Christopher Nolan’s latest film Oppenheimer depicts the dramatic events that surrounded the development of the atomic bomb and its aftermath. One of the key episodes in the film is the confirmation hearings for Lewis Strauss, who was nominated by President Eisenhower for U.S. Secretary of Commerce in 1959.
Strauss was a prominent figure in the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and had orchestrated a security hearing that branded J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, as “a security risk.” The film shows how a freshman senator from Wyoming, Gale W. McGee, helped expose Strauss’s role in Oppenheimer’s persecution and led the opposition that ultimately defeated his nomination.
Gale McGee was a Democratic Senator from Wyoming who served from 1959 to 1977. He was a former professor of American history at the University of Wyoming and a specialist in foreign policy and international affairs. He founded and chaired UW’s Institute of International Affairs in 1946.
McGee was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, on March 17, 1915. He attended public schools and had planned to study law in college but was forced by the Great Depression to attend the State Teachers College in Wayne, Nebraska. He graduated from the Teachers College in 1936 and worked as a high school teacher while studying for a master’s degree in history at the University of Colorado. In 1946, McGee received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago.
Shortly after receiving his doctorate, McGee accepted a position as a professor of American history at the University of Wyoming. He quickly became popular among his students and colleagues for his engaging lectures and his expertise on international affairs.
McGee became active in Democratic Party politics and was asked to run for the U.S. Congress in 1950, but declined, saying he wanted to get more in touch with Wyoming and its people. In 1955–56 he took a leave of absence from the university to work as top aide to Wyoming Democratic Senator Joseph C. O’Mahoney.
By 1958, McGee believed the time was right to run for political office. He left the university to make his bid for the U.S. Senate, challenging incumbent Frank A. Barrett. McGee ran on a program of youth and new ideas. He was elected and began serving as a freshman senator on January 3, 1959.
Only two weeks into McGee’s senate term President Eisenhower nominated Lewis Strauss for Secretary of Commerce. The nomination was referred to a committee on which McGee was the lowest-ranking member.
Strauss was accomplished. He had received the Distinguished Service Medal. Eisenhower chose Strauss to head the AEC in 1953 and awarded him the Medal of Freedom. However, Strauss also had a dark side. He had set up a security hearing that was akin to an inquisition, intending to have Oppenheimer declared “a security risk.”
Strauss withheld critical information from the AEC hearing board that condemned Oppenheimer, such as exculpatory evidence that showed Oppenheimer’s loyalty to the U.S.
The movie chronicles these events, which were revealed largely as a result of the work of a tenacious freshman senator from Wyoming.
At the Senate hearings, Strauss anticipated an easy ride but didn’t help himself when he encountered McGee for the first time. Strauss had not made McGee’s acquaintance and replied arrogantly, “I don’t respond to questions from staff members.” McGee politely informed Strauss he was a senator who would appreciate answers to his questions.
It was downhill from there.
McGee exposed Strauss’s role in Oppenheimer’s persecution and accused him of “a brazen attempt to hoodwink” the committee. McGee also found allies among other senators who had personal or professional disagreements with Strauss, such as Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson and Senator Clinton Anderson, who chaired the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. Before Wyoming’s freshmen senator knew it, he had become an obstacle that a U.S. President faced in his quest for something he wanted badly.
In his office, McGee and his staff put in long hours, day and night. Oppenheimer came in at night, under cover of darkness, to assist. They were aware of the gravity of the situation: they had to challenge the president of the United States on his appointment of a Cabinet secretary.
After raucous debate, the nomination was defeated 49-46.
Eisenhower called it “one of the most depressing official disappointments I experienced in my eight years in the White House.”
After leaving the Senate, McGee reflected on his role in the Strauss affair, calling it “an accidental event of rather considerable proportions.”
The portrayal of Senator McGee in Oppenheimer serves as a reminder of the complex political dynamics that surrounded the development of nuclear weapons and their subsequent impact on global politics. His presence during Strauss’s confirmation hearings underscores his involvement in these critical historical events.
To learn more about Gale McGee, see his extensive papers held at the American Heritage.
This post is partly based on a wonderful article by Gale McGee’s biographer Rodger McDaniel that appeared in the July 29, 2023, issue of the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. McDaniel is the author of The Man in the Arena: The Life and Times of U.S. Senator Gale McGee (2018).
Post contributed by AHC Archivist Leslie Waggener.