up the ladder and, through his hard work, became the Commissioner of the Atomic Energy Commission. When he saw Robert coming out of the car, he didn’t waste a moment and ran towards him with childlike enthusiasm. Maybe, like many Americans, Strauss too adored the man who’d had a hand in ending the Second World War. But it is rightly said that we should never meet our heroes because, eventually, we end up hating them. 

After the end of the war, Strauss, along with other board members, wanted Robert to lead Princeton University. While he was showing Robert his new office, we saw Strauss as a man trying to strike up a conversation so that he could be acquaintances or even friends, with the father of the atomic bomb. Hero worship is a risky business. You are not aware of the personality of the man whom you have seen on magazine covers. He could be mean or indifferent. Robert asked Strauss a simple question: “Have you ever studied physics formally?” According to history, he wanted to, but circumstances didn’t allow him. His family business suffered a huge loss during the Recession of 1913, and Strauss had to leave his dreams behind to sell shoes with his father. Things did improve, but by the time they did, Strauss perhaps lost interest or didn’t find it feasible. But you see, dreams once glimpsed don’t go away so easily. Robert’s simple/innocent question was enough to bring about a change of expression on Strauss’s face. He tried to defend himself, or maybe he tried to show his worth and self-respect by calling himself a successful shoe seller. But heroes are too ego-driven. Oppenheimer was a man who didn’t waste a moment to call Albert Einstein a forgotten genius. Do you believe he would have any respect for a shoe salesman? It was the first fatal blow. The first humiliation that Strauss suffered at the hands of Oppenheimer.

As humans, our irony is that if we eagerly look for reasons to hate someone, we will eventually find them. And if not, we are capable enough of creating them. In the next scene, Oppenheimer walked toward the pond to greet the genius Einstein. He told him something that, as an audience, we were not made aware of because we were looking at things from Strauss’s perspective. However, what we saw was that Einstein walked away from their conversation with a grumpy look on his face. Strauss tried to greet him, but Einstein ignored him like he didn’t even exist. Being rebuffed by one of the greatest scientific minds of the generation must have stung, especially just minutes after he’d been put down by the most famous man of science in the country at the moment. Lewis Strauss was an ambitious and hardworking man, but his own insecurity led to his downfall. 

After the war, Robert became a man of strong opinions. He didn’t care about the power brokers in Washington. Strauss believed that Robert had started considering himself a god, and thus he wasn’t patient enough with the mortals. The first humiliating incident was enough for Strauss to dethrone the hero in his mind, but the second one seemed tantamount to a declaration of war to him. Robert disagreed with Strauss’s export policy on isotopes, for which he publicly mocked and humiliated Strauss during an official AEC meeting. He considered Strauss an amateur physicist with no real knowledge of the subject matter, thereby implying he should leave such matters in the hands of the experts. Strauss was offended and sought revenge. He was waiting for the right opportunity to strike until the moment finally arrived. 

Robert had humiliated Strauss twice by now. And as ambitious and insecure as Strauss was, he didn’t want history to repeat itself again. They had a difference of opinion on the development of the hydrogen bomb, and perhaps to throw Robert out of his way, Strauss designed an intricate plan to brand Oppenheimer as a traitor to his own country. The Soviets had developed their own atomic bomb, and thus the urgency to lead the nuclear arms race forced the US to push the development of the H-Bomb, which Robert had been opposing for a long time. In his defense, he said that the A-bomb was created to end the Second World War, but he found no real motive to create another thermonuclear bomb. Strauss, on the other hand, whose only motive was to serve his country and be in the good books of his superiors, eagerly fought to initiate the H-bomb project.

During 1947–1953, Robert made some serious enemies in the government machinery. He was not a diplomatic man like Strauss. He would say things that he truly believed in, and people were not ready to listen to the truth. They only wanted to listen to a version of the truth that aligned with their own political beliefs, and Strauss was an expert at manipulating the truth. He presented the evidence against Robert in such a manner that no one would be able to connect him to Robert’s downfall. He gave Robert’s FBI file to William Borden, who again didn’t much like Robert due to their difference in opinions. 

US policies against the communists had turned extreme due to the ongoing cold war with the Soviets, and Strauss had a pretty clear idea of how to use them against his enemy number one. He asked Borden to write an official letter to the FBI in which he accused Robert of being a spy working for the Russians. Due to the tense political climate, the investigative authority couldn’t look away, and thus an intimate bureaucratic proceeding was held to decide whether to give security clearance to Oppenheimer or not. Obviously, the entire trial (or hearing) was rigged from top to bottom. Einstein had advised Robert not to fight an already lost battle, but an ethical man like him, who believed that he had done nothing wrong, wanted to prove his innocence. He fought until those government officials not only stripped him of his security clearance but metaphorically stripped him naked. In the media, Robert was made a political pariah. When the general public saw their hero in the newspapers being accused of siding with the communists, the feeling of nationalism forced them to hate the man who gave them the weapon of mass destruction. It wasn’t the first time it had happened, and unfortunately, it wasn’t even the last time. We all know what happened with Chaplin. 

It is said that sometimes you keep repeating a lie, and eventually, it becomes the truth of your life. Strauss often believed that the scientific community in America hated him. That they despised him because Robert had poisoned their minds. Well, it was a lie that Strauss so passionately believed that the scientists in the country did start hating him for what he did to Robert. They wanted Strauss to hold no office in the government because his opinions were too self-absorbed.

At the end of the film, Lewis Strauss becomes a victim of his own game. The Senate selection hearing committee that soon turned into a trial accused Strauss of having a personal interest in the destruction of Oppenheimer’s reputation. Till the very end, Strauss believed that Robert said something demeaning about him to Einstein during their first meeting. The truth was, they didn’t even discuss the man, who had no real importance in their lives. Maybe Strauss wanted to prove his self-worth, or maybe he was a narcissist who believed that the world revolved around him. It could have been Robert’s comment on Strauss’ family business or Robert’s lack of interest in Strauss’ story. Or maybe it was because Einstein didn’t acknowledge him when Strauss’ greeted him, which offended his ego.

There could be millions of reasons for an insecure man like Strauss to become hostile to another man. While Strauss was cooking conspiracies inside his head, Oppenheimer was fighting a war against his own demons, and he really didn’t have time to think about anything else. And perhaps that offended a narcissist more. Why doesn’t a man acknowledge the person standing in front of him? Why doesn’t he compliment me? What is so special or godly about him? Strauss made it his life’s ambition to bring down Oppenheimer. We believe that, like all things in the film, even revenge is a chain reaction. You reap what you sow, or maybe Karma judges us all. The most pivotal point of his political career soon became the most humiliating moment of his life. At the end of Oppenheimer, Strauss’ nomination to the Cabinet was rejected in a context remarkably similar to that in which Robert was denied his Q clearance, only much more public, and much more humiliating, and perhaps that’s the most poetic justice a narrative could deliver.

But there is one thing that Lewis Strauss had said, and we believe it was certainly true. He said if Robert was given a chance to do it all over again, he would do it all the same because Robert was an ambitious man, too, who wanted to leave a dent in the universe. Yes, Robert would have created the atomic bomb once again, even with those moral qualms, but we believe he wouldn’t have agreed to drop it in a populated city. Not after witnessing what his weapon was capable of. He would have made a demonstration of it to tell the world its real power, but not to kill people. Strauss, on the other hand, had no moral judgment of his own and did everything in his power to satisfy his hunger for revenge.


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Shikhar Agrawal
Shikhar Agrawal
I am an Onstage Dramatist and a Screenwriter. I have been working in the Indian Film Industry for the past 12 years, writing dialogues for various films and television shows.

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